Review: Shadow of Ullanor by Rob Sanders

Posted by DarkChaplain at 10/27/2016
After two failed attempts to annihiliate the orks, and the deaths of countless heroes, the Imperium may finally have a solution. But to win the war will take unthinkable sacrifice…

The Imperium’s attempts to defeat the ork menace seem doomed to failure; it is only a matter of time before the greenskins triumph, and mankind is wiped from the face of the galaxy. Yet there is some cause for hope – the psychic weakness of the orks has been discovered, and a few Sisters of Silence yet survive. Supported by the full military might and technology of the Adeptus Mechanicus, the Space Marines head to the orks’ home world one final time. This time there will be no retreat, no surrender. They must succeed… or die in the attempt.
Writing this review has been one of my least-favorite things to do in 2016. And I had to get surgery to fix a hernia this year. If that doesn't express my frustration and disappointment with this semi-finale, I don't know what will...

The Story:
"After two failed attempts to annihiliate the orks, and the deaths of countless heroes, the Imperium may finally have a solution. But to win the war will take unthinkable sacrifice…

The Imperium’s attempts to defeat the ork menace seem doomed to failure; it is only a matter of time before the greenskins triumph, and mankind is wiped from the face of the galaxy. Yet there is some cause for hope – the psychic weakness of the orks has been discovered, and a few Sisters of Silence yet survive. Supported by the full military might and technology of the Adeptus Mechanicus, the Space Marines head to the orks’ home world one final time. This time there will be no retreat, no surrender. They must succeed… or die in the attempt."

The Review:
Shadow of Ullanor is my biggest disappointment of the The Beast Arises series. Not only because of its inconsistencies with the rest, lost opportunities and continuity problems, but also because it wrapped up the threat of the Beast of Ullanor in such brevity and without much originality at this point in the series.

Let me preface by saying that this is the first book in a long while that had me mark sections on my Kindle and add notes, just so I wouldn't forget problems and continuity issues by the time I was finished. I also noted a lot of criticisms over on Bolter & Chainsword while reading, simply to have a way to vent my frustrations and not off-load them on my girlfriend. For me, this book was a massive frustration, and beats I Am Slaughter for my least-favorite installment. In a way, it has soured the series for me with its lackluster conclusion and disregard for some of the stellar character development preceding it.
While individual scenes and setpieces were well-done and some even great, there were few saving graces for me.

First off, I'll address the elephant in the room: This is the final attack on the Beast of Ullanor, and the final book, The Beheading, is bound to deal with the political fallout instead of the ork menace. That means that, within about as many pages as the shortest books in the series, Rob Sanders had to wrap up not only the reformation of the Imperial Fists and the death of the Beast (well, all of them). He had to deal with the loss of Koorland, and lead Vangorich up to his infamous deeds.
And it didn't really work.

I had speculated before that, since Rob Sanders already featured the Life-Eater Virus in Predator, Prey, it might be coming to the Imperial Fists using that devastating weapon to wipe out the Beast of Ullanor, rather than facing it in direct combat and wasting countless lives for the third time. While the psychic vulnerability was a cool aspect and almost worked in The Last Son of Dorn, a m0re pragmatic approach like that would have felt... cleaner.
Now, to go off further on that tangent, I think that would have made the book massively better, even if the final blow had to have been struck personally.

Koorland was an idealist. He had an idealistic need to be the one to end the Beast. He had to be there for all manner of reasons. But Maximus Thane, his successor and former Fists Exemplar Chapter Master, represents the pragmatism of the Imperial Fists Legion successors. The Fists Exemplar were the first to agree with Guilliman's assessment that the Legions needed to be split, and the idealistic Dorn didn't like that for a while.
While Thane does make some pragmatic choices in Shadow of Ullanor, he still went for a highly idealistic approach to the third and final attack, basically retreading the same steps as Koorland before him yet expecting different results. In my eyes, it would have been a far more suitable conclusion to have Thane opt for the Life-Eater approach, saving lives and resisting the urge for a personal confrontation. It would have been a fitting end to Ullanor as an ecosystem and usable planet for the Imperium - effectively discarding the glories of the past and the horrors of the present. A clean cut to safeguard the future of the Imperium.

