Legion of the Damned by Rob Sanders. Published 2012. Approx. 416 pages.
The Cholercaust is coming. Like the wrath of a mad, angry god, it travels on the tail of the blood-red Keeler Comet. Emerging from the Eye of Terror, driven by the psychotic motives of the vicious World Eaters, what chance does the small cemetery planet of Certus Minor have? The 5th Company of the Excoriators Space Marines, under the command of disgraced Chapter Scourge (Chapter Master's Champion) Zachariah Kersh, are the planet's last hope. What can one Company do against a Blood Crusade of World Eaters, crazed cultists, and the horrors of the Warp? And yet, after the battle is done, both sides lay dead. The Cholercaust has been stopped. As for the Excoriators, one sole survivor draws breath. How did one Company stop this remarkable force of Chaos? Could it be that in the most dire of situations, sometimes miracles do occur?
Now, before you rake me over the coals for putting spoilers in the first paragraph, hear me out. Remember that the books in the Space Marines Battles series are based on skirmishes already established in the WH40K canon. So we already know that there was a monstrous battle for Certus Minor, and that the phantom Legion of the Damned came to turn the tide for the Imperium. The book kicks off with a prologue set in the aftermath of the battle, which ends with the sole combat survivor being found. See, as mentioned in the Rynn's World review, the challenge of the SMB series is whether or not the author chosen can make the events preceding a known outcome both readable and enjoyable over the span of 400 pages. Can Rob Sanders handle the task?
No higher authority.
Simply put, LotD is an outstanding book. Rob Sanders crafts a tale that is atmospheric, cinematic, and creepy (I will not say scary as in making my lose my sleep, but the horrors that the warp vomits forth are well presented). The battle scenes are intense, brutal, and real. This is no faint praise; LotD is not bolter porn, but the way fighting techniques are conveyed is integral to the character of the Chapter. The Excoriators are attrition fighters, always battling at the epicenter of Chaos. During the Feast of Blades (a ceremonial battle early in the book), it is stressed that Kersh is "a killer, not a fighter." During physical confrontations, you can hear the flesh tear, and rip from skulls, you feel the crunch of the gladius against bone. Fierce realism.
LotD opens with the previously mentioned prologue, which finds an Imperial approbator surveying the war-scarred landscapes of Certus Minor. A survivor is found, and.... we go back to the beginning of the tale. We meet Zachariah Kersh, who is suffering from a blight that afflicts his Chapter. This grievous disease affects only the Excoriators, who are successors of the Imperial Fists. When afflicted, an Excoriator blacks out from a sudden onset of grief. This grief is the tragic feeling of Rogal Dorn seeing the Emperor lying near dead, critically wounded by the traitor Horus. In that moment, Dorn thought the God-Emperor dead. That moment of grief, at seeing one regarding as divine, strikes them essentially comatose. Unfortunately for Kersh, he suffered one of these attacks during a battle with the devious Alpha Legion. He therefore failed in his duty as Chapter Master's Champion, and the current Chapter Master lies sick, victim to an unknown poison, with no known cure. In his 'absence' from the battle, the Chapter banner, the Stigmartyr, was lost as well. Suffice to say, when we meet Kersh, he is not well-esteemed by his peers. He is chosen to represent them at the ceremonial Feast of Blades (a sort of intramural battle royale for Fists successors for the rights to bring home Dorn's blade), and the pressure is put on him to win (as all the other Excoriators have failed), while the odds are intentionally stacked against him. No matter what he does, he is screwed.
After the Feast, Kersh is put in charge of the 5th Company (who are none too happy about it) and dispatched to guard the seemingly unimportant cemetery world of Certus Minor. The world has some importance as the remains of a person of historical importance are interred there, but other than that, it is basically a way for the Excoriators to shoo off the unwanted Kersh with the Cholercaust coming. It is implied (at least I took it as so) that there is some scheming by some religious types to have Excoriators dispatched there to protect, I am assuming, the financial interests of the world. Burial space is leased out, and being buried there is very vogue. As to whether or not this was the exact reason for their dispatch, or if there was a more nefarious plot at hand, is never revealed. Honestly, this is the sole gripe I had with the book.
We go through the motions when the group arrives on Certus Minor. There are personality conflicts, characters evolve, and the taint of Khorne affects some of the locals.
Then comes the assault.
First comes the Warp-Spawn, those creatures of Chaos that kind of revolve around the Comet. These scenes reminded me of the horrors in The Mist (one of the better movies of the past few years). Then come the cultists and finally the World Eaters. Kudos to Sanders for making the cultists interesting by name-dropping various gangs, different affiliations and gang-attire. It could have been presented in a generic manner, but that upped the ante. Nice touch. The Excoriators fight tooth and nail, not yielding an inch without fighting like cornered rats. It is there way. They had held the lines in defense of Holy Terra. But the numbers of the Cholercaust are too great, and in the end, all is lost.
Or is it?
All throughout the novel, Kersh is visited by a phantom apparition. A dead legionnaire, his broken helm revealing a leering skull, one blazing red eye, teeth always rattling as he keeps his spectral counsel. Kersh's watcher is ever-present, surveying as Kersh becomes acclimated with his new position, his one glowing eye matching Kersh's dead, stainless steel eye. And in the end, after the Legion has unleashed their unstoppable fury, the Phantom stands above the broken Kersh, offering a silent testimonial of validation.
