Imperial Glory by Richard Williams
Imperial Glory by Richard Williams
What to say about this book? At the surface it is nothing more than a tale of a regiment of the Imperial Guard dealing with an infestation of feral Orks on a human inhabited world that has had little involvement with the Imperium for many years. It’s not the heroic Space Marines, nor is it the mysterious Eldar; nor the treacherous Chaos Marines. It’s about bog standard men.
Have I put you off yet? I hope not.
I lied a bit. It’s not about bog standard men. The story concerns the Brimlock Eleventh Regiment. They are a regiment of men that have been at war for twenty years. An opening monologue written by one of the characters sets the tone well (paraphrased): Of every ten men, nine were not tough enough; of every ten that were tough enough, nine were not smart enough; and of every ten men that were smart enough, nine were not lucky enough. And so it goes on. This pulled me in straight away.
The heart of the story for me lies quite far from the Orks and battle. It is about men of different stations making their choices, trying to make their way and trying to live (or simply endure) despite the efforts of their superiors. The key question the author proposes is whether twenty years of warfare makes or breaks a man.
And that’s where I should start. The story works because of the characters. Richard Williams has done a great job with them and I believe that they are the strongest element of the book. There are many strong characters that feel like real people with multiple POV perspectives that real give you an insight into the characters both from within and without. It feels like the author really took effort to inject individuality and life into a solid dozen characters. Against the back drop of a dark history that is slowly revealed throughout the novel you have the Major that was once a great hero, but has now become indecisive and feeble as he wishes to rely on past glories to preserve his entitlement to retirement; the insubordinate Colonel that is loved by his men, but despised by officers for past transgressions; the Captain that feels this war is the last opportunity to prove himself and win his ticket home; and many more memorable characters. Each of these characters takes a psychological journey through the novel with some carving their own paths and others getting dragged to their fates. Whether you like or dislike a character for their choices, it’s easy to empathise with all of them.
My favourite character has to be Major Stanhope. We first meet him in trooper uniform, slumped down in front of the fire, on the floor of the officer’s bar. He is a drug addicted waster that initially appears irresponsive, irresponsible and lazy, but even in that first meeting we see something more of him. Another officer challenges him to a duel and Stanhope clumsily fumbles for his sword ; however, the officer see Stanhope’s weapon and realises that Stanhope is a ‘bloody fell-cutter’; the officer scarpers in fright, whilst Stanhope is still trying to figure out what’s going on. This initial snapshot gives us a flavour of the great man he might once have been, the shadow of the man he now is, and sufficient intrigue so that we want to follow him.
I should perhaps next talk about the Orks. I do genuinely feel that they are not hugely important to the plot beyond their role as the catalyst for conflict between characters and the progression of the story. However, the Orks in the novel are dealt with in two ways that were quite pleasing. Firstly, they are given a POV chapter, which takes us into the mind of an Ork from birth to elevation to Warboss. We get to see something of what motivates an Ork and what drives them together to the Waagh. The second positive element is the author’s portrayal of the Orks. They are powerful, vicious, cruel and packed with low-cunning; they are stripped of their all too common clown-like portrayal. The author deserves praise for making the Orks more than a joke element to the universe.
The handling of the battles is another positive point to the book. I am really not a fan of flowery longwinded descriptions of warfare (or much else for that matter!); I tend to get bored by this sort of thing and scan down to the dialogue. However, all of the action is tied tightly to the characters. It’s what the characters are seeing and reacting to. This means that the action scenes are fairly limited and purposeful to the plot.
The weaker elements to the novel are the plot and its structure. The plot is not bad; it’s just fairly average. Whilst the characters did feel individually threatened at times, I never felt that the Orks would win. There was no climactic nail biting finish; it largely went the way of the guards throughout. The bigger danger for the characters came from within. My complaint about the plot largely ties to the structure. What I would describe as the big battle occurs about two-thirds into the book and the remainder is a mop up of the character journeys. There is an event that concludes the book, but it felt a little weaker than the earlier events. Also, the Orks as a character opportunity are not brought in until quite near to the end of the book. Personally, I think it may have assisted the flow if this had been done earlier. That being said the final part of the final chapter of the book did hit me emotionally and it did surprise me. It took everything that had gone before and wrapped it up in an extremely satisfying, if not clichéd, way.
In conclusion I feel that the strength of the book primarily lies in the characters and the structure of the plot is the weaker element of the book. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes a good character story and it is an excellent entry level novel to those less familiar with the 40k-verse.