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Night Lords Omnibus

Evil Batman-marines...IN SPACE!

Rating: B overall, B (Soul Hunter)/B+ (Blood Reaver)/C+ (Void Stalker) individually

Length: 942 pages, slightly larger than standard paperback page size with slightly smaller than standard font

I know that I'd previously said I was going to review the Dark Eldar omnibus, but I got caught up in reading this instead (along with other events in my personal life that were frankly more worthwhile than writing a review for such a thoroughly mediocre product), so I'm just going to skip that one and move on with my life.

So, the Night Lords. Honestly, going into reading these books, they were probably the Chaos Space Marines legion that I had the second-least interest in (the least being the Death Guard). However, I had heard a lot of good things about Aaron Dembski-Bowden, including people ranking him up there with Sandy Mitchell and Dan Abnett as one of the best WH40K authors. Thus, taking it on faith that I'd end up with something better than the Word Bearers omnibus in quality if not in content, I picked up this collection.

Well, from almost the very beginning of Soul Hunter, I warmed up to Dembski-Bowden's style. He manages to be descriptive and evocative without resorting to turning the characters into absurd caricatures of insanity like Reynolds did for the Word Bearers. I mean, yes, there is still some absurdity (this is WH40K, after all), but it's mostly grounded in a way that highlights and mocks itself rather than trying to take it seriously, relying instead on more palatable expressions of horror and the grotesque to paint the Night Lords in a bad light. I think much of his success in doing that comes from the main character, who manage to be very human despite regular reminders that he's also something more.

Talos is the protagonist and primary narrative focus through all three novels. He's very much an atypical member of the Tenth company. Despite claims to the contrary, he cares for his slaves quite clearly, along with the other members of First Claw (his squad). His minding after the addled Uzas or mediating the regular bickering between Xarl and Cyrion were honestly refreshing displays of how someone could be an ardent member of a Chaos Space Marine legion without being a complete asshole. On the other hand, he was also pushing into Marty Sue territory in a few ways. He had a special relationship with Konrad Curze (the founder of the Night Lords), to the point of being invited to special meetings of the legion's leadership despite being a mere Apothecary until sometime after Curze's death. He got away with constant backtalk and second-guessing of the Tenth's leader Captain Vandred (also known as the Exalted), mostly by virtue of having the occasional coma of prophetic visions. His plot armor outshone his apparent skill in combat and complete lack of political savvy. In other words, he was a nice character, but he lacked the cache to really carry the starring role through all three novels.

Sadly, the other members of First Claw were mostly one-note wonders, save for a sudden burst of further characterization for a couple of them during the later parts of Void Stalker. Xarl was an acerbic ganger who was just really awesome at melee combat (enough to make one wonder if he wasn't somewhat favored by Slaanesh, really). Cyrion was a selfish, sarcastic jerk, ever ready with a snarky one-liner to get a jab in at whoever else he was talking with. Uzas was a barely functional madman, though I did enjoy the flashbacks showing how he used to be and thus casting a far more tragic light on his degeneration. Mercutian was a haughty noble who never really fit in with the rest of the squad on a personal level and served chiefly to point out their fall from the ideals that the Night Lords were supposedly assembled for.

Far more interesting were the human slaves, Septimus and Octavia. In particular, Octavia's corruption from a loyal Imperial citizen into a reluctant but willing servant of Talos was executed pretty well. I just wish there could've been more to it than there was, because wrapping up that character development in the first novel made the interactions with other humans in similar situations through the rest of the omnibus feel so much flatter. I can understand that the reason why Dembski-Bowden did that is because there was no "rest of the omnibus" when he was writing Soul Hunter, but that doesn't make the matter any less problematic.

