Book Review: “Lords of Mars” by Graham McNeill

Lords of Mars, by Graham McNeill.

Lords of Mars, by Graham McNeill.

Forum moderator LordLucan brings us a review of Lords of Mars, by Graham McNeill.

Graham McNeil’s Lords of Mars, much like the preceding Priests of Mars, is a relatively slow book. Now, I know as an opening remark ‘slow’ doesn’t tend to bode well for the book about to be reviewed, but in this case I consider this far from a negative trait of this novel series. Too often, I think there is an unspoken compulsion with novels set in Warhammer 40,000 to keep up the pace as much as possible, like a breakneck roller coaster or a great big blockbuster action thriller.

“McNeill makes many wonderful asides throughout the novel; passing references to the deeper lore of the setting. These references are generally not related to the main plot, but show a deep love for the setting and a willingness to play around with knowing readers.”

 

Lords of Mars takes a much more leisurely approach to the overarching plot it is relating to the reader. Think of it more like an indulgent journey through the rich universe established by Games Workshop; a chance to take time to really see the Mechanicus in action at every level of its operation; from the lowly bondsmen to the ArchMagos, to whatever we’d class Telok and Galatea as. It is somewhat sedate, but when the scenery is so pleasant, the characters so rich, who wants to go too fast? If one wants to go on a sightseeing tour, you don’t take the bullet train.

Now, that is not to say the novel lacks for action. Indeed, there are several major battles that keep this novel firmly in the military science fiction genre. The action scenes are built up well, as the novel takes its time to set the scenes and ramp up the tension, before the sudden, frantic bursts of action erupt. There is no continuous rise towards a climax or crescendo, but more like multiple peaks of action occurring between the main focus of the series; the characters, and the lavishly detailed setting.

Tech Priests, from the art contained with Inquis Exterminatus.

Tech Priests, from the art contained with Inquis Exterminatus.

It is clear that McNeill delights in describing the outlandish and sublimely gargantuan alien vistas and structures the exploratory team encounters. McNeill effectively communicates the wonder and awe of the characters by invoking it in the reader. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than with the Speranza itself, the Ark of the Mechanicus and a true leviathan of a vessel.

Too often, science fiction writers are very blasé about the vast scales of their ships; bandying around terms like ‘multi-kilometre’ and ‘miles-long’ as if these terms are to be taken for granted.

But here, Speranza is a tremendous presence, a true floating industrial city, with vast regions where characters can simply vanish, where titan’s can be billeted like infantry, where worlds can be built within worlds, and where its gravity influences other vessels. Unfortunately, there isn’t as much detail on Speranza’s cognition this novel, but I fully expect the third book to remedy that.

“It is interesting that McNeill delves into the minds of these figures, and while superficially their thought processes seem inhuman, their underlying emotions remain very much in evidence, despite their efforts to quash emotion.”

 

McNeill makes many wonderful asides throughout the novel; passing references to the deeper lore of the setting. These references are generally not related to the main plot, but show a deep love for the setting and a willingness to play around with knowing readers. For instance, there is a sly reference to the ‘face of Mars’ which I won’t spoil, along with a great flashback to a period of Warhammer 40,000’s history we seldom get to see. As I said in the beginning, it is scenery and tangents, but they are pleasant and in no way detract from the overall effectiveness of the work.

The tech priests of the novel are delightfully strange and outlandish; most of them are ungainly chimeras of technology and biological matter, sculpted and fashioned into truly bizarre forms. It is interesting that McNeill delves into the minds of these figures, and while superficially their thought processes seem inhuman, their underlying emotions remain very much in evidence, despite their efforts to quash emotion. Kotov is an idealist and excitable, Braylock is ambitious, the two bridge tech priests (with two of the most fantastically unpronounceable names I’ve encountered for a while) act like bickering old men. But it is the Tychon family which provides the emotional heart of the Mechanicus characters, and their precise relationship is nicely developed through this novel.

A standard Enginseer, available at Games Workshop.

