Black Library’s long-running Space Marine Battles series continues with Paul Kearney’s Calgar’s Siege, Kearney’s first properly available Black Library novel after the seemingly cursed Dark Hunters: Umbra Sumus. Taking inspiration from a brief piece of background text, this deals with the Siege of Zalathras, where the Ultramarines’ Chapter Master Marneus Calgar held the gates against the greenskin hordes for a day and a night. It’s safe to assume that there’s more to the story than that, and Kearney fills in the gaps including where Zalathras actually is, and what Calgar was doing there in the first place!
Zalathras turns out to be on a world called Zalidar, out on the fringe of Ultramar, whose ambitious Imperial Governor’s invitation to Calgar to inspect his world unintentionally brings the Chapter Master right into the path of an incoming ork Waaagh! It’s a smart setup for the book, and Kearney does a great job of building a believable backdrop for the story, ensuring it’s much more than just one big battle scene. Zalidar and its political powers are vividly drawn and refreshingly different to the 40k norm, which right from the outset lends this an interesting feel. It’s a nice contrast with the familiar Ultramarines, led by Calgar who’s portrayed as stern and unyielding on the outside but just world-weary enough on the inside to still be relatable.
Narratively, for a book that’s (like everything in this series) ostensibly about one big battle there’s a good sense of pace and some interesting plotting, the early focus on the human defenders of Zalidar providing a sense of scale and danger that can be missing when the focus is too much on Space Marines. Kearney has demonstrated once again that he has a good handle on what a 40k book should contain – the battle scenes are imaginative and suitably brutal without stretching on interminably, the characters are heroic but enjoyably flawed, and the humans are as important as the Space Marines.
Ultimately the whole point of this book is to show a series of cool battles, which it does with aplomb, but it does a lot more than that as well. It offers a fresh and interesting look at Imperial life, and takes a good long look at a character who’s tended to be on the periphery in the past – we get to see a bit more of who Calgar really is, and how it came to be that history came to record that he held the gate alone against the orks. Surely nobody (even Calgar) could really do that, but what sort of man must he be for people to believe that he did?