As for Vandred, I'm disappointed with how he turned out. The novels spent a lot of time (both in general narration and in the dialogue of other characters) talking about how he's now more daemon than transhuman, but he never really feels like that. Similarly, the eldar characters also don't feel very alien. I can appreciate that the characters have to have enough sensibility for the reader to develop some understanding and expectations related to them, but they all felt entirely human. That works well enough for Talos, but it fails to hold up when related to beings that are supposed to be repugnant aliens. For all his other flaws in the Word Bearers omnibus, Reynolds did a much better job of showing an otherness to the non-human characters in those stories (including the titular legion). Even the Night Lords' corrupted tech priest Deltrian and dreadnought-entombed champion Malcharion paled in comparison to Darioq and the Warmonger, respectively and collectively.

There is one exception to that complaint, though, and that's the Bleeding Eyes. Lead by Lucoryphus, they were a wonderfully deranged cult of Raptors who actually did feel weird and interesting. Top marks to Dembski-Bowden for their characterization, even if it makes the lack of those qualities in the others all the more glaring.

What about antagonists? Well, frankly, the Night Lords were as much their own antagonists as any other characters in the novels. Sure, it was nice that all three novels included appearances by loyalist Space Marines (which were notably lacking in the Word Bearers omnibus), along with mixing in the likes of rival Chaos Space Marine legions or craftworld eldar, but all of those were really secondary to the infighting of the Night Lords (in both the intrapersonal and interpersonal senses). That made the final epilogue even more annoying.

On which note, I suppose I should talk a little about the plots, except that I can't really think of much to say about them. They were good at keeping me guessing about what would happen next and what the story was building towards, to give credit where it's due. However, the actual events of the plots took a very noticeable back seat to character depth and interactions. This isn't much of a complaint, honestly. The plots managed to deliver on what they promised to do without getting in the way or otherwise hampering my enjoyment, for the most part (I'll get to this caveat in a moment). There just wasn't anything about them that stood out as being particularly memorable. For as much as I hold a low opinion of the Word Bearers omnibus overall, moments like Marduk's masterstroke against the dark eldar or the Warmonger's final battle were strong and captivating, despite the detritus surrounding them. I don't think there was really anything quite like that in these novels.

Well, that's not quite fair. Uzas's couple moments of lucidity in Blood Reaver and Void Stalker were fantastic. Still, given how much that character is marginalized and scorned outside of those parts, they just didn't grip me in the same way.

There is one spot that did rankle, though, and that was the final epilogue. While it was nowhere near the travesty of self-defecating trash that was the climax of Dark Creed in the Word Bearers omnibus, there's a (presumably) significant time skip that raises massive questions. To be fair, answers are somewhat vaguely implied if I squint hard enough and just look at things in the broadest of strokes. That's something that can work in its own right, but it's not the expectation that the several hundred preceding pages had built up. I didn't have a problem with the content of that epilogue, but the presentation of it was so off-putting that it left a sour taste in my mouth nonetheless.

Despite those flaws, though, Dembski-Bowden's talent with words did shine through. Taken on its own merits, the contents of these novels would not have been remarkable, but his style and craftsmanship elevated them beyond being just the sum of their parts. These stories may have been merely good, but he's definitely deserving of having his skills placed on par with Abnett and Mitchell.

Thus, despite that the Night Lords omnibus left a lot of potential unrealized, managed to disappoint in its cast beyond the core characters, and finished on a bad note, I'd still recommend it overall, with a couple of asterisks. First, you have to be willing to accept the fact that most of the entertainment will come from the characters and their subplots instead of from the main stories. Second, though somewhat related, you have to be able to enjoy the inner turmoil and tragedy of the characters instead of looking for climactic conflicts against an enemy without. The reason why I'm raising these two points specifically for this book is that they feel like significant departures from how most WH40K literature goes. In other words, the omnibus is better if viewed as a general book rather than as a WH40K book.

As long as you can approach it from that angle, it's good.

Rating: B overall, B (Soul Hunter)/B+ (Blood Reaver)/C+ (Void Stalker) individually

Length: 942 pages, slightly larger than standard paperback page size with slightly smaller than standard font

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