Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Ultramarines Omnibus review

I considered posting this on my main blog, but I decided to keep the reviews and rants in one place. Warning, lots of spoilers.

I recently finished the Ultramarines omnibus. This is a Black Library collection of 3 novels and a short story about the Ultramarines chapter written by Graham McNeill. Black Library omnibuses probably have the best value of anything in a Games Workshop. But I suppose that's subjective at the end of the day. But I digress. The book follows Uriel Ventris, captain of the fourth company of the Ultramarines. I shall review each story individually.

The initial short story,'Chains of Command', essentially introduces us to Uriel Ventris, telling us something of his character and how he became captain. I liked this story, it dealt with a relatively small yet important conflict (if it was not important then it is unlikely that any Adeptus Astartes would have been involved at all) allowing it to focus on the characters themselves. The themes it dealt with, rigid adherence to established methods and dogma versus free thinking is a central theme in Warhammer 40K that is a driving force behind many of the different factions and indeed the history of the 40K universe.

But perhaps more significantly in this case, it is actually a real issue for the Ultramarines themselves. Not so much in the fictional universe, but rather in the perception of hobbyists towards the Ultramarines chapter. Ultramarines are seen as the 'default' 40K Space Marines. The Space Marine codex always refers to them first, even featuring them on the cover. Most of the non faction-specific Space Marine miniature figures used by Games Workshop for advertising purposes are painted as Ultramarines. Many of the miniatures actually have Ultramarine iconography molded in.

All of this, coupled with their simple but appealing colour scheme, makes them in effect the 'starters' Space Marine army. The hobby of miniature painting and modeling (if perhaps not the actual wargaming aspect) draws a lot of people with a creative nature. They want to experiment, create armies that appeal to their own tastes and are as unique as possible. Therefore the idea of a 'standard' army or colour scheme is naturally of-putting to them. This makes the Ultramarines unpopular amongst long-term hobbyists, they are seen as boring and unimaginative.

So the idea of an Ultramarine who doesn't always follow the rules, doesn't always do things by the book, is important. In essence he's breaking the Ultramarines stereotype. This makes him interesting, which is significant because it helps make the Ultramarines interesting again. They're no longer the faceless standard. For those who can see past the gimmicky Space Wolves and Blood Angels, the Ultramarines have hidden depths. At least that is the idea that I believe the Author wanted to convey, and which he has spoken about in interviews (see, I'm not just making this stuff up).

To sum it all up, a good story that does a good job of establishing the protagonist and is especially significant to the Ultramarines themselves.

The second story in the book, Nightbringer, is in fact the first full-length Space Marines novel. This a good story, and it complements the first in that it picks up soon after and continues the evolution of Uriel himself. However, it has some significant flaws.

Surprisingly, it seems spend more time following characters other than the Ultramarines themselves. This is not really a mistake if you consider that the novel was initially published on it's own, at which time it may not have been planned as the first of a trilogy, in fact it's title doesn't relate to the Ultramarines in any way, but it does make it feel a little out of place here. The story does a good job of describing a planet suffering from rapidly escalating internal strife, split by internal politics. Unfortunately in this scenario Space Marines are of little help, and in the first half of the book they are somewhat peripheral to the story. It's only when things come to a head and all-out war erupts that that Ultramarines start to have a real influence on proceedings, and even then the book continues to follow a number of non-Marine characters as well.

And while there's a variety of 'villain' characters, most of them are not very intimidating an, to be honest, don't really seem very intelligent. This ties in to my other real complaint about this story; there's far too many missing pieces. We never really understand how the villains learned of the Nightbringer, it's location and how to wake it, or how they came up with their plan, why they thought they could control it, or even how they met or why they didn't turn on each other near the end when they didn't need each other anymore (especially since the main factions had revealed to the reader their desire to eliminate the other when feasible). It never even explained what could possibly have possessed them to believe that the Nightbringer would give them the power they sought.

I was also somewhat let down by the end, it didn't feel like a victory when the ancient being of incredible power and evil that was so terrifying that it had entered the hereditary memory of all the races in the galaxy, essentially being the stuff that our nightmares are, quite literally, made of, was awoken and freed to roam the universe. So why was everyone acting as if they had achieved some kind of victory and everything was fine now? In fact, Uriel had an opportunity to trap the Nightbringer once more, possibly even kill it (by my logic, destroying part of the mechanism that it used to sleep through the millennia and trapping it some ten miles underground, since it's no longer in hibernation and in a weakened state, may be enough to kill it or cause it to die from starvation). All he had to do was sacrifice himself and his brothers, but he chose not to. The jerk.

