Lord of the Night reviews the surprise Boxing Day release from Black Library, the latest in the Space Marines Battles series, The World Engine by Ben Counter.
"A long-awaited novel that despite some early lack of direction, more than delivers on story, characters and action, giving one of the most well-known pieces of 40k lore a story that was well worth the wait for the World Engine." - Lord of the Night @ Talk WargamingThe World Engine is without a doubt one of the most well known pieces of 40k lore, and to me it epitomizes everything that the Space Marines as a faction stand for, at least at their best rather than their worst; heroism, fearlessness, ferocity, and a streak of honour that reminds us that despite the harsh actions they are often called to perform, the Adeptus Astartes are humanity's champions and that when the time comes, they will stand between humankind and the darkness. On the subject of the author Ben Counter has always been one of my favourites of Black Library, I believe that he is one of only four authors in BL who truly understands Chaos and depicts it as it should be, and his portrayal of the Necrons in his Soul Drinkers series was proof thathe could handle the Necrons in a worthy fashion. So when Black Library released The World Engine out of nowhere and I saw Counter's name on the cover, I was very very happy to say the least.
The World Engine has come, a nightmarish planet-sized construct of unknown origin that cleanses worlds of life with no more effort than swatting an insect. As systems go dark, the Space Marines respond in force to defeat this latest threat to man's domains, but when the World Engine proves to be an opponent that even the combined might of fifteen Chapters cannot halt it's rampage, one lone Chapter is called to make the ultimate sacrifice. As the World Engine's shadow falls on the planet of Varvenkast, the Astral Knights ready themselves for their Chapter's final battle, a battle that will live on in the history of the Imperium. But are the Astral Knights ready to die for mankind? Or is some final matter for their Chapter to settle before they can meet their end??
The story in The World Engine is well known among 40k fans but Counter makes the story his own by adding his own brand of outside the box thinking and writing. Counter spreads the story across the ranks of the Astral Knights by having each chapter of the book focus on a different character, only one rather important character in particular getting multiple point-of-view chapters to himself. This, to me, was the right choice as the story is not about one particular Astral Knight but rather the chapter as a whole, and because the many ranks of the chapter including chapter master, chaplain, librarian, techmarine, apothecary, captains, pilots and simple battle-brothers are represented in the book, which gives the reader the knowledge of how the battle affects the Astral Knights from the highest ranks to the lowest. Another aspect that I quite enjoyed was the focus on characters, each Astral Knight is the subject of his own personal story that is told within the space of a chapter, these character stories merging with the primary story of the battle to create a more deeply involved and at the same time widespread narrative. But on the other side of this coin, the lack of a central protagonist means that all but one character gets only a single chapter, which means that it becomes a bit difficult to invest in the stories when they are so short. While enjoyable the story contains a few flaws, as the book started I felt that the beginning was a touch lacking due to the speed with which Counter gets to the actual Battle for Safehold, the issue with this is that the emotional moments of the first chapter lose their punch due to the unfamiliarity with the characters, it's hard to care about a character you've only known for less than a single chapter. I think that this could have been improved by having the first two or three chapters deal with the lead-up to the Battle of Safehold and be devoted to the backstory of this campaign, rather than diving right into it. The other key issue in the story is the lack of direction that becomes apparant in the middle of the book, while it is part of the story that the Astral Knights have entered this battle blind, the problem is that as time goes on and the Knights still lack a real direction for their wrath, the book feels as if the Knights are leaping from one attempt to another at victory; which I suppose they are. While this reflected the chaotic nature of the battle nicely, it did mean that the middle sections took a bit more effort to get through.
The characters are a varied group from every rank of the Astral Knights, but the most important character is the Astral Knights Chapter. The spirit and character of the chapter is explored through it's members, looking at the culture of the chapter from it's homeworld of Obsidia, the beliefs that the chapter holds as an Ultramarines successor and the beliefs they have developed from their own situation, the attitudes they hold towards the other chapters of Space Marines, the common men and women of the Imperium and towards the enemies of mankind. Counter does a brilliant job of giving the Astral Knights a soul, before they were just a name associated with a famous battle, but we didn't know anything about who they were, just what they were. As Counter explores what makes the Astral Knights who they are, he gives personality, culture and history to a blank slate that results in a very likeable chapter that clearly hold to their roots as sons of Roboute Guilliman, but also embrace the differences they have cultivated in their own existence. Each of the Astral Knight POVs was nicely done, from the logic-driven techmarine Sarakos who I felt was one of the best portrayals of a techmarine done yet, the prideful "prince" Kodelos who was the character that I felt grew the most as a result of the battle, chapter master Amhrad whose importance to the story was most felt in the final chapters, and the enigmatic chief librarian Hyalhi that was my personal favourite. Counter also gives the Necrons a few characters, however only one of these felt like a real presence in the book which is understandable considering the identities of the Necron cast, but I think that Heqiroth should have been as much of a presence as Metzoi was; but Metzoi himself made up for being in my opinion the only really fleshed out Necron character by being one of the most interesting parts of the novel and giving a good majority of the novel's best dialogue. The key flaw to the characterization however is also a strength of the storytelling, the spread-out nature of the chapters; because each character gets only one chapter, only two Knights getting more than that, it becomes hard to become attached to the characters because they are only on centre-stage for so long, and then they are off to the sidelines when another character takes their place.
