IMPORTANT: This is book eleven in a series – there will be spoilers unless you’ve read I Am Slaughter, Predator, Prey, The Emperor Expects, The Last Wall, Throneworld, Echoes of the Long War, The Hunt for Vulkan, The Beast Must Die, Watchers in Death or The Last Son of Dorn.
Shadow of Ullanor is the eleventh, and penultimate, book in The Beast Arises series, and Rob Sanders’ second contribution after the excellent Predator, Prey. After the disastrous end to The Last Son of Dorn, the Imperium stands on the edge of the abyss. Gathering together on Inwit for a solemn Festival of Blades, the Imperial Fists successor chapters form a plan which will honour their First Founding chapter and see one last, all-in attempt to end the greenskin menace once and for all. Meanwhile First Captain Zerberyn begins to see the implications of his alliance with the Iron Warriors.
Narratively speaking the events of the last three books have been an…interesting…decision from Black Library, but Sanders does a good job here of building up to the final push. The first half of the novel casts its net quite wide, looking first at the wider Imperium before narrowing its focus down mostly to Vangorich and Thane, with a detour via the aforementioned Zerberyn who has a run in with a particularly intransigent member of Imperial authority. Vangorich has been the star of the series from the beginning, but Thane has gradually grown into an intriguing figure in his own right – respectful of what’s gone before, but arguably more forceful and visionary than the previous, illustrious commanders.
The groundwork thus lain (for both the rest of this book and the next), Sanders then takes the brakes off and sends us right back into the thick of things…which is where the book is less successful. The first half is beautifully paced, filled with set pieces but with enough room to breathe that Sanders can inject character and really bring scenes to life. The nature of the book though (without giving any spoilers) means that the majority of the second half feels a little rushed, cramming an awful lot of action into a short space of time. Sanders does as good a job as could be expected, avoiding too much repetition of what’s gone before and introducing some entertaining (if a little under-developed) plot developments along the way, but it can’t help feeling a little underwhelming right at the climax.
Let’s be clear, for the most part this is a thrilling and thoroughly enjoyable book, which proves once again that Sanders is a safe pair of hands – there’s enough character development and clever plotting for it to stand up even within a series this good. Between Vangorich and Thane there’s plenty of good stuff including some powerful reflections on Koorland and the Fists, and a tantalising hint of what’s coming in the final book. What it struggles with is a lack of space (it’s only 50k or so words, after all) and being the narrative equivalent of the saying ‘if at first you don’t succeed…try, try again’. It’s fundamentally a tweaked repetition of what’s gone before, which leads to its problems, but aside from that it’s another fine instalment that leaves the series in an intriguing place ready for the final chapter.