Few other franchises have existed for so long and have gone so unnoticed by the general public. To most it’s known as just a glorified toy company who ate up much of their income when their kids begged to start playing.
To many others it’s an increasingly overpriced hobby which has gone wrong in recent years thanks to mismanagement. With Games Workshop repeatedly infuriating and driving away their niche audience, making bad business decisions and is apparently in a prolonged state of suicide.
The fact they let one of the worst writers ever to have spat out ideas onto paper, Matt Ward, keep butchering armies and turning the game into a self-parody hardly helps. Though that is a review for another time.
This review is of one of the better bits of lore in the game and one of the best places to help enter the universe. This is a review of Graham McNeill’s Ultramarines omnibus.
This book is a combined tome of the first three novels in the long running Ultramarines series: Nightbringer, Warriors of Ultramar, Dead Sky Black Sun. The story covers the campaigns of the fourth company of Games Workshop’s flagship space marine chapter.
The space marines (whose proper name is the Adeptus Astartes) are crusading knights. Genetically enhanced super humans tasked with keeping humanity’s empire safe from ancient horrors, hostile aliens and the legions of hell. Yes, you read that correctly; this is a science fiction universe with aliens and
demons daemons existing side by side. And astoundingly they fit together perfectly.
This covers the two initial campaigns under the command of a newly promoted captain Uriel Ventris. With the third dealing with the repercussions of the second campaign and tying into another of McNeill’s books: Storm of Iron. While not necessary I would strongly recommend hunting down this one before you begin the third novel of the omnibus, Dead Sky Black Sun. It gives great significance to the villain and the third novel was at least partially intended to serve as closure for the outcome of that book.
The fact it’s a classic of the franchise and has some fantastically gritty futuristic siege warfare is entirely coincidental.
The short story Chains of Command which records the death of captain Invictus, Ventris’ predecessor, is also in the omnibus. Inserted just before the first novel and just after the ever enjoyable introduction given by McNeill and where he shares his thoughts on the series.
Style and storytelling
The series is written from a third person perspective and covers a large number of characters in each installment. While it follows Ventris closely along with sergeants Pasanius and Learchus there are always a sizeable number of characters introduced from the local military units and populace.
This sounds like exactly the sort of thing every author does at first until you realise that the vast majority of the characters will at most meet one another fleetingly. It’s exceptionally rare that they even know one another’s name or faces.
They tend to be sharp contrasts of one another as much as they are the Space Marines.
Nightbringer has a supporting cast of politicians, civilians and arbites. The latter are hard bitten space cops who are not so much police as SAS commandos with a small fortress. They’re one chin away from patrolling Mega-City One.
Warriors of Ultramar expanded to more varied groups such as a criminal gang, a sister hospitallier (nurse), and a squadron of fighter pilots.
Dead Sky Black Sun was more supported by its colourful villains than protagonists. Saying any more would be spoiling the whole thing.
The first thing this does is it widens the range of perspectives in the story. If these tales were purely focused upon the Ultramarines themselves, super soldiers who quite literally know no fear, they would run the risk of becoming dull and repetitive. Adding normal humans caught in the middle of a hellish war gives the story a more personal impact.
The second is that it gives a real sense of scale behind the conflicts. With the characters so widely dispersed throughout the locations of each novel, they are almost always involved in a different part of the same war. This is done especially well during Warriors of Ultramar’s slow war of attrition as opposed to the lightning fast explosions of violence which make up the other two stories.
These are punctuated by occasional exposition which comment upon secondary aspects in the wars the Ultramarines are involved in. While these are few and far between they fit well with the wide scope of events. Not all of them are good, and at least one will have your jaw dropping at how cheap a cop out it is.
As a 40K novel, Nightbringer is relatively self contained. It lacks anything major which would require any further research to understand what is taking place.
The Ultramarines fourth company is called away from their home planet of Macragge to help defend Panovis and its neighboring worlds. Civil strife leads to riots in the streets and alien pirates known as the Dark Eldar frequently launch raids upon the local shipping lanes.