That's the story in a nutshell. As I've said, that is a spoiler-free assessment. You will get similar info in any blurb or book description on this title. So it really comes down to whether or not Sander's prose resonates with you. I've never read a review on a Sanders work that says "yeah, the book was alright." It is usually either "I love his work" or "I really don't care for his style." The few other things by Mr. Sanders that I have read, I truly enjoyed (allow me to recommend his stellar 1,000 word short 'Army of One' from the 15th Birthday Collection). But assuming that you find the story line interesting and you enjoy Rob Sander's writing style? Then what makes this story great? Well, for one, even though the outline of the story is well-known, there are a few surprises and curveballs which are pretty well-executed. Two in particular stand out (one being a paragraph on the very last page), and they really add to the work. Secondly, there is the detail that went into fleshing out the Excoriators Chapter itself.
I have no idea how much information was established on the Excoriators prior to this novel. Maybe they were a name and a color scheme, no more. I am assuming the Sanders did most of the fleshing out of the Chapters' specifics. In addition to being tough attrition fighters, they are a devout bunch as well, and constantly strive to achieve a oneness with the purity of the revered Primarch Dorn. Members of the Chapter engage in ritual self-mortification, known as "donning Dorn's Mantle". This mortification is administered through flagellation, and each Astartes has among his attendants one to wield the whip. A punishment for an Excoriator would be to actually withhold purification by lash; and scouts are deemed unworthy to bear the Mantle. The flagellant aspect may make for uncomfortable reading for some, or a cheap gimmick for others, but I believe it serves to establish their devotion. Another trait of the Chapter is the treatment of armor. Excoriator armor is a stunning ivory color, and it is kept clean to a pristine level, however, all nicks and evidence of battle damage are left intact, and artificers record in the markings details of how the damage was earned. Another noteworthy attribute is the change in rank titles. Kersh, in a role usually termed "Champion" is known as "Scourge". Squad leaders are referred to as "Whips", and so on.
All in all, you would take it that this was rock-solid entertainment. So why does this book get so much hate? Well, there is the controversy surrounding the name. Common is the argument that the book is titled "Legion of the Damned", members of the Legion grace the cover, and yet, they only feature in the last 20 or so pages! False advertising, boo, hiss, grab the pitchforks and so on. I fancy myself an objective fellow, so is there any credence to this outcry? Perhaps, if you only approach it at a literal level. But Rob Sanders is a crafty fellow, and being an English teacher (in some capacity which I cannot remember offhand), it is his prerogative to utilize word tricks. Yes, the book features the actual LotD (and much more than in the last 20 pages, since Kersh's phantom watcher is present through the whole book). But it is very obvious (and I believe mentioned in fact on Sanders' own blog) that the Excoriators are a damned legion as well. Damned to fight at the Eye of Terror for eons, damned with the blight of seeing one revered as a god in a state of apparent death, damned with the prospect of a Chapter Master who lays poisoned to a mystery ailment. And just for arguments' sake, it can be said that the hordes of the Cholercaust are a damned legion as well, those damned for their heretical choices. So actually, what we have is a title that is valid on not one, but three levels. Well played, Mr. Sanders.
Now I can understand why there would be excitement surrounding action with the LotD. As far as power-armoured supermen go, they are every 13 year old's wet dream; jet black with skeletal parts, festooned with skulls and flames. Silent, lethal, unstoppable. But they are ghosts, ghosts traveling through eternity. There is no room for development, for personality. How can you expect them to carry a novel that isn't entirely bolter-porn? How can the reader feel invested for over 400 pages when there is no threat of danger to the 'good guys'? I've been a Godzilla/kaiju fan for three and a half decades, and I accept the fact that even though his name and image dominate the posters, he usually appears in less than 10% of each film. Yes, I've seen and agree with the argument that the best novel for the LotD is one in the 'Godfather II' mold, half with their current exploits and half with their time as the Fire Hawks. But, remember, this is still a Space Marines Battles book documenting the battle for Certus Minor. Maybe I am missing something on the current lore and interactions on the LotD, but I am satisfied with this presentation; that they are a spectral reserve that can be tapped into by faith, need, and merit.
Kersh and the phantom legionnaire are an interesting study in contrasts, one in ivory white, one in jet black. White for life, black for death. Both with broken armor, one alive with a dead eye, one watching from beyond the grave with a burning, live eye. Positioned across the planes of the corporeal and spectral planes like opposing chess pieces, like yin and yang, completely opposite yet entirely equal.
And that's what it all amounts to. If you can get past any assumptions you might draw from the title or cover art (remember, this is a novel, not a box of miniatures), and if you can enjoy Rob Sander's engaging, yet non-linear storytelling, you are in for a treat.
Here's what it is:
A thrilling, atmospheric retelling of the massive assault that struck a small, insignificant world, and the miracle that manifested itself to save the day. An examination of two interesting Astartes Chapter. Further proof that the Black Library retains the best stable of writers in current tie-in fiction.
This is, without a doubt, my favorite of all the Warhammer 40,000 books that I have read. It slightly edges out my prior fave, Helsreach (although I'll say my copy of Helsreach signed by Aaron Dembski-Bowden is my favorite Black Library item).
Jon Sullivan does it again! The best artist in the biz homers again with this cover featuring the vengeful onslaught of the Legion. Apart from his cover for The Siege of Castellax, this might be my favorite cover by him. Excellent. On the Black Library's site, there are wallpapers available to download of the full cover. Do yourself a favor and check them out!
Also, LotD was lucky enough to have a promotional commercial made for it. Just some decent music and panning shots of the cover to be honest, but I like when Black Library makes them:
Cover Final Score: