Book Review: The Devastation of Baal, by Guy Haley

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SPOILER ALERT: This review contains significant spoilers for The Devastation of Baal. If you’d rather go unspoiled, don’t read this review. If you’re here because you want to know if it’s worth reading, then the answer is yes, definitely, go read it and then come back!

 

I’m on record as being a big fan of the Blood Angels, and with the release of the new codex supplement it seemed like an auspicious time to read more of the background of one of my favourite Chapters. The Blood Angels are very well-served by Black Library, with a number of books focused on their wealth of iconic characters, including a complete series for Mephiston. The Devastation of Baal is a centrepiece here, featuring more or less the entire Chapter and telling the story of the Blood Angels’ entry into the new world of the Imperium Nihilus.

Given that this was released way back in November 2017, you may be asking “why are you reviewing this now?” and the formal answer is “because we just had a Blood Angels Codex Supplement released and it’s a cleverly-thought-through tie-in,” and the real answer is “I just read it and got excited so I’m writing about it.” It’s also just plain good, and interesting to revisit given the developments in the lore over the 3 years or so since it came out.

In brief, this is the story of the Blood Angels defending their home world against the truly gigantic threat of Hive Fleet Leviathan, just before the opening of the Great Rift. Baal sits within the Red Scar, an inhospitable area of space known chiefly for its incredibly hostile conditions, its worlds dyed red by the light of their intensely radioactive suns. What human life is sustained there is tough and short, and its planets are rich in mineral resources but poor in biomass. This is not especially fertile ground for the tyranids, and they have largely avoided it until recent years, when Leviathan changed direction – aiming straight for Baal. Though most of the Imperium thinks of the tyranids as being mindless animals, the Blood Angels have come to believe that the Hive Mind is intelligent, and that its change of course is deliberate, a targeted strike at the Space Marines who have tormented it for years. Though the tyranids are slow in galactic terms, they are coming, and Baal is facing an existential threat.

With Leviathan incoming, the Blood Angels have not been idle. They have engaged in a long-term campaign, fighting the Hive Fleet where they can, and denying it resources where they cannot, declaring Exterminatus on numerous Imperial worlds in Leviathan’s path in order to try and starve the beast. The book begins as this plan reaches its endgame, with the last planets before Baal being scourged of life, and Leviathan soon to reach the Baal system proper.

Along with enacting this scorched-earth policy the Blood Angels have rallied their successor Chapters, asking them to come to Baal to defend the home of their legendary primarch, Sanguinius. Dozens of them have answered the call, some with just a few Marines, but many with the greater part of their strength, and some arriving in their entirety. Some are little-known, seen mostly in line-ups of Space Marine schemes throughout the years or mentioned in passing with little detail given, but some are famous in their own right, including the Flesh Tearers and their Chapter Master Gabriel Seth, who plays a prominent role.

That, then, is the story as it opens. It’s a premise with a lot going on; as well as all the successors, more or less the whole cast of the Blood Angels’ numerous named characters are present, with only Astorath and Lemartes being largely left out of things and busy fighting on Cadia. It’s divided up into roughly three acts, with the opening third being the slow arrival of Leviathan on the scene and largely focused on the Blood Angels “at home”, their relationship with the Chapters of the Blood who have arrived at Baal in time for this apocalyptic battle, and the history that binds them all together. The second act is the sledgehammer blow of Leviathan’s arrival and the opening of the grinding, brutal war that ensues, while the third deals with the closing stages of the same war, the opening of the Cicatrix Maledictum, and the arrival of the Indomitus Crusade, as well as the consequences of all of the above.