Instead what we got is a book that, as far as Ullanor and the preparations are concerned, retreads most of the same ground The Last Son of Dorn did.
The Deathwatch manage to capture two more Ork psykers off-screen (even though it was stated that the Beast would keep them safe now that he knows that the Imperium figured out how to use them as a weapon, making the strictly-synchronized capture-missions in TLSoD a necessity), making the Imperium attack Ullanor with a trio of them.
Thane explains basically the same plan of attack to Vangorich and Fabricator General Kubik that Koorland did last time, but they're somehow surprised anyway. The Sisters of Silence once again swear to help out, though their powers don't seem at all nullifying this time, more like dampening, and their overall effectiveness is massively decreased.

Thane, like Koorland, forces the High Lords of Terra to cooperate, albeit in a different manner, and throws everything the Imperium had left at Ullanor. How many times have we heard that now? Oddly enough, this time the assault is far better prepared, more numerous and better equipped than in either of the previous two attacks. Bike squadrons, Land Raiders, at least a company's worth of terminator-suited Space Marines and, oh, by the way, the Phalanx is there too. Not even a hint of where the giant star fortress has been for the past 10 books, even though it is crucial to the invasion. While fans know for a fact that the Phalanx existed and were confused as to where it has been all along, Sanders failed to give us a believable explanation as to how it could be that it is now part of the strike force - or any explanation at all. Not even a simple "it had to undergo repairs after Armatura", nothing.
On top of that, it also appears that the Imperial Fists now have access to Centurion armor, which was supposedly not rediscovered until the Age of Apostasy, around 4-5 millennia after the Beast's Waaagh. What's up with that?

And yes, we all knew it was coming: The Imperial Fists are reformed by the Successor Chapters, with Thane at their head. The way it is depicted here struck me as awkward, however.
First the Last Wall celebrates the Feast of Blades on Inwit in Koorland's honor, duelling for the Dornsblade. Thane presents himself as the representative of the Fists Exemplar and ends up, naturally, winning. We only see him duelling the Excoriators champion Tychor, but that duel seemed to take up more space and time than the following proposal by Thane to reform the Imperial Fists from the Last Wall Chapters. No real arguments or opposition are being made clear, and even Bohemond of the Black Templars has nothing to add. Thane is simply accepted as "the man" and declared new Chapter Master, with the successors throwing their veterans at the newborn Chapter. There are no indentity problems here, no arguments of faith from former Black Templars, and Thane is the only one to my knowledge who even makes spoken reference to his former allegiance, in the form of a curse on Ullanor.

The second part of the reformation, the public one, happens on Terra, in Thane's bid for strength. Revealing the full Chapter to the Imperial Palace's powerful, scribes and serfs, the scene is awesome for sure. I liked that chapter of the book in particular, but that is also down to Vangorich making his move in support.
In general, Vangorich's parts were highlights here again. He has fully set his sights on the target we knew he had to come to, and makes sacrifices for it already. One early chapter even sees him asking an ecclesiarch for absolution after confessing his doubts about the way things are going to him.
The assassin's blade is in place for a fantastic conclusion on the political end of the series, at least.

But then there are further inconsistencies and a disregard for series continuity that I hated reading the book.
After the brilliant development of High Marshal Bohemond of the Black Templars in recent books, there is nothing of note about him here. He is mentioned in passing only. In my eyes, he should have been the one to duel Thane in the final round of the Feast of Blades, as he would have been the man to honor Koorland that way, personally, without representatives. He deserved a more prominent role in the book, especially after the tear-jerker of the last book.
Magos Laurentis, who featured alongside Bohemond last time, is completely absent here. So, too, is the Mechanicus adepts' use of tranquilizers on the ork psykers. Or, in general, so are all the adepts beyond Fabricator General Kubik. Inquisitor Veritus is only mentioned once in the entire book, and misspelled as Veritas. Wienand, the Inquisitorial representative, is mentioned but doesn't affect the story in any way beyond being said to be with the Deathwatch during the assault on Ullanor.
It also appears as if Vangorich is supposed to choose a new High Ecclesiarch for the High Lords, even though Koorland made a big show of ousting the Ecclesiarchy from the council and re-declaring a dedication to the Imperial Truth.

