The Goonhammer Review: Leviathan by Darius Hinks

Since the Assault on Black Reach in 5th edition it’s been Games Workshop’s habit to accompany every new edition launch with a tie-in Black Library novel, sharing its title with the launch box – recently in 40k we’ve had Dark Imperium (which ended up being a trilogy) and Indomitus, while on the AoS side there was Soul Wars in second edition and Dominion in third. These books serve as marketing collateral for the new edition; they’re an extra thing for people to buy, they tell the story of whatever’s happening in the launch box to ground it somewhere in the game’s universe, and they set up what the current state of play is in the setting – Dark Imperium covered the Indomitus Crusade and events since Guilliman’s rebirth in Gathering Storm (though was later revised to reposition the lore at an earlier point in time), Indomitus covered, well, also the Indomitus Crusade, but on the new revised timeline.

Leviathan, as its title suggests, is all about what’s going on with the Tyranids. The Devastation of Baal has happened, Hive Fleet Leviathan has taken substantial losses, Primaris Marines are here in full force and the Ultramarines are doing their bit to fortify the Imperium Sanctus against the horrors beyond its borders. Specifically, they’re fortifying a world called Regium in the Segmentum Pacificus, one of those planets that popped into existence when the lore required it to – this novel needs somewhere to take place, but not anywhere that you might have heard of before and been invested in, and so here we are.

Structurally, I’m going to start here with a brief sketch of the plot, the whats and whys of the events, and then move on to some thoughts about the context of the book and how it relates to the thing it’s trying to help sell, i.e. the Leviathan box. This entire article is going to be weapons-free with spoilers, so if you’re desperate to read the novel without any foreknowledge, you should stop here, though if you’re a human being with basic pattern recognition you can probably guess a substantial part of what happens simply by observing that this is a novel about Space Marines fighting xenos in an increasingly desperate last stand.

With that warning out of the way, let’s talk about the plot. As mentioned above, Regium is a world in the Sanctus Line, a chain of key strategic planets along the borders of the Imperium Sanctus (the part of the Imperium which is only regular hell, rather than the extra-nasty hell in the Imperium Nihilus). As an important link in this particular chain, Regium is heavily fortified, with its own local PDF being supplemented by Cadian regiments and a substantial deployment of Ultramarines; the novel helpfully tells us that this consists of “a large part” of the Ultramarines’ First Company, supplemented by the Eighth and Ninth. Put a pin in that, because we’ll come back to it later. Overall command belongs to Lieutenant Castamon – i.e. the Phobos Lieutenant from the box – supported by Lieutenant Tyrus, who exists chiefly to be killed early on and who I can’t recall anything in particular about. There’s a handful of other key Ultramarines; Librarian Abarim (Terminator-armoured, natch), Apothecary Biologis Vultis, Sergeant Tanaro, and Brother Baraca (both in an Infernus Squad). Others come and go, but that’s your cast of Space Marines that matter at all.

At the opening of the novel, Regium is in an interesting position. For millennia it has existed in a kind of cultural obscurity, and developed its own borderline heretical spin on the Imperial Cult; the locals worship the God-Emperor, but their planet has a complex geography of “world-roots” (which the novel suggests are actually gigantic terraforming machines, though they appear to also be alive) and their religion involves a lot of tree-based worship, including piercing their own skin with sharpened tree branches. The Ecclesiarchy has forcibly suppressed this cult, but only recently; though the Ultramarines have helped to destroy many of the local shrines, there’s still plenty of people who remember the old ways, some of whom are rather keen to have them back. Additionally, the traditional (and highly corrupt) governing families have been replaced by new governor Seroc; his exact background isn’t given but he’s suggested to be a substantial but non-noble figure who is as surprised as anybody by his sudden elevation. An uneasy tension exists between his position as the governor, representative of ultimate Imperial authority, and the “consuls” Vela and Damaris, who operate as a kind of democratic voice of the people, though the book isn’t clear exactly how they come to this position; looming large above both of them is Castamon, who has ultimate military responsibility on this heavily militarised world, and therefore most of the real power.

What you get is a world with its own complex local politics, sketched out in surprising detail. Everybody sees themselves as a loyal servant of the (God) Emperor, everybody thinks they’re doing the right thing, but there’s divisions between them and each suspects the others of machinations to enhance their own position at the expense of everyone else. Into this simmering pot of mutual resentments comes a splinter fleet of Hive Fleet Leviathan, fleeing its defeat at the Devastation of Baal.

