The latest Space Marine Battles novel – The World Engine – is Ben Counter’s second in the series and promises to be about as epic a story as it’s possible to be. The titular World Engine is a mobile planet, a vast and apparently indestructible necron construct that has been marauding through Imperial space and devastating systems with impunity. With few options remaining, the entire Astral Knights chapter launches a suicidal assault, crashing their battle barge directly into the planet in a last ditch attempt to stop the World Engine. The Space Marine Battles series is built on the premise that the stories told are enjoyable, entertaining and fun, and with such a ridiculously over the top concept this should deliver all three in spades.
It really doesn’t. Somehow Counter manages to take a story about a thousand Space Marines crashing their ship into a planet full of necrons and make it dull, slow, and absolutely ordinary. The story is told from the perspectives of various different marines as the mission progresses, in an attempt to build up a composite picture of what happens across the planet, but as a narrative device it just doesn’t work. With ten characters each getting just a chapter (occasionally two) for their part in the story there’s no time for any of them to develop or get any real depth, and they’re left feeling more like caricatures, while the Astral Knights as a chapter come across as bland and one-dimensional. There’s almost no sense of scale to the number of marines fighting, the size of the World Engine or the fact that they’ve just crashed a vast spaceship into a planet, and there’s equally little sense of pace. Short sections in between chapters, from the perspective of an Inquisitorial agent performing a sort of psychic autopsy on the body of a recovered Astral Knight, should add context to what’s happening in the main body, but they’re clumsily written and in fact just slow the story down even further.
There are occasional flashes of something better, with a couple of sections giving slightly more relatable viewpoints or more likeable characters than most of the dour, humourless Astral Knights, but they are sadly few and far between. It really does feel poorly thought-out and executed, from the use of obvious and painfully unbelievable (even for 40k) devices for exposition (human slaves who just happen to know the full history of the necron dynasties, and all the best routes across the World Engine?), to a couple of laboured reveals about the World Engine’s destination and the Astral Knights’ motivations that just fall completely flat.
Even in context of the Space Marine Battles series, which isn’t exactly known for its vibrant characters and intricate storytelling, this just isn’t good enough. It’s far too shallow, uses a style and structure that doesn’t work, and somehow takes a great idea that should have been epic and brilliantly good fun and makes it…boring. There’s no doubt that Ben Counter is capable of far more than this – the excellent Arjac Rockfist novella for example – but this novel is undoubtedly a strong candidate for the most disappointing Black Library book of all time. One for completists or hardcore necron fans only, and even then it’s only likely to appeal to those who just want a book full of bolters and bad dialogue.