Though it’s relatively lower on action, the first act is a true delight. By their nature Space Marines are larger than life, and their long development as a staple of 40k has seen them become a kind of mishmash of noble heroic knights, hidebound warrior monks, and supernatural demigods. The Blood Angels are firmly at the most baroque, weird end of all this, with their blend of primary influences being “Renaissance art and history,” “literally angels,” and “literally vampires.” The twin curses of the Red Thirst and the Black Rage loom large in the life of the Chapter, as does their relationship with their primarch father, doomed Sanguinius, whose death precipitates the curse in the first place. Haley has a deft touch in exploring this central aspect of the Blood Angels, both in terms of themselves and also through the lens of their successors, from the Angels Numinous who disdain all who fall to the Black Rage through to the Knights of Blood who are so far gone that they are formally classified as Renegades; and, of course, the Flesh Tearers, who walk a very dangerous line on the precipice of annihilation. Much of the early going of the book is about this, with the preparations for the titanic clash ahead forming a backdrop to the highly ritualised gathering of all the Chapters of the Blood. It’s not exactly “civilian 40k” – nothing about a cast of characters drawn more or less exclusively from a warrior elite about to prepare for the greatest battle of their lives can really be classified as “civilian” – but it fits somewhat within that general trend of exploring the 40k universe outside of the “fighting in an active warzone” part that is the bread and butter of the setting’s fiction.

The early going also establishes the other central plank of the Imperium side of things – as much as this is a book about the Blood Angels and their successors generally, it is also very much a book about Dante; though it picks up a few different points of view throughout its pages, to my mind Dante forms the core. It’s a crime that Dante’s model is nearly as old as he is in the lore, because to me he’s one of the most interesting characters in 40k, especially on the Space Marine side. Though Marines are functionally immortal, and Blood Angels are especially marked for their longevity, they do tend to die bloodily after a while. Dante is the only one of them who is truly old; he has survived for 1500 years, and been Chapter Master for the majority of that time. He feels the weight of every one of those years, and Haley adroitly brings all of it to the surface. Dante wears the Death Mask of Sanguinius almost all of the time, certainly while he is in public – he feels that he has, to some extent, become Sanguinius in the popular imagination and now he strives to live up to that impossible legacy. Underneath the mask, though, he is aged, both in body and in spirit. Like all Space Marines, he has an eidetic memory, and yet he has begun to forget – his enhanced mind overwhelmed by the sheer length of his life. His hair is grey, his face wrinkled and worn; he is borne down by the terrible deeds committed in the face of Leviathan, the condemning of millions of Imperial citizens to death in order to starve the beast, a series of monstrous acts which tarnishes his reputation as a hero of the Imperium both to others but also in his own eyes. “Hard men making hard choices” is the kind of fascistic ideal that often permeates 40k fiction, but rarely is it embodied so well as it is with Dante, a man who is not just a hero by default but chooses to be consciously heroic, doing things that he knows are evil and regretting them all even in the face of their obvious necessity.

Counterpointing the very human Dante is Mephiston, the Lord of Death. I have to admit that I am always conflicted on Mephiston. In many ways he is a relic of a different time in 40k – once upon a time his statline was a straight copy of a Vampire Lord from WHFB, kind of the ultimate incarnation of the literally-vampires bit of their background – and he’s never quite shaken off that legacy. He doesn’t always feel like he belongs, even in the “baroque weirdo” Chapter. The Black Library approach seems to be to go all-in on this. Other Space Marines are wary of Mephiston, a being as alien to them as they are to other humans, and for his part he simply doesn’t care what they think to begin with. In the science fiction and fantasy mash-up that makes up 40k, Mephiston is firmly anchored in the latter tradition – it’s all arcane rituals, astral projecting through the Realms of Chaos, daemon summoning (more on that later) and flying through the sky on a wave of arcane power. The wall between psykers and wizards can be thin at the best of times, and Mephiston smashes right through it. Things do get a little bit too Wacky Races for my taste with his study that sits on a constantly rotating platform, complete with bookcase full of arcane texts and creepy servants who apparently just hang out on this elevator ride at all times, but that’s kind of what Mephiston brings to anything he’s in. Though Leviathan is approaching and the powerfully psychic Mephiston is, of course, very aware of its long shadow being cast, he is nevertheless distracted by a potentially greater problem – there is war in the realm of Khorne (naturally) and Ka’bandha, the Angel’s Bane, is winning. His prize is escape from the Warp and into reality, and Mephiston is desperate to keep him at bay.