The action in the book is very well done, Counter gives both sides a good showing by displaying their strengths and weaknesses relevant to each other. The Space Marines innate enhanced strength comes into play a lot during the battle scenes, many scenes feature the marines overpowering the Necrons and tossing them around like rag-dolls; while the Necrons use their esoteric technology to outmatch the Space Marines and their specialist troops such as Flayed Ones, Wraiths and Scarabs to force the Space Marines to constantly change their game and adapt to the multitude of forces arrayed against them. Counter focuses on infantry throughout the book, the vehicles that do appear are almost universally on the Necron side which provides another challenge for the Space Marines and allows Counter to use many of the weapons available in the Space Marine arsenal. Another aspect that made the battle scenes well-rounded was that Counter did not overuse the infamous ability of the Necrons to self-resurrect, rather in this book the Necrons rely on their overwhelming numerical advantage although their ability to put themselves back together does appear frequently, just not constantly. Truthfully since the book covers a campaign from literally the few moments before it begins in earnest to the final moments of the Astral Knights, the majority of the book is either scenes of battle or scenes leading up to battle; because of that the book may feel a bit like bolter-porn to some readers, but I felt that the characterization, story and the themes were sufficiently enjoyable and well written to avoid this book falling into that unfortunate category.
The pacing was, mixed. As I said above the book begins quite literally moments before the Astral Knights make their choice regarding the World Engine, which means that the book feels as it it dumps the reader right into the story with no introduction to the story or background on the campaign, and as the book proceeds from battle to battle the pace both reflects and doesn't this; at times the pacing felt quick as the Knights fought the Necrons in every single chapter and searched across the surface of Borsis for a real goal beyond just wrecking everything in sight, but at other times the pace felt stilted as backstory on characters and the Astral Knights in general was included in the narrative, sometimes it felt as if the story was being paused to inform the reader of this. The artwork included in the book was quite nice, some officially coloured images from the Necrons 5th Edition Codex along with renderings of Artor Amhrad and Ultramarines Captain Venetius, though in the latter's case as an extremely minor character I fail to understand why he was given a render and a more important character like Judicator Metzoi or Chief Librarian Hyalhi was not. Along with this imagery of the various weapons used by the Astral Knights were also included with some interesting tidbits of lore on their origins, and of course the obligatory map of the campaign covering the World Engine's travels across the Vidar sub-sector and names of it's victims.
My favourite quote, there is quite a bit of cool dialogue in the book, and i'm going with this one as the best;
"The first thing you should have learned when planning to negotiate with humans, is that we spit upon the alien. Even if he does claim to be a god."
The ending was different from what I have read before. The point-of-views from the Astral Knights do not serve as an epilogue, rather they end in the final chapter before the framing story takes over and provides a sort of epilogue to itself and answers the final few questions remaining about the Battle for Safehold and the final battle of the Astral Knights Chapter. Because the story is about the battle but also the characters, the end of each chapter is in a sense the end of each individual story while the final chapter serves as an end to the battle itself along with it's point-of-view character's story. Though the ending was enjoyable and surprising in exactly how the Astral Knights achieved their "victory" over the World Engine, it did feel as though a more involved epilogue would have been a better way to round out the story, or perhaps if the framing story had not been set after the ending it would have made the ending a bit more surprising and allowed the final chapter to be expanded to include a bit more. One other thing that I think could have been improved is that one part of the aftermath in the original lore was not included, which I think was a shame as it showed how valiant and important the final act of the Astral Knights was and how it was received by those that fought with them, and it made for a heartwarming reminder that what the Astral Knights did will never be forgotten, and because it was not included in the end I felt that the ending was lessened for it.
For an story that while not perfect was still enjoyable, characters that were well written and gave personality to a chapter that before this was just a name, and many exciting action scenes that I feel helped turn the World Engine from a piece of codex lore into a real story; I give The World Engine a score of 7.6/10. While it is not among the best of the Space Marines Battles series, though it is definitely not among the worst either, this is still a book that I would recommend to fans of the Space Marines Battles series because it is another enjoyable instalment of the series and I felt that it was well worth the read, and fans of Ben Counter's writing style will find a lot to like here as well. However if neither of those, or the Space Marines and Necrons, are something that appeal to you as a reader, then the World Engine is likely not a book that will make your to-read list.
That's it for this review, thanks for reading. Until next time;
AVE DOMINUS NOX!