As far as the Ultramarines are concerned, this is no big deal. They have a chunky space fleet, and the Tyranids are broken. Regium itself is under no threat at all, because although it’s the capital and focus of the sector, the nearby planet Krassus is much more heavily-populated. As everyone knows, Tyranids always seek the greatest source of biomass, and so naturally they’re heading straight for Krassus. All the Ultramarines have to do is dispatch their fleet, ambush the Tyranids, and annihilate them, job done. Initially they plan to send their entire strength to do this, but Castamon decides they don’t need it all, and had better keep some reserve back on Regium, so Tyrus leads the majority of the Ultramarines aboard the Incorruptible on this straightforward mission, expecting to be back home in time for tea while Castamon stays on the planet to deal with the politicians.

You will be unsurprised to discover that things don’t go as planned. The Ultramarines fleet flies out to meet the Tyranids, only to find nothing at all; the xenos aren’t where they’re supposed to be. Where have they gone, then? It turns out the answer is “they’re boarding your Strike Cruiser, idiots,” as ‘nids swarm aboard and start killing Space Marines left and right. A substantial proportion of the Tyranid force seems to consist of Von Ryan’s Leapers, or possibly Lictors, depending what size you think they’re meant to be; either way they’re appearing out of nowhere and eviscerating Marines in short order. Leading them is the Harbinger, a vaguely-described but definitely very scary Tyranid leader-beast, which emits a powerful enough psychic aura to be invading the dreams of much of the populace on Regium – an effect which will get worse and worse the closer it gets. The Harbinger isn’t the mindless beast that the Ultramarines are expecting; it becomes clear to Vultis, who starts the novel on board the ship, that it’s highly intelligent, and seems to be stalking him, having identified him as the most senior person aboard once Tyrus bites the dust. He and Baraca escape back to Regium at the last minute, but that’s about the only positive the Ultramarines get out of this engagement; it’s otherwise a disaster, and the entire rest of the spaceborne Ultramarines are annihilated.

From here, the novel splits into several mutually-interacting strands. We see a lot of Vultis, whose other key discovery prior to his escape is that Neurogaunts have a weird parasite attached to them which seems to boost the Hive Mind’s control; back on Regium, he spends the rest of the book trying to find another sample, because he has a theory that he can break the synaptic link to the Hive Mind by doing… something. Castamon leads his now much-depleted force of Ultramarines in organising the defence of the world, not just against the small splinter he thought he was facing but against the much larger Tyranid force which deployed this “splinter” as a distraction while staying out of sensor range, and is now on its way to besiege Regium – it turns out they’re intelligent after all, which shouldn’t really be a surprise at this stage in the Warhammer timeline, but here we are. We also get some Seroc, and some Damaris, as well as some Captain Karpova – the overall commander of the Cadians deployed to Regium – and Confessor Thurgau, a blood-and-fire representative of the Ecclesiarchy who has been tasked with stamping out the remains of the apostate Regium cult. Finally, there’s some Regium civilian elements; Beltis, the daughter of local crime lord Gathas Kulm, and Valacia and Tharro, a local couple fleeing the increasingly hostile periphery of Regium to try and find safety in one of the fortified hives the Ultramarines are concentrating on defending.

Pressure mounts as the Tyranids tighten their grip on Regium; the scouting beasts mount small-scale attacks, spores fill the air to choke the life out of the local populace, a Genestealer Cult emerges from hiding to launch its own uprising as Ascension Day looms large. In one scene, the entire city of Port Dura is destroyed by the Harbinger possessing the will of a servitor which exists as only as a disembodied head, buried deep underground and tasked with regulating the plasma generators which act as the local power plant. It’s the kind of thing that is just drenched in 40kness, reminiscent of the lethal lunar postal service of Vigilus.

If you’re familiar with how things go when Tyranids are in the picture, Regium is pretty quickly overwhelmed by their sheer numbers; there’s lots of fighting and explosions, best-laid plans going awry, heroic last stands and the like. Pretty quickly things escalate from a handful of Leapers attacking farms to Bio-Titans striding around the place, and swarms of millions hammering themselves into fortifications intending to overwhelm them with the weight of the dead. Even as they’re brute-forcing these defences, however, the Tyranids are also showing the kind of strategic nous which Vultis confidently asserts early in the book that they don’t possess. A particular highlight is the Harbinger filling Confessor Thurgau’s mind with glorious visions of the Emperor, causing him to lead the Cadians out of the key hive city of Salamis against Castamon’s explicit orders; the battle goes exactly as his vision says it will right up until his glorious suicidal charge into death and the arms of the Emperor, who turns out to be a particularly angry Neurotyrant. Instead of his expected inspirational martyrdom Thurgau dies cowering, destroying the morale of the Cadians who have over-extended themselves to follow him and now find Trygons are erupting in their rear echelons, Just As Planned.