Rounding out the opening act we have a few more minor viewpoints. Briefly appearing early on is Gabriel Seth, who at this stage spends most of his time being angry about all the ritual and pageantry, but also is part of a key scene where he receives a truly priceless relic from Dante in the form of Amit’s Reliquary. This vessel was created by the founder of the Flesh Tearers to hold the last feather of Sanguinius’ wings, caught before it could fall to earth (literally so, as a relic from the Siege of Terra). Despite the intensity of the fury which burns within him, even Seth is overawed by the relic, and calmed by it. Besides Seth, we also meet Captain Erwin of the Angels Excelsis, a successor Chapter which has come with its full strength to defend the world of the primarch. Erwin is a fun character who gets a surprising amount of time on the page, leading a boarding action to rescue an Imperial vessel in direct defiance of orders from the Blood Angels Captain Asante, and later battling him in an honour duel at the great pre-battle feast. Erwin honours his Chapter’s legacy, but he is young (for a Space Marine), impetuous, proud, and arrogant, and keenly principled on the specific point that as a Space Marine he is bound to follow the orders of none but his direct superiors within his Chapter – which as a Captain means his Chapter Master and really no-one else. This presages an early scene where Dante is voted as the leader of the entire war effort, functionally both a reminder of what Space Marine Chapters are and also an opportunity to really drill home the point as to Dante’s unique position within the pantheon of Imperial heroes. Longer term, that loop is neatly closed by the arrival of Guilliman and Dante’s appointment as the Regent of the Imperium Nihilus – but more on that later.

One final character, naturally not given a point of view but looming large in the background, is “the tyranids,” collectively. Tyranids are a tough sell within 40k’s fiction, oddly placed in a universe very much of a heroic scale with mythical characters battling it out. Both in-universe and out, it’s easy to think of them as being a kind of zombie horde, or a group of dumb animals, or to anthropomorphise the various bugs as being essentially individuals under some kind of slavish mind control. Haley spends a lot of time developing them down the far more interesting path – the Hive Mind, as a whole, is intelligent, potentially as a gestalt (raising the possibility that to kill it would require killing every single tyranid). The Shadow in the Warp is simply its sheer psychic weight reflecting in the unreal, its consciousness of titanic proportions, so great that it sees men as men see ants. Though the various creatures who are ‘the tyranids’ may sometimes act like individuals and appear as fully-formed, independent creatures, they are simply its millions and millions of limbs, no more separate from the Hive Mind than an arm is separate from the person it belongs to. A fair amount of time is spent developing this theme, and particularly in relation to a lictor which finds its way aboard Captain Erwin’s ship, on a solo mission to Baal with terrible repercussions. The point is perhaps slightly over-done, though the lictor’s demise more or less spells the end, but it’s a wonderful exploration of what the tyranids are and really sets them up perfectly as the antagonist to the Blood Angels – the Angels are a Chapter conflicted, both the most human of Space Marines but also in some ways the most alien, but it’s the former quality that shines through against the utterly monstrous inhumanity of the tyranids. They make a much better foil for the themes being developed here than say, orks or eldar, two races who work better as crooked mirrors of humanity rather than total opposites of us.

Incidentally, the lictor also gives us one of my favourite lines in the book, which sums up all of the above quite neatly:

Naturally, these were more human concepts that were alien to the hive mind. The lictor did not regard itself apart from its brethren. It did not regard itself at all.

