Title: Dark Imperium

Author: Guy Haley

Publisher: The Black Library

Date of Publication: June 2017

Approximate Pages: 368

Review by: HeritorA

Aegrescere medendo.

With upcoming 8th edition release all branches of GW went into overdrive to deliver a coverage for ‘new/old’ setting. The Black Library is not an exception of that rule.

Guy Haley wrote his own contribution to the Dark Imperium, the brand new edition of Warhammer 40,000 (which is just days away from the official release). And what a beast that novel is. Here we should make a point that it is a really complicated novel that tries to be 3 things at once — a supplement for a ‘codex’/new bible release; a lore building event that provides ground for a solid period of time and events that made the universe cringe in turmoil; and an advertisement for the new model range and setting (let’s not forget that GW main focus is on the tabletop and models — so not a surprise here). Thus, as one might expect, it turned out to be quite a long book.

The author himself said that there was a lot of adjustment to the story to make sure he got it just right. It was a hard book, harder than most and while reading it you will see why.

But let’s get to the main course and disect a starter novel for a brand new edition of W40K.

I will rate this book from the 3 points of view:
-as a supplement to a new setting bible and as a book that tried to explain events which we will be reading about only after the 17th of June with the 8th edition release.
-as a novel in the W40K.
-as a book about the Primarch Reborn and Chaos resurgent.
There is a fourth point — but it does not need a rating. Dark Imperium is also a novel about Ultramar and Ultramarines and everything related to them. From the point of view of the Ultramarines fans it’s a must read even through a lot of cons.

As we all know, big things were happening at Games Workshop. Warhammer 40,000, a universe we loved and lived with for a long time for almost over the thirty years is ready to undergo a fundamental shift. A monumental paradigm shift in tabletop and universal events are about to be unleashed. Indomitus Crusade and Imperium Nihilis would be delivered to us on 17th of June. But Guy Haley and BL decided not to repeat everything mentioned in the new bible and thus provided us a glimpse of events after Indomitus closure (I think Indomitus Crusade events would be described eventually throughout the time at some later date in stories from all the BL authors). So our beloved author focused on a primarch tale, with addition of lore creation events that has a direct reflection in the contents of the new boxed game. all of this, without slavishly following its storyline.

The story focuses, plain and simple, on the return of an Avenging Son in full glory and with the realm of Ultramar in tow. And Guy Haley did it masterfully, with the best part of Dark Imperium — prequel events of Thessala battle during the Scouring, where Fulgrim has wounded Guilliman, who ended up being put in stasis up to the Events of the Gathering Storm. And that preamble to the DI events are amazingly written. Here we see Haley at his best (now I definitely want to see Haley writing Scouring novels). Several chapters of pure epic-ness follow — space battle, teleport assault, confrontation with Fulgrim, and our usual theoretical/practical assessments running wild in Guilliman’s mind. And did I mentioned we see Primarch Fulgrim in all his chaotic glory? One of the best depictions of the Daemonic Primarch ever.

Then we have a time-jump up to the 41st millennium and the Dark Imperium, right at the end of the Indomitus Crusade. Guy Haley wanted to address not only the state of Imperium. The great new Warp Rift — but also one of the main points of the W41K — Primaris Marines. How do they tick, what kind of formations the Primaris Space marines fought in before being assigned to existing or new Chapters. Hence we have the Unnumbered Sons – or Greyshields, as they are informally known. There’s a lot of mystery yet in the relationship between the Primaris and existing Space Marines, and many cool stories to explore and lore to uncover regarding their creation, integration with the Chapters and other fundamental questions, especially regarding the more exotic gene-seeds. But that would follow later in the upcoming novels.

One of the main focuses of the story continues with Guilliman. How he feels about this new Imperium drives the novel. I will quote author directly:
‘He’s a very different man to the character he was in the heresy. He’s had to change. The war he thought won is effectively still ongoing, 10,000 years later. The way I see it, Guilliman is a good man who is horrified by what has happened to his father’s dream, but he is also the Imperium’s last hope. I was itching to explore what that did to him’.

