Ah the Soul Drinkers, how you’ve come to be loved and hated by all.
If you’ve never heard of it it’s a saga focusing upon how a space marine Chapter can fall from the Imperium but not to Chaos. Focusing upon its struggles once most of its infrastructure is gone and how easily manipulated such a force might be. Both by Chaos and the Imperium itself, showing humanity’s leaders to be their own worst enemy at many times.
Go onto any 40K internet forum and ask about the Soul Drinkers saga and you'll probably know that opinions on it are severely divided. Some people consider it to be defiling the most basic canon of Warhammer 40K while others think it's a decent series which tried to do something new. Some people think the books are best when they're straight up bolter-porn, others that the ides present within the series are what give it its most strength.
While I’ll agree it’s an extremely flawed series, the most common criticism brought up surrounds their departure from the Imperium. Something which, at least in some aspects, actually has a justifiable excuse which can be found within the pages of the novel. At least when you put some thought into it.
Departure and Sarpedon
For those not in the know here’s a quick run-down of the key events of the first novel: The Administratum manipulates two of the Soul Drinkers’ companies into raiding a rogue Star Fort by leaking information that the chosen weapon of Rogal Dorn, thought long lost, has been located there amongst a collection of artefacts.
Once the Soul Drinkers clear the Fortress of all foes, the Mechanicum contingent accompanying the Administratum fleet teleports in and steals the weapon (the soul spear) from the space marines at gunpoint. The Soul Drinkers demand its return in exchange for the Fort, but the Mechanicum use a loophole in their treaty with the Imperium to keep hold of it. They then try to finish their mission by laying siege to the Fort in an effort to force the Soul Drinkers to leave empty handed. This fails, with the Soul Drinkers successfully disabling the attacking forces with minimal casualties and escape.
During this time Librarian Sarpedon, now acting-captain after the death of the detachment’s Force Commander, is constantly listening to a priest who claims to represent an aspect of the Emperor. One known as the “Architect of Fate”.
Eventually after months of running battles the Inquisition is sent in to deal with the matter. Seeing only a space marine chapter attacking another Imperial institution, not caring or knowing the reasons why, they demand the Soul Drinkers surrender themselves. When the Soul Drinkers refuse, knowing that the Inquisition will likely attempt to torture them into confession and ignore any argument for their side of the matter, the Inquisitor in control immediately declares them excommunicate traitoris.
Before the battle can escalate further, the entire Soul Drinkers fleet arrives and assists Sarpedon’s forces in escaping; but they find little welcome in the Chapter.
Chapter Master Gorgoleon challenges Sarpedon to an honour duel. Knowing that the Inquisition might be sated and eventually allow them to rejoin the Imperium if the heads of those who turned on them are offered up. Sarpedon notes, in private to those loyal to him, that changes have been undergoing his body and he feels stronger and far less fatigued than he should have been after their months of flight. These changes would eventually become evident when, while using his full psychic power to face Gorgoleon, his body split open to reveal masses of mutations in the form of arachnid legs.
Those who saw the mutation manifesting inexplicably believe it was a gift from the Emperor while those who did not saw Sarpedon as corrupt. As more mutations broke out amongst their ranks, a minor Chapter war ensued as those who tried to oppose Sarpedon were purged.
In the book’s closing chapters it would be revealed that Abraxes, a daemon prince of Tzeentch, had manipulated the entire chapter into turning on the Imperium. Likely, in part through the actions of the Imperium itself but prominently through blinding the Soul Drinkers to their obvious corruption. When it lifted this haze to try and completely corrupt them, Sarpedon and his allies turned upon the daemon and drove it back into the Warp.
One thing the book makes repeatedly clear is that Sarpedon is a telepath, one who can broadcast thoughts and illusions but not receive thoughts by dragging them out of the minds of others. His power repeatedly manifests as something called “The Hell” which has him alter the perspective of those he targets into terrifying images. Turning their entire environment, everything they hear, smell or see, into the thing they most fear and despise in order to demoralise them. It, in effect, completely changes their perception on what they see and alters their senses to the degree that they hallucinate or see something in an entirely different light.
While the power was usually used based upon Sarpedon’s will, a few times had it manifest without him directly thinking or focusing consciously upon what they might fear.
Why he was key to their downfall
I think that Sarpedon was key to their downfall because of his power and he was key in completely corrupting the chapter.
Think about the events listed above and consider the facts we know:
He was constantly in the presence of a priest speaking of the Architect of Fate. Who was actually being nudged by Abraxes to have certain dreams and thoughts so they could carry outs its will.
He was thoroughly disillusioned with the Imperium after it had effectively stabbed him in the back at its highest levels and had begun to doubt its benevolence.
He was the first to mutate and thus the most physically corrupt of the Soul Drinkers, Thus we can conclude that Abraxes’ influence was most heavy upon him.
And finally, almost the entire chapter was watching him in the duel with Gordoleon and saw him using his full psychic potential. Those who were watching did not see any corruption or doubt his direction for the Chapter after this. Those who did not saw only a mutated heretic still and tried to oppose him. Furthermore, also consider that those who were with him on the Star Fort were in close proximity to him when he was consciously using his power very early on into the book on multiple occasions.
And finally when Abraxes reveals he pulled the wool over their eyes it is speaking directly to Sapredon. It is from Sapredon’s perspective we see him reacting in horror when it retracts its influence. Questioning how he could be so blind to so many obvious suggestions or outright displays of heresy.
From these I think that Abraxes was using Sarpedon as a focus point for its corruption of the Chapter through his power. First using one of its several cults to coerce Sarpedon into thinking along the lines it needed and open him up to its influence, then corrupting the Librarian’s body. Then in turn using his powers to alter the perceptions of others to make them blind to obvious signs of corruption such as the mutations. We know that Tzeentch is the god of sorcery and its greatest servants display great mental powers. It’s hardly implausible to consider that Abraxes might have controlled his powers to some degree by working through the corruption of his body. As noted above, sometimes his abilities seemed to instinctively know which images or fears to act upon without him directly willing them. Suggesting that there was another influencing him in some way.
It was after all only Sarpedon who Abraxes spoke to directly in their final encounter. Also as noted above, and in reading their talk we see that the daemon had been paying great attention to the Soul Drinkers’ leader in particular. Given what we know of mental control and suggestion from even human characters in this setting, we could also consider that the daemon used a form of brainwashing upon Sarpedon through his contact with its cult. The ideas present acting like a contagion, spreading with prolonged contact with those already under the daemon’s sway. First influencing Sarpedon and then later on the rest of his followers as they interacted with him more and more until they were similarly corrupt. Then using his initial mutation to spread that influence in one go throughout almost the entire chapter during the duel when he unleashed the Hell.
Another alternative is that Sarpedon’s growth in power following his corruption could have led to his abilities working in far more subtle ways. Unconsciously Sarpedon could have been using his powers on much less obvious levels to influence how others perceived him and his decisions. This would go some way into explaining how some of the figures who followed and spoke with him in the later books, despite realising what he was, acted almost amiably towards him while those with considerable psychic resistance or training did not.
This goes give some reasoning behind some of the more dubious and less consistent writing within the series. Also as to why they kept following Sarpedon despite several failings on his part as their leader and the varying degrees in which characters seemed to react to the renegades. Not to mention why so many of the Soul Drinkers seemed to retain his ideals for so long when, even by Ben Counter’s own words, they were going to eventually doom the Chapter to extinction. Does this excuse everything they did? Hardly, there are still flaws in the books which cannot be brushed aside by this theory and it only goes some way to excusing the apparent idiot plot in the opening novel.
I would be interested to hear the thoughts of those who have similarly read the books and for their own thoughts on its flaws or the apparent blindness of the characters in Soul Drinker. If you think the theory serves no purpose and the series is good enough on its own, you have your own ideas, or you think the series doesn’t deserve such excuses please leave comments below. I would be genuinely interested to hear your thoughts.
Warhammer 40,000 and all related characters and media are owned by Games Workshop and Black Library.
Warhammer 40,000 and all related characters and media are owned by Games Workshop and Black Library.