That’s a shame, as the Adeptus Mechanicus—with their cold-hearted logic, slavish devotion to a warped religion, and their augmented but ultimately diminished humanity—are among the most compelling “factions” in the Warhammer 40K universe.
For the 40K addict, learning more about the Tech Priests and their military forces is an exciting prospect, and this novel, by Rob Sanders, opens with promise. Readers are introduced to the central character, Haldron-44 Stroika, an Alpha Primus in command of a Skitarii legion, as he leads his cybernetically enhanced troops in a battle against orks on the snowy battleground of an ice planet.
The description of this early battle is intriguing, as the author describes the massive data streams of battlefield details that pour into the Skitarii commander. Even with his augmented cognitive function, the Skitarii can barely process the constantly updated analysis of target trajectories and enemy positions.
Yet, at the same time, the Skitarii are inhuman and cruelly enslaved warriors. Fear has been programmed out of them; their lives meaning nothing in the calculated algorithms that dictate how troops are deployed–and sacrificed–to achieve victory. Their only compensation: an artificial if sublime religious joy as the download of machine code creates a sense of the “Machine-God Incarnate.”
By this initial battle’s conclusion, however, a major flaw in the novel becomes painfully clear. While not entirely stripped of their humanity, the Skitarii—as well as their Tech Priest masters—are depicted as too logical and emotionless to serve as the interesting characters that readers require to fully engage in a fictional story.
A review written on the Talk Wargaming website offers a cogent analysis of these flaws:
They are meant to be largely emotionless, which rarely makes for a compelling protagonist, especially when practically every other character is similarly emotionless. But injecting them with emotion that they hide away would defeat the character of them as a faction, they are emotionless for the most part and that is how they should be portrayed, which the novel does, but that means it’s hard to particularly like them.
This is a creative trap that the author never escapes. Although the central character, Stroika, occasionally reveals a sense of loss or outrage as his subordinates perish, his limited emotional response is not enough to allow the reader to develop any emotional attachment to the protagonist. In many ways, Stroika is similar to an actor who walks on the stage and reads his lines as if he were reading a telephone book.
All of this is very disappointing, as the premise of the story had great potential. Having discovered an ancient and powerful technology from the Dark Age of Technology, the leaders of a forge world decide to test the weapon on a Chaos-held world. If successful, the weapon could change the galaxy’s military balance in favor of the Imperium.
But, without any emotional investment in the characters, even this action-packed story falls into a rut. A kills B. B kills C. While the tactical situations of the subsequent war shift and slide, without any emotional context–any empathy for the characters–it became almost a chore to continue reading. And that’s not what you want in a book.
That said, I applaud the attempt. The book offers some treasures–a glimpse at the almost inhuman thinking of the cybernetically enhanced warriors of the Mechanicus, the ruthless politically machinations of the Tech Priest elite, and the madness of the Dark Mechanicus that serve as the book’s antagonist.
Still, the book ultimately fails as a form of entertainment. Despite the author’s best efforts, it proved impossible to overcome the lack of humanity in the Skitarii characters.
To be fair, the Talk Wargaming review was largely positive, but one of its observations I believe offers a fine summation of the novel’s worth:
… if the Mechanicus is something you aren’t interested in, or you want complex emotion-filled characters that have multi-layered and intricate personalities, you won’t find that here.