Wednesday, 5 March 2014
Legion of the Damned: Part 1 - The Lore (Warhammer 40,000 Codex Supplement Review)
Well, this was an unexpected surprise.
Released at a considerably cheaper price and less fanfare than the average codex, even lacking that exact name despite the exact same format and type of book, Legion of the Damned is actually pretty good. While hardly outstanding in terms of rules, the lore aspects of the book seem to have been written by someone who understands what made them work. Answering the mystery and removing all ambiguity surrounding the force would have destroyed a lot of interest in them. As such, much like Cypher - Lord of the Fallen, it seeks to flesh out the mystery with more ideas and facts. It's not destroying or utterly scrapping what we had before, or or trying to write the codex as a novel like so many books, but instead using and augmenting it.
The book itself does not start with any specific beginning outlining the origins of the Legion of the Damned, but covers theories and ideas surrounding them. In a somewhat similar manner to the original Codex: Necrons, it covers an outsider's perspective on the force. Theories from the Inquisition, efforts to understand their kind and even the documented theories of heretics suggesting their possible goals and origins. Nothing is written in stone and what is made only draws in greater interest, allowing fans to draw their own conclusions far more than many others books would allow them.
More importantly the book seems to have gone out of its way to try and ignore some of the worst developments in their lore in recent years. Namely ridiculous things like a tactical squad of Fire Hawks striding into Nurgle's Garden, burning it down while the god is somehow distracted and leaving again with a captive. Yes, someone actually wrote that.
Another thing also ignored is the fact that the codex seems to try and introduce any massive changes to their traditions or structure. Coming from an outsider's perspective we instead only have a handful of scraps of information to work with, few of which suggest any significant changes to what we knew of the chapter from previous depictions. There is no effort to stamp down some stupid alterations to the lore such as making the Legion suddenly codex adherent, which would make even less sense as the Iron Hands' retcons, no pushes to have their every secret laid bare and no sudden ideas which undermine their entire concept.
Well, beyond one thing which we'll get to later on.
Instead what we have are efforts to build upon certain capabilities through the theories and involvement of others. For example, the Legion's ability to appear exactly when and where they are needed is something which is seemingly impossible for any Imperial or even xenos technology. Warp navigation is so finicky with so many problems that trying to arrive exactly when they are most needed is something almost impossible to truly accomplish. The book makes actual note of this, that despite their nature in arriving to defend Imperial citizens they appear to have some degree of mastery over the empyrean. Something which has shown itself not only in their impeccable timing but also their ability to seemingly arrive and then leave in areas isolated by Warp storms or disruptions. An ability which is much more in line with the Ruinous Powers than any loyalist element.
This has drawn the attention of the Inquisiton, but not for the reasons you would think. Realising just how massive an advantage this would be on a massive scale, significant elements of the Ordo Chronos have begun hunting them down. Either to witness them first hand or perhaps even exchange information. While clearly radicalist thinking, something the codex even supports noting that this is pursued by a "secret brotherhood" of their agents, it does feel in line with their approaches. The fact they keep encountering mysterious technological failures and delays in their pursuit of any sightings fails to deter them, but adds credence to certain ideas of corruption behind the Legion.
Their apparent corruption and taint from the Warp is something which has been greatly expanded upon within the pages. Many ideas and elements introduced in the Legion of the Damned short story collection are present here, especially what was seen in the combat heavy Dark Hallows of Memory. Something introduced there was the idea that in battle the powers of legionaries could manifest in greater forms to destroy enemies, with their psychic flames turning them briefly into living storms. That's specifically noted here under a section discussing the idea of the group being saviors:
"There have been several accounts of Legionnaires becoming little more than
pillars of flame at the height of an engagement; on such occasions, the individual will
fight with terrible ferocity before succumbing to the flame and disappearing from reality."
Other elements also include their apparent ability to phase out of reality which has become commonplace within a number of tales and certain notes on the nature of their weapons. Rather than maintaining a true physical presence, it is stated here that bolters especially utilise some psychic equivalent of traditional rounds and specifically described as being able to "ignite the air in stabbing lances of energy".
What makes this work here is that the book integrates these stories into itself. Whereas Codex: Sentinels of Terra retconned a vast number of Imperial Fists tales then tried to pass off very similar stories as the author's own work, the sources are credited. The timeline mentions the likes of the Excoriators' stand against the Cholerclaust Blood Crusade and their arrival in the Fall of Idharae specifically, with a few minor tips of the hat to other tales.
It's a step back towards the days when there was a closer connection between Black Library novels and the codices. Back when we had the events of Nightbringer or Gaunt's Ghosts in lore and the strength of their writing for army books to work off of. It makes for more of a cohesive universe without making the books obsessed with total accuracy, unlike now where certain authors barely pay the canon lip service.
The subject of the Legion of the Damned's origins is also one other element which has always been at the forefront of their tales. While it has long been thought, and often all but outright confirmed, that they are the ill fated Fire Hawks chapter other theories arose surrounding them. Some in the fandom thought that they might be the Imperial equivalent of daemons, brought about as form of faith and fear manifesting in a daemonic version of the Emperor's Angels of Death. Others that they are some kind of psychic echo or that they are, simply ghosts of days gone by. In a surprising move not often seen in this setting outside of the stuff done by Fantasy Flight Games, the authors here opted to integrate all of these theories into the book.