Overall a good read, but it feels out of place in a book titled 'The Ultramarines'.

The third story, 'Warriors of Ultramar', was easily my favorite. I believe Tyranids are a difficult race to write. You can't talk about their motivations because they only have one: eat everything. You can't write about their history, because we don't know it. You can't show them discussing plans and arguing amongst themselves, because they are all telepathically controlled by a single hive-mind.

Graham McNeill, however, manages it very successfully. He makes them interesting by describing how they operate as a biological weapon, and by giving them a surprising degree of intelligence. Perhaps most importantly, he does a good job of making them a terrible enemy, and writing about how the heroes triumph against the odds.

This time the Ultramarines are pivotal to the story from start to finish. Uriel himself continues to grow and change, and proves to be somewhat more effective this time around, relying on both his intelligence and strength. That's not to say that we don't see anyone else; there are a number of memorable supporting characters who's presence enriches the story. In fact this is something that I feel was done particularly well; we are introduced to many characters early on, and we continue to catch glimpses over the course of the book. Some of them prove to be important to the big picture, others are tangential but provide flavor and dimension to the story.

Overall a great book, especially considering the rather difficult subject matter.

Unfortunately I did not enjoy the last novel; 'Dead Sky, Black Sun'. It seemed quite random and I found it hard to follow. I find it somewhat unlikely that a Space Marine captain would be excommunicated for making a battlefield decision to trust his men on their own and personally spearhead a dangerous yet vital mission.

But it seems that is Uriel's fate, and he is given an unlikely mission: destroy some random things that Chief Librarian Tigurius had a dream about. It's worth mentioning that Tigurius is a named codex character - the equivalent of a 40K celebrity, it would have been fitting to at least have a bit of time spent fleshing him out. But we don't get that, instead he gets a brief mention and two minimal lines of plot-driving dialogue. Anyway, in a nearly unbelievable display of lazy storytelling, Uriel is given a vague mission based on a dream. Rather than the Imperium getting hints of something happening, lives lost to bring vital information to Ultramar or some sort of actual story, some guy has a dream. We don't even get to see him have the dream. We don't even see him tell Uriel about the dream, we get Uriel reminiscing about him mentioning about the dream.

Still, the idea has potential for an epic tale. Vague hints of a growing evil on an unknown planet; they could have written whole books about the adventures he had searching for this place. Instead a Daemon (with the highly imaginative name 'Slaughterman') just pops onto their ship mid-transport, picks them up, and drops them off on right planet. I find it to be lazy and just downright bizarre (as well as raising a number of questions about how it was possible, how come daemons don't wreck Imperial transports on a regular basis if it's so easy, how the daemon knew what they were after, why this obviously powerful daemon couldn't find a more reliable group to carry out his bidding than two random space marines, etc). The story eventually explains the daemon's actions, but to be honest I failed to follow the explanation and was left somewhat lost.

Personally I found the imagery described in the book to be quite disturbing. I realise that the 40K universe is very dark and the disturbing imagery serves a purpose, but this was too much for me. And again, I found the end unsatisfying. At the words of a tortured Traitor Marine, the two former Ultramarines remove the sacred objects binding a daemon with the unlikely name of the Heart of Blood, thinking that this will kill it. Instead this frees the immensely powerful daemon (for some reason this surprises them?). After it manages to kill the Slaughterman, it is left unconscious on the floor from the effort. Now, when daemons are defeated they generally evaporate. So seeing it lying around is a pretty strong indication that it is probably still alive. It seemed logical to me that a Space Marine would want to take advantage of it's weakness to kill it, probably using the same sacred hook things used to chain it before. But Uriel just walks away. Consequently, the owner of the castle in which the Heart of Blood was imprisoned and tortured walks over, kicks it, introduces himself as the lord of this castle, and orders it to kill his enemies. Rather than ripping him apart for the agony he subjected it to, it actually does as he orders. Apart from the absurdity of that, the fact that it successfully kills an entire army of Chaos Space Marines, who were already on a war footing and had been building up sorcerous powers for weeks in preparation for an assault on the castle, begs the question: just how the hell did they imprison it in the first place?

While some may enjoy the setting of this story and the Chaos theme, I found the lazy writing and disturbing imagery, along with a number of plot devices that didn't make sense to me, left a bad taste in my mouth.

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