Today I want to talk about the Ultramarines Saga, as I am calling it. I don't know if it quite counts as a saga and the word itself reminds me of Star Wars, but that's besides the point. The Ultramarines Saga is a collection of books written by Graham McNeill, and follow the adventures of the Ultramarines Chapter of Space Marines. "But Kalpar!" my sole reader would probably be exclaiming at this point. "What is a Space Marine, who are the Ultramarines, and what are these books about then?" A-ha, well I caught you there dear reader because I'm willing to bet that my single reader actually knows about Warhammer 40k. However for anyone who has stumbled onto this page by mistake, I shall explain. In the universe of Warhammer 40,000 Space Marines are genetically-enhanced warriors who defend the Imperium of Man from the uncounted threats it deals with on a daily basis. The Marines are divided into thousand-strong chapters and the most ordinary of these chapters is the Ultramarines. Well, ordinary if you're a seven-foot super soldier with nineteen extra organs in you. As I play the Ultramarines army myself on the tabletop, I was interested in reading McNeill's stories about their adventures.
The book that I read is the Ultramarines Omnibus, which collects a short story as well as the novels Nightbringer, Warriors of Ultramar and Dead Sky Black Sun into one book. However, I am also going to talk about Defenders of Ultramar, a graphic novel which takes place during the events of Dead Sky Black Sun and is tied to the overall plot.
To begin with, overall this book was kind of average. I am willing to recognize the unique challenge of writing Space Marines as character because a lot of what makes them human has been stripped away. They have only a vague memory of what it's like to feel cold or tired or scared, so they have a hard time relating to non-enhanced humans. At the same time, Space Marines still feel a gamut of emotions, joy, anger, pride, desperation, and a whole host of other impulses that can make a Marine make a poor decision. The thing I like about McNeill's writing is that he manages to slip these emotional conflicts into his main character, Captain Uriel Ventris.
When we first meet Captain Ventris, he is the freshly-minted Captain of the Ultramarines Fourth Company. In Nightbringer he forges his company in battle and becomes sure of himself and his abilities as a commander. In Warriors of Ultramar he faces against the Tyranid menace to save the Imperium. However to defeat the Tyranids Captain Ventris violates the Codex Astartes, the book of rules the Ultramarines follow with almost religious devotion, and so he is cast out of his Chapter. Dead Sky Black Sun follows Captain Ventris as he fulfills the Death Oath put upon him by his Chapter to atone for his unorthodox actions.
There are a couple of things that I like about Ventris which come up in these novels and make him a good character to follow. He believes that the Imperium of Man is a living breathing thing consisting of the untold trillions of people that are its population. While other leaders are willing to sacrifice entire planets to stop alien invasions, Ventris is willing to stand and fight to save those very planets even if it is a lost cause. This puts him into conflict with leaders willing to make such sacrifices and in fact drives much of the plot of Warriors of Ultramar. However the other main conflict Ventris faces is adhering to the Codex Astartes. On the one hand, the Codex provides information on a variety of tactical situations and has lead the Ultramarines to countless victories, while Chapters that have failed to heed the Codex have become "wild" and perform bizarre and disturbing rituals. On the other hand, rigid adherence to the Codex leads to predictable battle plans, allows for no initiative, and can lead to stagnation. Ultimately Ventris must find a balance between the two extremes to reap the most benefits.
While I liked Ventris as a character, and I want to read more of the books in the series, I suspect most of it comes from playing Ultramarines. Honestly if you're not into 40k already, you're probably not going to get brought in by this collection of novels. If you like Space Marines and Ultramarines in specific, you'll like this, but otherwise it's basically a bunch of fighting. Which I'm afraid a lot of these books boil down to.
I also want to touch on Defenders of Ultramar, a graphic novel written by McNeill and also features the ongoing battles of the Fourth Company. This story takes place during the events of Dead Sky Black Sun while Captain Ventris is on his Death Oath. Recovering from their wounds on Tarsis Ultra, Fourth Company goes to the world of Espandor to recover a lost Ultramarines ship. However, they soon discover an Ork horde on Espandor and join up with the Planetary Defense Force to defeat the Orks. Honestly, I did not think much of this comic. The plot is basically, Ultramarines go and kill things and does not get any more complex after that. The artwork is downright bad in some cases. And not bad like it's all black and you can't tell what's going on. No, it's more everything looks...rounded. Sort of like a kid's drawing. There are a few panels which look really good, but most of the book's art is sub-par in my opinion. Especially during the fight scenes, which is where you'd want it to be really good. Ultimately, even if you're a fan of the Ultramarines I'd have to give this specific graphic novel a pass.
I'm sorry these books didn't turn out better, however I will be looking more into the adventures of Fourth Company and let you know if it gets better. Hopefully I will be giving my reader more information on the Space Marines at a later date.