The Siege of Castellax is undoubtedly a bad boy of a book.
Not because it is bad, but because it features the BEST depiction of Chaos Space Marines I have seen in years!
Hold your butts, Night Lords fans...
The Iron Warriors are bad, rotten to the core of their very being. Not a single chapter will make you doubt that these Space Marines are anything but traitorous bad guys, even if they are pitched against an alien species that revels in crude, brutal savagery, with the Orks.
Yet still, even though the book heaps "evil" characters upon the reader from very early on (the command structure of the Third Grand Company of the Iron Warriors on Castellax is quite extensive!), C.L. Werner really kicked it out of the park in terms of scale, action and intrigue.
You cannot help but root for Captain Rhodaan, the Iron Warrior the book focuses on the most. Even then, however, you will still find it in you to cheer for his bitter rival, Over-Captain Vallax, or the rebel uprising in the underground of the world. There are a lot of things going on in this book, and none of them failed to catch my interest.
This book is grim, very grim. If you have a faint heart, I may suggest being careful about picking this one up. Werner managed to one-up even the most cruel stories in Black Library's arsenal.
Some of those cruelties are fairly straightforward, like Skintaker Algol's habit of stitching nice cloaks out of the skin of human slaves. Others will serve as twists and turns throughout the book - and just when you think things may start to look up for the Flesh, the human slave population and military in the IW's service, the author will take the book and smack it around your head with the next big showcase of the sheer inhumanity of the Space Marines.
And even with the way the Iron Warriors cling to their honour and loyalty to the Legion, their internal rivalries will provide you with constant tension throughout the book. A knife in the back would be gentle, considering what happens in this novel!
It is an eventful ride, from start to finish. C.L. Werner, in my mind, almost perfected writing (40k) Iron Warriors here.
The way he spinned the Legion's mantra "Iron Within, Iron Without!" into the story felt very natural, providing character and conflict in equal measure. The story even deals with Obliterators in a more reasonable way than I have read anywhere else before, giving them motivation and character rather than showing them as mindless killing machines.
Even the human janissaries and slaves, as well as techpriests and Orks, felt so believable and relatable (well, maybe not the Orks..), it boggles my mind that this was the author's first full-length Warhammer 40,000 novel.
However, there are some things I did not quite like, or thought didn't get as much attention as they would have deserved. Nitpicks, more than anything.
One of them, a quite obvious thing, I feel, are the Chapters' timeframes.
Each chapter begins with a short note ala "I–Day Plus One Hundred and Four", to put the content into relation to the duration of the Siege of Castellax. It drags out, as things tend to do with Orks.
However, I often found myself wondering what happened in the weeks, or even months, between those chapter points. At times a chapter would flow neatly into the next, implying weeks have passed throughout the chapter's progress.
A few more notes could have offset this confusion, I feel. As well as the story flows, I did not really pay any attention to the exact dates given after a while, and just checked occassionally. So, the good thing is that they are not necessary to enjoy or understand the story. But resulting from that, they did not add as much as I hoped they would. A bit of wasted potential right there, though it did not let the book down.
Another thing I would like to see expanded upon is the fate of Admiral Nostraz, who was brushed over in the later parts of the book. Considering his and Skylord Morax's rivalry throughout the first half of the book, I felt a bit disappointed that it was handled like this.
However, there are certain implications made in the book - it is just that we were never shown what actually happened.
In general, I feel C.L. Werner could get even MORE out of the Third Grand Company as it stands right now. There are certain hooks in the novel that would make a sequel story, maybe a novella, very appealing. Some things could be expanded upon via short stories (which has happened before, with his Steel Blood), thanks to the well-constructed character dynamics throughout the novel.
Overall, this is a incredibly grimdark novel that clearly shows what C.L. Werner is capable of.
He has mastered writing very dark stories years ago in the Warhammer Fantasy setting (Dead Winter: The Black Plague, The Red Duke, Matthias Thulmann: Witch Hunter), and now proven that his genius also extends to the 41st Millenium and power armoured superhumans.
These are Chaos Marines as they should be. A very clear recommendation to fans of Warhammer 40,000 and macabre science fiction in general.