Shadow of Ullanor by Rob Sanders (Book Review)

Ever since the destructive events of Ardamantua, it has not been an easy time for the Imperium. The loss of the Imperial Fists as a Chapter. The loss of hundreds of worlds to the Ork threat. The loss of sanity and belief. The inaction and impotence of the High Lords. One defeat after another until warriors of sagas stepped once more into the breach, awakening legends and battling greater legends still. The Beast Arises has been very enjoyable to read, given the fact that I finished most of the books in the series within a day of starting them. That changed with this next book however.

Rob Sanders, who gave us the fairly-decent Predator, Prey earlier in the series, seems to have lost his unique touch with the eleventh and penultimate novel, Shadows of Ullanor. Picking up some time after the tragic events of The Last Son of Dorn, he tells a story of how the Imperium bounces back and takes the fight to the Orks again. But it is just not the same as the previous novels. The narrative is repetitive and the characters fail to elicit any positive emotion. There are wild inconsistencies in the various plots and sub-plots. To be honest, after the incredible high of the previous novels, this one is a deep, deep low.

Note: Some major spoilers from the previous novels and this novel are mentioned here.

I will not mince words here. I’m a fan of Rob Sanders’ work. As I have said before, Legion of the Damned is one of my all-time favourites and he’s done some pretty good short stories and the like as well, from what I’ve read myself. With Shadow of Ullanor I see not a novel that can live up to the promise of those preceding it or setting an example for the one succeeding it. I see a novel that is too busy telling a story for the sake of it rather than giving the reader a true enjoyable experience.

To begin with, following the death of Koorland at the hand of the Beast in The Last Son of Dorn, Chapter Master Thane of the Fists Exemplar calls a conclave on the Imperial Fists’ homeworld of Inwit. Koorland was the last surviving warrior of that First Founding Legion and with his death, so too did the Chapter die. And the Chapter successors come together to hold their traditional Feast of Blades, a bloody contest of ritual combat that honors their shared legacy and to choose a champion from among their numbers to hold the Sword of Sebastus, once thought to have been used by the Primarch Rogal Dorn himself. Rob Sanders used this contest as an early framing device for his main character in Legion of the Damned as well, and it was a nice throwback to that.

However, what resulted from this contest did not sit well with me. It is during this contest, the final round even, that Thane hits upon the idea of resurrecting the Imperial Fists from “donated” warriors of the successors, all of them. I had been waiting all series for something like this, and was initially excited by what Rob was setting up. But once it all started to play out I was increasingly disappointed. The execution just completely failed for me. To add to that, we don’t even spend any significant time on this. Back when the High Lords decreed that the successors from amongst the Last Wall chapters provide one warrior each to stand as fillers for the select Imperial Fists warriors who had stood as guardians of the Imperial Palace, it was such a big moment and we went back to it so much and got to see all the different defenders. But here, it was just incredibly boring and hasty and just not exciting at all. There are times when providing details is not good for the narrative, and times when they are. This was a case of the former.

Additionally, with a reconstituted Imperial Fists chapter, which happens essentially in the blink of an eye with Thane stepping in to fill Koorland’s shoes as the new Lord Commander, the new Chapter Master of the Imperial Fists seeks to bloody his “new” warriors. His battlefield of choice: an unexciting third invasion of Ullanor. And with no new weapons really. Thane’s strategy is pretty much the same as Koorland’s was. Complete waste of irreplaceable men and material. It adds absolutely nothing to the overall narrative and just feels tired at this point. Millions of soldiers, hundreds of ships (perhaps even thousands), hundreds of Astartes have all died in this meat-grinder already and Thane just serves up more. Which is not even taking into consideration the fact that Thane’s final boss fight is no different than Koorland’s from The Last Son of Dorn. And the Fists Exemplar have been show to be rather practical minded as well, so I don’t get what’s practical about a third invasion that Thane knows is going to be costly. I’m not sure how Rob could have written this differently, but just repeating tactics we’ve seen twice doesn’t cut it at all. During Koorland’s second invasion, a big deal was made of the lack of war resources, and now magically we have enough for a third grand invasion. It cheapens the narrative of the last two novels.

And at no point at all during all of this do we stop to consider the losses we have already faced. Koorland’s death was such a big point in the series. David Guymer gave that moment the exact emotional weight it deserved and set up so much more. But all of that is absent from this novel. And given how the loss shook Bohemond of all people, despite being Koorland’s biggest detractor initially and even challenging him outright during the first invasion, the High Marshal of the Black Templars is largely absent from the narrative, discarded to the wayside.

That really is one of my biggest disappointments with the novel. It doesn’t give any character their due, except perhaps for Vangorich but that isn’t tough to do if I’m honest. He’s a master assassin after all, and he’s been rather passive so far through the series. So him finally personally stepping in is just… eh. About time I suppose.

The various inconsistencies also cannot be ignored. This is most prominent in the Fists Exemplar First Captain Zerberyn’s scenes in the novel. Wanting to step out of Warsmith Kalkator’s shadow on the Iron Warrior’s last Ork-free stronghold, he finally takes a major step forward, and… just ends up attacking an Inquisition Black Ship, an armed warship that collects the psyker-tithe of Imperial worlds and delivers to Terra for processing. And in this battle he comes up against Inquisition-sanctioned psykers and laments his lack of Astartes Librarians. Which is kind of **BS** given that we already know from the previous novels that he has at least one senior Fists Exemplar Librarian at his disposal. So where did he go in this novel since no mention is made of him dying while rotting out on the Iron Warrior world with his brethren?

For me, the novel could really have done with some serious retooling. The unveiling of the reformed Imperial Fists on Terra was a great moment, as was their formation, and I really wish that Rob had stuck with that as his main narrative. And given the title of the novel, perhaps a mass bombardment of Ullanor combined with some world-destroying virus bombs could have been a fitting end to the world. Instead we just have another ground assault slugfest that doesn’t achieve much beyond what’s advertised. Focusing on the Imperial Fists would have been a fitting moment to take the story into, which would then dovetail nicely with the next novel, The Beheading. The second half of the series has been about hope, belief and being practical. In the last novel Koorland focuses so much on the Imperial Truth as disseminated by the Emperor and the Legions during the Great Crusade, and not the Imperial Creed that it has been bastardised into following the end of the Horus Heresy. In this novel, we basically have Thane reverting to form on the Imperial Creed. Not my cup of tea.

All in all, this was not a satisfactory read at all. I love Rob’s work, but this novel leaves so much to be desired.

Rating: 5/10

More Rob Sanders and The Beast Arises:

  • The Beast Arises#1: I Am Slaughter by Dan Abnett (Review)
  • The Beast Arises #2: Predator, Prey by Rob Sanders (Review)
  • The Beast Arises #3: The Emperor Expects by Gav Thorpe (Review)
  • The Beast Arises #4: The Last Wall by David Annandale (Review)
  • The Beast Arises #5: Throneworld by Guy Haley (Review)
  • The Beast Arises #6: Echoes of the Long War by David Guymer (Review)
  • The Beast Arises #7: The Hunt For Vulkan by David Annandale (Review)
  • The Beast Arises #8: The Beast Must Die by Gav Thorpe (Review)
  • The Beast Arises #9: Watchers In Death by David Annandale (Review)
  • The Beast Arises #10: The Last Son of Dorn by David Guymer (Review)
  • Legion of the Damned (Review)

Posted on June 1, 2017, in Book Reviews, Review Central and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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