In dedicato deus imperatum ultra articulo mortis
Well, now… through the power of friends abroad, I unexpectedly received an advance copy of Rob Sanders’ Legion of of the Damned shortly after Christmas. Upon picking it up, I found myself so enthralled by it that I almost missed my plans for New Year’s Eve. However, with social embarrassment neatly and barely averted, it’s time for a review.
‘BELOW THERE BE SPOILERS. PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK’
First and foremost, this book is the most shameless case of title misappropriation since Prospero Burns, so it’s only fitting that I make this point explicitly clear in advance.
For all intents and purposes, this is an Excoriators novel through and through, centered on one Zachariah Kersh. Nonetheless, if you’re willing to overlook the misnomer, you’ll find this to be an enjoyable read, and a great deal of new and interesting information on a previously undeveloped chapter.
So, who are the Excoriators? Until now, all we had for them was a brief mention that they were one of the twenty Chapters of Astartes Praeses, standing vigil around the Eye of Terror. But, as it turns out, they are sons of Dorn, and their first Chapter Master - Demetrius Katafalque – had once roamed the battlefields at the primarch’s side, which would make them a Second or Third founding chapter at most. For ten thousand years, they stand vigil over the Occularis Terriblus from their homeworld of Eschara.
And, like all self-respecting Imperial Fists successors, they have their own traditions, obviously related to self-inflicted punishment. Most notable of these would be the ‘Rites of Castigation’ and ‘donning of Dorn’s mantle’, the latter of which involves ritual mortification of the flesh, particularly on the neck and shoulders. And, while on that particular note, it is worth mentioning that it is a matter of honor for the Excoriators to somehow maintain their scars open and show their battle damage with pride, in a way that reminds me of the Triumph Rope, or Lucius the Eternal’s early style. However, these guys take the practice to a whole new level, in that they do not concern themselves with just the wounds of the flesh. Dents, gashes and scrapes in their power armour are carefully conserved, and notable damage is marked with the date and campaign where it occurred. Needless to say, this has the potential to create a disconcerting look, when one considers the chapter’s cream-coloured power armor.
Aside from the morbid fascination for pain and ritual scarring, the Excoriators are a fairly pragmatic chapter. As Kersh himself remarks, they are attrition fighters. Not for them the Fists’ bombastic last stands or the Templars’ relentless advance and indiscriminate purges. And, given that they’ve managed to survive and thrive for ten millennia in close proximity to the Eye of Terror, this approach seems to be working for them…
The protagonist, as I’ve mentioned above, is Zachariah Kersh, the Scorge – standar bearer and bodyguard to Chapter Master Ichabod. However, things have definitely not been going well for the Scourge lately. Recently, he has failed to stop the Alpha Legion from crippling the Chapter Master and making off with the Stigmartyr, the ancient Chapter banner, dating back to the days of the 7th Legion. This proves to be a devastating blow to the battle-brothers’ morale, and the cause of many problems for the Chapter prior to the events of the book. It also makes Kersh a persona non-grata in the eyes of his brothers. To make matters worse, the Scourge now finds himself afflicted by the Darkness – a condition in which he is constantly reliving Dorn’s darkest hour, when he finds the crippled Emperor on the bridge of the Vengeful Spirit. While it is not clear whether the Darkness caused Kersh’s recent failures or was triggered by them, the implication is that this is not a unique occurrence, although far from the inevitable Black Rage or Red Thirst of the Blood Angels.
At any rate, following all these unfortunate events, the Scourge is placed in stasis, only to find himself begrudgingly awoken by his peers as their last chance to win the famous Feast of Blades, in a desperate bid to restore some of the Chapter’s rapidly declining morale.
I’ll take a break from the main plot in order to say a few words about the Feast itself. Although it’s a previously established piece of the fluff, I feel that Mr. Sanders has really done a good job filling in some blanks. First of all, this tradition was established and first presided over by Rogal Dorn himself, immediately after the Iron Cage, in order to foster brotherhood between the various chapters that resulted from splitting his legion. Tradition has the Feast as centennial tournament where each of the participating chapters presents ten champions and a series of individual fights are scheduled, until only one clear winner remains. Apparently, the chapter that claims victory in the Feast is allowed to schedule another one before a hundred years have passed, in order to further capitalize on their success, and this is the case with the 816th edition that takes place at the start of the book. The location of the Feast needs to be the site of a victory earned by the organizing chapter, in this case Samarquand IV, an Ork held world in the middle of what might just be the only non-expansive greenskin empire in the Galaxy, where the Imperial Fists had successfully completed a regional purge. Also, given the origins of the Feast, all individual matches are held in an arena that closely mimics the treacherous conditions of the Iron Cage – going so far as to shift the geometry of the field during battles. There are also rules of conduct in place to ensure an honorable fight, but these do not seem too effective at preventing accidental casualties. In fact, accidental deaths seem to be overlooked, while deliberate debilitation is rather vocally objected against.
So it is under these circumstances that, with a heavy heart, the chapter decides to risk waking the Scourge, as a desperate bid to salvage some honor, after seven of their competitors have been defeated early in the tournament, and the other two are hopelessly outclassed by their upcoming match-ups. It takes a risky intervention to the catalepsean node in order to bring Kersh out of the Darkness, and into something resembling a functional state. Shortly after, the Scourge begins to see things – a revenant in midnight black power armour that shadows him at every step – and questions the effectiveness of the procedure. Still, despite all his concerns and protests, the reluctant Kersh is pressured into fighting in the Feast by the very brothers that despise him. Long story short, his performance in the tournament causes the Excoriators to win the Feast of Blades for the first time, despite a debatable move that pits him in a three way duel with the Black Templars and Imperial Fists champions. The victorious Kersh is scheduled to return to Eschara with the prized Dornsblade to show for their triumph.
