In the far-flung grimdark future, the Emperor of Mankind sought to unite the fractured and isolated colonies of humanity under his rule. To help in his plans, he created twenty sons, the Primarchs, genetically-engineered demigods who would serve as enlightened governors and inspired generals. To each, he gave a legion of space marines, medically augmented supersoldier monks bearing the best arms and armors the Emperor of Mankind could craft. Two of these sons, the Emperor erased from history. Nine more fell sway to the Ruinous Powers of Chaos. The battles where brother fought against brother and father against son, known as the Horus Heresy, tore the universe apart. At the end of that war, the traitors were chased out of the galaxy, the loyalist sons lay dead or in hiding, and the Emperor of Mankind was entombed in the Golden Throne, his mind still living within a rotting shell. Bereft of the guidance of God-Emperor and Primarch, mankind slipped into millennia of stagnancy, superstition, and decay, besieged on all sides by aliens and the servants of Chaos.
Then, at the end of the 41st Millennium, the unthinkable happened. A loyalist Son of the Emperor came home.
For years, gamers and readers of the Warhammer 40k universe have grown frustrated as the story remained stuck at the year 999 of the 41st Millennium. Now, with the release of the 8th Edition rules on the 17th of June, the setting has leapt a century forward into the 42nd Millennium, with Guy Haley’s Dark Imperium as the first of the novels exploring the new setting. Primarch Roboute Guilliman might have returned, but instead of heralding a new age of renewed progress, he fights to reunite his father’s empire after a giant rift in space has cut off half of the empire from all contact with Earth. To impede his efforts, the Plague God Nurgle unleashes his demons against Guilliman’s home sector of Ultramar–including the traitor primarch Mortarion and his legion of fallen space marines. As plague and invasion ravages the 500 worlds of Ultramar, Guilliman marshals his forces to drive out the forces of Chaos and reclaim the worlds for Man.
Tie-in novels have one goal: move merchandise. In the case of Star Trek and pre-Disney Star Wars, this merchandise might be the books themselves. Dark Imperium is designed instead to get the reader to buy the Warhammer 40k miniature game, specifically the boxed set of the same name. To do so, it had to introduce the new line of models, a group of even more super supersoldiers known as Primaris Marines, and set them against the plague-spreading marines of Nurgle and Mortarion. With the players set to decide the fate of Ultramar in a worldwide gaming campaign this summer, Dark Imperium could only set the stage as the roll of dice on tabletops will drive the ongoing plot, and it suffers for it. More time is spent on exploring the setting than moving towards the inevitable clash between brother primarchs. Alas, that fight between superheavyweights is reserved for a planned sixth sequel.
To better explore the changes, Dark Imperium follows three characters. Roboute Guilliman’s struggle to organize his sector and his forces gives a high level view of the politics and strategy of the Imperium of Man. Guilliman is an Enlightenment philosopher in a time of static religion, and is unaware that many of the fault lines emerging in the Imperium are of his own creation. At the operational level, Captain Felix leads the Primaris Marines in a clash of elite formations against Mortarion’s marines, attempting to root out the plague engines sickening entire worlds. And down in the mud and the blood, where mortal men drop like flies, Guardsman Varens suffers the diseases and the strangeness of Chaos warping the world around him, not realizing that he is slowly changing into one of Nurgle’s plague-bearing monstrosities. Of these three, only Varens’ story has any emotional weight. Not only is it the only story to find a conclusion, Haley’s sentence-smithing gives a haunting beauty to the guardsman’s descent into demonhood. Felix and Guilliman’s stories instead rely on the novelty of a changed setting, but once that’s worn away, the politics and combat lack the tension and urgency of Starship Troopers, Armor, A Hymn Before Battle, or even Old Man’s War. Once the fluff and story fans have spoiled the setting details online and the new rulebooks develop the setting even further, only the war remains. And, for a grimdark future where there is only war, no conflict can afford to be this dull.
Last time I looked at a volume from the Black Library, one of our commenters, Mark said, “aside from the odd gem amidst the dross, Black Library’s offerings are generally not that great.” Dark Imperium is not one of those odd gems. And, since the Black Library insists on charging Big Five publishing prices for its ebooks and books, it may be quite some time before I return.