Warriors of Ultramar:
Dead Sky, Black Sun:
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A collection of stories featuring a devout chapter of the Emperor’s loyal warriors, led by Captain Uriel Ventris.
PROS: Lots and lots of gripping action; mostly fast-paced; excellent world-building.
CONS: Some slower parts, especially in the third novel, which was also weighed down by some hard-to-believe coincidences and much hyperbole.
BOTTOM LINE: Delivers all the action and drama you’d expect in a Warhammer 40K story.
Relatively speaking, I’m a latecomer to the Warhammer 40K party. Having read Dan Abnett’s Eisenhorn omnibus at that tail end of 2102 and his follow-up omnibus Revenor the following year, I took it upon myself to read yet another WH40K omnibus at the tail end of 2014. This time I opted for The Ultramarines Omnibus written by Graham McNeill, which is perhaps a fitting choice since the three novels it is comprised of — Nightbringer, Warriors of Ultramar and Dead Sky, Black Sun — are seeing reprints in the coming months (and with spiffy new covers at that; see below). With reading time being at a premium these days, I only recently finished the third book. The series as a whole pretty much met my expectations of what a Warhammer novel should be: an action-packed adventure with excellent world building.
For those not in the know, the Ultramarines are the most elite chapter of the Emperor’s Space Marines, and they can generally be characterized as extremely devout followers of the military tactics and procedures written down in their “bible”, the Codex Astartes. It’s probably no surprise, then, that the actions of the characters in The Ultramarines Omnibus, and much of the drama, are often dictated by their bylaws. The stories in the omnibus revolve around one specific Ultramarine in particular, Uriel Ventris. The prequel story “Chains of Command” (included in the omnibus) sets the flavor of the three novels that follow, and it also shows how Ventris assumes command of the chapter. The novels themselves show the growth of Uriel Ventris as a warrior/Captain, particularly his more liberal application and commitment — for better or worse — to the Codex Astartes, same as the captain before him.
In Nightbringer, the Ultramarines, led by their new captain, undertake a mission to the planet Pavonis. There, they are to address the ever-increasing threat of alien Eldar raiders and protect an accompanying administrative emissary named Ario Barzano. Ario (who is more than he appears to be and sometimes upstages Ventris) is investigating the Pavonis Governor, Mykola Shonai; specifically her failure to pay taxes and her inability to maintain control of the planet. There’s lots of interesting political intrigue being played out in the story, although it is occasionally diluted with too much political process. The halls of politics are fun. The paperwork of politics not so much. Even so, Nightbringer has lots of surprises, lots of action, and an overflowing cast of interesting supporting characters.
The mission of the Ultramarines in the sequel, Warriors of Ultramar, is to protect the planet Tarsis Ultra from an encroaching force of deadly, insect-like aliens known as the Tyranids. (The setup for this story is recounted in McNeill’s short story “Leviathan”, which is not included in The Ultramarines Omnibus, but is published in the anthology Crucible Of War edited by Christian Dunn and Marc Gascoigne.) The Tyranids are a hive-mind species that are beyond any reason or diplomacy. They are simply creatures that devour and they must be destroyed at all costs. To fight the oncoming onslaught, the Ultramarines seek the help of another Space Marine company known as the Mortifactors. Although the Mortifactors are a sister Chapter, they live on the fringes of space and have not had contact with any other chapters for a millennia. (In the Warhammer universe, the standard unit of time seems to be 1,000 years.) The Mortifactors’ adherence to the cherished Codex Astartes is more than a bit lax, with rituals bordering on heresy. But one thing the Mortifactors chapter does honor (after a bizarre ritual) is the bond made by the Space Marines originator, Roboute Guilliman, who vowed to come to the aid of Tarsis Ultra should it ever need help. So the Mortifactors agree to help the Ultramarines by banding together to fight the Tyranid threat.
Warriors of Ultramar does what few sequels do: it surpasses the original in terms of how enjoyable it is. The world building is top notch. At times, the reading experience reminded me of Peter F. Hamilton, where multiple stories are successfully juggled and laid out in an order that pulls you along. One thing McNeill does really well is people the stories with secondary characters who add to plot and/or world building. For example, in Warriors of Ultramar, there is a brief series of scenes where the people of a small town, deciding to protect their home instead of evacuate, prepare to defend themselves. When the tyranids hit, there’s a heartbreaking scene of a father’s loss, but at the same time a great display of the ferocity and merciless force that is the enemy.
As excellent as the word building is, the action sequences are even better. The first two books of the omnibus contain some of the longest action sequences I’ve ever read — and they held my attention throughout.
Circumstances being what they are on Tarsis Ultra, Ventris makes some tough calls by the end of book two; ones that do not sit well with his military superiors, and even some of his underlings. As a result, he and his longtime friend Pasanius are cast out of the Ultramarines at the start of book 3, Dead Sky, Black Sun. But instead of being killed as heretics, they are instead given a Death Oath (a mission from which there is no likely return). Their mission is to destroy Medrengard, an entire world that is given over to the evil forces of Chaos. Medrengard is home to the Iron Warriors (Chaos Marines) and more than a few abominations.
Though not a bad story, Dead Sky, Black Sun is the weakest one in the omnibus. The plot is straightforward enough. In fact, the first half of the novel reads like a gripping quest fantasy, albeit one set on a Lovecraftian world riddled with horrible monsters and atrocities. It’s the horror aspect of the story that rescues it to some degree, switching out the military sf feel of the previous novels for a more seat-of-your-pants kind of fighting that comes with simply trying to survive. Where this novel first begins to falter is with an extremely convenient series of occurrences that leads our two stalwart heroes exactly to the planet where they need to be without knowing where it is. While expedient in terms of storytelling — and who doesn’t love the idea of a demon train? — the hand-waving that dismisses it as “the Emperor’s will” is questionable. Also, the language used to tell the story became distracting. Either I didn’t notice it in the first two novels, or it started here, but the author liberally peppers the story with hyperbole. Every challenge or monstrosity our heroes meet is the ultimate threat…until the next scene which presents an even greater threat, and so on, and so on. Once it was noticed, it was noticed often, and that diluted the dramatic tension to a significant degree. The book cried wolf and it was time to cut my losses in the emotional investment I made int the characters. That said, Ventris’ quest, once complete, does feel like some satisfying level of catharsis is experienced. I say the quest is completed, but the end of Dead Sky, Black Sun does point to even more interesting things ahead for Uriel Ventris. Did I mention there is a second Ultramarines Omnibus?