Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Chapter's Due (Book Review)

And so we're at the end at last, starting from the beginning, looking through previous novels and even its spin-off series we've covered all of it. We're at the conclusion at last and it has been well worth the wait.
If there’s one thing which needs to be said about The Chapter’s Due, it’s that everything which takes place is on a grand scale. Right from the introductory chapter you’re made aware of just how high the stakes are and just how dangerous the foe the Ultramarines face is.
After spending his own series rebuilding his forces and preparing for the assault, Warsmith Honsou launches an all-out assault upon the home system of the Ultramarines: Ultramar. His opening attack completely devastates one of its worlds within hours and helps properly introduce the powerful ally he has gained: the daemon prince M’Kar. Honsou is utterly hell-bent on destroying Ultramar in the name of revenge against Uriel for his actions in Dead Sky Black Sun, and he easily has the power to do this. His forces outnumber the Ultramarines fifteen to one, he has an entire star fortress to use as his flagship, in depth knowledge of the codex tactics the Ultramarines favour and knows exactly how to bypass their best defences. Worse still, unlike many other Chaos warbands, his forces are both loyal to him and united in their desire to destroy Ultramar; removing the one major weakness the forces of the Imperium could exploit.
The scale and value of the book’s conflict is both its biggest strength and its biggest weakness. On the one hand while we were told the other worlds in the series were Imperial worlds, none of them were paramount to its survival. Tarsis Ultra and Panovis were both worlds the Ultramarines were honourbound to protect and while they might have been needed for nearby systems, their loss wouldn’t be a blow which would resonate throughout the whole imperium. Ultramar however, would be. As both one of the best defended locations outside the Cadian Gate and home to a First Founding chapter, its loss would be a sign of humanity’s growing weakness and inability to combat its foes. As Guilliman’s gene-seed is one of the most stable and the most commonly used for new foundings, losing the Ultramarines’ recruiting worlds would have disastrous consequences for the creation of new chapters.
To make matters worse, unlike other books this is set at the very end of the 41st millennium when the established timeline effectively ends. Meaning that if Ultramar was to be destroyed it would not contradict any previous events, leaving the possibility open for failure or a truly pyrrhic victory.
So why is it also its biggest weakness? The characters who are involved and the size of the conflict. Even spreading out the chapter’s heroes across multiple battlefields, the books simply wasn’t large enough to cover the whole war. Some conflicts either had to be completely glossed over or left to audiobooks like Eye of Vengeance, reducing them to a few pages of descriptions. The way their written does give the impression of a huge battle which fits in with what we’re seeing elsewhere, but it’s really a case of telling and not showing at times.
As for the characters; many of the important Ultramarines we see here are ones who’ve either never shown up before or have only featured in brief cameo appearances.  Chapter Master Calgar, who plays one of the most prominent roles in the whole thing, only made brief appearances during a couple of previous books. Others like Sicarius we’ve not seen at all in the past. The reason for this is because most of the older series tried to avoid featuring such major characters and left events to ones of the author’s own creation. I don’t know the exact reason for this but it was likely to be one of two things –
The first possibility is this was to maintain the seemingly legendary status of the characters and leaving them as the icons they were in the codexes.  The authors having far more creative freedom over their characters and the ability to show them on a far more human level without disrupting any outward presentation of power on the part of its best warriors.
The other, and more likely possibility, was to prevent future changes to the canon from causing problems. While, again until recently, new rulebooks and fluff tended to be loyal to their themes and source material they also tended to expand upon previous details. Either by including traditions, rituals or, usually the most problematic of all, new major characters. Keeping events close to the heart of the chapter tended to create massive problems in on-going series. One example of this is the Blood Angels saga which had author James Swallow being forced work his way around massive, usually very stupid, changes to the chapter’s background and act as if a lot of new characters had always been there.
With the final Ultramarines book being set on Ultramar, there was no real way to get around now having major characters included so there are a lot of key players who have not had prior appearances or characterisation in past books. In all fairness McNeill does write them very well and makes them feel genuinely human, a point I’ll get back to later on, but you can’t help but feel at least one previous novel should have helped to properly introduce them to the series. Giving them some establishing events or grounding prior to the massive war. When they show up in this it feels like they’re just “there” and you don’t feel quite the same connection as you do to the heroes of the fourth company. Their presence also causes the problem that they sometimes feel like they’re overshadowing Uriel; as while he does have a lot of the book’s focus placed upon his part in the conflict people like Calgar feel like they’re playing a much greater role in events. This isn’t helped by the books greater focus upon the villains.