His interactions with other characters were also important in shaping this new, harder Guilliman, particularly regarding how he now sees the Emperor – or more accurately, how the Emperor saw and still sees him. The book further explores Roboute’s awkward alliance with the arrogant Belisarius Cawl, the Ultramarines, previous Chapter master Marneus Calgar; and the strange and delightfully difficult relationship with the Adeptus Ministorum; who, despite Guilliman’s immense misgivings, venerate him almost as much as they do the Emperor of Mankind. There are a lot of links and hints to the previous events of the W40K and the Scouring, some strange descriptive moments of the Dark Imperium, and on. All in all the novel has a story in itself.

From another great point of view, the end of the Indomitus Crusade is finished with the Triumph for the 13th Primarch, and the repeated the flow of the Ullanor Triumph. And the author has done it splendidly, especially in comparison to Ullanor.

But that leads us to one of the novel big issues. The dialogues in ‘Dark Imperium’ are the worst from all of Haley’s novels combined. Strict, blank, uninteresting, with plain hints made just because (We know why — cause it’s advert for the 8th edition, Imperium Nihilis, and new models).

Description and style.
Guy Haley is a talented author. And that is beyond doubt. He always tries to describe events or characters or places in the most detailed style possible. And usually he is amazingly good in that. Same goes with Dark Imperium. For example, while explaining the workings of the Ultramar realm, and how Guilliman provided a structured organization to medical protocols for the wounded and sick. Scenes from Iax, with the complete and detailed description of quarantine and contamination protocols are beyond awesome. They have it all — struggles against sickness, the nihilism of the universe, competent and ‘inhuman’ medicaes, virulent pathogens, and strict procedures.

And it would have been amazing — if not for the same style being applied to everything else. The scenes with the Primarch walking to the place of communication with Cawl at Macragge’s Honour, and the descriptiveness of the machine he uses for it… Prolonged and pointless description of cathedrals and trenches, etc. Repeated and absolutely blank bolter-porn scenes with Primaris marines, which differs from the norm only in the presentation of a new ‘model’ to the table.

As you could guess — due to the book being a supplement to the 8th edition with the new lore and Primaris Marines, it contains a lot of descriptive moments on how do they look, tick, and fight. Haley went into the scrupulous details on how each armor type looks, how new bolter rifles work; their fire rate, range, and tempo; how the armor contingent is supported, on how the doctrine of the aerial insertion works, and etc. It is written with meticulous style and to the tiniest details. But in all that he lost the point in what the difference is between the Primaris and “Old” marines. How they differ on characters and experience level. He tried to correct that mistake by adding Aurora Chapter Librarian to a Primaris contingent. The old Librarian explains the horrors and dangers of the Warp to the Primaris like to a small child in the kindergarten. But these scenes are few and rare and eventually do not provide us with all the needed depth of the Primaris/SM characters.

But most of all, issues of description and writing style are superficial compared with the novel’s struggle with it’s own structure. I did not expect Haley to create a ‘boring’ book, but that’s actually what happened. 4 chapters of really blank dialogue leads to even more uninspiring ‘fight time’ scenes with the Primaris marines.

The main character of the novel is Roboute Guilliman himself. Prince Regent, Lord Regent, Primarch Reborn, Avenging Son, etc. You could expect for him to be a contradictory and divisive figure — but he is absolutely straightforward. In general his character in the ‘DI’ ranges from the pitiless self-doubt and selfity to the top levels of rage and logic. Yes — some people could be that way, but usually — the ones with this scope of characteristics are insane.

On the other note we have a good retrospective on the Emperor from the point of view of one of his most loyal sons. Guilliman realized that he was nothing but a tool to the Emperor – and understands why. (How Horus Heresy will handle that, we will see). He has come across as understanding the dangers of Chaos, and even notes that he feels the same about his new ‘unwanted’ sons (Primaris). How does he go about keeping that from his sons? Do they start to realize it? That wasn’t shown yet; but probably will be described later in the follow-up novels.

Hopefully his practical/theoretical dialogue concerning the Emperor’s godhood dies a horrible death. This is Guilliman we are talking about; he saw what happened the last time a Primarch worshiped the Emperor.

