Helsreach is the second book in the new Space Marine Battle series published by Black Library, and the third novel of author Aaron Dembski Bowden. This series is meant to explore the most epic Space Marine battles in the history of the 40k universe and is therefore focused on what’s rather delightfully known in the trade as shooty-death-kill-in-space.
Helsreach tells the story of a company of Black Templars under the command of the newly appointed Reclusiarch (first Chaplain), Grimaldus, and their desperate defense of Helsreach Hive against an innumerable horde of Orks. The story is primarily told from the first-person perspective of Grimaldus himself, though Bowden shifts to first- and third-person perspectives of his other characters throughout the book. If it sounds confusing, then worry not, it isn’t at all. In fact, the many viewpoints from a cast of fascinating characters add tremendous intensity to a story that is meant to be all action with little depth .
As is fast becoming Bowden’s custom, he has once again laid bare the souls of the Astartes in his story, leaving the reader in no doubt as to their unique worldviews. Much “ink” has been spilt online about the nature of Grimaldus. In particular that his lack of empathy for the human soldiers he fights together with, and his apparent inability to understand their struggles, borders on the autistic and strains the boundaries of character sympathy. And yet I found him to be a character who commanded my sympathy in his singular context.
His position as the first Chaplain of the Black Templars means he must embody the ideals of his chapter, a chapter that has continued on the Emperor’s Great Crusade undaunted by the passing of ten millenia. Their fundamentalist zeal that loathes any sign of weakness in the face of duty will inevitably be challenged by fighting alongside humanity in a battle where the odds are strongly against them. In such a context, it is no wonder that Grimaldus comes across as harsh and uncompromising; it is those very qualities that recommended him to his position. However, what is equally interesting is how over the course of the story Grimaldus grows to a level of genuine respect for the human warriors with whom he fights. This is earned by their herculean efforts in battle that he himself inspires with uplifting rethoric (that is tremendously well crafted by Bowden).
One of the story’s clear subplots is Grimaldus’s belief that High Marshal Helbrecht, the leader of the Black Templars, has condemned his company to die for a hive city to no good purpose, while the Black Templar fleet fights in space for the survival of the planet as a whole. His struggle to reconcile himself to this fate and to devote himself to fighting to the last forms the background of his relationships with his fellow Astartes. Such is Bowden’s skill as a writer that the survival or death of each of his characters creates moments that are keenly felt, and there are many emotional highs and lows throughout the story that kept me turning the pages right to the end.
Bowden’s remarkable gift for writing fast-moving action scenes remains firmly in place in this novel. I often found myself with the very odd sensation of feeling like I was right there with Grimaldus and the others in the thick of battle. The relentless pace of the fighting and the overwhelming numbers of the enemy is so powerfully conveyed that at the end of a battle I was rather short of breath. Surely there can be no higher praise of an author’s skill?
This is the third book by Aaron Dembski Bowden that I’ve read, in fact his third overall, and I can’t recommend his work highly enough. He has rapidly built a name for himself as someone with a tremendous gift for the art of writing and as someone who really gets the 40k universe in all its depth. For me it has reached the point that his name on a book cover is an ironclad guarantee of a thought-provoking and entertaining read.
He is rapidly settling onto a par with my favourite author of all time, Dan Abnett!
There it is. My highest praise.