Rather than just showing their named leaders enough to establish they’re the villains Tau in Courage and Honour, The Chapter’s Due spends a lot of time fleshing out its antagonists. Not so much Honsou or M’Kar but two who play a surprisingly large role in events – the Newborn and Ardaric Vaanes. In previous books, even during the Iron Warriors series, neither had that much time devoted to them. They were often just the henchmen and background characters. Here we actually get a lot of details given to their motivations for siding with Honsou, why they are traitors and some greater complexities to their personalities than you would expect. This is especially true of Vaanes, and while welcome it further marginalises the series’ main characters to the point where you can have problems remembering if they even did anything important after you’ve finished. Again it’s something which is as much a weakness as it is an asset to its tale.
One complaint which people have said in the past about the book is that it makes Chaos too powerful. That the Ultramarines are far too easily beaten back or have their security systems bypassed by the traitor marines, and the power of the Iron Warriors is boosted beyond credibility. This is something which always seems like an odd criticism to make for a number of reasons. The first is that the book makes it very clear that Honsou has spent a lot of time preparing for this, this isn’t some random group of traitors who have tried to single handily storm Ultramar. This is a horde of fifteen thousand Chaos space marines, supported by mercenaries, the Dark Mechanicus and all sorts of support troops – a force which eclipses even the largest loyalist chapters and is capable of taking hideous losses. Honsou himself has a further edge in his familiarity with the codex tactics, using it to predict how major counter attacks will be made and keep them “dancing to his tune” the exact sort of tactical genius he showed in Dead Sky Black Sun. And to top this all off the has an ace in the hole in the form of the Newborn, a creature which is shown to give him an edge no other invading force aside from the Word Bearers during the Horus Heresy ever had against Ultramar.
Now, even if you don’t buy into that consider something else: this is effectively a miniature Black Crusade. Ignoring all the jokes about “Abaddon loses 0-13 to Imperial Guard” these crusades are constantly hideously damaging even when the Imperium wins. Billions of Imperial Guard die each time, entire worlds burn, the Imperium is pushed to the very edge of defeat and assets which they might never be able to replace are lost. McNeill doesn’t suddenly make them capable of running rings around the Imperium, it’s simply dispelling the illusion of their incompetence. And honestly this dispelling of illusions behind the factions featured in it are what elevates it above the rest of the series, even more so with the Ultramarines themselves than Chaos.
The Chapter’s Due was first brought out in 2008, the same year as Warhammer 40,000’s fifth edition was introduced along with the new Codex: Space Marines. The previous two codexes had been written by several people; with Andy Chambers, Jervis Johnson & Gavin Thorpe writing the third edition codex and Pete Haines & Graham McNeill working on the fourth edition. This was always a good move to have as having several people working on a codex at once could, in most cases, prevent personal biases from coming too heavily into play and preventing anyone untested from having too much control. The fifth edition codex abandoned all this and gave it to one games designer: Matthew Ward. Someone who had been responsible in the same year for turning Daemons in fantasy into game breaking steamrollers who could walk through opposing armies with ease, and was involved in writing the background for the fifth edition rulebook in which he retconned almost all of the Sisters of Battle out of existence.
If this wasn’t enough to raise concerns an often quoted White Dwarf interview started to reveal incredibly heavy biases on his part:
"[The Ultramarines] are one of the hardest working chapters out there... The Ultramarines are the most focused, proficient, and tactically aware force in the galaxy..."
"The Ultramarines are undoubtedly the best Space Marines ever. Yes, really! Thanks to the heritage of Guilliman and their myriad heroic deeds, the Ultramarines are the exemplars of the Space Marines. With a few fringe exceptions... all Space Marine chapters want to be like the Ultramarines and recognize Marneus Calgar as their spiritual liege."
Believe it or not things only got worse from there. A ludicrous amount of the codex was devoted to the Ultramarines, or rather Ward’s warped bastardisation of them, claiming that all chapters worshipped Guilliman over their own primarchs, any who weren’t codex adherent were ineffective backwards fools and hyping the hell out of his favourite chapter. Inventing battles the Ultramarines won single handedly which supposedly were just as important as every other major imperial war. Even rewriting an Ultramarines loss into effectively a victory and devoting half the book purely to their “glory” and how much better they were than everyone else. One of the more infamous claims he made was that due to Toras Telion, one of Ward’s creations, was that “Ultramarines can boast the most skilled marksmen of any Space Marine Chapter” and also “even the rawest [Ultramarines] scout can achieve a level of expertise worthy of the most experienced Captain.”
To make matters worse, he started inventing flaws in other chapters to make them seem worse, like claiming the White Scars and Raven Guard had some massive distrust from one another and the previously genetically stable Salamanders suddenly gained very obvious, borderline racist, mutations. He even chose to start retconning chapters into being codex adherent such as the White Scars chapter. Every battle the Ultramarines fought was without assistance, with few casualties, massive feats like having Calgar slay an Eldar Avatar in single combat and never an outright loss. You can probably guess the space marine battles he listed were not quite so glorious for the other chapters. Then took things a step further and started to have his favouritism influence how he wrote other codexes such as having a passage crediting Guilliman for the Blood Angels’ survival and new leadership.
