Thursday, 4 August 2011

The Killing Ground & Courage and Honour (book review)

Welcome to part 2. If you’ve only just started reading this then it would be best for you to go back and read the first part here. Mostly as sections such as the premise of the universe and writing style have already been covered there, they will not be repeated in this part.

Right, now that’s done for everyone else a few things you should know. There’s been a change of plans. From here on the Ultramarines series began to become intertwined with the Iron Warriors stories starring the villain of Dead Sky Black Sun: Warsmith Honsou. Most of these were short stories but they all link into the Ultramarines novels in some way and lead to the concluding book: Chapter’s Due. I had initially planned to give quick explanations of each story but it was recently announced that Iron Warriors is being released as an omnibus.
As a result of this Chapter’s Due will be reviewed independently once the Iron Warriors omnibus has been released and reviewed. It caps off both series thus far and serves as a conclusion to their events so expect that some time in the future.

And now on with your scheduled book review:


Following directly on from the events of Dead Sky Black Sun, with our protagonists managing to escape from the Eye of Terror via a very unconventional means. They soon come to realise that while the planet they are on is under Imperial control, not all is right with Salinas. Mysterious haunting figures have been hunting down individuals who were once part of the military force which subjugated the plant and the entire populace is on the verge of open rebellion.
If this wasn’t bad enough something else followed them back from the Eye of Terror, something which is quickly falling under the thrall of a vengeful force on the planet. Surrounded on all sides by hostile forces and questioning their own purity after having escaped from the realm of the damned, Uriel and Pasanius find themselves in an increasingly desperate struggle to return home.
The Killing Ground is an oddity as it doesn’t feel like a space marine story. It takes place away from any major warzones, the fights are extremely small scale and overall it feels like it would have been much better suited for human characters. Rather than a threat which threatens entire planets the ‘villain’ of the book turns out to be very minor in comparison to Tyranids or Chaos Space Marines. It only has a small amount of power, isn’t an iconic threat worthy of the Ultramarines and most of the story focuses upon a plot to figure out who it is. At its core it’s a murder mystery crossed with a ghost story, and it’s not even that good a one.
The reasons for why there are violently vengeful things haunting the night feels underwhelming in a universe of daemons and psychics. There’s nothing truly supernatural involved and while what triggered the haunting is horrifying it feels like there should have been something more to it.
In addition to this the actual “mystery” is all but completely explained very early on and becomes quite predictable. The only part which might have caused any tension is given away not long after its introduced and feels like it shouldn’t be there. During the first daemonic invasion, the imperial forces fighting the daemons were massacred and a specialist group was called in to deal with the infestation. This same group suddenly turns up the instant something appears to be going wrong.
As this is a backwards world which is of no strategic importance and has had only one daemonic incursion, you’d expect an inquisitor to show up. Perhaps even a few acolytes who were kept on the world to monitor it and keep an eye on things. Instead an entire detachment of Grey Knights, elite daemon hunting space marines, show up at the first sign of trouble. For comparison would be like SEAL Team 6 being deployed in a location where there were slight hints of terrorist activity. The only reason they are present in the book at all is so McNeill can quickly resolve issues from Dead Sky Black Sun and move on. Actually, that’s this whole book in a nut shell. It only exists to solve the problems with the ending to the previous instalment.
Dead Sky Black Sun ended with McNeill having written himself into a corner. He had the protagonists heroically escaping the Eye of Terror in glory, but trying to follow on from that novel would have been next to impossible for anyone. It’s this series equivalent of Back To the Future Part II, an entire instalment which is trying to deal with plot elements forced upon it by the first book and because of that it suffers badly.
So, does The Killing Ground do anything right? Yes and no.
Despite having the above problems there are still a few gems in here. A lot of good ideas such as the history behind Salinas are brought up and it displays a lot of the flaws within how the Imperium works, as well as how easily even its minor military leaders can get away with abusing power. The infrastructure of the world is an interesting setting and despite the lack of mystery within the plot McNeill does a good job at building up the book’s atmosphere. A mixture of details about the planet and seeing its internal struggle through the eyes of multiple characters builds up tension which makes the book interesting enough to read until the end.
The Grey Knights, while being presented as much more human and friendlier than their usual selves, are at least recognisably Grey Knights. Having been created before Matt Ward’s abomination of a codex they are extremely hard-line against its use and are very clearly puritans. They do not turn up using daemon weapons, perform Khornate rituals out of the blood of faithful imperial servants and are so superpowered they bring down the book’s villain without breaking a sweat. Or pilot Dreadknights.

