Finished The Beheading this morning and WOW!!! What a closer to the series, definitely my favourite entry in The Beast Arises as a whole.
It's been quite a year of releases, and the Beast is definitely a step in the right direction for Black Library. But admittedly the series had more than a few cons to balance out its pros, which i'll talk about in a moment. But first the aspects of the novels that I enjoyed;
The story was most probably the best part of the series. What I love most about 30k/40k novels is that the authors often defy expectations and prove that just because you've read a Codex or lore book does not mean you actually know what happened, you know what the Imperium thinks happened. But one of the cornerstones of 40k is that we have lost a lot of knowledge, both through decay over time and intentional purging. The books reveal what really happened, and given that prior to this lore for the War of the Beast was limited to knowledge that it happened and nearly destroyed the Imperium, but with no wider detail. From that has come one of the most exploratory series that Black Library has ever published, an Imperium we could barely recognize, finally seeing Holy Terra in all it's decrepit and faded glory, Space Marines we'd never heard of before with no idea why, the Orks resurging as a threat to be scared of (and who the hell wasn't scared of them after seeing the Beast?!), and many other great twists and turns that I never saw coming. Though admittedly at times the story felt a bit staggered or replayed, the multiple invasions of the Beast's world being the prime culprit, the rest of the series made up for it by not being afraid to go big and epic on what happened, which I feel worked as it made the series so much more exciting and reinforced how massive this conflict really was. Not every novel managed that though and at times it did feel a little smaller than it should be, mainly when the Imperium was having trouble raising the men to fight the Orks (an empire with a million worlds has trouble finding bodies?), but other novels captured a galaxy on fire, a chaotic war with no front, and an Imperium desperately trying to survive against the greatest xenos threat the galaxy has ever seen. Individually most of the novels told a great story, however a few felt rather rushed, and no more so than the penultimate and final novels, both of which featured galaxy changing events that were relegated to far too few pages. The end of the Beast and the Beheading deserved so much more page-time, but the series didn't allow for that which I think is a real shame as it made the former feel abrupt, anti-climactic and rushed, and the latter while really good felt as though it would have been better both narrative, character and action wise if it had been allowed more time to be established, explored and dealt with in-universe. Really a lot of the issues in the series stem from this, the novels were just too short.
The characters were probably the aspect that suffered the most from the choice of storytelling, mainly it was very hard to get attached to any of the supporting cast since the series didn't split itself between various casts as the Heresy does, hence the series has the same protagonists who needed to have most of the focus. Koorland, Vangorich, Bohemond, Thane, Wienand, Kalkator, Zerberyn, Veritus and Esad Wire were the only characters that I really found myself attached to since they were the only characters that had consistent screen-time and importance across the series, whereas the rest of the cast came and went as they were needed, which was obviously how it had to be, but it didn't help me care about them. As the series went on this was compounded by more and more characters being introduced, either dying off so quickly that it was pointless to be invested in them, or not appearing enough to really capture attention, and the few that did capture my attention (like Kjarik Stormcrow or Eldon Urquidex) only got so much appearances before they were side-lined in favour of the main cast again. What could have resolved this issue is the same thing that would have made the entire series better, the novels needed to be longer. Giving each novel a bigger story through wider pages would have allowed supporting characters more time to be explored, and including a Dramatis Personae would have helped as some characters appeared so little that I forgot who they were, and in one character's case I couldn't remember if she was a woman or a man until I looked it up. The main cast of the series was written very well, and consistently across all twelve novels which was no mean feat considering that no author did more than two books, but the supporting cast really needed more pages in order to be realized better than they were.
The action varied across the series. Some of it, like the Battle of Ardamantua, the Beheading itself, the Battle of Caldera, all three sieges of the Beast's World (the battle aspects of it), and the Battle of Prax, were fantastic and really captured the strength of the Astartes, and the raw power of the Orks. However others such as the infamous Harlequins vs Custodes battle or the entirety of Watchers in Death failed to meet the same standards, the former being an utterly godawful portrayal of the Adeptus Custodes and feeling much like a love-letter to the Harlequins, and the latter shockingly portraying Deathwatch Kill-Teams as fleet-killing, army-destroying, superweapons that across the entire book do not actually lose a single man, as if suddenly Space Marines become invincible if they are in a four-man mixed-chapter squad. Mostly though the battle sequences were great, especially when certain characters became involved, one in particular whose portrayal in battle was strikingly superior to most depictions of this character's "group" in the other series where they are leading members of the cast as it made him feel epic and nearly unstoppable on the battlefield.