Yet not all is as it seems and the Ultramarines are soon in a race against time to stop a madman before he releases a creature which once wiped out almost all sentient life in the galaxy.
In many respects this is the epitome of Warhammer novels.
It features behind the scenes cloak and dagger conspiracies. Furious battles and violent back stabbings by the human characters. An unknown horror which will soon be unleashed upon the galaxy and will be the downfall of millions of worlds. Aliens picking off the humans and easily running rings around most Imperial warships. It’s ultimately the best small scale representation of the 41st millennium you could ask for short of having a full scale war and aspects of the Horus Heresy. Both of which thankfully appear in the next two novels.
Fans of Warhammer will already have guessed what the true threat is but this novel was written at a time when the C’Tan was not cemented into 40K’s lore. As such this was the first place in which the Nightbringer appeared.
For anyone who doesn’t know what it is, the concluding fight between Uriel and the ancient unknown horror ends up looking like this:
The sheer impact of this one fight is one more reason why I think the novel is so good at representing the 41st millennium to new people. Many Space Marines, Uriel included, will have to face such horrors dozens of times over in battle.
They are outgunned, have next to no way to achieve total victory, but always have to find a way to beat back each threat any way they can.
Often, even with their great strength, the all they can do is stave off humanity’s extinction for a little while longer. And ultimately, for better and worse, that is we see happen in Nightbringer’s conclusion.
The second novel of the series is mostly detached from the first. While it does carry over certain aspects of the first and mentions moments from the previous novel it is mostly a self contained story.
The key difference is that the villains in Nightbringer were a smaller threat. They consisted of alien torture frenzied space pirates and an ancient unknown horror which was being released. While very dangerous the enemies were mostly small in number and the conflict felt like a series of skirmishes.
Warriors of Ultramar abandons all that and throws its heroes into a full scale war.
The Ultramarines discover that a Tyranid hive fleet, a swarm of planet eating giant space locusts, is heading for a world. A heavily populated planet known as Tarsis Ultra which the protagonists have a oath to protect.
There’s no big conspiracy, no big special horror which makes this battle unique. It’s like hundreds being fought across the entire Imperium each day. But McNeill writes it exceptionally well and his storytelling style gives some real scale to what is taking place.
McNeill shows every stage of the fight against the Tyranids. From preparation for the conflict massive fleet battles to traps to multiple full scale ground battles between both sides. It’s a long, blood soaked and conflict which grinds down both sides and is shown through multiple eyes from the soldiers to people far away from the frontlines.
There’s also much more conflict amongst the heroes.
The Ultramarines fight along side Space Marines of another chapter, the Mortifactors, and the two have a barely restrained hatred of one another. Things are hardly helped with the Inquisition, humanity’s secret police, bombing the people the Ultramarines are sworn to defend in scorched earth tactics.
Compared to Nightbringer this requires a bit more additional reading to understand some aspects of the story. On the whole however it builds upon the previous novel. Expanding upon aspects of the universe well and helping the reader to comprehend on just how thin a knife-edge humanity stands. Giving further attention to the fact that even when the Imperium does win, the victories are horrifyingly pyrrhic.
This is the series’ first installment which isn’t self contained in any way.
As noted before this follows on from another book, Storm of Iron, and I again urge anyone to it first before starting on this novel. Several major spoilers are dropped one after another as almost the entirety of that book's plot is given away on the first pages. Many aspects of the plot cannot be described without ruining Storm of Iron’s conclusion.
The novel also followed directly on from the defeat of the Tyranids and contains a great many spoilers about the ending to that book as well. So only the bare basics of the plot can be told without simultaniously ruining two previous novels for everyone.
Uriel and Pasanius find themselves behind enemy lines. They are cut off from allies, on a suicidal mission and are in the worst place imaginable: the Eye of Terror. The place where the hell of the Warp bleeds through into reality. They are surrounded by traitor Space Marines of the Iron Warriors legion, on an infernal world infested with daemons and no hope of survival.