Another character is a Primaris Space Marine — Captain Tetrarch Felix. He is the speaker for the Primaris chapters under Guilliman, a captain without company and a tool Guilliman molds during the Indomitus Crusade to his needs and to the future needs of the Ultramar realm. And — that’s actually all what we could say about him. The author failed to create a memorable character in him. All we get is another neophyte SM/sergeant/would-be captain, which differs from the old SM only with the height and armor. Armor of soul, and armor of body. What Haley was able to describe right in his case — is the level of naivety all the Primaris Marines suffer in this new, ‘non-so grimdark’ setting.

From the old cohort Guy Haley uses Marneus Calgar in all his glory, and in quite an unexpected situation with social riot. This one went as one of the high notes of the story.
Next we have an Astra Militarum trooper named Varens, through whom we saw how the simple citizens of the Imperium society and soldiery are coping with the Imperium Nihilis, Warp war, and all that happened since the Gathering Storm. And mind you — this is a soldier of Ultramar realm. A realm that, in all the Imperium, deals the most kindly with humans.

Through Varens’ eyes we cope with the war fatigue, sickness, despair. Through his eyes we see the new quarantine and guard protocols set at Ultramar and the Imperium in general. Through his eyes we see what a lovely ‘joy’ it is to live in that time.
Also we have the continuation of a bad tradition of putting old characters created by an author as fan-filler-service everywhere. It’s McNeill’s  fault that this ‘tradition’ is now in almost every BL book (he started it in his HH/W40K continuum). But now we have Uriel Ventris appear like a devil from the bush? He appeared in 1/3 of a chapter for a pointless dialogue without any really good reason. In all honesty I could smell the model coming for the tabletop range.

From the ‘other’ side we have only a quick POV chapter with Daemon Lord Ku’Gath, Mortarion and Typhus — but that’s only 1 chapter. All other Nurgle characters are no-names added simply as an obstacle for the Primaris Marines and Guilliman to overcome.
All in all we have a full range of characters — some of them blank, some investigated in full, but mainly that’s not the best cast of characters from Guy Haley.

And thus we get to the point of what went wrong with this book; and it is a long list. Let me say this — it is not a ‘badly’ written novel. It is a book that suffers from trying to be all things at once and failing in each separate point completely. And ,as you could figure, it doesn’t particularly work as a whole. So let’s move on to some major points.

1. First of all, it suffers from the point of being a first book in the series. As Guy Haley said himself, it ‘doesn’t end with Dark Imperium’. The novel is part one of a series, so there’ll be more to come from him on the matters of Guilliman, Cawl, the Primaris Space Marines, and Mortarion. The problem in that is that ‘DI’ is like a TV show premiere episode. And from the point of being a starter it should be good, but… it gives too much unexplained stuff and time-jumps. In case of a TV episode, people simply would have dropped watching it at all.

Trying to unite everything in 1 book didn’t work in this particular case.
2. Issues with retconned lore. And here we have another issue – when you start a ‘new universe’ over the still-breathing corpse of an old one. BL published a lot of novels in the W40K setting through the years with them following a lore set in stone. So just imagine the point like Guilliman driving his fleet from the bridge of ‘Macragge’s Honour’; the Gloriana class flagship… For the people who doesn’t know lore I will explain — Macragge’s Honour was Guilliman flagship (one of the unique 20 ships presented to the Primarchs) in the Great Crusade and Horus Heresy. During the HH events it was lost in the warp while pursuing Infidus Imperator of Kor Phaeron after the Calth debacle. As old lore stated and BL books (in our case Ultramarines series about Ventris) in the W40K the Ultramarines have 2 SM battlebarges as flagships — Caesar and Octavius. But guess what — it was all retconned. As it stands from the Dark Imperium, Guilliman drives his new fleet from the bridge of Macragge’s Honour’, which was kicking from some moment after the Primarch’s wound in M31K! What? If that’s the case — some of the old events and battle for Ultramar against M’kar in the Ultramarines series would have been ended before they even started. With the Gloriana flagship leading Ultramarines fleet. Sigh… And that’s just one example how small retcons could ruin the immersion into the setting.

It almost seems that GW doesn’t think that fans have imagination and/or lore knowledge; and should take everything on face value.

