Better known for his own epic fantasy series, Paul Kearney is a relatively new name in terms of Black Library, having just two short stories to his name before the ill-fated (more on this later) release of his novel Dark Hunters : Umbra Sumus. The first novel to feature the titular chapter of Space Marines it sees Captain of Third Company (or Mortai) Jonah Kerne sent to investigate reports of a raid on Imperial territory by the Hunters’ old enemy, the chaos Space Marines known as the Punishers. While Kerne and his men make haste to the planet of Ras Hanem to intervene, the local Imperial forces under the command of General Dietrich dig in against the brutal assault of the Punishers.
Kearney has his job cut out here, needing to quickly introduce an essentially unknown chapter while creating valid, relatable characters and a suitably gripping and entertaining story to introduce himself as an author to the BL fanbase. To do so he’s created a clever backstory that sees the Dark Hunters as a chapter still on the mend a hundred and fifty years after the last time they tangled with the Punishers, providing an instant blend of strong motivation and a fragile sense of power for the Hunters. The first few chapters give just enough detail to sketch out this backstory while setting up what’s to come, introducing Kerne and some of the chapter hierarchy before moving onto the Guard forces, building a nice contrast between the two. The ensuing story then takes a turn away from the expected Marine-heavy style to focus on the horrors of war for the Guardsmen defending Ras Hanem against the appalling Punishers, before the Dark Hunters arrive in the nick of time…except things are maybe not what they seem, with fresh allies and enemies swiftly approaching.
This has all the grim, brutal hallmarks of an old-school Black Library story, with the characteristic sense of endless, weighty desperation as the odds stack further and further against the protagonists. Kearney keeps close to many of the tried and tested archetypes for his characters, but injects enough flavour and interest to keep things from feeling too cliched. His Guard characters are spot on, leaning to the serious side but well-drawn and nicely down to earth in contrast with both the Dark Hunters and the Punishers. Sensibly Kearney keeps the Punishers away from the narrative, which lends them an unpredictable edge and maintains a strong sense of danger around them, while the Hunters have a characterful, distinct feel both as a chapter and individually. There’s a good balance between Kerne and his fellow officers, and as a whole they feel just different enough to seem fresh and interesting without being over the top or exaggerated.
The end result isn’t perfect but it’s a really solid, enjoyable story that amply demonstrates Kearney’s writing credentials. There’s an occasional sense, especially early on, of excessive info-dump as characters are described and their roles explained, but he clearly demonstrates his experience with smart plotting, good pacing and plenty of variety in the story, and for the most part this is nicely on-point with Black Library’s usual style and fits nicely into the existing canon. Or at least it would, if not for the bizarre copyright case that saw the initial run of books suddenly withdrawn shortly after its release in early 2015 due to a supposed similarity with the Dark-Hunter series of paranormal romance novels (yep. Right). The assumption is that this will be re-released at some point under a different title, but nearly a year on there has still been no word. Only a relative handful of copies were ever sold, but it would be a tremendous shame if this didn’t see a release at some point, as it’s well worth a read.