I had a bushel of Audible credits lying around, accumulating virtual dust as Jeffrey Preston Bezos laughed away on his gigayacht, floating metaphorically and physically on the backs of overworked, underpaid, and overexploited Amazon warehouse workers. With some of these money-styled tokens to my name, I did a cursory search for Warhammer books, as my literary diet is primarily books about spacemen fighting other spacemen and very good anime boys punching very bad anime boys with the power of friendship. When I purchased this audiobook by Marc Collins, I had no idea that I was about to embark into the precise center of that bookish Venn Diagram.
We join High Marshal Helbrecht brooding and growling about how bad he wants to kill Ghazghkull Mag Uruk Thraka, a nonsense Ork name I have written so many times that I don’t need to spellcheck it anymore. This is set post-Armageddon and post-Helbrecht crossing the Rubicon Primaris, so he’s not just mad, but Big Mad. He’s grousing about how bad he wants to go hunting the Mean Green Waaaghing Machine, and Guilliman spends a whole chapter dunking on him for it. The Lord Regent of the Imperium would rather Helbrecht set his Templars to reclaiming Imperial worlds, bolstering their defenses in the wake of the opening of the Great Rift, and otherwise reinforcing Imperial holdings instead of going on a wild squig chase. It’s very clear that Guilliman doesn’t like Helbrecht and essentially says “You remind me of Sigismund. That’s not a compliment,” and Helbrecht leaves in a huff, unsatisfied with his orders.
Shortly thereafter, Helbrecht has a vision of an ash-covered world, and is among the golden host of the Imperial Fists fighting alongside their primarch, Rogal Dorn (Liam: surely this is stepping on the Blood Angels’ toes?) They are fighting the Iron Warriors in the dark days of the Scouring, and Helbrecht thinks this vision might mean he has been chosen to be The Emperor’s Champion. On waking up, it turns out his Apothecary had the same dream, but since he’s not as important to the chapter’s function as the High Marshal, he gets to be the Emperor’s Champion instead. Grimaldus sends them both on vacation to Heveran, a ruinworld suspiciously similar to the one in their dreams. A piece of Dorn’s armor is in a reliquary there, so Helbrecht, the Emperor’s Champion, a Chaplain, Apothecary, Sword Brother, two dudes with bolters, and a Neophyte all picked by Grimaldus go down with them. None of these characters are terribly well realized, save for the Sword Brother who serves as some sardonic comic relief, and the Neophyte who is seeing battle for the first time. You will not remember their names.
Heveran is the coolest part of this book by far. It’s a planet that turned traitor during the Heresy, and as a result it was designated a ruinworld by Rogal Dorn. This means the populace is not allowed to place two bricks atop each other, and the entire world is devoted to iconoclasm, tearing down the monuments and fortifications of the Iron Warriors in the thousands of years since the Scouring. Understandably, this planet turns traitor again as that is an exceptionally raw deal, even by 40k standards. It’s a bleak backdrop for a book that is more JRPG quest than war story, but it’s a uniquely 40k setting and the only part of this novella that is truly novel.
The Templars arrive on the planet and find the vibes are off, but not immediately threatening. Naturally, things go south, cultists come out of the woodwork, and a pair of moustache-twirling Iron Warriors show up delivering all the usual insults and jabs. “Thin-blooded whelp”, “corpse-worshipper”, you name it, they probably say it. This is where the book turns into a shōnen anime for me. Whenever these guys show up, they trade insults with Helbrecht and his forgettable cadre for pages at a time. They do this mid-fight too, turning the action scenes into turn-based battles with a dedicated Dunking Phase. Then, with the power of
friendship the Dragonballs faith, Helbrecht and/or his cadre pull their Limit Break and hit the badguys real hard.
Before, during, and after these dueling monologues, Helbrecht will invariably give an inspirational speech. This often involves Helbrecht having an internal dialogue, which is all inspirational quotes, then giving an inspirational speech to his adventuring party, one of them going “yeah what you said” before giving a third inspirational speech. I didn’t track by wordcount, but a good third to half of this book has to just be inspirational speeches and grimdark motivational poster quotes. I have a rule where any time a book drops “there is only war” I immediately drop my rating for it by half a star, and what do you know, they narrowly avoid that here. Instead, mid-inspirational speech, Helbrecht drops a “There is not only war” so it’s subversive, you see.
Credit where it’s due, Helbrecht does get a bit of a narrative arc here, learning that maybe it is good to rebuild and inspire instead of selfishly chasing his old grudges and putting every world to the sword. Collins also pulls one of my favorite tricks for a Big Damn Hero, which is showing how they inspire the people around them. The Templars happen upon a couple hundred traveling pilgrims, and through faith and yet more inspirational speeches, Helbrecht inspires them to pick up arms and join them against the forces of Chaos. I like this rabble, even if they are thinly drawn. It’s nice having a backdrop of Imperial weirdos to give this story more Warhammer flavor.
This book also serves as a crash course in Templar culture, hitting the high points by including all their greatest heroes, both new and old. If you wanted to become familiar with the chapter, Knight of the Throne is a pretty decent way to go about it, but you’d probably learn everything the book has to tell you in the first third. The remaining two thirds are repetitive but pleasantly worded, and if you want a quasi-Arthurian quest for a Holy McGuffin, this is an enjoyable enough journey. It is certainly helped by its brisk pace, clocking in at 6 hours and 22 minutes if you listen at normal speed. It probably won’t sell you on the army or tell you some greater truth about yourself and the world around you, but it will certainly fill those 6 hours and 22 minutes before dissipating like the morning fog.
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