There are so many small things and absences of details and characters that were most enjoyable to me throughout the series that I can only wonder how much care the editors in charge put into this penultimate book of the series, and how they expected it to match up with the rest. There is a clear disconnect here that, regardless of a bunch of great scenes, makes the whole book seem like a weak excuse for a finale to me. It is no secret that the series has been on ice for years in Black Library's vaults, and that heavy rewrites were necessary in the meantime, but come the hell on. This is not the satisfying conclusion of one of the two major threads of the series that readers deserved, and I know that Sanders could have done better if the editorial direction had been more appropriate and time & page constraints not as strict.

But the real, the biggest bummer has got to be the ending. After spending a lengthy chapter just for the arrival on Ullanor, and most of the following chapter on slaughtering hundreds of orks to reach the Beast's throneroom, the actual confrontation with the big bad greeny is short and, again, retreading familiar ground. Once again a Chapter Master challenges the Beast, and gets pushed aside by his trusted lieutenant (which, at least, makes the introduction of Tychor sensible), echoing TLSoD. Once again a Chapter Master is near death at the hands of the Beast. Once again the Sisters of Silence unleash their payload.

With the climax being so similar to that of The Last Son of Dorn, it is unavoidable to compare the two. The result is clear to me: Shadow of Ullanor pales in contrast to David Guymer's contribution. It doesn't have the same emotional payoff, not the same sense of it being a showdown for the future of the galaxy, not the buildup for the ork psyker's power... Beyond mention of the other four surviving Beasts, the Great Beast is the only one to appear in the story as well, with the rest being taken care of off-screen apparently.
It is an all-around disappointing way to wrap up the Ullanor plotline and shows just how wrong the series went with having the Imperium go for a third attack on Ullanor. With little variation beyond the inevitable success of this attempt, it is hard to see a reason for this attack to even have occured on a separate occassion rather than being rolled into a previous book.

Thankfully, there were some cool scenes involving Lady Brassanas, and using the orks' strategy of using asteroids for planetary assault was neat. I just wish that the book hadn't spent so long on the latter part compared to the action on the planet.
A lot of the big and dramatic scale was merely glanced at and narrated in passing, but never actually focused on. The Phalanx is being boarded? All we hear about it is curt and detail-barren reports to Thane. Few (none) of the new Imperial Fists captains are explored in any depth, and even the Chief Librarian is reduced to doing communication jobs. The book is even worse at portraying the Imperial Fists as anything but faceless yellow-armored Space Marines than I Am Slaughter did - at least that one introduced the previous Chapter Master and had the Wall Veterans. All Shadow of Ullanor could offer were names and erratic reports, but no hands-on experience.

This review might be long and rambly at this point, and maybe I am being a tad too harsh, but as someone having followed the series for the past 11 months, reviewing installment after installment, this book just feels utterly wrong, disappointing and a waste of my time. The amount of things that could have been changed to make it more compelling is pretty big. It spent too much time on things that, in the grand scheme of things, didn't matter much, while neglecting what would have made for great payoffs. I was in awe of the second assault on Ullanor, yet this third one leaves me cold.

I cannot even be happy that this is one of the shortest books in the series. For all I know, a few additional chapters might have turned a poor semi-finale into a great one, by allowing for more intricate ideas to take shape and deviating from the formula. While not terrible by any means in its own right, as a successor to 10 better books, Shadow of Ullanor feels like a culmination of all the problems and missteps of the series, and makes me wonder why I bothered getting excited.
What should have been the biggest, most earth-shattering installment in the series instead turned out the weakest.

Shadow of Ullanor on Goodreads

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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