All of the world-building and slow-burn character development is abruptly interrupted by the arrival of Leviathan in-system. The preparation is ended, and war is here – well, nearly. We do stop for a brief sojourn on Baal Primus, where Seth follows one of the Baalite tribals to meet some mysteriously-arrived Space Marines, who turn out to be the Knights of Blood. As mentioned above, these are seriously bad guys, embodying all the worst parts of the Curse. The Flesh Tearers may be infamous for their savagery, but they have not quite fallen yet, and Seth is struggling with all his might to redeem them in the eyes of the Imperium, even if only by leading them to a glorious annihilation. The Knights have no such qualms, and have wholeheartedly leapt into the deep, dark waters of the Black Rage. Unsurprisingly for a Renegade Chapter they are low on manpower and materiel, but they have come in as much force as they are able. Every Knight is present and they are led by their Chapter Master – better known as the Firstblade – Sentor Jool, the most Star Wars-ass name in 40k. Jool is on Primus for two reasons; one, he requested from Dante that his Chapter fight alongside the Flesh Tearers, seeing them as kindred spirits, and two, he wants to have a look at the ruins of the orbitals of Baal Primus, long since fallen to the surface of the moon and which now form a kind of artificial mountain range. He and Seth do not exactly see eye to eye, but they go together to find the inscriptions that the founding father of the Knights of Blood recalled from his youth on Baal Primus before he joined – and then left – the Blood Angels. Though the words have long since faded away, Jool knows the story word for word, and recalls it to Seth before thoughtlessly murdering the tribal who has brought them there and drinking his blood, alone in the dark.

Past that point, though, it’s time for war. There are near enough 25,000 Space Marines in system, an echo of the might of the Legions of old, and while most of them are on Baal some are deployed to its (otherwise evacuated) moons and others are in space, manning the mightiest Space Marine fleet in memory. The fleet’s job is simply to slow the tyranids down, take chunks out of them if they can, and otherwise harry and harass them as they arrive in order to inflict whatever damage they can with the city-killing weaponry of a Space Marine ship. Despite the legendary scale of the fleet, the war in space is merely a holding action, and the Marines know it. The brutality of the conflict is immediately brought home; whatever successes the Marines have, they are not nearly enough. Captain Asante dies early on, as does Bellerophon, Keeper of the Heavengate, Master of the Blood Angels’ Fleet. So too does Erwin, his ship crippled and boarded; nearly dead and with his armour broken and useless, he nevertheless throws himself face first into a carnifex, which swats him aside thoughtlessly. It’s a little bit of a conceit to use a nothing character like Erwin in this way, but with the impossibility of killing off the big-name Blood Angels, developing him early on only to let him die almost incidentally as the battle begins is the best option for emphasising that this really is an all-out knock-down drag-out fight which can only really end with the complete destruction of one side or the other.

The battle scenes that make up the majority of the second act are largely executed well, with the Blood Angels and their kin defending the walls of the Arx Angelicum, weapons batteries firing and Marines manning ramparts. The largest Death Company anyone has ever witnessed is unleashed, its warriors lost to the Rage. If anything, the middle passages kind of emphasise 40k’s scale issues; 25,000 Marines is a lot, but it’s 25,000 of them (less really, since as mentioned some are in space or on the moons) defending in a siege against an enemy which is repeatedly stated to number in the millions and billions. While there’s some clever traps set and heroics performed, and Haley makes sure to hand-wave issues of supply by mentioning just how well-stocked the fortress is, you can feel it all fraying at the edges a little bit. The truth is that GW is bad at numbers and it’s best to just not think about it, and accept that sure, the 15-20,000 or so guys in this fortress (and some of the populations of the moons who have been pressed into service as auxiliaries and handed lasguns, fighting largely out of terror of the Chaplains who are keeping ‘order’ in their lines) can expect to fight at 1:100 odds and not immediately lose. Also buried in here is a bit more Mephiston; despite the current crisis he’s still more interested in Ka’bandha, and has taken the Librarians of numerous different chapters off to a particularly magical site on Baal where they can attempt to close the gate that is yawning open before him. It’s a strange diversion, and one of the weakest parts of the book – the Librarians combine their power to try and close the gate, channelled through Mephiston, and a weak link lets them down in the form of Antros, a junior Librarian whose will is broken by the temptation of a life of bloodshed in the name of Khorne. It’s all a bit clumsy, telegraphed a mile out and reliant on Mephiston being a total idiot in somehow trusting Antros despite him being an obvious conniver. Their relationship is barely explored and doesn’t really ring true; if there’s history that explains it in other novels, it’s not even hinted at here. It also more or less marks Mephiston’s exit from the scene, weirdly early on in proceedings – there’s a good third of the book to go, but his participation is basically at an end and he’s hardly even mentioned again. It feels like a scene which was necessary, because the summary of events that this book was written to explore included Ka’bandha, but one which nobody had much enthusiasm for.