Dead Sky Black Sun is possibly the strongest novel of the omnibus but it’s also the most flawed. It does introduce Chaos Space Marines and daemons, an essential part of the setting. But does not go far enough to explain either. People new to the franchise will very quickly find themselves entirely lost. The piratical Dark Eldar and locust horde of the Tyranids are easy enough to follow, but Chaos is something vastly more complex. It would be best for newcommers to at least look up the articles on Chaos and the Eye of Terror on wh40k.lexicanum.com.
Along with leaving people unfamiliar with the universe confused at the new enemy, McNeill’s storytelling style is also abandoned here. He no longer uses widely dispersed characters, and this is both a good and a bad thing. It’s bad because it doesn’t allow a contrast between the Space Marines and more human characters. It’s good because it allows for the villains of the story to be more fleshed out and the battle is on a much smaller scale. It’s a quest rather than a war, and due to the enemy the protagonists are facing this change thankfully doesn’t feel like a step down.
The presence of the traitors and renegades is used as a stark contrast against the protagonists, showing how far noble defenders of humanity can fall. And showing what they could become if they are allowed to be corrupted by Chaos. Something which could happen all too easily in the Eye of Terror.
Flaws and strengths
The main flaw of the series should be obvious to anyone whose heard the opinions of fans: Captain Uriel Ventris. Throughout the series he is shown to make bad decisions for the right reasons, work against traditional combat doctrines and is “too human”. That last one is especially true due to the grim dark nature of Warhammer and against many characters he comes off as being naïve.
There are good reasons for these aspects of his character. Based upon how the series develops, it’s clear Uriel was intended to grow with each experience. But an explanation would be better left for a character study.
The fact the Codex Astartes, essentially the Ultramarines’ version of Sun Tzu’s Art of War is treated as a hindrance to be ignored has also been received badly. A lot of Ultramarines fans saw this as McNeill presenting the chapter as being too entrenched in the past and using predictable tactics. This is something which will be commented upon more as the rest of the series is covered, but for the omnibus this was not a good way to introduce the Codex to new readers.
The sudden jump in required knowledge of Warhammer between Warriors of Ultramar and Dead Sky Black Sun was jarring. It’s off putting to new readers to the franchise and the fact it tied into another book which is not included in this omnibus did not help. Nor did the fact Storm of Iron was no longer available at the time of the omnibus’ release.
In addition to this the simplicity of the books means they don’t have too much to offer long time fans of the franchise. They’re well written, exciting and develop well but only a few entries in the series offer anything new. Meaning that it might be overshadowed by things like the Horus Heresy or Soul Drinkers saga.
The strengths are obvious: the use of characters to describe wars and how the first two novels ease new people into a continuity heavy franchise. McNeill’s quick details of fights fit perfectly with the fast pace of his battles. As do the small comments given to background characters which helps to give the walking corpses more substance. For example many of the characters in Dead Sky Black Sun were clearly not going to survive or given time to develop. But McNeill gave enough details to their physical presence and personality for their deaths to have meaning.
The Ultramarines omnibus is flawed but good at its core. It’s a worthwhile read which is perfect for new people and does sometimes include bits which experienced fans will enjoy. There are definitely better written series out there, but for overall this is a well rounded collection. Save for some long time Ultramarines fans there won’t be anyone spitting bile at McNeill for what he’s published here.
If you want a simple start to Warhammer, or just Black Library’s works, then this is one of the better options. Don’t expect to see anything truly groundbreaking at first, but give it a chance and it might surprise you.
The next three novels of the series will be covered during August in the run up to the release of the Space Marine video game in early September. Expect something special to be covered along with it:
Warhammer 40,000 and all related characters and media are owned by Games Workshop and Black Library.
Images taken from wh40k.lexicanum.com
The artwork for Nightbringer vs Uriel is owned by Morganagod, and has been used with the artist's permission.