-Quicker Releases: The monthly release schedule was a great choice for this series as it means the fans don't have to wait so long for the next release, it also makes the cliffhanger endings more tolerable as we knew it wouldn't be long before we could see what happened next.
-Exploring Beyond 30k/40k: It's been one of my most fervent wishes that Black Library would delve into the rich tapestry of events that separate 30k from 40k. The War of the Beast and The Beheading are just two events in ten thousand years of history, many of which would make superb novels or series, things like the Reign of Blood, the Nova-Terra Interregnum, the Howling, the 21st Founding, the Plague of Unbelief, the Abyssal Crusades, the Occlusiad. The list goes on. The Beast Arises is proof that a series set beyond the borders of 40k and the Horus Heresy is not only possible, but would be received well.
-Multiple Authors: This supports the quicker releases but it also means that no one author is responsible for the series. While this can also be a con, to me it means that if one novel in the series is weaker, it doesn't necessarily mean the others will be. Or if you don't like the works of one author involved, you may enjoy the others. A series with multiple authors means that the series will have a wider audience than just fans of one particular author, like most of BL's trilogies and stand-alone novels do.
-Multiple Books: The Beast Arises would not have worked as a trilogy, that much is clear right from the start. There was simply too much to show and tell, both story and lore wise. It could never have reached Heresy series numbers, but neither could the conventional three book option have worked either. After finishing the series I think that twelve books was the right number, even if some of the events could have used reworking, the overall number of books in the series was just right, enough to tell the story but not too much that the story risked being stretched out beyond what it could offer. Hopefully we may start seeing more longer series like this, it worked for Gotrek and Felix, Gaunt's Ghosts, and hopefully it will work for ADB's Black Legion series.
-Too short: Ultimately this is the biggest flaw in the series, each book is just too short. Black Library have begun focusing on shorter novel releases, to their detriment I believe as 200-240 pages is just not enough to give the events in the series enough room to be told. Multiple books across the series felt rushed, important events felt abruptly ended or anti-climactic after so much build-up, and several events in the series really needed more detail, particularly the events in the final half of the last book which used an abrupt time-skip (which the author did not inform us of right away, rather leaving it to the narrative to non-chalantly say "Oh a century has passed by the way,") which meant we didn't get to see much of the events in question and a main character's descent into madness felt so abrupt that it felt forced (one chapter he's perfectly fine, the next he looks like King Aerys from Game of Thrones). If the Beast Arises has taught anything, it's that Black Library need to stick to 350+ pages for their novels, otherwise they lose a lot of punch.
-The Deathwatch: This was a mistake. It's very very clear from the release schedule, their abrupt entrance into the story and the poorly hidden product placement that the Deathwatch weren't meant to be in this story originally. Rumour around the internet is that the Men of Iron, the robots of 40k's ancient history, were supposed to be the weapon that the Imperium turned to to defeat the Orks, but the long-awaited Deathwatch release from Games Workshop came with orders from above to put the Deathwatch in the series to support the models. A very bad choice. It's fine to release introductory novels like the Legends of the Dark Millennium series and short stories to flog models, but hijacking a series like TBA to do it is a poor choice on GW's part. They wouldn't do that to the Heresy series (I hope to god) and they shouldn't have done it here.
-No Supporting Material: Rather disappointingly BL have chosen not to further TBA beyond the novels with short stories and audios, both of which could have really added to the series by exploring events beyond Captain Koorland and the other main casts perception, more galaxy vignette stories as featured in Predator, Prey would have been great to see, and the various missions of the Deathwatch would have made great short stories or audios (even if the group was shoehorned in), or perhaps something explaining why the Culexes weren't around for the war like one character asks. A lot of questions still float around in the series and side-material could have been used to answer it without distracting the main novels, but alas nothing. Feels like a real missed opportunity.
My final thought is that this was a fine series, damn enjoyable with many good characters and epic battle sequences, and quite a few twists and turns that left me slack-jawed, but one that would have benefited greatly from having longer novels and supporting short stories and audio-dramas to look at the wider parts of the war while leaving the main story to the novels. Hope to see more series like TBA in the future, but hopefully longer in novel-length.