Things fall apart, militiamen die, Cadians die, Ultramarines die; they kill plenty of Tyranids but it’s never enough. The Imperium wins a pyrrhic victory, however, because those world-roots that came up earlier reach all the way to the planet’s core, and the surviving Ultramarines are able to throw a plasma generator down there and blow up the whole world. I think that’s what happens, anyway; I’m not clear on the physics of any of this, but the end result is that Regium becomes an ex-planet, annihilating both everything on its surface and also everything in space for quite some distance around. This particular splinter of Leviathan is defeated, but at great cost; stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

You may be wondering what those civilian characters I mentioned earlier were for, exactly; as it turns out Kulm has a secret hidden space shuttle small and fast enough to get off-world, and while the Harbinger has broken his mind, his daughter Beltis knows where it is and is determined to save both her father and herself by getting to it. Through a series of unfortunate events various different groups of characters show up at the hangar it’s kept in, and kill each other or are killed by Tyranids; Thallo and Valacia are the last ones standing by virtue of managing to show up after everyone else has met their various fates. They stroll in and find the ship, and then are just about to launch it when Gargoyles show up; luckily for them Castamon and Vultis, the last remaining Ultramarines, also arrive in the hangar having fled their own world-destroying bomb (currently taking several hours to fall into the planetary core). They clear the Gargoyles, launch the ship, and leave; essentially the entire side stories are about leading to this point, so that the ship is less of an ass-pull when it’s needed. Main characters saved, presumably future sequel secured, job done.

Broadly that’s the plot; there are many more beats in the book, but that’s the essence of how they play out. There’s some very interesting stuff being done in terms of setting and place, with the tree-cult and the world-roots and the changeable geography of the place. A surprising amount of time is devoted to the political manoeuvrings and machinations, and establishing the characters who occupy this world and whose relationship with the wider Imperium is complex and multifaceted. All of this underlies a pretty standard-issue storyline, which unfolds pacily but predictably.

What’s interesting about this book is what it does and doesn’t do. As mentioned above, this book is literally called Leviathan, its cover art features 1:1 replicas of stuff from the box set, and it’s unsurprising that our most prominent Space Marines are all models you get in that box.

It isn’t all of them, however; you have your Phobos Lieutenant, Apothecary Biologis, and Terminator Librarian, and a squad which seems to be an Infernus Squad but is never actually labelled as such and which fire “promethium guns” rather than pyreblasters. Conspicuously missing are the Terminator Captain and, well, Terminators, as well as the Sternguard. On the Tyranid side, I think the stealth-bugs are meant to be Von Ryan’s Leapers, and the Neurogaunts are central to the plot, but beyond that there’s the brief appearance of the Neurotyrant and that’s that. Unless I missed them, the Barbgaunts and the Psychopage appear not at all, nor does the Prime; Termagants and Rippers presumably do, but only as the general mass of Tyranids. Most confusingly, the Screamer-Killer doesn’t show up either; you’d have thought that was a shoo-in for a big setpiece somewhere, but it never happens. While reading I kind of assumed the Harbinger was meant to be a Screamer-Killer, though its characterisation didn’t really fit. I think what it’s actually meant to be, however, is the Norn-Emissary revealed recently on Warhammer Community, which presumably explains why its description is so oblique – the book was coming out before the reveal happened.

Many of you are probably thinking “So what?” In a way it’s nice to have this thing try and be a real book that lives on its own terms, rather than being an explicit sales pitch for each and every model in its accompanying box; there’s nothing here comparable to the infamous paragraph from Dark Imperium which laboriously describes the exact armour and equipment of an Inceptor Squad. It also makes this quite a weird thing to read, however. From a practical point of view, much of the action involving Ultramarines feels odd and weightless. The heaviest weapon on offer is the “promethium rifle,” which is a slightly stronger flamer; most characters get by with just bolt pistols and combat knives. The lore isn’t the game, of course, but it feels off-kilter for the Marines to be fighting – and winning! – against the heavyweight Tyranids with what are essentially sidearms. In one scene, Baraca simply grabs a Tyranid by the head and bashes it into the ground repeatedly until it dies; the book isn’t very good at giving a sense of scale here, and I can’t tell whether it’s meant to be a Trygon or a Ravener, but either way we’re talking about what is meant to be a fairly tough combat bug being beaten trivially by a Marine with no weapons at all. Captain Karpova – a regular human – kills the Neurotyrant with her sword, which doesn’t even appear to be powered. The thing is taking a lot of fire, but not from anything heavier than a lasgun.

