Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Why Warhammer Needs Uriel Ventris

Among even Ultramarines fans, Graham McNeill's six book saga tends to be extremely divisive. Some love it for the characters, action and variety of factions involved, while others dislike it for its focus and problems involving the Codex Astartes. Far too often the books seemed to only treat the Codex as a weakness rather than both a weakness and a strength, and rather than the chapter as a whole it often just focused upon the adventures of a two particular Ultramarines. While there is a definite degree of truth to all this, above all else though, one of the most heavily criticised aspects of the series tends to be the actions and position of Captain Uriel Ventris, the saga's protagonist. 

The criticisms against Uriel tend to focus upon his actions such as abandoning his company to join the Deathwatch strike against a Hive Ship, the fact he is written far too often to be far more human than anyone would expect for a space marine, and the fact he unleashed the Nightbringer upon the universe. However, for all this, many of these flaws help to benefit the series and make him a vital part of the universe due to one thing: Accessibility.

When it comes down to it, the Warhammer 40,000 universe can be off-putting to some people due to its overly dark nature or lack of likable characters. Some getting into the hobby from a younger age might not fully understand the depth of the setting or its supreme darkness at first glance, or treat it as they would Star Wars or Star Trek. While its tag line might be "In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war..." this tends to go over the heads of some people getting into the hobby at first glance. They expect it to play out somewhat the same - The heroes can win, they can pull off "everyone lives!" endings and walk away happy, with the real grim dark nature not hitting them until later on. The Ultramarines series itself plays with this theme, and ultimately, gradually subverts it.

This descent into darkness can best be seen with Uriel himself throughout these books. While he never becomes quite so truly callous as any Flesh Tearer or zealous as a Black Templar, Uriel himself gradually succumbs to more and more of the necessities of the setting. Many side moments are made to emphasise what humanity needs to do in order to survive and even what he has lost, and that trying to pull off a Captain Kirk just doesn't work here. This can be best seen in the infamous ending to Nightbringer, where Uriel tried to save everyone. Upon learning that some ancient - then unknown - evil was close to being unlocked on the world he was sent to save, Pavonis, he actively counter-commanded the orders of an Inquisitor to launch an exterminatus strike. Instead he led his company into a lightning assault upon the compound where it was being released and prevent the world's destruction.

While Uriel's attack is successful, he arrives moments too late to prevent it being unlocked and the Nightbringer is unleashed. While starved, weakened and slow, it is none the less capable of slaughtering its way through the ranks of both the Ultramarines and those who had assisted it. At this point Uriel was given a choice. He could either bury the entire facility with bombs, killing those under his command and burying the alien god, potentially starving it to death, or he could lead his forces in a futile battle to try and kill it and most likely lose. He chose the third option. Planting a melta bomb upon the link to the creature's ship, he threatened to sever its link with the orbiting craft, burying it and trapping the creature. Even should it escape, it would be trapped on Pavonis. In a game of chicken against an unknowable alien horror from millennial ago, it's the Nightbringer which blinks and retreats.

Most of the ending is spent treating this conclusion as you would expect. Uriel manages to save the world, keep most of his company alive and emerges victorious. This carries on asa glorious victory, only to be subverted at the last moment. The final scene of the whole book is of the Nightbringer returning to its ancient task, feeding upon suns and starting is culling off all sentient life. In his efforts to try and win everything, in taking the expected third choice, Uriel only makes things far worse and may well have doomed countless trillions to death. This moment sets the tone for the entire series above all, that trying to pull stunts which would work in any other setting, that trying to find a way out of the Kobayashi Maru scenario simply will not work. Trying to be a traditional hero will only guarantee the death's of all.

This is only compounded further when the book's return to Pavonis later on in Courage and Honour. Despite managing to save the world, Uriel's actions and the Imperium's only help doom it. Following the rebellion, it is so badly taxed and stripped away by Imperial forces that the governor, previously Uriel's ally, goes so far as to try and defect to the Tau Empire. It's a sobering moment, and the juxtaposition in tone is only driven further by Uriel's own actions in achieving victory. Despite facing a far weaker foe, a far less threatening one, when faced with defeat he manages to drive them off only by threatening the very thing he prevented decades ago: Exterminatus. He even notes by the end that his preventing the world being conquered by the Tau has likely doomed the population. Their lives will now be governed by a military presence and will be far worse off now than they would have been with the Tau.

Uriel even reflects upon this change in attitude by the book's end, with just how far he is willing to go in order to emerge victorious. If you actually track his choices there is a gradual character arc throughout the series, and more and more of McNeill's books focus upon the flaws of humanity. While it remains a perpetually Ultramarines focused series and grants them many victories, you more and more flaws emerge over time, often focusing specifically upon Uriel himself. The loss of any ability to have a normal life, his inability to initially make many of the hard choices needed for the Imperium survive, sometimes condemning entire worlds to death, and his treatment of the Codex are all explored. The Imperium itself is a dark empire, one with heroes, but a faction which would be a villain in any other setting none the less. Yet through these books we see just why the Imperium is the way it is: Out of necessity, and that trying to be a conventional hero in this setting will rarely ever achieve any kind of actual substantial victory.

Is it the best written series in Black Library, with the most outstanding characters? No. Yet at the same time the series is easy to get into, the books do a solid job of easing the reader into the theme of the setting, show a vast amount of the universe, and try to be a cut above standard bolter porn. Even atop this the more acclaimed series of late such as Salamanders and Night Lords follow many of these ideas with equally unconventional characters for their factions. Take that for what it's worth.

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