However, new orders from Chapter Master Ichabod change things for Zachariah, when he is given captaincy of the Fifth Company. To put things in context, the Fifth is now at half strength and lacking a captain, after a mission to retrieve the Stigmartyr turned out to be a carefully planned Alpha Legion ambush. Kersh is now in charge of the battered remains of a company that hates him, with only the Apothecary who brought him back from the brink of madness as an ally. To make matters worse, he is constantly questioning his sanity – due to the constant haunting by a phantom Astartes – as well as his suitability for a command position.
His first mission as Corpus-Captain is not the revenge against the Alpha Legion that every battle-brother longs for, but a distress call from an obscure cemetery world where a pyramid of skulls has just emerged from the lake. The world held no strategic importance whatsoever, however ancient oaths and the tomb of an Ecclesiarc and High Lord of Terra contributed to the Chapter master deploying the Fifth to such an ignominious goal, and the Scourge had every intention of not failing him again.
This strange phenomenon leads Kersh to postpone revenge even further, when word that a sizeable Khornate Crusade, known as the Cholerchaust, is making way to the graveworld in the tail of comet emerging from the Eye of Terror after ten millennia. Much to the company’s dismay, he orders a defiant last stand against the invaders, and strands his forces on the world by sending their apothecary and their crippled strike cruiser to a Forge World out of the comet’s path.
Needless to say, the weight of the Khornate assault far exceeds Kersh’s estimates, and things start looking grim, when the titular Legion of the Damned makes an unexpected appearance in the very last chapter of the book, stopping the Blood Crusade in its tracks, leaving us to piece the last details in the epilogue.
All in all, it was a terribly enjoyable read, and Rob Sanders has clearly shown that he certainly knows his way around the 41st millennium.
Character development is strong, especially for the Scourge and Apothecary Ezrachi. But the Scourge in particular gets a lot of screen time, and we get to see multiple paragraphs in first person. He tries to make sense of the revenant constantly stalking him. He tries to reconcile his background as a guard dog with the requirements for diplomacy and politics that his new position demands. He expresses his trust and distrust in various brothers under his command. He occasionally remarks on mortals’ feelings, even when he’s sincerely surprised by their reactions. Even more, he genuinely sympathizes with some of them, such as the Pontifex of the cemetery world. He even expresses displeasure with the penchant for formalities and squeamishness of the other champions at the Feast of Blood.
There is also a fitting recurrence of motifs centered on death or ritual punishment. Take, for instance, the non-codex titles used by the Excoriators. Corpus-Captain and Squad Whip are the exact terms used to designate a Captain and a Sergeant. The ritual scarring and mortification of the flesh are also good examples of this, as are the choices for some of the names (such as Chapter Master Ichabod, the strike cruiser Angelica Mortis, and even the protagonist’s moniker – The Scourge). But without a doubt, the concept of a cemetery world is the most brilliant addition that Mr. Sanders has come up with so far. Not only does it fit in seamlessly with the whole death mythos, but also it’s a crazy concept that perfectly illustrates the Imperium in all its “grim darkness”. To put things into a context, it’s a planet that supplies one thing and one thing only. That commodity is temporary funeral arrangements for those who can afford to pay for a few decades of their afterlife on the same planet as a long-dead Ecclesiarch. How cool is that? After the defense of the inverted fortress in the Iron Within short story, Rob Sanders manages to surprise me with yet another awesome concept that just fits so well in the 40K background, that I have to wonder why it wasn’t there in the first place.
• Kersh ordering his scouts to open fire on the retinue of the Ecclesiarchy officials who had just tried to coerce him. His pretense? The heresy of keeping men under arms. He also delivers a killer speech about the Emperor’s supposed divinity.
• Everything the particular Damned Legionnaire stalking Kersh ever does.
• Kersh replacing his lost eye with a simple ball-bearing, because he didn’t want to risk the time to adjust to the perception change a bionic implant would incur half way through the Feast of Blades
• The Legion of the Damned making their appearance in orbit and dealing with the Khornate fleet. By blowing up the comet they were hiding behind.
• Various scenes from the last chapter, as the Damned legionnaires clean up the berzerkers on the ground. All examples are based around materializing and dematerializing at the right time.
• When the Imperial forces finally arrive, the Excoriators were not responding to any distress call looking for their missing company. They were looking for the Dornblade.
• The World Eaters' behavior once the invasion goes full tilt. First they throw in the cultists, then the renegade chapters (such as the Goremongers and Skull Takers). Only then do the actual survivors of the Heresy drop in, when all that's left still fighting is likely to be worthy opposition
• The minor Ordo Obsoletus that shows up in the first chapter is not really expanded on. Current speculation is that it specializes in miracles.
• The Feast of Blades, while enjoyable, seemed to drag on for far too long, detracting from what could have been more screen time for the Legion of the Damned
• We don’t really get a conclusion to the Chapter Master Ichabod / Alpha Legion / Stigmartyr subplots. Even though after the epilogue there is a quote where the source is listed as Chapter Master Zachariah Kersh, of the Excoriators Space Marine Chapter, a few words about what happened after would have been nice
• Some ideas seem to be repeated a bit too often, as if to make sure the point is driven home. One such example is the mention that the Excoriators are attrition fighters. Granted, nothing comparable to the infamous wet leopard growl, but still, it might be slightly bothersome.
Definitely one of the better books out there, provided you don’t mind the minimal screen time of the actual Legion of the Damned. It successfully combines an interesting protagonist with decent fight scenes and to top it all off, it uses a previously unknown chapter to achieve all of this.