Yes, these exist. And they're only slightly less ridiculous than this image. 

If you can get the next two books separately then don’t bother with this one. It’s the weakest in the series and if you skip it you only miss some attempt at closure from Dead Sky Black Sun and some very subtle character changes in Uriel. Character changes which are much better displayed in the next novel anyway.

One final thing to comment upon though is the artwork for the cover. While there is usually no point in commenting upon them The Killing Ground's cover features the only detailed image there is of Pasanius. Previously he was either missing from the covers or in the background, and this helps to empahsise upon the character's size as well as show us his face.

After the last two instalments, Courage and Honour is very much a back to basics story. It goes back to the plot of the first two novels with the Ultramarines fourth company being called to a world in order to help defend it from an attack. While there is some baggage carried over from the events of the last few books, it doesn’t interfere with events and serves mainly for character development.
The tales this time focuses upon the Ultramarines returning to Pavonis as it is being rebuilt and remains under heavy guard by Imperial forces since the events in Nightbringer. The expansionist Tau are beginning to set their sights upon the planet and are moving in using tactical strikes to weaken the planet’s defences. With the invading force taking a secret foothold onto the world, Uriel is forced to contend with not only the aliens but even resentment from some members of his own company.
As the Ultramarines fight to hold the world against an ever growing force of Tau, Uriel is forced to turn to methods which he previously opposed entirely in order to emerge victorious.
The most characterising element of each book in this series has constantly been the enemies which the Ultramarines have fought. This novel is no different as the Tau are something utterly different from the Eldar, Tyranids, Chaos or ghosts. They are in many senses one of the very few decent races in Warhammer and are commonly regarded as being the faction with the highest morality. Though considering this is a universe populated by races that would shoot you in the face and then feed your soul to their gods as soon as they see you, that’s not saying much.
Their ultimate goal is to unite the entire galaxy under one banner, prevent wars and create general unity for the Greater Good. Feel free to make your own Hot Fuzz joke at that, they're all good.
This makes them unique as they’re not trying to kill everyone not like them but instead make them like themselves. Make them follow their own ideology and willingly join their empire. They’re not good, fluff suggests that they’re closer to being an Orwellian state rather than Star Trek’s Federation, but again they’re not trying to serve some dark god or mass murder everyone. In 40K that’s enough to make anyone think your reasonable. Governors listen to the Tau envoys, see aliens who do not match humanity’s extreme xenophobic views and seem to be living better lives than them, and then consider what the Imperium has done for them. For many worlds, such as Pavonis, they are so heavily taxed with tithes that they are being crippled by the Imperium.
This allows for some sudden changes in loyalty and makes the traitors who appear in this book much more sympathetic than say, the villain of Nightbringer who was acting purely to save his own skin.
For the first time in the series the Imperium is properly displayed as something which isn’t a benevolent force. McNeill uses the Tau to actually present how inept and uncaring the governing body of humanity is. Unlike The Killing Ground, this isn’t a single act by a single rogue colonel but by the administratum running the Imperium. Even when the book ends it notes that due to the actions of the traitors Pavonis will likely be stripped down to a fortress world and things will become even worse for its populace. While its defenders are shown to be good people, the readers are given the clear impression that the Imperium itself is a heartless empire of a billion worlds. Utterly willing to strip mine any one and make life hell for its population for any reason.
Speaking of humanity’s defenders, the actual conflict shown in this book is one of the best depictions of Imperial-Tau engagements in the Black Library.
When it comes to the Tau, most sources tend to show heavy bias either in favour or against them. Reducing any conflict to a one sided curb stomp. For example a major complaint of the Imperial Armour Taros Campaign is that the Imperial forces were written as morons. The Space Marines did almost nothing, the Imperial Commanders were ineffective in any strategies despite being specialists at desert warfare and the Tau were easily winning at every turn. On the other hand you had things like the Zeist Campaign (Matt Ward apparently hates Highlander fans) which presented the Tau as easily being beaten and being so bad at fighting they don’t stand a chance against the Imperials.
