Phalanx (Soul Drinkers book 6) by Ben Counter book review

Phalanx by Ben Counter book review, the sixth and final book in the Warhammer 40,000 Soul Drinkers series published by Black Library

There’s probably some sort of internal chart fantasy and science fiction publishers use when determining how much time, money and effort to invest in a series when the numbers get past a certain point.

Clearly by Book 6 of a this equates with ‘Sweet FA’, as the exhilarating saga of the Soul Drinkers, a Chapter just as devoted to the Emperor as any of their brother Space Marines, but forced to turn their back on the Imperium following betrayal upon betrayal, is packaged with all the love and care of a bag of nappies in the multi-storey car park.

Dreary cover art, generic typography and appalling, mechanical proof-reading that compounds words, changes genders and capitalise Chaos whether it’s in reference to mere confusion or the malevolent supernatural force against whom the Imperium stands arrayed – all are evidence of a level of disrespect that’ll galls those devotees to have followed this story from the outset.

Set around the trial of Sarpedon, the mutant Chapter Master, and his kin, by their peers in the Imperial Fists, a plot finally comes to a head that has been seven books in the making, pitting our beleagued antiheroes against enemies within, and vengeful enemies past, including embittered members of the Howling Griffons and Crimson Fists, summoned to the trial to see justice done, and an otherworldly evil long thought defeated.

Weaknesses abound in the mid-section, in which a vast pitched battle pointlessly takes place within the ship – in an area designed for training battles, this by-the-numbers final stand is meaningless through its lack of place and clear defiance of logic, without which it just becomes another long, drawn-out description of Space Marines overcoming incredible odds, and Dorn knows the Black Library isn’t exactly short of those.

Large chunks of mystery are just left hanging, never mentioned again in the Soul Drinkers equivalent of Syfo-Dyas and the Clone Army – just what is it that [REDACTED FOR SPOILERS] has actually being doing for thousands of years, and why couldn’t we see some evidence of it? And who is [REDACTED FOR SPOILERS] really descended from?

That aside, Phalanx is a bittersweet end for the Soul Drinkers – a brotherhood put through the wringer with relentless cruelty across each book as they tried to find a third way between the unjust and Byzantine world they escaped, and the forces of Chaos and corruption that were waiting for them outside the door, seeking to ensnare and entice them, and nearly succeeding.

Equal parts tragedy and equal parts vindication, there was never going to be a happy ending for a set of characters so boldly swimming against the tide of the Warhammer 40,000 canon, but they deserved to have the righteousness of their world view begrudgingly acknowledged by those who condemned them as heretics, and to ride off into the sunset.

Not that it’s as simple as all that, obviously.