Book Review: Echoes of Eternity by Aaron Dembski-Bowden

This review contains as few spoilers for Echoes of Eternity as you’re likely to get.

Let’s get one thing sorted: If you’re reading this review, you’re either reading, or planning to read Echoes of Eternity. So, should you read this? Yes. You know you’re going to. Review completed.

Why you should is a more complicated story.

Echoes of Eternity brings us to the last gasp of the Heresy, the final bloody moments before the end think we know oh-so-well. It was spun out of a scrap of lore derived from a hundred sources – Sanguinius triumphant at the Eternity Gate, the Angel versus the Daemon, the final act of blistering, glorious heroism before the Emperor’s last gambit, the crushing of hope and the rejection of despair. As a note of plot in the ongoing Heresy series, it’s a big one and one that could easily have been mishandled. But as a book – as a way forward for the Black Library – it is much, much more, and Aaron Dembski-Bowden deserves the Crux Terminatus for his work here to bring us something above and beyond the bounds of Warhammer fiction.

Echoes is the penultimate book in the Siege series, but eschews the wider war for a laser-focus on the key pieces left on the board and their final stand. At the end of Chris Wraight’s Warhawk we had tales of Sigismund and Erebus, the White Scars, the Fists, the Sons of Horus and the nascent Imperial Cult, but Echoes takes us to the Eternity Gate alone, setting up the major players and putting them in motion to a final, tortured climax. This is the World Eaters versus the Blood Angels, along with a hundred tiny glances at the billions of private wars raging as Terra falls. There’s bolter action aplenty here, but many of the wars are internal and emotional, struggles fought through on every level possible.

We centre on characters familiar to Dembski-Bowden’s Heresy – the Legio Audax, Arkham Land, Zephon, Angron and the World Eaters, Captain Lotara Sarrin and others – with new perspectives and most excitingly ADB’s take on characters he’s previously had little chance to develop. This is their war, and Echoes takes pains – and time – to tell the epic narrative on as small a scale as possible. We begin above Terra as the world dies, before sweeping through the viewpoints we’ll ride throughout, then watch them converge at the one point it matters most.

The narrative goes through “the gap” between what we knew and where we know Abnett will take us in The End and the Death. We know that the Angel and his Sons hold the gate against the horde, and we know where he will die. ADB takes some brave choices here that won’t be universally popular – to subvert elements of “The Narrative” of the Siege that have stood since White Dwarf 268, bringing in Angron and moving pieces around to arrive at a more satisfying – a more poetically just – ending. More than a bridging book that gets us from A to B, ADB (see what I did there?) also ties up many dangling plot points from his, and other, books in the Heresy series with an ease that belies how bloody difficult it must have been to do. Of the hundreds of books and short stories and audio dramas that the Heresy has unleashed, the bright thread of ADBs works – First Heretic, Betrayer, The Master of Mankind – draw close to their final end here and beyond that he gives us a conclusion to those written by Graham McNeil, Nick Kyme and James Swallow, perhaps even as close as we’re likely to get to answering the facile meme “Magnus did nothing wrong”. While the threads, and the need to tie them all up, sometimes do intrude into the core thrust of the book they are here and ended, bloody well.

For the penultimate book in a near 20 year series, it really is very much an ending. Here, finally, we see the degeneration of the Legions and their mortal followers. While we’ve had a little before – a few Nurglings, maybe a scale or two, Lotara finding a step or a wall of blood – now we have unleashed chaos and the end of humanity. Degeneration is a key theme that starts physical and ends in emotional and moral states, moving us beyond the typical warp-drenched body horror (much of it more horrifying than ever before here) into more subtle and long lasting shades of debasement and decline that work perfectly to a subverted Pandora’s box of an ending. The dream of the Emperor did not die at Istvaan, or in Magnus’ Folly, or on the Black Knight’s blade. It dies here – as the Big Man himself says, the final throw of the dice at the end of the game. By the final page, there is only one path left to everyone still alive.

You know where it starts – and you know where the story ends – so instead of going beat-by-beat through the book, noting every reference and every shot fired (I’m sure you can go elsewhere for that) let’s talk about a Black Library book outside the Library, outside the “does it take the Heresy where it needs to go” and into why it does, and why it does it so well.

There is Only War

We read war books here, don’t we? We read tales – the heresy series is millions of words of tales – about war as fought by gods and monsters, but they’re not really war. They’re fantasy war, where the end is short and painful and bloody, but rarely horrifying. The horror is supposed to come from the setting, that every death in the book is in service to some impossibly horrific cause, or in the light of the monstrous Imperium. Echoes is war, war as horrific and bloody and pointless – as a monster that damages and corrupts in and of itself, even in our universe where it doesn’t (hopefully) have a God.

In his afterward, ADB writes that he was inspired by war memoirs, conversations with WW2 veterans and historical military fiction to get the moments right, and you can see it in the writing, how confused and confusing the war has become. There is no Praetorian here (well, a little) coordinating the defence with a master’s touch and transhuman genius. There is just relentless violence against violence where the wider war is impossible to comprehend. That’s all there, and better done than anywhere else in the Black Library. But so is one of the most enduring, and real, images of the book, if not the series – the open mouths of the dead filling with ash and dust, something seen in our world, and inflicted supposedly on our behalf, far too often.

