The Iron Hands are generally under-represented in Black Library fiction, but with The Eye of Medusa, his first full 40k novel (excluding The Beast Arises), David Guymer tackles de facto Chapter Master Kardan Stronos, back when he was only a sergeant. The Adeptus Mechancius world of Thennos lies under the aegis of Medusa, so when its population turns traitor the Iron Hands fall upon it with crushing, calculating brutality. Stronos, newly inducted into Clan Garrsak, leads his squad into battle but soon finds himself frustrated by the secrets Thennos holds, and the unthinking obedience expected of him by his new clan.
It’s a story of conflicts – of flesh against machine, cold logic against humanity, orders against initiative…and narrative against worldbuilding. While the invasion of Thennos is the setting, Guymer’s exploration of the Iron Hands aims to showcase not just their viewpoint and character, but the wider battle taking place for the soul of the Chapter. As such Stronos is the main protagonist, but we see through the eyes of a host of other characters, ranging from almost-human to barely human. The key perspectives – Stronos, young neophyte Kardan Stronos, adept Melitan Yolanis – are all surprisingly relatable, their wildly differing viewpoints linked by a dislike of what they see in the Chapter. There’s no glorification of the Iron Hands, instead Guymer shows them in a brutally honest light. This is a Chapter that will do whatever it takes to get the job done…and therein lies both their greatest strength and biggest weakness.
At times it’s tricky to grasp just what’s happening as the narrative bounces between characters, worlds and dates, but the device Guymer uses gradually becomes clear, and ultimately feels nicely appropriate to the story. There’s lots to enjoy in the exploration of how the Iron Hands operate on the battlefield, and how the Chapter works in terms of its human servants and the recruitment and training process of neophytes. Rauth is a particularly interesting character, and his role is almost the conscience of the Chapter as he battles his way to becoming a full brother. The problem is, the core of the story – the importance of Thennos, and how Stronos interacts with his superiors – revolves around the conflict taking place at the heart of the Chapter, which is never fully explained. Iron Hands fans will probably be fine, but anyone not already familiar with the Chapter’s idiosyncratic leadership structure and the power struggle going on may find things confusing. It feels like an unusual amount of prior knowledge is needed to get the best out of the book, which is a shame.
Guymer clearly loves the Iron Hands, and that shines through in a powerful depiction which highlights lots of the most interesting aspects of the Chapter…but at the expense of the story itself a little. There’s lots to enjoy here still, not least the development of the Iron Hands’ machine-led viewpoint – there are strong themes of bitterness and anger running through most of the characters, whose own internal conflicts as they try to reconcile their places in the Chapter are really interesting and go way past the simple ‘flesh is weak’ concept. It’s a book full of great ideas and with an awful lot of interesting world building, a depiction of the Iron Hands at least as bleak – if not more so – than Chris Wraight’s Wrath of Iron, but with a welcome seam of humanity and black humour. It’s a bit disjointed, and could do with a little more context, but it’s a brave and interesting book nonetheless.