Sarah Cawkwell’s Silver Skulls: Portents is her second novel featuring the Silver Skulls chapter of Space Marines (after The Gildar Rift), and features characters who have previously shown up in various short stories. The main protagonist is Sergeant Gileas Ur’ten, considered something of a rogue element by his superiors as a result of his fiery temper and unusual heritage, who leads his squad into battle against the archenemy on Valoria Quintus at the behest of the chapter’s Prognosticators. With the Inquisition involved in the mission however, there’s more at stake than just Gileas’ place in the chapter.
The Silver Skulls are an interesting chapter, and here Cawkwell has the chance to explore more of how they work and what makes them tick. In a brave move she spends almost half the book building up the key characters and looking behind the curtain as Gileas returns home to his chapter and homeworld; there’s action and excitement but the focus is on setting things up for what’s to come. Some might rail at the pace but it allows the story to build and develop nicely before it all hots up as Gileas and co. take the fight to Valoria and the Traitor Marines who lead the world’s rebellion.
Gileas has had page time before in the preceding short stories but they’re not essential to the book, with plenty of time spent dealing with the prejudices he faces, his strengths and flaws, and even a little backstory. He’s engaging and likeable, nicely placed within the chapter to give us an insight into the Silver Skulls without revealing too much of the mystery surrounding them. His fellow Marines are largely well drawn, likewise the Inquisitorial agents accompanying (and occasionally clashing with) them, the only downside being the antagonists. The sorcerous Oracles of Change make for interesting foes from an action perspective, but are left feeling a little bland in terms of motivations.
Overall it’s another good instalment in the Silver Skulls’ ongoing saga, with a pretty good balance of action and narrative and an overarching theme that adds a little extra intrigue to the whole thing. Without giving any spoilers, it looks at the nature of the chapter and how that’s perceived internally and externally, which along with Gileas’ predicament lends the plot additional depth compared to a generic ‘one big battle’ story. The structure might divide readers, some preferring the slower first half and others the more action-packed second half, but there should be plenty for everyone to enjoy overall. It’s been a while since this was published (in 2014) but hope remains that we’ll see more of the Silver Skulls and their story in time.