The second short novel in the Space Marine Legends series, Cassius sees Ben Counter return to take a longer look at the titular Ultramarines Chaplain after having previously tackled the character in the Deathwatch short story One Bullet. Here we see the contemporary Cassius, grizzled and scarred after centuries of war, leading two companies of Ultramarines against endless waves of Tyranids on the strategically important world of Kolovan. Situated perilously close to Segmentum Solar, if Kolovan were to fall then the Tyranids would have a route into the heart of the Imperium, so who better to put a stop to that than the hero of the Tyrannic Wars?
It’s a classic match up, and one which under other circumstances might have fallen under the Space Marine Battles series. Narratively and stylistically it’s closer to that series than its predecessor, Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s Ragnar Blackmane, with a straightforward, linear story following Cassius and the Captains of the 3rd and 5th Companies, Fabian and Galenus, as they battle against the Tyranids. Essentially a series of linked set pieces, it makes a stab (pun intended) at setting up tensions between the Captains and Cassius to leaven the action scenes with a bit of depth, but it’s very much action-heavy throughout. All the Tyranid cliches are happily ticked off, up to and including the inevitable suicide (well, almost) mission into the heart of a hive ship, and Counter does a decent job of adding variety to the many, many fight scenes, but it’s all a bit obvious and clearly signposted.
For fans of straight-up bolter and chainsword action this probably ticks all the boxes, and there’s even a welcome smidgen of humour thrown in now and then to brighten up the rather dour portrayal of the Ultramarines, but what it doesn’t do is really dig into the character of Cassius. This is a man who lived through the Battle of Macragge and survived through willpower alone, who hates the Tyranids with the sort of vitriol only a 400 year old, half-machine warrior priest could muster, but here he just comes across like a generic Space Marine Chaplain. Counter tries to make a personal connection by introducing one of the few Tyranid named characters, but all that really does is make Cassius look a little predictable and obvious.
Unlike its protagonists, overall this is just a bit off target really. It’s not bad per se, just never quite gets past the base level 40k story that a headline series like this should be better than. It’s also remarkably inconsistent, with vehicles changing type and characters jumping in and out of scenes in an unusual example of poor continuity. It’s got it’s good points, not least the (potentially) last remaining Scythe of the Emperor who steals most of the scenes he’s in, but with a lack of emotional investment and a predictable plot, this is one to read and then put aside in favour of more characterful fare.