In Soul Hunter by Aaron Dembski-Bowden we see the grimdark universe of Warhammer 40,000 through the eyes of members of the Night Lords traitor legion who helped drag the Imperium down into ten thousand years of darkness. This is a book that I’ve had on my TBR for years, and as these are one of the few traitor factions who retain their humanity (versus being possessed by daemons to explain their behaviours) I was chomping at the bit to see how Dembski-Bowden would portray the space marines of First Claw, Tenth Company. I waited a long time to pick it up, and I was not disappointed that I did.
Soul Hunter pits us amongst one of Abaddon the Despoiler’s latest black crusade to take the forge world of Crythe. The world houses immense stores of material, weapons, and ammunition, and Abaddon will shift millions of human soldiers, tanks, ships, and thousands of Black Legion astartes supported by the Night Lords and other renegade marines to achieve that.
There are three points of view characters that drive the story in Soul Hunter. Talos, informal leader of the First Claw, is a superhuman traitor to the Imperium and a prophet of Conrad Curze, dead primarch of the Night Lords. He’s afflicted with terrible visions from the warp, seeing the unfiltered brutal future he and his brothers face. Septimus is Talos’ slave, and oddly enough the way Talos shows his humanity and, I suppose, our way to connect with a demi god bent on the destruction of what we, the layperson, would consider civilisation. Eurydice is a navigator, a mutated human who can navigate the hellish warp for faster than light travel. Aboard a rogue trader vessel staking a claim on a asteroid full of valuable adamantium, her life is about to change.
Amongst the overarching story of the assualt on Crythe, Soul Hunter focuses on a war within the ranks of the Night Lords Tenth Company. Talos is seen as representing the past, desperately clinging on to what the Legion used to represent, and the Exalted who sees the future of the Night Lords Tenth Company as a merger with Chaos gods and daemons–much like the damned soldiers of Abaddon’s own Black Legion. The Night Lords have already thrown away their humanity, once in service of the Golden Throne and the Emperor and his Imperium, and second in service of Horus rebelling against the Emperor’s lies. Will the next step be a reformation of the war band under Talos’ leadership or the Exalted’s? And who will survive both the assualt and that reformation?
Something I absolutely love about this book is the logistics of it. Usually these books focus on the logistics of managing millions of soldiers, support, and munitions without much scarcity. The Night Lords have been without the forge world support the loyalist legions / chapters have enjoyed for the last ten milennia. Their armour is used and scavenged. They have run out of the mindless servitor drones who usually manage menial tasks. Half the weapons on their landers and gunships don’t work because there are no servitors to shoot them. Their old volunteer crews are long dead, replaced with slaves and criminals. Demski-Bowden’s focus on the squad level amongst the greater backdrop where somebody else manages the greater war effort really allows him to highlight the personal impacts of those shortages, and really bring the Long War to life.
Septimus’ layman’s approach to interacting with terrifying demigods brings a lot of humanity and understanding to his master. His point of view is key to seeing Talos, and even some of those around him, as traitor marines, and not mindless killing machines as you find with some of the other traitor legions. Without Septimus, there would be no connection to Talos for the reader, making his perspective the most important one in the book for me.
One of the negatives about this book is the jumping point of view. The author consistently changes POV without a scene break, which is a style I’m not the biggest fan of, but if you can move past that, this is a fun book. The author also drops some decent info dumps, with telling instead of showing rife. But, for some reason, I consistently find myself mostly forgiving this in Black Library books. Call it nostalgia. Call it just enjoying a story you’ve been reading since age 12. Call out what you will, but for some reason it seems not to matter near as much as it would to me for another universe or fantasy world.
What this book does have in spades is cool factor. Seeing the 40k world from the perspective of those desperately trying to tear it down, seeing their struggles to stay armoured, and with weapons and ammo, and their struggles to plug the holes in their ranks with new Astartes and hordes of traitor Guard and humans, is just awesome. I’ve immediately picked up the next book based on that, alone. Demski-Bowden is an excellent storyteller, and I am completely hooked by the tale of the First Claw.