Considering how bleak, harsh and fundamentally, heart achingly unjust the Warhammer 40,000 wargaming universe is, it’s interesting how easy it is for people to identify the bad guys, and furiously will defeat on them as they go about their nefarious machinations.
Through the three books, Dark Apostle, Dark Disciple and Dark Creed, and the unreleased short story Torment, this is something that Antony Reynolds wrestles with constantly, sometimes to great effect. The former, for example, begins through the eyes of a lawman on a world about to explode into anarchy and war – all the plot threads for him to unravel are laid out in front of us, he sees people go about their conspiracy, he bursts in on a plotting cult, and is about to be initiated into the mystery by an suitably stern authority figure. That part of our brain that eagerly scans text for points of identification gives you the thumbs up, “Here he is, here’s our guy – he may be the enforcer of a brutal and uncaring theocracy, but he’s a beat cop and we understand that, and most importantly he’s an actual pink-faced flesh person.” And then we hiss like we’re at a panto as the Word Bearers make their entrance and the status quo tumbles: “Boooo, boooo, they’re evil, they wear spikes and have names like Marduk and Satanface Babyeater.” Then our blue collar average joe fades from the narrative and the Word Bearers decimate a world in their pursuit of some maguffin, and all the while we’re patiently expecting him to step up a hero, and deny the heretics their victory, and our Chaos Space Marines to whoosh back through the Eye of Terror shaking their fists, and plotting revenge.
That doesn’t happen, because obviously that line of thought can’t sustain three novels and a short story. Unless you’re writing Thundercats tie-in fiction or something, but that ingrained expectation never really goes away, and part of you feels much more comfortable when our armoured nu-metal band go up against other threats, of equal or greater perceived ‘evil’. The snarling Tyranids and Genestealers, the waspish, sadistic Eldar, or cold, relentless Necrons. That’s good, of course, literature is supposed to challenge your view of the world, but where it fails to deliver is where World Bearers: The Omnibus loses that extra star, as the inconsistent portrayal of the Word Bearers themselves makes that lasting transference of sympathy incredibly difficult, and as soon as Ultramarines or Imperial Fists, or Imperial Guard pop up, we can’t help but swing our allegiances back towards the stalwart defenders of humanity.
The Word Bearers are the frothing, righteous zealots of the Chaos Space Marine Legions, bound to litanies, holy texts and ritual, but the different facets of their depiction don’t always meet at the corners. If they were ignorant to their own fall from grace, believing of their own purity in spite of evidence to the contrary, we’d find ourselves as readers buying more readily into their story, but instead for every speech about betrayal by the False Emperor, is a whole lot of gurning and pose-striking as alternate between these tragic, almost romantic figures damned by pride and hubris, into more histrionic comic-book supervillains who summon daemons and cackle hysterically as their plans come to fruition.
There are links to Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s hugely successful Horus Heresy book, The First Heretic, as you’d expect from a Legion whose members can still recall that titanic battle at the heart of the 40k mythos, but one can’t help but wish Word Bearers: The Omnibus was linked more closely and that its protagonists took a few pointers from that of Dembski-Bowden’s Biblical tale of pride, and ultimately, fall.