Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Emperor's Gift by Aaron Dembski-Bowden

The Emperor’s Gift by Aaron Dembski-Bowden is a standalone Warhammer 40K novel published by The Black Library. The Emperor’s Gift does not exist in a vacuum as fellow Black Library writer, Ben Counter, has published more than six novels in a Grey Knight series, also published by The Black Library, which I have yet to read. Dembski-Bowden is a rising star at The Black Library who has made his mark with his unique take on the Ruinous Powers and Chaos Space Marines. Thus, The Emperor’s Gift provides a unique opportunity for fans of Warhammer 40K: a fresh take on the purest and most potent of the Space Marine Chapters, the Grey Knights, by the preeminent writer of the perverse and profane Chapters, the Traitor Legions.

The Emperor’s Gift is told from the point of view of Hyperion, a newly risen Brother of The Grey Knights Chapter. Raw, head-strong and with immense potential, Hyperion struggles to find his place in Squad Castian of the Third Brotherhood. The events of the novel are centered on the build up and aftermath of the First War for Armageddon. Given that this is such a pivotal event in the Warhammer 40K setting, the cast is nearly a who’s who of the 40K setting with Chapter Masters, Inquisition luminaries, Primarchs, Traitor Legions and the Mechanicum all making an appearance at one point or another.

The greatest strength of The Emperor’s Gift is the ease with which Dembski-Bowden humanizes the Grey Knights, the pre-eminent post-humans of the Imperium. Dembski-Bowden does not shy away from the task. Not only does the novel occur entirely from Hyperion’s point of view, it also reveals the inner thoughts of other Marines via the psychic link shared by all Grey Knights. This link is the manifestation of the Grey Knights Brotherhood-- by this means each squad operates as one. What is so great about this is how Dembski-Bowden weaves both the verbal and psychic communication into the dialog. It creates a rich and textured presentation that allows direct insight into the feelings and behaviors of Hyperion’s intimate fraternity.

Dembski-Bowden also humanizes the post-human through Hyperion’s personality quirks. Unlike most of his brothers, Hyperion is fascinated by humans. They represent a link to his past. They are also what reminds him of what he is defending, as the Imperium is a gift from the Emperor to mankind. Through this quirk, Dembski-Bowden is able to create a contrast between humans and Marines that, otherwise, would be cumbersome and intrusive to the narrative. Hyperion’s confusion and curiosity becomes an insight into his character.

Another element of The Emperor’s Gift that I enjoyed was Dembski-Bowden’s voice and vision for Warhammer 40K. I think he nails the sense of brotherhood and struggle that is at the heart of the setting. Pervading the narrative is a sense that the Imperium is beset on all sides-- that it could collapse at any moment. The odds are stacked against humankind. Yet, faith in the Emperor and the brotherhood of Space Marines hold the line. The Emperor’s Gift is peppered with scenes reinforcing this vision. One of my favorites is an exchange between Vasilla and Hyperion:
“‘We Live in the Last Age of Man,’ Vasilla said softly. ‘This millennium hasn’t yet reached half its span, and it’s already the darkest ever faced by humanity. It will be the last one, Hyperion. The last, before everything falls black.’
...‘Mankind will never fall,’ I said again.
She smiled with genuine affection, and touched her hand to my arm. ‘You truly believe that, don’t you?’”
Dembski-Bowden’s voice is refreshing. He successfully captures the baroque post-apocalyptic quality of Warhammer 40K but without the complexity of vocabulary. While there are pros and cons to this, it does provide for a more readable Warhammer 40K novel. It allows the book to gain a rhythm that would otherwise be interrupted by arcane word choices. While I enjoy thumbing a dictionary in search of a new word on occasion, I don’t like doing it constantly. I think Dembski-Bowden finds this balance-- or rather, a balance more in line with my personal preferences.

The weakest aspect of the book is its structure, specifically in the second half. The first half of the book was very successful. In the opening moiety, there is a tight focus on Hyperion and his relationship with Squad Castian and with Inquisitor Jarlsdottyr. However, after events on Armageddon, the narrative becomes muddled and confused. Perhaps this is reflective of Hyperion’s state of mind at the time, but regardless of artistic choice, it isn’t as successful or cohesive as the first half of the novel.

Central to this weakness is a sudden change in course. I would have rather seen the first and second halves of The Emperor’s Gift exist as separate novels. The first half is already an excellent novella, and the climax of the First War of Armageddon is unforgettable. The second half, while problematic, could be an exciting stand alone read with enough room to flesh out the characters and events.

Gone is the focus on the growth of Hyperion and the Grey Knights as a Chapter in the events after the First War of Armageddon. Instead the story becomes about a potential civil war between rival Imperial factions. On one side is an overly zealous Inquisitor, Ghesmei Kysnaros, and on the other is an idealistic Chapter Master of the Space Wolves, Logan Grimnar.

The abrupt introduction of Inquisitor Kysnaros is frustrating because it marginalizes the already interesting Inquisitor Jarlsdottyr. Beyond that, Inquisitor Kysnaros is inserted into the novel at such a late stage that he fails to develop beyond a stereotype. The addition of the Space Wolves to the story is also irritating. Much like my issue with the Inquisitors, it sidelines the earlier focus on the Grey Knights Chapter.

Exacerbating matters is the lack of narrative restraint. Too frequently, Dembski-Bowden introduces major characters and major reveals in the second half of the novel without advancing the story. Instead, the parade of cameos gives the story a flashy, hollow quality. Whether it is Inquisitor Ravenor, Bjorn the Fell-Handed, Logan Grimnar or whole new secret Space Marine chapters, it is simply too much, too fast. In this way I feel Dembski-Bowden is writing too much as a fan, letting his excitement roam too far.

The silver lining is that the events described in the second half of The Emperor’s Gift are pivotal to the Warhammer 40K setting. It is exciting to have this glimpse into the secrets of the Imperium. Within the jumble of the back half of The Emperor’s Gift are a number of memorable scenes, yet they are lacking was a strong thread to tie them together.

Overall, there is a lot to like about The Emperor’s Gift. Dembski-Bowden is exciting to read. I enjoy his take on the world of Warhammer 40K and look forward to reading his other contributions to The Black Library. The Emperor’s Gift is a novel full of big events and big people, and while it may break a little under that burden, it will satisfy fans of the setting. For newcomers, I would recommend starting elsewhere. While flawed in its overall execution, The Emperor’s Gift is successful in capturing the essence of the Grey Knights-- both that which binds them and that which separates them from Mankind. As the Emperor gifted of himself to his Knights, the Knights the Emperor’s gift to Humankind. With them...”’Mankind will never fall.’

Memorable Quotes:
"I'd never seen her hesitate in doubt before, and I found it a strangely compelling sight."
"I was a weapon, not a man, but moments like this always reminded me that I was a weapon born with a soul. It made all the difference."
"'Hush,' she said. 'Have faith, Hyperion. You were made to win wars like this. All of you were'"

Image Source: The Black Library
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 9781849701891

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