Where to draw the line of the third act beginning is an open question in my mind. Arguably it comes somewhere in chapters 21-23; the earliest of these, appropriately entitled Death of the Future, is where the lictor’s activities pay off, as it finds its way inside the fortress thanks to a forgotten entryway. Its trail is followed by a host of tyranids, who come bursting out of the tunnel and into the gothic setting of the Hall of Sarcophagi – not any kind of cemetery, as its name might suggest, but instead the place where Blood Angels neophytes are interred for a year and transformed from rad-damaged wasteland tribesmen into flawless angels. Up to this point Dante has been fighting on the walls, sometimes in person but largely directing proceedings as the grand strategist and supreme commander that he is. Just before he is alerted to this attack on the future of the Chapter there’s a great scene where he and his Sanguinary Guard battle a carnifex brood trying to make its way up the walls – despite his inferno pistol melting the entire head of a carnifex, it keeps climbing, its decision-making taken over by the brain inside of its gun which looks out on the world through swivelling eyes. It neatly addresses the game-scale question of “what does it actually look like when one of these things is down to 1 wound?” and, like much of the tyranid-focused writing in the book, has fun with the concept of the ‘nids as a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of bits and pieces of genetic inheritance from all the things they’ve eaten in their unknowably long existence. With the attack on the neophytes Dante abandons the walls, commandeering a bike and riding it full-pelt through the halls of the fortress-monastery and into the Hall of Sarcophagi, fighting genestealers from the saddle with pistol and axe. Despite the efforts of Dante and the other Blood Angels who have rushed to defend the future of the Chapter, the coffins are destroyed, the neophytes lost – and worse comes as the lictor uses the chaos to attack a completely different target, the reactor powering the void shield which up until now has been providing the most effective defence. A bit like Haley himself I will stop labouring this point from here on out, but it’s a strongly-written scene that caps the stuff about what tyranids are, as the lictor immolates itself without thought, simultaneously in incredible pain but with no capacity to respond to it, driven only by the titanic will that commands it as it destroys both itself and the plasma core powering the generator and collapses the void shields.

From this point on, the war changes decisively into its last phase. On Baal, the defenders are driven back, overwhelmed without the protection of the void shield. They fall progressively further and further through the rings of defences, abandoning the outer walls, then much of the inner fortress, finally being forced into the central fortress-monastery itself. With nothing left to protect, the Tower of Amareo is opened for the first time in memory, and the creatures inside – once humans, noble sons of the Blood Angels, and now ravening monsters – are released to fight and die against the Tyranids, buying just a little more time, selling what there is of their lives.

On Baal Primus, Seth is fighting happily, in his element warring against a truly alien enemy, with no civilians or allies around to worry him, his only concern being to restrain himself and his Marines just enough that they don’t abandon their defensive position and run off into the horde to die. Though there’s plenty of tyranids around, though, the war has moved past the moons, entering its last phase on Baal. A three-part battle of wills ensues, between Seth, his sole remaining Chaplain, and Sentor Jool, who has arrived to fight beside the Flesh Tearers despite Seth’s earlier insistence that he stay far, far away. The Knights of Blood have not at all troubled themselves with things like “restraint” and are buried deep in the tyranid forces. Seth is conflicted by his duty as the bearer of Amit’s Reliquary, his self-imposed mission to rescue the Flesh Tearers from the darkness, and his longing to plunge into it headfirst. His Chaplain, Apollonus, is infuriated by his Chapter Master’s sacrifice of the Flesh Tearers for the sake of the Blood Angels, and what he sees as Seth’s hypocrisy – restraining the Tearers to “save” them only to throw them away fighting the Blood Angels’ war. Seth’s resolution is to abandon Primus, which has long become inconsequential, and head to Baal where the Flesh Tearers may be saved – or at least die fighting somewhere that actually matters.

