Warhammer 40,000: Graham McNeill’s Ultramarines


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By Luke Forney

Media tie-in fiction has long been the abused step-child of genre fiction.  Much as in the stories of Cinderella, the older step-sisters of science fiction are appealing, attractive, and upon reading are quite enjoyable.  However, their attitude towards the media tie-in Cinderella can be harsh and mean spirited.  At times, this isn’t necessarily an entirely unfounded point of view.  Many books based on games and movies are quickly written, hoping to appeal to those already fans of the other media formats, and not looking for new readers and a truly expanded storytelling experience.

Yet, much like Cinderella, in recent years media tie-ins have begun to find a brand new emergence and true strength and vitality.  Novels based in popular media franchises are taking off.  The success of novel lines such as those based around the Halo video game series, for example, are showing a burgeoning attention to new media formats, and, even more importantly, these books are being written by strong authors.

While this may not be solely a new trend (one might point to the ‘90s success of the BattleTech line of novels, or even farther back to the novelization of The Fantastic Voyage written by Isaac Asimov.  But in today’s ever-growing tie-in market, the growth of critical acclaim is spectacular.

From the beginning, the publishing arm of Games Workshop (now with its own publishing house, Black Library) has taken authors well-versed in writing great fiction, and then had them run rampant in their domains.  Authors such as Kim Newman and Ian Watson came to Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 fiction after having already begun to make names for themselves, while other authors such as Dan Abnett and Graham McNeill made their major popularity growths under Black Library’s banner.

One of the bedrock series set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe is McNeill’s Ultramarines series.  Along with some short stories and other tie-ins, the series concluded last year with the sixth novel.  Told in what equates to two major story arcs, the story follows Captain Uriel Ventris and his companion Pasanius through an up and down career as space marines with the Ultramarines (named ostensibly because of the marines’ origins on Ultramar, although the “ultra-marines” name is obviously not an accident of location identity).

The first arc, consisting of Nightbringer, Warriors of Ultramar, and Dead Sky Black Sun (along with a prequel novel of sorts to Dead Sky Black Sun, entitled Storm of Iron, which doesn’t feature the Ultramarines, but instead follows the events that will set the stage and cause the need for the Ultramarines’ intervention), tells the story of the duo as we are introduced to them.  Nightbringer pits the forces against the eldar, an ancient race that has goals at odds to those of man.  Warriors of Ultramar features a tyranid horde that seeks to destroy everything in its path, and sets up a difficult choice for Uriel: defy the holy laws he is bound to as an Ultramarine, or let a planet die.  The consequnces are felt directly in Dead Sky Black Sun, as a disgraced Uriel travels to a planet held by the dread Chaos Space Marines, the evil counterparts of the space marines, and fights for his very survival.

The second arc begins with The Killing Ground, as Uriel and Pasanius return from the Chaos world, and seek to rejoin the Ultramarines.  However, the cost of their disgrace proves to be harder to overcome than they imagined.  Courage and Honour picks up right after this, as Uriel, newly returned to the Ultramarines, fights once again against alien forces, but also struggles to resume his position, and to regain his fellow marines’ trust.  In an exclusive statement from McNeill at Luke Reviews, McNeill said that,

“I wanted this to be the book that reminds the reader why Space Marines are the premier fighting force in the galaxy. The Imperial Guard may number in the millions, but it’s the Space Marines that do the really hard work, the missions that absolutely cannot be allowed to fail. This was going to be a war novel, a book that had the Space Marines doing what they did best, killing their foes with complete and utter dedication and professionalism. I wanted Courage and Honour to be a simple story, and when I say that I don’t mean without complexity, I mean that is showed the Ultramarines–and Uriel–in the most classic Space Marine light possible.”

Courage and Honour is, simply put, great military science fiction, and the highlight of the stellar Ultramarines series.  The second arc concludes with The Chapter’s Due, in which the entire series comes full swing, placing Uriel back into conflict with a villain from the very beginning of the saga, and letting his epic come to a satisfying, well-written close.

Fans of military science fiction will love this series.  Available in multiple ebook formats, as well as hard copy (the first three are found in The Ultramarines Omnibus, with the second trilogy currently in paperback, with Ultramarines: The Second Omnibus due out next summer.  March sees the release of Iron Warriors: The Omnibus, which includes the Ultramraines tie-in novel Storm of Iron), the ability to check this series has never been easier.

One Comment:

  1. Wow, cool comparison Luke! You are right there are the Cinderella stories out there that are awesome. They may even have alot more detail and/or description in the stories, more depth if you will. Thanks for the review. I like the ebook format but I think I would like to have hard copy for my library.

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