This book isn’t that good. While not the worst thing Black Library has ever published it has very distinct problems in pacing, direction and general logic.
Set in the dying days of the forty-first millennium (no change there) the Soul Drinkers are active throughout the Imperium. A fleet based chapter with a glorious history, their acts have been well documented and their deeds remembered. From the dark days of the Second Founding to helping end the mad reign of Goge Vandire, they have fought to defend humanity from the horrors both within and without.
Yet for the first time in thousands of years they find themselves with an opportunity to regain that which was lost.
The Soul Spear, prized weapon of Rogal Dorn himself has been uncovered on a rogue star fortress among a collection of relics. Racing to take back this artifact of a bygone age, the Soul Drinkers do not realise that they are being easily manipulated for greater goals…
The crux of the problem here is in the introduction. You know the Soul Drinkers are being manipulated right from the start and it’s increasingly clear that it’s not by natural forces. This eventually reaches the point where the words “THIS IS A TRAP” might as well be floating over their heads or carved into their skin. While some ignorance might have been acceptable due to distractions and what we learn later on it definitely could have been better handled.
Up to the point where Sarpedon, the Librarian protagonist, duels their Chapter Master their actions are just about believable. After they start gaining mutations, calling them blessings of the Emperor, and perform actions like blowing up their fleet it’s much harder to accept. This isn’t helped by many of the often mind-numbingly bland characters.
The cast needed to either show aspects which could be latched onto for Chaos to influence them or sympathetic personalities. Ones diverse or varied enough to keep interest amongst the marines, but we don’t really have either here. While Luko, Lygris, Graevus and Tellos work well others like Pallas, Sarpedon, Givrillian and others do not. This is especially problematic as many require you to care about them or at least appreciate what they are saying, especially in Sarpedon’s case. He’s written some sort of warrior philosopher you’re never given a real reason to care about him or want him to succeed. While his actual decisions, fights and thoughts might be interesting he lacks that edge to make him truly interesting. Unfortunately many of the non-astartes secondary characters are no better, either seeming very bland or come across as blanks. The captains of the ships, Arch Magos Khobotov and the minor sects worshipping the Architect of Fate all lack any real attachment. Some have aspects which should work but they aren’t pushed far enough.
The problem with the limited characterisation is that Counter tends to give every character a history. While this can help to make the universe feel bigger, it tends to bog down the narrative and doesn’t really add to them. Worse still, the same thing goes the same way for the Soul Drinkers chapter itself. The army was retconned into being a creation of the Second Founding, specialises in boarding actions and has a unique doctrine they follow. For all this nothing is really given to set them apart from any other force. Had this been intentional, showing even an extremely codex adherent chapter falling easily, this might have worked, but the Soul Drinkers are an atypical force within the imperium. The only time when this is used effectively is one particular Chaos champion, largely due to the author’s descriptive capabilities with mutations and unnatural phenomena.
The book contains plenty of decent writing along with the bad, but it’s usually reserved only to the scenery descriptions and mass violence. There are some explosive battle scenes from the opening purging of the star fortress to the final battle on the Soul Drinkers’ new base of operations. Each one is given a vastly different flavour than the last and enough unique features to make them truly stand out. Plus it’s not every book you end up getting both orbital battles, giant zombie sharks and a beach assault all within a few chapters of one another.
The descriptions of the worlds corrupted by Nurgle and overrun by viral strains fester in your mind, with clouds of bloated flies and decaying horrors littering shorelines. Minor details from the disturbing warmth of the sea to the blackish sand all are delivered in a fascinatingly disturbing way. The ships the book is often set on are portrayed rightly as labyrinthine corroding nightmares and aged tombs as much as they are vessels of war. A fittingly gothic feel which captures the darkness the series was going for and, even when the book is at its weakest, such descriptions help to keep some interest.
The real killer in this is the tone. Ending on an oddly hopeful note and with the continual promise of improvement, Soul Drinker finds itself at odds with its own subject matter. This is likely due to Ben Counter’s change from having them fall, corrupted and willingly in servitude of daemons, into survivors. Clinging to life on the edge of the imperium through sheer determination and skill while all turn against them. It doesn’t capture the bleak nature or outlook of their lives and the bittersweet losses ensued with each victory. Despite being written with enough blood, loss and betrayal to be A Song of Fire and Ice 40,000 it’s almost positive in its final scenes with the Soul Drinkers’ eyes finally opened.
It’s clear why many people dislike the series if this was their introduction. Both with continually awkwardly shifting in locations, predictability and weaponised plot driven stupidity it’s a rather poor novel. Despite some good action, fast pacing and some genuinely great one liners it’s a bad introduction into a much better saga.