Helmetless Sergeants and Captains - Take Note!

Ever since their last codex over-hyped them to the point of insanity, the Ultramarines have taken a bit of a kicking from the fanbase. They're no Grey Knights, thankfully, but talk of how non-Ultramarines-descended chapters are sad because they 'can never be Ultarmarines' despite their best efforts and of how the Blood Angels 'strive to be worthy of Guilliman's legacy' doesn't exactly endear them to folks. Nobody likes a Mary Sue, which is what the last Codex: Space Marines turned the Ultramarines into. Which is shame, because in my opinion that rather goes against the most interesting aspect of that legion.

Know No Fear, by Dan Abnett, thankfully reverses course about as swiftly as possible. Yes, the Ultarmarines have a certain standing amongst the Astartes; they're the biggest legion, with the greatest number of triumphs, spread over the widest area. They conquer as swiftly as World Eaters or Space Wolves, with all the skill of the Imperial Fists and the Luna Wolves, and create compliant worlds as stable and productive as Word Bearers and Thousand Sons, but without the brutality of the former or the lengthy deployments of the latter. So, yes, the Ultarmarines are probably one of the top legions at the time, and they know it just as much as everyone else. But that certainly doesn't endear them to those legions who are considered to be inferior in some way. And it doesn't mean they can't get hurt, badly.

The Ultramarines famously played no real role in the Horus Heresy. Dispatched by the Warmaster to the Eastern Fringes, far from the fighting, and ambushed by the Word Bearers, they were basically written out of the main action. But you can't just sideline a legion the size of the pre-Heresy Ultramarines without a pretty serious fight, and Know No Fear shows us the start of that fight. The Ultramarines, assembled in all their vast strength, are set to assault a powerful ork stronghold alongside the Word Bearers. It turns out to be a trick, however, a way to assemble the majority of the Ultramarines' force in one place so the Word Bearers can cause maximum damage with their alpha strike. And it works. Good heavens, does it work!

The best thing about the Ultramarines, and the thing Ward's fawning Mary Sue-isms foolishly undermines, is that they were the everymen of the Space Marines. They weren't crazy berzerkers, or blood-drinking mutations, or flesh-hating cyborgs, or crusading knights errant. Their role in the fiction was to be the baseline for Space Marines, not as strong, not as wild, not as calculating, not as impregnably armoured or fantastically armed. They fought Behemoth and won, but lost their entire First Company. It was a monumental achievement, at a staggering cost. It's what made the Ultramarines likeable; they took their licks, fair and square, and then powered through and triumphed despite the odds. And that is what Know No Fear seems intent on reinforcing. Attacked without warning, by a force meant to be friendly, at a time when violence between Space Marines was simply unthinkable, the Ultramarines take absolutely catastrophic losses. Starships, space docks, Ultramarines, Imperial Army, Mechanicus, civilians, the Word Bearers visit indiscriminate slaughter on any and every target they can find. Abnett really sells the sheer scale of the horror, taking a bit of time here and there to rattle off the names of helpless ships being killed, one by one, in orbit, or showing small groups of disoriented Imperial Army and Ultramarines being run down and murdered. And while the Ultramarines react with the sort of stoic determination that so makes a Space Marine, even Guilliman can't just shake off the profound emotional impact of such a monumental betrayal. He and Lorgar might not have seen eye to eye on a great many things, but they're brothers, sons of the Emperor, gods amongst men creating a golden future for all humanity; for one to try and kill the other is, rightly, shocking. And it comes off that way.

Know No Fear has some really excellent action scenes. It helps that 40K's best scenes are usually of the 'desperately outnumbered', 'heroic last stand' or 'doomed but glorious' variety, which this book has no shortage of. The Ultramarines die by the truckload, but they die well, which is just what you want out of them. They should be noble, so their deaths mean something, but they should also be vulnerable so their deaths can be relatively realistic. It's a fine line, and Abnett handles it nicely.

That's not to say this book is perfect, though. Much as I like a bit of worldbuilding, it does rather take its own sweet time getting started. And while Abnett's practice of introducing a wide variety of figures in small roles, and giving them a look-in every now and then, can make for a wider world for the reader, he does go overboard in this one. There are several characters, notably a dreadnought and a high-ranking Ultramarine lord, who get several rather lengthy establishing scenes that never really result in anything. There's no real payoff for it, which is frustrating when those interludes kept interrupting the meaningful action.

Still, despite a few rough patches, Know No Fear is an excellent entry into the Horus Heresy series, and a solid return to form for the Ultramarines. Let's hope Matt Ward was watching...

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