A standard Enginseer, available at Games Workshop.

Surcouf and the crew of the Renard prove to be an excellent foil for the bizarre and oft times deranged, Mechanicus characters. They are arguably the most grounded and ‘modern’ of the protagonist factions.

For outsiders to Warhammer 40000, they are the perfect reader identification characters, and I can see why McNeill uses them in the opening chapter first. They are funny and ready with quips and in-jokes at any opportunity; reminiscent of Firefly in many ways.

That said, I also enjoyed the bondsmen storyline and its mounting importance. It is not very often you get to see the mundane, unremarkable characters in 40K rise up from anonymity. Abrehem Locke and the gang are not the outlandish, larger than life heroes flooding the tabletop game setting of 40K; they are fallible and, individually, weak.

Their fortunes change during the novel however, as Locke challenges the infamously ‘grimdark’ status quo of this setting. It is good to see the perspective of the lowest rung of 40K society. However, I feel Locke’s everyman stance is marred by his implants and the ‘chosen by destiny’ plot line McNeill seems to be setting him up for. Julius Hawke, in my opinion, is a far better candidate for the everyman of 40K. He’s not particularly heroic, except when forced into it, he has a dark sense of gallows humour. He is selfish, but is no villain, and even his most heroic acts will never, ever be acknowledged by the powers that be. Julius Hawke is essentially the perfect representation of the majority of the lowly humans of 40K.

“My main gripe is one of structure rather than content. Lords of Mars feels like a middle segment of a continuum, rather than distinct fully formed novel in its own right.”

 

I often feel the Cadians are underused in these novels, but what little we see of them is always entertaining; their casual professionalism and easy humour makes them very endearing.

The Black Templars, on the other hand, I feel aren’t really necessary. They are often used by McNeill to initiate and drive the actions scenes, but otherwise, I don’t find them particularly compelling as characters. We have seen this all before in countless Black Library novels; the intensely honourable warrior monks, constantly introspective and ruminating upon courage and brotherhood.

From the cover of Priests of Mars, the first installment.

From the cover of Priests of Mars, the first installment.

Space marines always seem to draw attention to them, and I feel this is wrong here, as this is the Mechanicus’ time to shine. McNeill tries to spice up their storyline with more prophecy and future visions, but it is a wasted effort to me. I would have ditched the Space Marines in favour of more scenes with the Cadians. The novel does not need space marines present.

As for the antagonists, they are quite underwhelming and underused. The main antagonists have little explanation, and little to no character. The secondary antagonists get virtually nothing to do in this novel until the very end, other than menacing throwaway tertiary characters. Both these issues may be remedied in the next novel, but frankly after three hundred and fourteen pages, I don’t think it was expecting too much for McNeill to do something in this novel. In fact, this criticism ties into my only real, major issue with the book.

My main gripe is one of structure rather than content. Lords of Mars feels like a middle segment of a continuum, rather than distinct fully formed novel in its own right. It is obvious that this Adeptus Mechanicus series was conceived as a trilogy from the beginning. This is three volumes within a singular, huge novel, and I don’t appreciate it being divided over three releases.

The endings of each novel don’t seem like conclusions or climaxes in themselves, but as yawning cliffs, where the novels abruptly stop. It makes me want to read on of course, but in the most infuriating fashion. Though on reflection, this criticism is not quite the stinging barb I suggested it is; ‘This McNeill is so terrible; he makes me really want to read the next book… the monster!’

So overall, this is a slow, indulgent novel, which examines events, locations and characters with pleasing and exacting detail. Much like the Mechanicus Explorers themselves…

Follow the Bolthole at @BLBolthole. Graham McNeill can be followed @GrahamMcNeill.

December Artwork Roundup

December was a spectacular month for Black Library artwork. We have had some truly amazing art being shown for future novels as well as the Advent Calendar “quiz” which saw speculation in the fandom ramping all the way to 11 and beyond.

So let’s take a peek into just what got released for December and what we can expect in the future.

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