Lord of the Night reviews the gripping Imperial Fists novel Seventh Retribution by Ben Counter, the first of the new Captain Lysander series.
"An exciting and pulse pounding novel filled with the epic and grimdark action that 40k does better than all others, and a novel that once again shows that no author writes Chaos as well as Ben Counter."
- Lord of the Night
Seventh Retribution is a novel that I had at first been a little confused over, the blurb talked of Lysander facing the ghosts of his past and 40k fans know that means Malodrax the planet he was held captive on, but with the Space Marines Battles novel Malodrax being released so soon afterwards it felt like an odd choice. I will say it now, the blurb of Seventh Retribution is wrong. Malodrax isn't even mentioned once in the book, and while it does connect to Counter's previous works featuring Captain Darnath Lysander, it does not deal with Lysander's past but focuses completely on events in the present. And if you think that this is just another standalone Space Marine novel like others we've seen, you are dead wrong. This novel features a plot that I would never have seen coming if I hadn't been aware of it beforehand, and I wish I hadn't been for it would have floored me with what Lysander and the Fists found themselves up against, and with a strong cast of characters and unbelievably epic action scenes that depict Chaos better than any other author has managed to date, Seventh Retribution is definitely one of my favourite novels of the year.
The planet of Opis burns as Imperial might descends upon it to reclaim it for the God-Emperor. Leading the way are the Imperial Fists First Company and their illustrious Captain Darnath Lysander, whose dark reputation for being willing to do anything to achieve victory is legendary. At first the situation seems simple enough, yet another world fallen to the false promises and outright lies of the Ruinous Powers and a population held in thrall to the legions and champions of Chaos that have come to make war for no other reason than the Gods demand it, but something far worse than a moral threat is happening on Opis. Another war is being waged, a war of secrecy with the intent to cover up one of the Imperium's darkest secrets and greatest mistakes, and unless Captain Lysander can stop it once and for all, a new and terrible scourge will be free to ravage mankind's galaxy at will. But for once, the cost of victory may be too high for even Lysander to pay.
The story in Seventh Retribution at first seems very simple, just another battle against Chaos with yet another world in the balance. But Counter doesn't waste time in showing the reader that something is different here, and if I had not known what it was I would never have guessed it in a million years. Counter really outdoes himself here coming up with a story that pits Lysander and the Fists against an enemy that they could never have imagined they'd face, and keeps the reader glued to the page with imaginative and brutal battle scenes that show the myriad madness of Chaos as it clashes with the orderly ranks of the Imperium and with the mystery of Opis as slowly the reader is fed more and more hints as to what is really going on before Counter turns it all on it's head and the truth is revealed, and it won't have been what you thought it was. By the end this story could be considered a standalone in it's own right, though it does connect with Counter's previous works including Lysander by advancing his character from those stories and developing him a bit further, and with the potential for more by the end. One thing that i've always liked about Counter's works is how he writes and thinks outside the box, and this story is no exception as he really goes outside Codex territory and the result is a novel that really made the Imperial Fists feel badass and gave us an antagonist that i'll definitely never forget.
The characters were quite well written and in some cases a bit different than what I was used to. The Space Marines for example were everything I expected, but also had a sense of grandiosity to them; one example being a Vindicator driver who took the time to recite a parable several paragraphs long while fighting an immense Daemon made of corpses. The Imperial Fists felt more like a knightly order than other Space Marines, which is fitting since the Fists do share quite a few traditions with real world knights. Their dialogue felt appropriate as well, especially the taunts of certain characters that stood out for actually feeling new and not recycled as so many threats in fiction are, a few of them really stuck with me and made the battle scenes feel much more epic. The Chaos side however is where the real standouts are, Counter really makes the bad guys feel distinct from what we've seen before and I think he achieves it quite handily. His secondary antagonists are quite good but it's the main antagonist of the book that I think is the best part, an enemy that is memorable and unique and is an ultimate badass to boot. One thing that Counter captured nicely was the relations between different branches of the Imperium, between the Astartes and the Guard and with another group that really tests the Fists ability to work with others. The characters from that group were interesting, not like I imagined them and we also get an idea of how they are trained and rigorous is undercutting it greatly, and they felt truer to what they are meant to be than the other portrayals of them that have been in Black Library in the past.
