The Last Wall by David Annandale. Book Four in The Black Library's "The Beast Arises" series, originally published March 2016. Approx. 157 pages.
Here we are at Book Four in the The Beast Arises series. The Last Wall marks the first entry by David Annandale; who will be the most prolific author in the series with three books contributed. This will also be the furst full-length book by him that I've read; having mostly dealt with his short stories. Those have been a little hit or miss for me; a bit of cause for concern, seeing as though if you really don't like his writing then this may not be the series for you. Let's see how it worked out...
Another mention; at this point, I'm assuming that those reading this have read the previous installments. So, as much as I try to avoid spoilers, a lot of these stories pick up from pretty significant cliffhangers, and they will be mentioned.
At the end of The Emperor Expects, Lansung, Lord High Admiral of the Imperial Navy, was returning to Terra to much celebration and fanfare after destroying an ork attack moon off of Port Sanctus. And then, to the surprise and horror of all, another ork attack moon simply materialized....right over Terra.
Over a Terra that, post-Heresy, post-annihilation of the Imperial Fists, and without a Navy that is still returning from Sanctus, finds itself virtually undefended. Truly the worst case scenario.
A lot of the action which transpires in The Last Wall occurs on and around Terra, and Annandale wisely opts to kick off the proceedings with a snapshot of the utter panic that unfurls directly following the moon's arrival. Here we meet Galatea Haas; a dedicated and dutiful officer in the Adeptus Arbites, who is also one of our primary protagonists. This scene gives the reader and excellent bird's eye view of the sheer magnitude of this event on the common Terran, and it is masterful. So, so far, so good.
Even though all of the introduced story arcs get advanced a little for continuity's sake, the centerpiece of this book is the Proletarian Crusade. This little slice of military genius was concocted by Juskina Tull, Speaker for the Chartist Captains, and one of the High Lords of Terra. As part of the perpetual jockeying for ascendancy among that group, her plan is to unite all of the merchant ships under her purview, and have them carry millions of members of the Imperial Guard (to be cobbled together by volunteers from the general public), and take the fight to the ork moon itself (which, to this point, has been laying completely stationary in low orbit). With the Navy still absent, this would essentially be an orbital Normandy landing, without any fire cover, to initiate a ground assault on a moon which, as far as I understood, no one even checked to see whether or not had any breathable atmosphere on it.
It is a concept of unparalleled idiocy and lunacy. And yet, coming from the mouth of such an emotive orator, it resonates with hope and heroism. The fact that this ludicrous reality of the human mindset is so believable, and conveyed in such an authentic manner, was my crash course in realizing how good an author Annandale is. When it comes to writing about the core levels of belief inside all of us, he does so with a frightening mastery. Whether he is illustrating it by showing us how easily even rational people get caught up in a jingoistic call to arms, no matter how ill-conceived, or showing us the fierce, yet futile raging of an sole, insignificant person against a force that stands ready to crush it in a heartbeat, he does it with utter realism. This is a trait that I saw a glimpse of in his kaiju short story The Conversion, and now I can see that it was no fluke.
With that all being said, let's see how the other elements here were represented.
The new characters introduced here, most notable Haas and Leander Narkissos (a Chartist Captain), are all well done and well-rounded. One of the nicest surprises here is that we also get an appearance by the Iron Warriors as they do battle with the ork menace. I really enjoyed the character of warsmith Kalkator. I really did not want the Iron Warrior chapters to end (although I stopped thinking of them when the focus on the Crusade started heating up).
Annandale's treatment of the established characters is excellent as well. Although I still prefer Sanders' Vangorich a smidge more, we get a return to some of that character's snark; though; thankfully not in the amount that Abnett saturated him in. His handling of the Space Marine confluence of Koorland, Bohemond, Quesadra, Issachar and Thane is superb as well. At least here they sound like the leaders they are. They exhibit the right balance of concern and reserve.
The only real storyline that did not do much for me, yet again, was Wienand's. I don't even attribute this to authorial error; nobody has really been able to make this character compelling. The ante of the Inquisitorial squabbling has been upped, with Veritus stepping in to take Wienand's place. His philosophy leans more towards the fanatical; with the Ruinous Powers being his primary concern, even with an ork moon in plain view.
I love these orks. We all know by now that these specimens are smarter than the average greenskin. However, Annandale seems to take pure joy in concocting wonderfully complex tactics and traps that the minions of the Beast use to trip up the hapless 'humies at every turn. Terrifying in the flesh, and terribly fun to read about.
The action scenes are good, and are nicely conceived and choreographed. I would say that they don't 'pop' or that they aren't as visceral as the scenes in other books, but that's not the point. I enjoyed this more because my concern for the characters was the paramount concern. If you can be emotionally invested, everything else is good. And, again, the scenes we get are done very well.
Now, one exception is this: tank battles. We get tank action in the scenes that deal with the Iron Warriors, and with those that deal with the Imperial Guard. And these are amazing. Bonecrushing, devastating, beautiful.
The Last Wall moves along at a nice clip. As mentioned, there were certain scenes that I never wanted to end. Other ones, I don't know if it was Annandale or myself that weren't into them, just kept moving. Cases in point: the Wienand scenes (although the early on assassination attempt is nicely done), and the chapter focusing on what the AdMech is up to on the sly. We close once again with a huge cliffhanger. The last few pages, I'm not going to say they feel rushed, but there was something about what was going on that I felt was a bit.....I don't know, silly? Even by the standards of what the 40K universe has to offer. Maybe it all just seemed a bit flippant after the emotional draining that occurred with the conclusion of the Proletarian Crusade.
I'm pretty sure I've covered how much I was impressed by Annandale's writing in The Last Wall. He has a strong grasp on highly descriptive, figurative language. He displays this by using short, power-packed statements, like:
"It was stone and iron come together as if brute force had a geology."
See, with succinct, clever lines like this, there is no need for pages upon pages of flowery prose. And, writing like this, it becomes possible to pack a full story into a lean volume. Another trick he employs which I laud him for is the running "Last Wall" motif. Permeating each aspect of the narrative is a wall of sorts; be it human or inorganic. We see this from the opening pages, as Terra goes mad with the ork moon looming above; we see the greatest example in the wall that heralds the end of the Proletarian Crusade. Great stuff.
In the end, boasting a great story line, nice action, and some frighteningly powerfully emotional scenes, I'd list The Last Wall as my current favorite entry in the series.
Again, I can't stress how much I love these Beast Arises covers that feature the orks. And this one has a squig to boot!
Cover Final Score: