After a handful of excellent short stories, Justin D. Hill gets his first Black Library novel with Storm of Damocles, in the Space Marine Battles series. Tying in nicely with recent Deathwatch releases as well as the ongoing story of the Damocles Crusade, this follows Nergui of the White Scars, now Captain of the Deathwatch, as he investigates the loss of two full squads of his brothers. What he learns suggests that the war in the Damocles Gulf might be about to take a turn for the worse, unless he can find a way to neutralise the latest weapon in the tau’s arsenal.
During the course of the book we watch as Nergui interacts with not just his Deathwatch brothers but his chapter brothers too, and Hill plays nicely on the contrast between Nergui and the other White Scars. It’s not just the contrasting armour colours, Nergui has fundamentally changed during his time in the Deathwatch and this is explored in a way that’s not often been looked into. On the other side of the conflict we meet Shas’vre Ch’an, a veteran Fire Warrior whose experience fighting the Imperium on Mu’gulath Bay (Agrellan, to the Imperium) has left him with an unusual insight into the war and an attitude that doesn’t always mesh with his superiors’ ideas of the Greater Good.
As befits this series it’s a fairly straightforward plot, focusing more on pace and tempo than complex plotting, but Hill shows his skill (he’s an established author outside of Black Library) in taking a simple idea and extending it to create an engaging, interesting story. His writing fits nicely into the Black Library style, but somehow comes across as just a touch different to the norm, not least in his portrayal of Space Marines which paints them as slightly more human and less forced than is often the case. The focus is on Nergui, especially his relationship and interactions with the other White Scars, but while his fellow Deathwatch don’t get much focus they still come across as natural and characterful. Meanwhile the tau are written really well, with a sinister sense of discord beneath the progressive, harmonious veneer.
The Space Marine Battles series seems to be the ‘new author’ testing ground at the moment, and Hill comfortably proves his credentials here. It won’t be for everyone – after all it’s essentially (and unashamedly) a story about a single battle – but there’s a lot to like here for any 40k fan. Hill’s take on White Scars is characterful without being as nuanced as Chris Wraight’s Horus Heresy portrayal, and (like Phil Kelly’s Blades of Damocles) this gives us a compelling look at the relationship between the tau and the Imperium. It’s interesting to see how much attention the Damocles Crusade is getting – this is the third Space Marine Battles novel to feature the conflict – but once again it’s proved to be worthwhile. It looks like there’s plenty to still be covered, while it’s clear that Hill is an excellent addition to the ranks of Black Library authors.