His plan is interrupted by Ka’bandha, bursting into the universe in the wake of the truly cataclysmic birth of the Cicatrix Maledictum. Despite the immense reality-warping explosion of the Great Rift, the Bloodthirster has manifested agonisingly far from Baal, his physical form unable to reach out quite far enough from the tear in reality to attack the Blood Angels directly. Instead the he falls to Baal Primus, not his original target but a convenient one, as Space Marines and tyranids tear into each other and reap an impressive toll of skulls – though in the wake of the Great Rift’s explosion in the sky the tyranids seem dazed, fighting by instinct instead of the uncannily disciplined manner that normally defines them. An extra dimension to the battle grows as the lord of Khorne tears reality further, summoning Bloodletters to his aid, clashing with both  Marines and tyranids in a frenzy of violence. Seth and the Flesh Tearers are able to retreat, and though he urges Jool to flee with them, the Knights of Blood’s dark secret is finally revealed as the Firstblade removes his helm and unveils his true nature – he, like all of the Knights, is utterly lost. Their very forms are twisted by the Black Rage, resembling nothing so much as the beasts in the Tower who have just been unleashed down on Baal. There is no way back for them, and instead they stay and fight, Jool defiantly facing down the Bloodthirster – refusing to fall to Khorne even as his body is taken by the Rage and Ka’bandha destroys him.

Seth, in his Thunderhawk, is witness to one more incredible event. In the wake of the Great Rift’s opening, the tyranid space fleet has disappeared. The ‘nids have been sucked into the depths of the warp and torn apart, and the raw energy of Chaos has shattered the Hive Mind, inflicting on it an unthinkably terrible blow. In its place is the largest Imperial fleet Seth has ever seen – the Indomitus crusade has arrived.

On Baal there is no hint of these things happening except for the strange behaviour of the tyranids, unbalanced by the sudden loss of the Hive Mind’s control just as on Baal Primus. The book’s denouement is all Dante as the scope draws in from the gigantic grand battle to the desperate last clashes. On Cryptus, another world eventually devoured by Leviathan, Dante was visited by the Sanguinor, the guardian angel of the Chapters of the Blood. He witnessed the only words the mysterious herald of Sanguinius is ever known to have spoken. Dante has long believed himself to be the golden warrior standing at the Emperor’s side in the galactic Ragnarok prophesied in the Scrolls of Sanguinius, and sharing in the gift of prophecy common to his Chapter he has repeatedly dreamed of the Emperor with his flaming sword upon his knees; now, though, he has dreamed the sword gone, and is troubled. In the last battles of the book he fights his way through the tyranids, following in the wake of the beasts of Amareo. By this point he is exhausted, beaten and battered, as is his Chapter and all of their successors who remain. For centuries he has held back both the Thirst and the Rage, but now he finds his will wavering, his mind becoming clouded, flickering between Baal and the bridge of the Vengeful Spirit. From nowhere the Sanguinor arrives once again, manifesting above the battlefield, accompanied by the ghostly Legion of the Damned. The Sanguinor directs Dante to one powerful consciousness, seemingly the last manifestation of the Hive Mind left on Baal – the Swarmlord. Dante girds himself for one last push even as he battles the Rage down and finally wills himself to die not as Sanguinius, but as Dante. I mentioned earlier that the tyranids are a great foil for the Blood Angels, and this climactic scene brings that to the fore, as Dante looks upon his foe:

In the monster’s eyes glimmered an ancient and powerful intellect. As old as he was, Dante felt like a newborn babe compared to the intelligence staring at him through that unblinking gaze. He sensed that there were two beings looking at him. The monster, and the being that controlled it. They were separate, yet one. A sense of crushing psychic might emanated from it, so great its grasp encompassed galaxies. There was sophistication there, and terrifying intelligence, but all were outweighed by its bottomless, eternal hunger.

For the moment that the man and the monster stared into one another’s souls, Dante pitied it. The hunger of the hive mind made the Red Thirst trivial by comparison.

