I’d always been a little wary of the Warhammer franchise – to me, it always seemed to be focused around a pretty insular group of tabletop gaming nerds, and almost impenetrable, by the length and breadth of the lore, to the layman such as I. However, casting those stereotypes and preconceptions aside, I happily accepted a trio of paperbacks based in the Warhammer 40,000 universe from a friend who offered to lend them to me. Free books? I’d have been silly to say no. The first of these which I have read is The Ultramarines Omnibus.
The book started promising, with a “prequel” to the subsequent three novels in the omnibus in the form of a short story, Chain of Command. This serves to briefly introduce the reader to the main protagonist, Uriel Ventris, who takes command of the Fourth Company of Ultramarines, genetically-engineered super-soldiers bred to serve and protect the Emperor of Humanity in the far, far future. The first short story, 35 pages in length, serves to dip the reader’s toe both into the universe of Warhammer 40,000, a grisly, but beautifully-macabre and violent world, and the author’s writing style, which is rich in description, but at times throughout this whole 700 page omnibus seems to have delusions of grandeur to some degree; some sections and phrasing choices definitely seem a little overwritten, but that is a minor gripe. There’s a conscious attempt to build an atmosphere, and even if it goes ever so slightly awry, it’s worth the attempt.
The world building in The Ultramarines Omnibus was especially noteworthy to me. The Warhammer 40,000 universe is one where, in the far future, ancient technology has become mythical in nature, and the Space Marines themselves give are extremely pious in nature in regard to the Emperor of Humanity, who is held in godlike acclaim. There’s an overall tarnished glory that accentuates the brutal, gothic nature of the designs of everything in this universe, which is one of perpetual, gruesome warfare against some of the most heinous foes Humanity can face in the galaxy. Ships are described as ancient cathedrals that lurk in space, epic in both age and scale, painting a picture of an almost-impenetrable stone bastion that stalks through space between distant worlds. There’s a sense of a brutality that comes with being this far in the future; a distinct, and refreshing difference to the usual fare of “far future” space opera – there’s no clean, clinical lines here; this is a humanity relying on technology the workings of which were lost to the sands of time, and facing a nadir. I found it breath-taking and, given I am fond of a steampunk vibe, approved highly.
In the Omnibus itself, the three novels chart Ventris’s personal journey – one of learning to command a company of Ultramarines, of questioning the Codex Astartes that the Ultramarine chapter relies upon for its morals and tactical prowess and the ramifications of that. Certainly, I feel that, along with the other chapters that are encountered (the Mortifactors for one being of a particular “flavour”, that being of galactic undertakers at complete odds with the Ultramarines), the Ultramarines themselves are pretty “plain vanilla” honour-bound warriors; that’s not to their fault; rather, I feel, that makes them a good chapter to enter the Universe alongside.
Narratively, I felt the third novel in the Omnibus – Dead Sky, Black Sun – was the weakest. The setting – of a hellish world of fire, brimstone and steam power – was let down by a reliance on daemonic super-beings from the Warp; I get that the Warp is where the more supernatural of the beings that inhabit the Warhammer 40,000 universe originate; however, godlike beings of time immemorial are somewhat unsatisfying and proved more difficult to relate. There are only so many mythical creatures we’re told to fear that can actually prove anything more than just a particularly tough nasty. However, the concepts of how corrupted Chaos Space Marines are birthed from grotesque alien wombs, are explored. The big baddies are a sideshow to this; once the story gets to the daemon planet Medrengard. Conversely, the second novel of the book, Warriors of Ultramar hinged around an epic struggle against a horrific alien tide known as the Tyrannids, whose hive-minded horde is controlled by “hive ships” so vast they exist in space itself.
One thing I gathered as I read The Ultramarines Omnibus was the fusion of gritty science fiction with an almost fantasy-like lore. The technology used is so old, the only explanation in-universe is that it is indeed magic. I’m usually quite averse to fantasy as a general rule; however, with the strong Gothic vibe, I definitely feel it worked. After this ultimately thrilling and enjoyable introduction I’m looking forward to exploring more of the Warhammer Universe!
Buy The Ultramarines Omnibus