The first full-length Space Marine Battles book from Black Library since 2015’s Damocles anthology, Phil Kelly’s Blades of Damocles takes us back to before the time of its predecessor to look at the events of the first Damocles Gulf Crusade. Here we see sergeants Numitor and Sicarius of the Ultramarines 8th Company, still young and prior to their ascension to company captaincy, taking the fight to the Tau on the sept world of Dal’yth. As the headstrong assault marine sergeants lead their forces into battle, Commander Farsight leads the Tau defence in the name of the Greater Good.
It’s a bit of a strange one to include in the Space Marine Battles series – on the one hand it’s certainly full of explosive Space Marine action, but on the other hand it’s split pretty much evenly between the viewpoints of the Ultramarines and the Tau. We see mostly through the eyes of Numitor and Farsight, two characters deliberately chosen for their contrasting approaches but who also have some striking similarities, not least in terms of their sense of honour, which don’t always sit well with them. Here’s the key thrust of the book – two species with vastly different mindsets and ways of waging war, but who aren’t always as different from each other as they would like to think.
It’s a clever concept, and one which largely works. From a Space Marine perspective it’s a bit of a mixed bag – there are some incredibly exhilarating, exciting action scenes as the 8th Company assault marines fight airborne duels against the Tau’s high-tech battlesuits, but there’s also a lot of scenes with Marines trudging through dull landscapes just bickering amongst themselves. The former just about outweigh the latter, and it’s fascinating to see the young Sicarius especially, not least to see quite how much of a headstrong idiot he was in his youth. The Tau sections on the other hand are almost uniformly fascinating, giving an insightful look into the politics of Tau society, full of creepily dark undertones of mindless compliance and propaganda in stark contrast to the outwardly progressive face that the Tau as a culture portray. Farsight works well as a viewpoint into his culture, already at this point pushing against authority and coming into conflict with the strictures of his culture.
Series label aside, there’s lots to like here for fans of bombastic action sequences and deeper insights alike. It’s certainly not a perfect book, and could definitely do with trimming a bit in the central Space Marine-focused sections, but it stands out amongst recent Black Library releases as making a genuine effort to add depth and expand the context of the big battle scenes. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the book is its ambiguity in the way it leaves the reader free to decide who they want to root for – there’s no bias towards one of the two factions, so the reader can choose which way their loyalties lie. Go for the awesome aerial combat sequences, but stay for the darkness behind the facade.