It’s a couple of short paragraphs, but it captures everything that this book does so well – the nature of the tyranids, the powerful forces afflicting the Blood Angels, and the sharp contrast between them that emphasises the ultimate humanity of the Sons of Sanguinius.

The two engage in a battle of champions, the unnatural skill of the Swarmlord a match for Dante’s millennia of experience, exhausting each other in furious combat. Dante is almost outmatched, but finally destroys the Swarmlord with his last act, sinking to the earth. He accepts, finally, that he is not the golden warrior from the prophecy, and wonders idly who the primarch could have meant. He welcomes the cessation of his long service. Only in death does duty end.

Except not quite. Dante is old. He has been driven on through his centuries of existence by his duty, to the Emperor and to Sanguinius, to the Imperium and its citizens. He is worn out and he has faced down an apocalypse on the the Blood Angels’ very doorstep. The Sanguinor appears before him, wordless again, and Dante welcomes the herald – but this time the Sanguinor really lives up to that title, and Sanguinius himself appears. Dante begs:

Please. I have served so long. Grant me the freedom of death…. My lord, I have done enough! Please! Let me rest!

But Sanguinius, sorrowful, will not allow him to die. Dante awakens, screaming for the mercy of death, but instead finds himself reborn into a world of miracles. Before him are new Space Marines – the Primaris. Though he wishes for death, he is confronted with life, and even as a Sanguinary Priest fights to save his shattered body and his mind slips between the past and the present he is on his feet, ready to be taken to confront an even greater miracle than the Primaris in the shape of a living primarch, Roboute Guilliman reborn. In order to have things line up, there’s a time skip as the Rift opens with the fall of Cadia, and then Guilliman arrives almost immediately having already consolidated his hold on the Imperium. The book mentions in passing that this is because Baal has experienced the span of about 70 years in a few days. It finds itself now on the wrong side of the rift, in the new Imperium Nihilus, of which Dante is appointed Regent by Guilliman – neatly giving him the exact kind of authority over the whole domain that he was lacking at the start.

The closing chapter is an interesting one, a kind of time capsule of where things were in 2017. Corbulo, who has been mostly a minor character throughout, is exalted by the possibility that Primaris Marines may well be free of the Flaw – a possibility now definitively closed off in a world with Death Company Intercessors. Guilliman has brought thousands of Primaris Marines with him to rebuild the Chapters of the Blood, but they aren’t universally embraced. Dante and his old guard welcome the future, even as they acknowledge themselves as relics of an age now coming to its end. Most of the brothers they have known are dead on Baal and their fortress-monastery is in ruins, its history destroyed. The Blood Angels are set to rebuild, but they will be a new Chapter, their ranks made up of the Primaris Marines. Seth is not so happy to embrace the new Marines; he sees the death of the Knights of Blood on Baal Primus as an fitting conclusion to their legacy, bloody as it was, and he had always imagined the Flesh Tearers ending the same way, redeemed but ultimately destroyed. Now they are supposed to rebuild, with these new and allegedly perfect Marines who he believes are intended truthfully to replace him and his kind; echoing many players reacting to the Primaris range, he describes them directly “Ultramarines in red armour.” The Flesh Tearers are defined by their struggle with the Flaw, as are all of those descended from Sanguinius; without that, then the Chapter will be no more, even if there are Primaris Marines wearing their heraldry and bearing their name. Both sides see a new future, but they feel very differently about it, and it’s an interesting mirror of how players reacted at the time.

As book reviews go, this is a long one, but I felt like it was necessary to draw out the themes here. As mentioned, there’s a few missteps – most of the Mephiston sections, basically, though I did skip over the cool scene where he descends into the bowels of Baal to interrogate a Chaos-worshipping alien imprisoned there purely because the Blood Angels don’t know how to kill it. Overall, though, it’s a demonstration of Black Library at its best, drawing out the elements that mark out the Blood Angels and developing them into something deeper, driven by strong characters and anchored around the central story of Dante, a figure at once mythic in his own world and yet simultaneously struggling to live up to an even greater legend.

 

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