No longer do we just have the Fire Hawks as a suggestion, but entire sections are devoted to the multiple ideas behind what the Legion could be. They do not push the idea too far, but present it as a series of possibilities. Theories brought up thanks to deduction surrounding the chapter, referring to potential ideas which have been suggested thanks to certain facts about the setting. Take this bit for example, which actually makes use of the established ways in which the Warp works for once rather than changing it on the author's whim:
"There are radicals amongst the Librarius who have a similar theory, though they believe the Legion of the Damned is a kind of consensual hallucination, and occasionally even manifestation, conjured by Mankind as a whole. They believe that the subconscious
power of hope is so strong, that when combined with the nascent psychic abilities that lurk within Humanity’s minds and a stimulus of imminent death, it can potentially be made reality. Central to this theory is the idea that though a single man may have but the tiniest shred of spiritual or mystical ability, the uncounted trillions of humans that populate the Imperium all contribute to a kind of psychic reservoir that can be tapped into in extremis, even by those who do not realise they are doing so. The Adeptus Astartes have come to embody both hope and terror to a beleaguered Imperium, and the form of deliverance and vengeance alike is the broad silhouette of the Space Marine."
Another, very heretical idea, is introduced at the beginning of this section of the codex. Suggested in the writings of Inquisitor Quixos (yes, that Quixos), he considered that their existence may be the result of certain aspects of the Warp:
"Just as the Dark Gods of Chaos have daemonic servants made of the same soul-stuff that sustains them, Quixos theorised that the Legion of the Damned were shards of the Emperor’s will given form. Furthermore, the Inquisitor’s writings posit the idea that these ‘Engels Mortis’ could take a number of forms, just as the Daemons of the Ruinous Powers range from the diminutive to the colossal, and that their greater forms have yet to be recorded. It is said that when the deserving and the devout find themselves on the brink of death these spectral warriors will emerge, blazing with the fires of the Emperor’s immortal will."
These are definitely the codex's strongest bits and only help to enhance the ideas behind them. It shows just how differently each area of the Imperium views the mysterious chapter, with some thinking one thing and others something entirely different thanks to doctrine or their mental conditioning. For example, it is primarily the space marines who believe that it is the Fire Hawks who became the Legion of the Damned. It's not outright said, but it does fit with their idea of refusing to simply roll over and die. That they, or elements of the, of all people would believe that even horrifically corrupted and transformed by a realm of daemons does fit quite well with the majority of chapters. As a whole, it does everything right which the Codex: Farsight Enclaves did wrong when it came to the mystery of O'Shovah and the Dawn Blade.
Unfortunately it's at this point the codex's biggest failing needs to be brought up. One which almost completely undermines this major strength, this massive step in the right direction.
Right at the very beginning of the codex, we are introduced to a new idea surrounding the Legion which was recently popularised by a Doctor Who villain. In it, the codex introduces the concept that the Legion will rapidly fade from memory from any who witnessed them, leaving only the brief scent of burning flesh lingering in their minds.
This wouldn't be so bad as it does note that certain machines can record information about them, but nearly everything here seems to be from first hand accounts. There are pages of first hand tales recorded from eye witnesses taken apparently a considerably amount of time following any battle they were involved in. This makes many of the accounts very questionable, and also those of a number of Inquisitors.
Unfortunately the problems do not stop there either. While many sections do a great job at presenting the Legion, there are a good number of noticeable dips in the quality of writing at various points. This is initially clear with the introductions which use some very strange choices of terms such as "The Legionnaires attack with an economy of motion that leaves
even the warriors of the Adeptus Astartes wide-eyed with surprise." Furthermore, a lot of secondary details and minor pieces of information seem to have remarks and aspects which are utterly at odds with basic knowledge of certain factions. Just about that previous quote, the codex tries to claim that the Legion's combat style consists of them "never aiming to wound, always to kill." This is hardly a unique fighting style for either corrupt or loyalist space marines, nor even for the vast majority of factions within Warhammer.
This isn't the only point where such leaps in logic take place. While the majority of the timeline is fairly sold, especially some tales involving the Flawless Host, there's also a few eyebrow raising accounts. Even ignoring Idharae's issues with their Avatar, we have a sudden repetition in very negative aspects which have appeared in other Supplement Codices and recent books.
There is a story where Helbrecht is once again used as a punching bag to make someone else look impressive. Specifically where he is felled by paralysing agents from a dark eldar who does not carry poisons.
There is a suddenly tacked on tale to an otherwise great moment with the Ultramarines, which has the Mechanicus coming to better understand the Golden Throne thanks to finding Malcador the Sigillite's Force Staff on some random world. No more context is given beyond that.
We also have a tyranid invasion in which a squadron of Shadowswords are completely disabled without harming the crew. Said crew then gets out, runs across the battlefield with the Legion of the Damned providing covering fire, and gets into a squadron of un-crewed but otherwise undamaged Doomhammers which turns the entire tide of the invasion.
Furthermore, for some reason the book felt the need to include one of Codex: Sentinels of Terra's poorly ripped off tales rather than a better told conflict. It's one of the most poorly placed bits of writing and it stands out as an even weaker addition to the lore here than it did in its original book. Which, if you've read that review, you'll know is saying something.
Finally, there is the artwork. The art here is very poor by the standards usually set in these reviews. Not because the art itself is bad, but because just about everything here is recycled. The reason this review is so bereft of imagery is because these are the only works used in the book. Despite getting the initiation bionic on the wrong arm in almost every image, Codex: Clan Raukaan seemed to be heralding an end of this nonsense, yet here we are again. It goes without mentioning that a great many of these, including the one-model-per-page Showcase section is used to pad out the page count.
The book definitely has its problems. Just from these you can see where the writing went wrong, but on the whole this is actually a massive improvement over previous works. This one comes recommended in terms of the lore alone due to the reasonable price and, for the first time since Codex: Black Legion, managing not to utterly screw up an army's lore. Definitely give this one a look if you are interested in the undead space marines.
Now, we'll be back in a few days time when we go over the tabletop rules. Unfortunately, these do not hold up quite so well. Read up on it here.