Grey Knights: Grey Knights (Ben Counter)
Introducing another venerable Space Marine chapter, Grey Knights features a pious group of warriors known for being even a cut above their mighty brethren. As a book centered on Space Marines, Warhammer fans will pretty much know what to expect from this book. There’s lots of action, a little bit of a plot, and almost no characterization. This formula has created plenty of thoroughly enjoyable novels (Space Wolves) and more than a few duds (Iron Hands.) The question is, which end of the spectrum does Grey Knights fall under?
Grey Knights showcases the efforts of the titular Space Marines chapter as they try to thwart the return of the Chaos God Ghargatuloth. With the help of the Inquisition, and later the Sisters of Battle, Alaric and company find themselves on a planet hopping quest to root out the daemon’s followers before they can resurrect him.
As you might expect, this leads to plenty of absolutely ferocious battles. The Grey Knights are some of the best fighters in the Imperium, but they find themselves matched against endless armies of horrific creatures time and time again. Using their nearly indestructible armor, unflappable calm, and unmatchable melee skills, they carve their way through these cultists and abominations with near-ease, although there are plenty of more challenging trials facing them at some points, mostly revolving around Chaos magic. From desperate escapes beneath the capital city of a long forgotten world, to the open-air cataclysmic engagements that the series thrives on, there’s a suitable amount of variety to Grey Knights’ action sequences. There’s even a really cool prison break scene that makes for an excellent change of pace from the otherwise bombastic engagements.
Although most of the book is high octane fun, it does get off to a bit of a slow start. Before the main antagonist is revealed, our heroes don’t do many exciting things. There is a lot of talking, and none of it is particularly interesting because the characters just aren’t deep enough to care about. There’s also plenty of lore dumping concerning the background of the Grey Knights, which really isn’t that intriguing because it is basically something we’ve seen dozens of times before.
Although the storyline features mostly rock-solid reasoning and is a very cohesive read, there is one point at which credibility is strained. Without spoiling anything, this scene features a massive display of ignorance and gullibility on the part of many well respected factions in order to make the final conflict a little bit more emotionally charged, a turn of events that could’ve been thwarted had any one of the thousands of soldiers involved simply used grimdark-Google and read up on either current events, or famous Space Marine chapters.
The plot can’t be considered the most challenging thing ever, but it’s a highly serviceable entry that provides plenty of opportunities for gratuitous bloodshed and chaotic battles. After some bumps at the beginning, the pacing is pitch perfect, and the final battle is everything you’d expect from a novel such as this.
Characterization is typically a struggle for Warhammer 40k books, and particularly those focused on Space Marines. Grey Knights does absolutely nothing to buck this tradition. Our protagonist, Alaric, is a mostly boring cipher through which we get to see the story. There’s nothing about him that makes him a bad character, but he gets so little development that it’s hard to say he is a good one, either. He seems to be a bit reflective and thoughtful, while embodying characteristics typical of his chapter like a healthy dose of religious fervor, a hatred for the forces arrayed against the Emperor, and a tenacity to accomplish his missions no matter the cost. Basically, he is just like every other Space Marine ever, and he’s not someone you’ll remember long after reading.
The supporting cast of Grey Knights is much worse than even Alaric’s scant development. They are literally nothing more than names and roles in the squad, as the intent seriousness and single-minded focus of the Grey Knights doesn’t seem to allow for a lot of banter or heart to heart conversations. This total lack of supporting characters for Alaric really shows in the latter half of the book. As his squadmates are brutally murdered in the battle against Chaos, our narrator throws in a line or two memorializing the fallen brother, but it means absolutely nothing to us because it is the very pinnacle of telling when you should be showing. We aren’t shown anything interesting about any of these guys, and as a result there isn’t a lot of emotional resonance behind this book.
There are a handful of interesting characters, however none of them are actually Grey Knights. Ligeia, a noblewoman working for the Ordo Malleus, is perhaps the most interesting character in the novel because she’s the only one that changes in a meaningful way. She also manages to have an extraordinary influence despite her relatively limited role. The forces of Chaos are lead by a fallen inquisitor named Valinov, and although he isn’t given much of a chance to shine, he has a few good scenes and once again represents one of the few actual glimpses inside a character’s mind that this book has to offer.
As in his previous novel, Galaxy in Flames, author Ben Counter does a great job of capturing the sweeping destruction that the Warhammer 40k universe is known for. Every battle is well paced, with very little time spent on minor details. There is plenty of variety and an appropriate sense of scale as well, all very important things in such a action-heavy novel. Since he’s writing more about Chaos and less about traitor Marines this time around, there’s even a great opportunity to showcase the horrors that Ghargatuloth has created, an opportunity seized to the fullest. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s copious amounts of gore and dismemberment to further paint the picture of the hellish landscapes that the Grey Knights find themselves fighting on.
It starts off a bit on the slow side, but once it gets going, Grey Knights is an extremely entertaining ride on par with the Black Library’s best. There’s a lack of memorable characters which prevents the book from obtaining must-read status, but it’s a perfect filler if you just want to enjoy Space Marines tearing into the armies of Chaos.