Helsreach, Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s novel set during the Third War for Armageddon, was the second ever Space Marine Battles book. A couple of years after its release it was repackaged in a new edition entitled Armageddon along with a companion novella, Blood and Fire. That novella is now available as a standalone volume for those who already have Helsreach, and it picks up just days after the events that concluded the previous story. Reclusiarch Grimaldus is once again front and centre, this time investigating claims by the Celestial Lions, a fellow successor chapter of the Imperial Fists, that the Inquisition is deliberately driving them to destruction. Only a handful of the chapter remain, and Grimaldus is faced with the difficult decision of whether to support them in a last, glorious charge or find a way to help them rebuild their shattered forces.
Dembski-Bowden starts things off slowly, quietly, introducing a new face (for obvious reasons if you’ve read Helsreach) as well as bringing in High Marshal Helbrecht himself, and setting the scene and tone for what’s to come. Right from the off this is a much more reflective piece than Helsreach was, which feels fitting for a story that concerns itself with some dark truths that lie at the heart of the Imperium. The pace soon picks up and intrigue mounts, as the Celestial Lions come into the spotlight and we learn about the events that have led them to this point. There are some great retrospective scenes looking back at both the Lions and Grimaldus himself, and a little more of his character is revealed as he tries to understand what has happened and decide what action to take.
What Helsreach did really well (apart from showing some really big battles) was shine a light on the psychology of the Space Marines, using Grimaldus as an extreme to illustrate the point. Blood and Fire carries on that theme, exploring the contrast between Grimaldus’ phenomenal ability to understand his fellow Space Marines and his complete inability to relate to ordinary humans outside of very specific circumstances (i.e. on the battlefield). Combined with the powerful concept of almost an entire Space Marine chapter being annihilated on a single planet, and what that would do psychologically to both Grimaldus and any surviving Celestial Lions, it makes for a fascinating read, cleverly and carefully plotted and paced and with just the right amount of typically-40k violence to justify the Space Marine Battles tag.
Don’t start without having read Helsreach first, however. It’s not that it doesn’t work as a standalone story, but rather that it rewards the reader for already understanding some of what Grimaldus has just gone through when these events are happening. Also, the return of a couple of familiar faces is so much more powerful with the prior knowledge of who they are and how they relate to the wider story.