In Courage and Honour, both sides are presented as being intelligent and fairly evenly matched.
Both fight extremely intelligently and are given a chance to prove they’re compitent. The Tau need to win the war quickly due to their fleet not being large enough to engage in a prolonged war. The Imperial Guard have a much smaller force than the Tau, even with the help of Space Marines, and are constantly fighting to hold back the Tau in a stand on the planet’s capital. The Tau stealthily drop in and deal with the planet’s long range communications prior to their assault while the Imperials prove to be effective against the Tau in the use of their armoured contingents.
There’s no clear indication of one being instantly better than the other, and even when the Imperial Guard are being forced back, it’s largely due to their much smaller numbers than the Tau invasion force. The novel is essentially page upon page of pure warfare, but it’s well presented and well written pure warfare. Plus you’d be hard to find a Warhammer novel which does not do this.
Aside from the massive conflict one of the book’s strengths comes from some of its quieter scenes. For example there is one very good characterising moment involving Uriel which a lot of people seem to have forgotten. In the aftermath of Warriors of Ultramar, Learchus took command of the Fourth Company while Uriel was fulfilling his death oath. Learchus had been extremely critical of Uriel’s choices during that campaign and after the heavy casualties they took he essentially rebuilt the entire Fourth Company. They were more his soldiers than Uriel’s now and he had led them to a major victory against the Orks.
No one expected Uriel to return from the Eye of Terror, so naturally when he comes back there is a good deal of resentment and distrust from Learchus. A few of the scenes go some way to trying to correct some of the previous shortcomings of the earlier books. With Uriel admitting Learchus had been right to speak out against him, that in time the company would become his and sticking solidly to the codex thoughout the book.
It never goes quite so far as to admit Uriel had been wrong to so openly abandon the tactics within the Codex Astartes, but it goes some way to addressing the criticisms surrounding Uriel.
So, you know what’s good about the book, and now for what’s bad:
The first point is that the book drops two of its more likable characters. Pasanius is held in a holding cell due to hiding a form a xenos taint out of shame, something which had plagued him and been a major source of guilt though out the first omnibus. He’s entirely missing from this instalment and while this does allow for Learchus to get some much needed character development, removing one of the series’ best known characters for one novel was definitely a misstep.
Similarly Admiral Tiberus, while present, is shunted into a background role. Having been a major part of the space borne battles in the first two books he was again one of the better detailed characters and  sidelining him was a definite mistake. If anything the book could have benefitted from him performing hit and run attacks against the Tau fleet and trying to prevent them deploying more reinforcements.
McNeill tries to make up for this by introducing new ones into the company and expanding upon previously mentioned characters, but it just doesn’t work. Their lack of familiarity and defining character doesn’t make them stand out and aside from Learchus none of the previously existing marines are that memorable. You’d be lucky to look back and find someone who can remember that the company’s chaplain was in the first book.
In addition to this, the supposed plot focus upon the Ultramarines distrusting Uriel does not hold up for a moment. He’s already been proven to be pure by daemon hunting forces and tested for any taint, so readers already know this is going to amount to nothing.
What’s more is that the ending cliffhanger linking this book into the Iron Warriors series comes out of nowhere. It’s simply confusing to no one who read the book and is touched upon so fleetingly that it feels very jarring. Not leaving the reader with eagerness to learn what happened or to go out and buy the next book, but with outright confusion.
If you’ve enjoyed the series so far you’re going to enjoy this one. If you want to see the Tau presented competently but not as invincible death machines then this is a good book for you. It’s well worth buying and gives some of the best insights into them since Gav Thrope’s Kill Team.


One book is bad and the other is good but lacks some of the strengths of the first three. The Killing Ground isn’t worth getting unless you’re a completionist but I would suggest getting Courage and Honour for the reasons listed above. If you’re trying to get into the Ultramarines series though, you’ll quickly find yourself lost with these books. Go back and get the omnibus or just read a few extracts to see if you like McNeill’s style.


Warhammer 40,000 and all related characters and media are owned by Games Workshop and Black Library.

Images taken from and one website-which-must-not-be-named.

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