It’s all just very limp, and narratively dissonant. The Tyranids in general are an overwhelming threat, and the big bugs bowl through Marines with ease, right up until they hit one of the viewpoint characters where they are immediately overcome by little more than bolt pistols. It’s baffling, because it didn’t have to be this way. Right there in the box you have Terminators and Sternguard. A few power fists, bolt rifles powerful enough to have DEVASTATING WOUNDS in-game, a Terminator Captain – their mere inclusion ups the firepower of the Marines considerably, and would have added considerable weight to the action scenes.

Beyond the practical, there’s also the oddity of the force disposition here and how it fits with the wider lore. We are very explicitly told that a “large part” of the Ultramarines First Company is here, and yet commanding them are two Lieutenants, one of whom spends the entire book in Phobos armour. The only squad we see on Regium is the Infernus Squad, which presumably is meant to be from the supporting elements of the Eighth or Ninth companies. Much of the Marine force is destroyed in space early on, of course, but the very bare description we get of them seems to suggest there’s a lot of Intercessors up there and not much else. The Incorruptible ought to be rammed to the gills with centuries-old veterans, irreplaceable suits of Terminator armour, relics of the Chapter now lost to the void or consumed by the Tyranid swarm. It’s a disaster beyond the immediate moment, with ramifications which will echo for decades afterwards; the Ultramarines have lost a substantial part of their overall Chapter strength in a nothing engagement against what was meant to be an easily-beaten enemy.

Absolutely none of this comes through in the book. The total destruction of whatever a “large part” of the First Company is meant to mean just passes us by; none of the remaining Marines so much as mention it being a big deal. The whole business is just strange and off-key; why be so specific about it being the First Company that’s present and then use none of the elements that that would suggest, especially when the product you’re writing the tie-in for does have those elements?

The Tyranid side is equally odd in this regard, because you’d think if there’s one thing this novel would be good for it would be showcasing the big bugs in the box and how cool they are with some nice setpiece fights; instead two out of three of them don’t even appear and the other is jobbed out to a Cadian Captain making one good stab, and the main Tyranid antagonist has to be barely described to conceal the fact that it’s actually something else from later in the release window.

It feels weird to be complaining that this book doesn’t have enough bolter porn, and that it doesn’t do enough to push a specific set of models in a box, and yet here I am doing it. I think the core of my issue with it is that the book doesn’t really do enough in any direction, and so the narrative elements don’t hang together. We get extremely zoomed-in and specific descriptions of Castamon, Abarim, and Vultis that leave you in no doubt that they are meant to be exactly the guys in the box, and then descriptions of Tyranids so vague that I’m genuinely uncertain what size they even are, never mind what models they’re meant to be. We’re told precisely which elements of the Ultramarines are present, but all the specific details are nonsensical, and the others are sketched so broadly as to be indecipherable; simultaneously we’re getting significant detail on the political goings-on of a one-shot planet that was created for this novel and is annihilated by the end of it.

Some of this might be forgivable if the book was doing something interesting or subversive, but storywise this is Black Library boilerplate linking together a series of action scenes, with the standard structure of flitting between a half-dozen different viewpoints to share the narrative load around. The action scenes aren’t even very good.

In the spirit of charity, I should make one comment here, which is that Hinks may well not have known all the details I’m complaining about above – I’m not privy to the brief he was given, but it’s possible that GW gave him very definite descriptions of 3-4 characters and nothing much on the rest, and he had to make do with what he had, though that doesn’t excuse some of the basic errors of background and feel or the weightlessness of the action.

Whoever the blame lays with, the end result is that this book a half-formed thing, neither much of a tie-in to the box it’s meant to sell nor a genuinely good novel that stands on its own merits. If you’re a completionist who can’t get enough of Black Library generally or Ultramarines specifically, well, it’s certainly pacy enough and you’ll fly through it quickly, though you should check out the Goonhammer Reads SF series to discover a world beyond licensed fiction. For everyone else, this is a skippable 5/10, a McDonald’s hamburger of a book – inoffensive but also insubstantial.