3. But most of all the novel struggle with it’s own structure. I did not expect from Haley to create a ‘boring’ book, but that’s actually what happened. 4 chapters of really blank dialogue leads to an even more uninspiring ‘fight time’ scenes with the Primaris marines. In general there are too much ‘water’ and too few the important events.

4. Primaris Marines characters are absolutely forgettable and have zero difference with good old battle-brothers from the Space Marines chapters. The author has failed to show the real difference between the old generation of Astartes and the new one of the Unnumbered Sons. What Guy was able to show is that Roboute uses them as a first resort now and as prominent tools.

5. Roboute Guilliman as a character. If I haven’t read about the ‘reborn’ Primarch character traits in the GS trilogy I would have asked the author why he wrote a mutant merged from Perturabo’s and Fugrim’s character traits? But I did read GS — so that line of constant self-doubt and suffering was not a surprise.

But how that goes in every chapter in which Guilliman appears, how he doubts his every decision – well, that was a little overboard. I do like theological disputes on Gods and Universe — but here author used too much of that. You can’t create a good novel if almost every chapter leads to some theological or practical dispute, proclamation, etc. It became boring very quickly. A novel, even a philosophical one, should at least try to be entertaining — for fans to ‘want to read’ the book. Not to fell asleep while doing it. But that connected with the con #3. And the horrible boredom of Guilliman’s self-doubt. Geez — he became even worse then Fulgrim in all his peacock’s pride and vanity.

As a last point to the Primarch figure I have had enough of Guilliman for a LONG WHILE. It would be good to read the next novel about anyone else, simply not him.

6. Cawl — that magos is like a new boogeyman of the Imperium Nihilis and what goes afterwards. He appeared in the GS trilogy out of a bush and from where he is a constant reminder of a new setting. He popup at every major event, has continuous disputes with the Primarch and desire to be a Fabricator General of Mars. Cawl the heretek, Cawl the xenos collaborator want to be a Fabricator General of Mars — right… I am still curious as to why Mars has not attacked and annihilated him in all the 112 years of the Indomitus crusade… Sigh. Usually characters that important have a solid background to them, created and explained through the set of stories and supplements. But not in this case.

7. Everything that is happening on the other side of the new Warp Rift that bisected the Imperium space is simply left to float in the vacuum. It is all mentioned just in one sentence.

8. Overuse of titles and grandeur. After several chapters you would be tired to read the start of another dialog with the list of repeated titles all over again. It’s like the author was tasked to drill the titles lineage and pathos into the brains of the reader. Any new appearing character has a presentation with a list to his name. Humans, marines, daemons — everyone…

9. Sisters of Silence — they just popup from nowhere and are numerous. Haley tried to explain that they were almost destroyed during the HH, Scouring, and the Beast War but some conclaves (dozens of sisters only survived) existed up to W40K and Roboute Guilliman tried to reinstate the institution. But numerous? They never were. Actually that’s the best example of how GW model sales influence the writing. Because new Imperial Contingent, because new models to sell, etc.

10. Daemons being more Demonic. Yes, Guy Haley has done some scary aspects for them, but chapters about Ku’gath arrival was a bad comedy instead of horror. Sometimes daemons could be funny — nothing wrong with that, but then you write about daemonic invasion and all the horror, despair and disaster to follow you write a ‘horror catastrophe’ story, not a dark comedy.

There are a lot of small issues, but if I start mentioning them — it would take a novella to fully cover each of them. So let’s leave it with the major ones.

Dark Imperium is not a bad novel, because it’s not a novel at all — it is an advertisement of new models in a reworked and retconned setting. As thus if we give rating to it as for the ‘codex supplement’ — it get’s 4 out of 5 stars.
If you insist that it is a novel in the new ‘not-so grimdark’ W41K — well, I cannot in all my good humor (or parts of it which left after reading DI) give it more than 3 stars out of 5.

Anyway Guy Haley did all he could to unite codex supplement and a novel, to make happy all the Ultramarines fans, to give at least something for the Death Guard side and create a lodestone for the new Warhammer 40000 in 8th edition.

And for that alone he deserves a ‘thank you’, because that was a monumental task.