Now, this was a large diversion, and I do plan to review Ward’s bastardisations in depth someday, but you needed to understand how the fandom viewed the Ultramarines. That at the time of The Chapter’s Due’s release, the Ultramarines had devolved from by-the-book badasses into overhyped, badly written Mary Sues. Hated to the point where Ultramarines players were switching chapters, new players were believing that having an upturned omega symbol on your models made you better than everyone else, and the self-respecting remaining Ultras fans vocally decrying this nonsense. The Chapter’s Due wasn’t just an attempt to give a grand finale, it seemed to be a major attempt to return the Ultramarines to form, making them highly skilled but not completely wanked out invincible.
The Ultramarines in this book make mistakes. They take losses, they are pushed to the point where they almost lose and they are actually fallible. They win in spite of their flaws, in spite of being outgunned and with a real and obvious risk of losing to a stronger foe; not, as Ward’s ones would, casually stroll through Honsou’s army and crush him in five seconds. They don’t win single handily either, requiring help from the Inquisition, Mechanicus and a squad of Raven Guard to eventually win. Groups who, contrary to Ward’s portrayal, have skills which are beyond the capabilities of the Ultramarines in some areas. Even when the Ultramarines do win, it’s a bittersweet victory. Almost four companies worth of marines have been killed and several of Ultramar’s worlds are burning, but the chapter has the resources to recover. What is more is that it successfully drove the Chaos force out of their system, killing many of their leaders and completely destroying the daemon prince M’Kar – an act which is all but utterly impossible in 40k. Again, they’re good but they’re not completely invulnerable.
Best of all however, was the portrayal of the characters Ward turned into two dimensional jokes – especially Sicarius and M’Kar. Sicarius specifically was a briefly mentioned Ultramarines character introduced in the Medusa V campaign, helping to unite the space marine forces there and head after the Chaos forces on the planet. He needed more depth, but Ward’s distinct lack of skill turned him simply into a badly written figure with no personality nor anything which resembles a character. The only thing you learn about him every single time he’s brought up in the fifth edition book is that he’s supposedly better than everyone else. That he supposedly is capable of winning every victory, outdoing the Raven Guard at the very tactics they have spent millennia specialising in and refining to perfection and leads “the finest fighting unit in this (Ultramarines) or any other Space Marine chapter” – that’s all you learn about him. The Chapter’s Due gives him a personality befitting his level of skill: he’s an arrogant, self-confident risk-taker who seemingly buys into his own reputation of invincibility. He completely accepts a piece of propaganda boosting the Ultramarines’ reputation as truth until Calgar corrects him on it, resents Uriel for breaking the codex and when he performs a risky manoeuvre to attain victory he refuses to consider what would have happened if he had been wrong. It’s something which greatly helps to balance out his previous portrayal without retconning his victories out of existence.
M’Kar meanwhile is similarly a vast improvement over his presentation in the codex. This is again a character with no personality and a one note trait: he’s constantly used as a bitch for whoever Matt Ward needs to look stronger. Every time he’s turned up in a codex he has simply been used as a target to curb stomp by Calgar, Chief Librarian “I’m now corrupted because Ward says so” Mephiston, and Kaldor “monument which is all that’s wrong with 5th edition Warhammer” Draigo. Most of the fandom as a result looked at him as an utter joke, but McNeill actually manages to make him threatening in this book. One of the victories against M’Kar is actually noted to be a fabrication used as propaganda, with the Ultramarines being unable to overcome the daemon and instead were forced to imprison him. Some of the victories against the daemon prince are suggested to be lies produced by the Imperium’s propaganda. When he appears in person, he’s displayed to have considerable power – summoning vast hordes of daemons to completely overrun entire cities and manages to come within inches of slaughtering Calgar and the chapter’s greatest warriors.
This is true of many of Ward’s characters who show up in this book, they’ve given flaws, they’re given character, they’re actually written by someone who understands how to write something good.
So that’s The Chapter’s Due, when taking into account only what is seen in the novel it is a good read, definitely amongst the best in the series. When taking into account the attempt to correct the atrocious writings of the current codexes is becomes far better, a sign that there are writers who do want to maintain the quality of writing we saw in the fourth edition. Is it the best of the Ultramarines novels? No. While it is definitely one of the best there are one or two better such as Warriors of Ultramar, but if you are a fan or have been disappointed by the direction Warhammer has taken this is strongly recommended. It’s a fine send off to the Ultramarines series and while not a finale in the same sense as Phalanx was to the Soul Drinkers, that can be overlooked by the attempt to preserve what the space marines truly are.


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