Echoes is unflinching it its portrayal of the moral and psychological effects of war, producing science fiction that reflects our world around us in the way that only very good SF manages to do. It can be literal, that war ruins us – Terra itself becoming a daemonscape as the tides of the warp, fuelled by violence, mutate the very bones of the planet – or metaphorical, with the dual nature of the Blood Angels standing as an examination to the hero/warrior dichotomy at the heart of our conceptions of “the soldier”. It is present in every moment of the book, the warping violence and the self-justifying nature of war and militarism suffusing every page.

We do not read war in the Black Library, we read war games, but while you’d want to play the Khan’s charge to the Lions Gate Spaceport, you would not want to play the retreat of the refugee columns to the Eternity Gate, or the flight up the Grand Processional, because that’s war, and war is horrific. Your heroes are monsters, who fight monsters and become monstrous, there are no quips or little jokes, recruitment ads masquerading as movies or pew pew special effects and in-jokes that can truly distract from that reality.

Terra, Hearth-world of Humanity

Terra, our weeping and warping planet, plays a central role in the books that challenges us to contrast violence in the Imperial heartland to that on the colonial fringe. Echoes starts with Terra, geologically and climatically, dead. The war that the Marines, the Mechanicum and the Army have exported out from our homeworld, our core, has not just arrived at our doorstep but broken the very planet itself. The world of the 31st millennium is very different to our own, but in ADB’s description of a dying planet, the challenge laid out is to compare it to today and not flinch. Terra is a “hemisphere reduced to rubble”, (daringly – and surprisingly) shrouded by “the death-smoke of two spires”, a world blanketed with “sulfa dyoxide” a so called greenhouse gas driving us to extinction and in “maethal eysocyanite”, in our world known as methyl isocyanate, the chemical, but not the cause, of the Bhopal disaster. The wounds the Traitors have inflicted on Terra are those we have given ourselves, all the more horrifying because they are inflicted here on the literal and metaphorical Imperial core – on us, on the protagonists, on earth standing in for the west – instead of out there in the cold dark of the void standing for the overseas, the distant, the future. The wounds of war, industry, capitalism, writ upon the face of the supposedly apolitical future where we, as fans, will not be able to look away. It is, most certainly, a challenge to us to reflect upon what we have done, not to the Legions. Postcolonial commentary in a Black Library book – what a time we live in, eh?

Where we have Terra as a character, the rest of the cast, or almost all of the rest of the cast, of Echoes, are brilliantly human. Much is made of the inhumanity of the Astartes, and the many takes on what “know no fear” means, whether from Swallow or Abnett or McNeil or everyone who has written something about Space Marines in recent decades, and here that fearlessness is put to the test. Fear, courage and kindness – and surprising gentleness – are explored to the full throughout, often in places you would not expect. Moments of shocking violence as the World Eaters barrel through civilians and Imperial Army, personal sacrifice, or high-concept Science Fiction as the Blood Angels put their Omophagea organs to good use, are often crouched in a tenderness that makes them all the realer – all the more human. Intimacy – not a word often, or indeed wisely, used with regards to the Legions –  rules here, and not just the intimacy of seeing through someone’s eyes. Sometimes it is hideous, the kind of intimacy of a blade in the gut we’ve read about in many a Warhammer book, but ADB probes a deeper truth of the Astartes and their transhuman cultures and intelligence. The Blood Angels and their burden of their father’s face or the naked masculinist rituals of the Revenants, Sanguinius’ love and care for his people, even Kargos Bloodspitter delicately dripping acid spit into eyeballs and throats provide lingering moments of a strange tenderness that deepens the nature of what these cultures and brotherhoods mean to those that live within them. For everyone reading, the pain and tragedy of war-bound masculinity is clear to see – but there is hope for a new masculinity for the 32nd, and 3rd, millennia. Above and beyond clashing gauntlets and martial chants, ADB’s Marines on both sides live and breathe hope, despair, loyalty and even love as they are ground into the dirt by relentless war.

The End and the Death

From a sales point of view I think we can be honest that GW could shit out a book called “Sanguinius fights Angron!!!!!!!” and we’d lap it right up, but Echoes is more than a well written version of that story. Every Siege book has had a little afterword, a kind gift of the editors to us, and to the authors, helping us all process the end. Every one has mentioned how strangely emotional it has been to read and write in the Heresy space, and the feeling of comradeship among the Black Library authors tasked with the pressure of delivering the final moments. What strikes me on reviewing this is that they’ve all wanted these books to be important, to be meaningful and to do justice to the story and the characters. For a series that I was (much like ABD himself!) quite dismissive of, filling in gaps in old lore we didn’t need filled for the sake of a sales target, it has transmuted into something that is meaningful. Echoes goes beyond talking about duty and faith, courage and heroism, genetic and cultural intelligences – the sins, most definitely writ large, of the father – in the 31st millennium and makes us dwell upon it in ours. Like the very best science fiction it doesn’t let us look away from those truths, even as it keeps us entertained with the bloody violence we’re here to consume.

Abnett needs to absolutely smash the next one.

Final Verdict:

You know if you’re going to read this, and when you’re going to. So does it matter what score I give it, in the end? If there’s something I’ve learnt from Echoes it’s that yes, it does. 10/10