Spoilers ahead! (Possibly).
The book starts off with war preparations as the Imperial Forces are very aware that the orks are coming back to wage war on the planet and they are readying for a battle to end all battles. The hero in our story, Black Templars Chaplain Grimaldus, starts the book hardening his heart in preparation to die. He knows that he has been assigned a task that he will most likely not survive. They know that the approaching ork forces are legion, and they know that in spite of all of the Imperium's preparations that they are grossly out numbered and outgunned.
For a taste of what I'm describing here, check out this sweet fan animation done to the Helsreach audiobook, it's really cool.
For anyone who has read a lot of the Ciaphas Cain novels you kind of become an expert on what preparation for Xenos planetary assaults looks like. Titanicus is another brilliant example, especially from a Mechnicum perspective. Being that this is about one of the many battles of the 3rd War of Armageddon, the siege preparation is also proportionally epic. The early chapters are a lot like these examples in that sense, and when the Orks start to rain down the story quickly turns into "war-porn".
But it's well written war-porn and that helps making the grind through some of these chapters a lot more enjoyable. But unlike other works that I have described as war-porn this narrative never loses it's objective tone or turns into Imperial propaganda in the sense that it sells you glory over lives or action over suffering. Indeed, Dembski-Bowden never lets you, or Grimaldus, forget that this is a city full of people. The civilians, countless and faceless minions of the Imperium that are the heart and soul of what the Imperium is, that are most in danger the whole time. In war there are always refugees who are displaced and disloged from their normal lives and roles that government must deal with in some fashion. The terror of it all is that the orks are not interested in the conquest or subjugation of these people, but only in their slaughter. Surrender is not an option. We see civilians pick up arms to defend their hidden bunkers, or to snipe from scattered rooftops. And we see whole manufacturing districts conscripted into the PDF to fight alongside the Imperial Guard.
It is this overarching human tale where Dembski-Bowden transcends above the typical Black Library war-porn epic and gives us a tale where the players and personalities are always in danger, but it's not just their lives you worry about because you understand that if they die the city of Helsreach dies as well. This isn't a senseless war fighting for the fight of it, but fighting for the very right to be alive.
The siege escalates quickly, and desperately, and although it seems the Imperial forces just might hold out and push back the invaders a series of calamities ensue culminating with the ork submersible attack on the docks, that pushes the tide back in the other direction. This is a war against all odds, we are told as much in the begining, and the story sticks to that theme. Even the titan combats, which evoke the afore mentioned Titanicus, are crazy intense. When the mega-gargant Godbreaker arrives, the intensity ratchets up quite a bit while hope and sanity take a massive downshift. Here we have some of the awesomest titan combats I have ever read in both scale and intensity and it was a thrill to behold it.
In the begining of this review I mentioned that this is the expanded story of Grimaldus's entry in the original Codex: Black Templars. It explains how and why when you see the Reclusiarch on the battlefield he is often accompanied by a zealous pack of servitors (see pic below). Demnski-Bowden has done a brilliant job with this although I couldn't but feel that the final chapter, though satisfying, felt a tad rushed.
- Did I like it? Yes I did, and more I read the more I like it.
- Was it hard to put down? For the first half of the book I found it too easy to put down. Yes there was action and excitement but too often you would be introduced to a character that would be dead within 2 chapters, and I found that the loss of individual continuity would sometimes demotivate me to continue to the next chapter. The final 3rd of this story however was very challenging to put down, as events truly ramped up to an incredible finale. It took me a long time to get through this story, but the last 3 chapters I devoured in a single sitting.
- Could I care about the characters? Ultimately yes, but with so many characters dying you found yourself detached from them ultimately. Again, there are characters that are introduced that die quickly but ultimately you see that there is a reason for it. Heroes are the ones who die, and this a book full of them. Regardless of their past glories or their bravado or gusto, the ork war machine is an unstoppable force and it cares only for your death and your glory matters not to it. Grimaldus is self-assured and reluctantly humble throughout the whole thing as he expects to die. Not without a fight however, and never once does he yield to his expectation. Reluctantly by the story's end he comes to terms with why he is here at this city, and why it matters that he fights for the lives of the humans of Helsreach. Dembski-Bowden, by the tales end, has truly created a character that has grown above and beyond it's Codex game entry, and one we now hope to see grow further.
- Did the writer truly grasp how the 'world' of the 41st millennium works in the sense that it doesn't betray or retcon previously established (as I know it) lore? Oh, he gets it! In fact Demnski-Bowden excels in this regard and I find that his embellishment ultimately is what sold me on this book. It is, so far, the best story about the 3rd War of Armageddon that I have read.
- Was I being talked down too? Never, the tone was perfect throughout.
- How predictable is this story? It's fairly predictable as far as plot goes and as far as the Techpriest subplot goes, but there are many story elements that are not, especially the outcomes of some the secondary characters. The chapters where the Salamander Space Marines are in Helsreach were particularly fascinating as they served to showcase just how different the Salmanders are to the Black Templars. I had not predicted that to end the way it did.
- Do I recommend this book? Yes. But be patient with it. It may feel familiar to those who have read other BL Space Marine tales, but it grows into a very fascinating tale and examination of the typical broken cityscape battlefield of Warhammer 40k. By the tale's end I very much enjoyed it and think you might as well.
The book is now out of print but was reprinted with another story and is now sold as Armageddon which I think may still be available. (It is, at least in ebook format anyway).