Sunday, August 28, 2011

Space Marine - Book Review

Space Marine by Ian Watson
First published in 1993 – though completed some years earlier – at a time when the background to the Warhammer 40,000 universe was still in a state of flux and not yet fully coalesced, the book follows three young Imperial Fist recruits from their formative years in the underhive gangs of Necromunda through to fighting as part of the First Company within the bowels (literally!) of a Tyranid bioship.

Not only will you find squats in this novel –Tzeentch-worshiping squats at that – but also Space Marines controlling Titans, Space Marines with lasguns, the Pain Glove and more than a small amount of toilet humour. Oh, and a Zoat. How could we forget the Zoat?

Although the temptation was great to rewrite significant portions of this book to make it conform to current background, as a curiosity piece, an historical snapshot of the Warhammer 40,000 universe circa the early 1990s, this book is invaluable. It also serves as a shining example of what can happen when a respected genre author at the height of his powers is let loose on an established shared universe.

In another month of reading (when I should be painting) I decided it was time I re-read this book. I have owned the original for sometime now but rather then it get further dog eared I decided to pick up the print on demand copy from the Black Library. Firstly about the book itself and I must say, as with my Bloodquest book, I am pleased with the quality. OK so the price is a bit steep but to have one of the founding pieces of 40k lore available again its worth it. The larger then normal format and the simplified cover looks really good and certainly works, it also means larger font as well which is nice.

I wasn't planning on doing a full on stonking review going in to great detail on the story and on the background but the thing with the novel is its so different! Which ever way you look at it Watson’s fluff does not fit the current mythology and Black Library story telling ethos. If anything perhaps is more literary than most current readers would like and is very cerebral in places (though with an unhealthy obsession with excrement and body parts!). All that in mind though any true aficionados of 40K and mainstream science fiction should embrace the novel as a classic and enjoy it for its strengths and inventions.

The novel begins with three young protagonists, citizens of the Trazior Hive, an vast city on the planet Necromunda, engaged in gang warfare. Yeremi Valence, Biff Tundrish and Lexandro d’Arquebus are the leads and each protagonist belongs to a different social class and as a result differing gangs> the novel cleverly begins with the collision of three levels of the hive, represented by three young gangs, battling each other in brutal warfare which is used to link them through out the story. Through various routes the three end up becoming recruits for the Imperial Fists Space Marines, it is here where things progress. I don't want to take it further as it would ruin the book for readers, one thing of note though is how actions in this book (originally meant as a one off) are linked to the subsequent follow up book, Inquisitor, a clever plot device before they even knew they needed it.

One of the big sells for me was the novel’s psychological complexity, but the biggest draw is the exquisite use of language. Each sentence is poetical and rigorous, more often then not Watson uses alliteration to dramatic effect, though you never feel its over used. One of the simplest ways in which he used this command of language is how as he quickly follows the three men’s rise to become battle-brothers he changes the manner and style of their speech to reflect this, but cleverly throws in slips when they in action.

As previously mentioned the novel doesn't sit wholly within the realms of current accepted background and imagery. For example in the novel Orks are not great threats and a blight on the universe they are simply space-faring pirates and spoken of as almost potential allies. We also get to meet squats, something unfortunately missing from the current universe, who with their human overlord are minions of Chaos. We also get a unique, if somewhat bodily orifice and excrement tinted, view of the two major players in the theme, daemons and Tyranids. The spin on these forces is certainly unique and twisted but it is something fresh and worth exploring.

See, I said I wouldn't do a full review and there I go and do one. All I can say to you now is go get this book! Beg, Borrow or Buy you need to have read this book to understand the Genesis of the 40k universe. The style and imagery isn't to every ones taste but for me this book rates a full 5 out of 5, if nothing just for the nostalgia I feel when reading it.

Available from:
Space Marine by Ian Watson
Softback • ISBN 9781844169016

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