The Red Path – Chris Dows

Also available as eight individual eshorts, The Red Path is Chris Dows’ first full novel for Black Library after a raft of White Scars and Imperial Guard short stories. Its focus is on Khârn the Betrayer, tying in with the new miniature and the current 13th Black Crusade story arc, as Abaddon the Despoiler dispatches one of his lieutenants to find Khârn and bring him back to the Warmaster. Meanwhile a living saint of the Imperium is returning to the planet Salandraxis after campaigning near the Eye of Terror, while Khârn himself is merrily taking skulls with his warband.

In the outstanding depictions of pre- and post-Heresy Khârn in The First Heretic and Eater of Worlds he appeared as a nuanced, interesting character capable of more than just blood for the Blood God. Here in the first proper 40k novel from his perspective however, he’s back to just Kill! Maim! Burn! with predictably lacklustre consequences. Across its eight chapters the book gives him little chance to do anything other than kill endless anonymous enemies, with his motivation limited to killing just because that’s what he does. Even the titular Red Path is so loosely defined as to be little more than a token catchphrase.

Maybe it’s the restrictions of writing a serialised novel (although from a purely structural perspective the eight chapters fit together quite well), but the whole story feels roughly cobbled together with little thought for its characters. Only one has more than the most cursory level of depth or detail, an ex-World Eater with a rare understanding of what he’s lost, and while he makes his scenes noticeably more interesting he’s still sorely underused. There’s plenty to work with – an ambitious but not too bright Black Legion captain, a tightly-wound loyalist Chapter Master, the amusingly awful living saint – but none of them are developed past the bare bones.

Perhaps the biggest criticism however is just that it’s all a bit boring. Even a one-dimensional Khârn should be fun to read about but the action scenes (of which there are many) are repetitive and uninspired with only the occasional flash of actual excitement. All the usual 40k elements are present and correct, but it’s all a bit by-the-numbers. Chainswords grind through ceramite, bolt shells explode aplenty and a great many skulls are taken…but there’s nothing to make the reader really care about any of it. It’s not awful, it’s just dull.

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