Review: Soul Hunter by Aaron Dembski-Bowden

Posted by DarkChaplain at 4/24/2012
With the Night Lords trilogy coming to a close with Void Stalker, I finally managed to pick up and read the first novel of the bunch - Soul Hunter.
It is no secret that this trilogy by heretic overlord Aaron Dembski-Bowden is being extremely praised and, lacking a better word, hyped like the 14th Black Crusade. You can imagine how high my expectations have been ever since this hype surfaced in the spheres of the 40k fandom, so I was quite eager to get my claws on this book and read it once I'd get an open reading slot. Having been a Night Lords sympathiser ever since I saw their color scheme in one of my first White Dwarfs, I haven't come to read much about them in the past. Pure anticipation forced me to finish this book in mere days.

Can Talos and the Night Lords live up to the hype surrounding everything AD-B touches these days? Did Soul Hunter turn me from the Emperor's light? Let's penetrate the darkness...
The Story:
"The Night Lords form an uneasy allegiance with the Black Legion in order to assault the valuable planet of Crythe Primus. The Imperial world puts up a stern defence, but the biggest obstacle to success will be the disunity and mistrust between the two Legions. Will their covenant last long enough for them to succeed in their mission?"

General Information
While technically a 40k novel, Soul Hunter also ties very deeply into Horus Heresy events, so I recommend having a solid knowledge on both parts of the franchise before reading - that way you'll get the most out of it. The ties into existing lore and background material reach deep; deep enough to impress me more and more with every moment I spend thinking about the book.
Soul Hunter and its follow-ups are some of the rare Black Library novels depicting the Traitor Legions not just as antagonists, but show their inner workings. While it gets quickly clear that these aren't the shiny cover-boys from Ultramar but evil bastards out for blood, it is incredibly easy to genuinely care about the Night Lords' 10th Company.
The Night Lords Legion itself is based on psychological warfare - instill fear in the hearts of your enemies and they will struggle to even put up a fight. Their deeds, however, led them to being looked down on by the other Space Marine Legions, and eventually saw them deemed traitors. Primarch Konrad Curze, the Night Haunter, decided to cut the Legion's ties to their corrupt homeworld by destroying it, and later joined the Traitor Legions in their Heresy against the Emperor - which he foresaw, for Konrad was plagued by visions of the future.
Soul Hunter deals with events in the present timeline and the Legion's history ten thousand years in the past, addressing the Night Haunter's visions, the fate of the Legion, the Black Crusades led by Abaddon the Despoiler and picks up threads from all around, knitting a solid, believable start to Aaron Dembski-Bowden's Night Lords trilogy.

Talos of the Night Lords' 10th Company, under the command of the Exalted, has inherited his gene-father's gift of foresight. Regarded as prophet by many of his brothers, he plays a vital role in his Company. Assuming a role similar to sergeant of his squad, the First Claw, Talos often argues with the Exalted about the state of their decaying warband, and even the whole Legion. The Exalted, however, shrugs the lack of reinforcements, supplies and servants off on many occassions. Having embraced the influence of the Dark Gods, he believes himself above these matters and instead thirsts for Warmaster Abaddon's grace and to prove his tactical excellence in void battles.
When Talos delays the warband's departure for the Crythe system to support Abaddon's war, following the call of one of his visions and returning with new servitors and even a female Navigator, the Exalted feels once more threatened in his rule over 10th Company. The rare gift of the third eye the Navigators bear on their foreheads allows them to stare into the warp, guiding void vessels through the galaxy. Said female Navigator has to decide whether to align herself with traitors to the Golden Throne or to refuse and die at the hands of their betters. Meanwhile, her 'master', Talos, faces temptations, the ruin of 10th and his memories regarding his gene-father, Konrad Curze and the name he gave him - Soul Hunter.
The book's final stage is reached during the battle on Crythe Prime against the Mechanicus and their Titan Legion. At last, the Night Lords join sides with Abaddon's Black Legion - but can real unity be found among condemned traitors? Who can be trusted? When the Imperial relief-fleet arrives to defend the Crythe system, the Night Lords are force to not just stand against their old foes, the Blood Angels, but also against their own...

Final Words & Verdict
As bitter as the Night Lords present in the novel are, the story is not without humor - at least for the reader. The character interaction is top-notch, their relations a promising build up for further books. The action sequences are captivating and satisfying, making clear that being traitors to the Imperium comes with both positive as well as negative aspects. The Night Lords are grinding themselves down - they are dying in their defiance. They have to scavenge pieces of equipment from fallen brothers and foes alike, are lacking proper recruitment methods and the means to properly maintain their machines. These Traitor Marines feel realistic, gritty and act like true renegades. Even the human characters in the novel have their place in the novel, and make for an unexpected twist.

Believe me when I say that it is incredible to read such a tightly-knit book. Everything comes together in Soul Hunter - the Great Crusade, the Heresy, the wronging of the Night Haunter, his eventual assassination by M'Shen, the Night Lords' fall from grace - I am not sure I have read another Black Library novel that digs so deep into small details and aspects of the background; Even rarer for them to feel so natural and well-placed. Some scenes from the post-Heresy-era even reminded me of similar scenes from Horus Rising, as they were discussing the same principles with a different twist and angle. I'm almost convinced to call this book, maybe the whole trilogy, a fantastic addition to the Horus Heresy series. AD-B's depiction of Warmaster Abaddon, former First Captain of the Sons of Horus hit me as surprising, yet wholly pleasant. Having read the chapters featuring him, I am hoping Aaron will realise his plans regarding a Warmaster-series as soon as possible. His take on Chaos is simply that good, trust me.

Another thing Aaron obviously manages to pull of with great success is the subject of void battles. Normally I am not a fan of spaceships shooting at each other until shields go down and they may move in for the kill, but surprisingly the chapters dedicated to these battles in space were extremely enjoyable, comprehensible and kept me excited. Every single one of these scenes featured was unique and satisfying - now I finally understand why people are so excited about more void battles written by AD-B, for I am now in the same battle-barge...

You can't possibly comprehend how much I am looking forward to the upcoming Prince of Crows novella, to be featured in Shadows of Treachery. While Graham McNeill wrote The Dark King, a story about Konrad Curze's fate around the time he attacked his brother Rogal Dorn, ending in the destruction of the Night Haunter's home planet Nostramo Quintus, it is AD-B who refines the Legion, and he does so both in the Heresy era and the 41st Millenium. Having this man in charge of the 40k-Batmen is a bliss for both the franchise and the fans. He does his homework regarding the background material and utilises it in fantastic ways that add further layers to whatever he writes about without disturbing pre-existent works. If you need proof of that, pick up Soul Hunter and marvel at the richness of the story.

You won't regret picking the book up. You will, however, most likely regret having to put it down once in a while.
Now I need to kill a few days, possibly a week, until the sequel Blood Reaver arrives...

Soul Hunter on the Black Library Website

About the Author
DarkChaplain is a big nerd who spends too much time reading and thinking about books, organizing them on his ever-growing shelves, and yet increases his backlog by the month. DC is also an avid Gamer and owns more PC games than he'll ever be able to play. He is certainly spoiled for choice!
Follow Me on Twitter @TheDarkChaplain

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