When I think of a Warhammer novel, I think of something that combines sci-fi action, gritty morally grey characters and a sense of impending doom from one of the galaxy’s many threats. It’s not often that I find a book that hits all three of these elements at once, but Helsreach might be the quintessential Warhammer 40,000 novel. Allow me to explain why.
This is another Aaron Dembski-Bowden book (author of Talon of Horus), and it’s my favourite of his so far. Helsreach is set on the war-torn Armageddon and follows the Black Templars as they fight by an orc horde. We specifically follow Chaplain Grimaldus and he is one of the few Space Marine characters I’ve seen go through an actual story arc where I was interested in the outcome. Grimadlus is the perfect 40k protagonist, he’s devoted to his chapter and the Imperium but sees normal humans as ants in his way. Watching his growth or lack of growth, through a book that is basically one giant battle after another, goes a long way to humanise Space Marines and make you root for the characters.
Alongside Grimaldus we also have a supporting cast that is fun to read and are fully realised in a way that few 40k books have managed before. The fact that Aaron Dembski-Bowden has managed to fit this many compelling, human characters into one book is a testament to his skill and understanding of the 40k setting. Andrej Valatok is one of the funniest characters in a 40k book and his part makes Helsreach worth reading by itself. Andrej deserves a book of his own and I would buy it in a heartbeat because he’s just that good. I’d say that in terms of humour, he rivals even the likes of Ciaphas Cain and while I don’t know if he has the staying power to drive a whole book, let alone a whole series, I’d be on board if that was something they want to try out.
The actual plot of Helsreach is remarkably straightforward. It essentially boils down to a siege with the Imperium trying to hold back an onslaught of orcs. They have loads of tools at their disposal but the sheer volume of orc assailants makes everything feel like a lost cause. This is excellent for a few reasons. Firstly, by having a straightforward plot (there are twists but nothing overly twisty) means that we get to explore the characters and their reactions to the events that are playing out far more than if there needed to be lots of exposition or set up. Instead, Helsreach keeps things simple and easy to follow.
The second reason this setup is great is that it puts the Imperium in the role of the underdog. Quick confession time, I’ve not read that many ‘older’ 40k novels so I don’t know if this is a consistent theme but from the ones that I’ve read the Imperium are pretty powerful and are either on an equal or higher footing than a lot of their opponents. However, in Helsreach they are fighting a losing battle and everyone knows it. This desperation and turning of the tables meant that the Orc threat feels real and terrifying. It also means that we can see how the plot is likely to go and wonder when characters we’ve become attached to will end up on the wrong side of a bullet. This setting makes every scene matter and keeps hooked to the very end.
This is normally where I’d bring up criticism or complaints about the novel but I honestly don’t have any. My only issues are that these characters are never seen again and that feels like a shame when we’ve had loads of books about the same Ultramarines or Blood Angels, you’d think someone from this book would have seen a sequel. That aside, this book stands up excellently on its own and doesn’t need anything to finish off the story it sets out to tell, I’d just like more.
And that’s all I’m going to say about Helsreach. I could dig into the details of the story but all you need to know about picking this book up is that Grimaldus is brilliant and the side characters are compelling. If you’ve been looking for another interesting Space Marine to check out, he should be at the top of your list. I should also say that the audiobook is fantastic and read by the amazing John Keeble, so no matter your format you’re in for a treat.
Thanks for reading. If you are thinking of kicking off 9th Edition with the Indomitus novel, then read my review first as it might make your reconsider that purchase. For a more positive review, why not read about the Talon of Horus which is a great story of Chaos Space Marines.
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