The action is the best part of the novel. I firmly believe that Ben Counter is the best at depicting the insanity and randomness of Chaos and this novel shows that better than any other of his works, each battle is completely different to what was fought before and Lysander actually thinks something early on that exemplifies the battles in the book. "Lysander had seen such scenes before. They were always different, for Chaos could not do its work in the same way twice." This novel is exactly that, you don't see the same scene twice and the only repeats are from the characters that appear more than once, but the armies they lead and the environments the Fists do battle in change each time into something equally horrific and twisted in it's imagination. Counter puts the Fists through quite a few different battles, the fact that each enemy is different meaning they must be fought differently, and this means that each battle is as fun to read as the last one, and in some cases better than what came before. The final battle is an epic clash between the Imperial Fists and Chaos, and the true enemy of the book who gets to fight quite a bit and owns every battle scene that it features in. Aside from the antagonist whose action sequences were a joy to read, I also enjoyed the armoured battles between the gunships of the Fists and the airborne traitors, and the Vindicator squadron that fight quite an impressive battle 3/5s of the way through the book, both of these fights were a good break from the infantry battles that make up the majority of the book. One other thing I enjoyed was the number of single combats in the book, which since it featured an Emperor's Champion, was a given but Counter handled each of these very well and make each one different from the others by having the Champion face very different enemies each time. When it came to the antagonist some who have read spoilers from the novel claim that the enemy is overpowered, I will say that I very firmly disagree with that after having read the novel and that most of the spoilers on the Lexicanum and other 40k websites are quite wrong and do not accurately detail what actually happened.
The pacing of the book is quite good, each chapter is titled K-Day + however many hours or days have passed since the initial invasion which gives the book a sense of time. Counter keeps the mystery behind the story going for a good while, which is good as it would feel odd if the Fists discovered everything in the first 50 or so pages. The action scenes feel fast-paced and brutal as they should, especially with marines in Terminator armour tearing things up. Nearer to the end the book does seem to speed up but that feels fitting as the Fists find themselves against a time limit, the pacing reflecting the events of the story which makes the final chapters feel tenser therefore making them much more exciting to read. One little thing that I enjoyed quite a bit are the Guard regiments that Counter makes up, the names and hints as to what they are like and the few that get fleshed out a little, he makes some interesting ideas and concepts for the men of the Guard and as somebody who dislikes reading about average Guardsmen, I prefer the complicated kind like the Catachans and Death Korps, the little bits he adds in about the Guard regiments he uses or invents make you aware that lots of different kinds of armies are present on the Imperial side as well, you just don't get to see that as much.
Now for my favourite quote, it has to be this one as it impressed me quite a bit,
"Will you stand when the Warmaster would not! Will you face the hand of Rogal Dorn!"
The ending was quite good, I liked the resolution that Lysander reached at the end and if any more books follow it will be interesting to see where his new outlook takes him, and how it changes how he will make war in the future. Other then that the ending was as I expected, no twists or surprises about the end result of the book but that wasn't what the book was trying to achieve, it told a story and ended that story with no plot threads left unfinished, which I think is good as while the antagonist was great there was the potential that if it continued to survive and return it would grow tiresome quickly, so resolving the story the way that Counter chose was the right move in my opinion. I also enjoyed the message that Lysander sent, he doesn't mess around and I wonder if that message will yield unfortunate consequences for the Imperial Fists in the future, I can't be sure since i'm not sure if Seventh Retribution is the first of a new series about Lysander of if it's just a stand-alone novel, either way i'm very pleased with it and I enjoyed the book from start to finish. I also like that Counter left one thing open-ended, so the reader can decide how that event will finish, speculation is always fun if it's the right things to speculate about.
For a great story that had me riveted from opening the book to closing it, a solid cast of characters with one of the best ideas for an antagonist in all of BL, and for just more of Counter's Chaos depiction which is vivid and memorable on every page that features anything to do with the Ruinous Powers, I give Seventh Retribution a score of 8.6/10. This is definitely a novel that all BL fans should try, fans of the Space Marines will enjoy Captain Lysander and his Imperial Fists, fans of Chaos will definitely enjoy the champions that come to Opis, and those who want a story to surprise them will find that here. For anyone whose read spoilers for this book and is leery of it, based on perhaps a certain Lexicanum article, I will tell you as somebody whose actually read the book, the article is quite wrong on a few things and only half right on the rest. So I encourage you even if you are a bit leery of the book to try it, you might find yourself loving it like I did.
That's it for this review. Next will be a Warhammer Fantasy review for Gotrek and Felix: Lost Tales featuring the authors Josh Reynolds, David Guymer, Frank Cavallo and Jordan Ellinger. Until next time,
AVE DOMINUS NOX!