Unless you’ve been hiding your head in the sand of late, you’ll have spotted that Warhammer 40,000 has recently taken a big step forward in terms of the setting’s overall narrative. Not to be left behind, Black Library have commissioned Guy Haley to write the first novel set in #new40k, taking place after the events of the Gathering Storm – the fall of Cadia, the birth of a new eldar god, and the return of a loyalist primarch to 40k. The result is Dark Imperium (not to be confused with the short story anthology of the same name) and…it’s excellent.
[I felt that, as the first #new40k novel, this deserved a little more attention to detail…so this is a slightly longer review than usual. I hope you’ll forgive me that indulgence – do let me know what you think in the comments below!]
Opening with Guilliman and Fulgrim’s fateful duel 10,000 years in the past, it focuses thereafter on the conclusion of Roboute Guilliman’s Indomitus Crusade, a little over 100 years after the events of the Gathering Storm. It describes an Imperium in even worse condition than what we’re used to, but given hope by the return of a legend and the might of Belisarius Cawl’s contentious new innovations. While Guilliman triumphs at the Pit of Raukos and we get a first glimpse of the Primaris Marines in action, Mortarion spitefully throws the forces of Nurgle against the Ultramar system.
This is a novel with multiple aims, but what it doesn’t do is try to answer every question about what’s changed in 40k. It doesn’t detail the immediate aftermath of Guilliman’s rebirth or explain what Cawl was doing all along…instead it offers occasional hints to a lot of those answers while focusing instead on exploring how Guilliman has changed since his ‘death’, and how the Imperium is reacting to his return and the changes forced upon the galaxy. It’s fascinating to see how he’s coping with his altered circumstances and the differences in this new (to him) age, all on top of his new, even greater burden of command. This isn’t the same primarch who fought in the Heresy, or even who wrote the Codex Astartes.
The end of the Indomitus Crusade represents the beginning of a new phase for the Imperium, but it’s not as simple as that. With Guilliman’s return, the introduction of Cawl’s new creations, the changed face of the Imperium…it’s an intriguing mixture of new and old. Take the Primaris Marines – questions remain as to exactly what Cawl did, how long it took, what the Primaris were doing in the meantime, but what’s clear is that while they are a hugely powerful new force, they’re not just normal Marines turned up to 11. They operate differently to the earlier-generation Marines but they also think differently, and from this depiction at least they feel closer to Heresy-era Marines than what you might expect in 40k.
Haley touches lightly upon the way the Primaris interact with the older Marines, and how their cousins (including some famous names) feel about their introduction. He offers an interesting look at how the Primaris are (and were) organised, touching upon how Guilliman has been integrating them into chapters and how they feel about that, with the focus on two in particular – Sergeant Justinian of the Greyshields [no spoilers] and Captain Felix of the Ultramarines. There’s plenty of action for both of them, but Haley has created two instantly engaging characters who are more than just soldiers, and put them into situations which are narratively compelling while allowing for a degree of exposition.
Some people might wish for more detail around the Primaris and the intervening century, but patience is probably in order. Chances are these are topics that Black Library will cover in depth over time, so there’s no need for a single book to focus on them too much. The answers that this book does provide are revealed gradually and organically, often giving incomplete hints rather than complete explanations, and there will undoubtedly be readers who would prefer a simpler, more straightforward presentation of ‘the facts’ such as they are. Ultimately, however, this isn’t a book for those readers.
This is a book for those who want Black Library’s 40k output to focus on great, ambitious stories. Who are happy to wait for following novels (this is the start of a trilogy, apparently) or stories told in other formats to get their answers. Who enjoy the depiction of a world behind the lines of the war (in this case quite a lengthy look at how Ultramar handles its wounded and diseased soldiers) as much as one in the midst of brutal, bloody action. If that’s you, then there’s an awful lot to enjoy here. This represents a powerful introduction to the latest iteration of the 40k setting, and one that harks right back to the Heresy with a strange, but compelling, mixture of darkness – arguably even more than ever before – and unexpected light. Based on this, big things are coming. Here’s hoping they’re as good as this is!