ADVERSITY reveals genius; prosperity conceals it. - Horace
Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power. - Abraham Lincoln
The two quotes above inevitably came to mind while reading Helsreach. A war novel by English author Aaron Dembski-Bowden, Helsreach is set in the science fantasy universe of Warhammer 40,000, specifically on the titular hive city situated on the planet Armageddon.
The story follows Grimaldus, a Chaplain who had just been elevated to the high rank of Reclusiarch of the Black Templars Chapter of Space Marines. Also known as the Astartes, Space Marines are men bio-engineered, heavily-armed, and heavily-armored to serve as super-warriors of the God-Emperor of Mankind.
Thanks to their enhancements, Space Marines surpass ordinary humans to the point of near-godhood: they are larger, stronger, quicker of senses, more agile, and more durable. Durable because they do not grow weary or fatigued, and because they can withstand all manner of punishment thrown at them in battle. They can live for hundreds, even thousands of years, while still retaining much of their martial vigor and prowess – but they can still be killed. Most Space Marines meet their end in one of the myriad crusades against aliens, mutants, and heretics waged across the vast Imperium of Man.
Having been made a demigod by the Emperor, a Space Marine is said to know no fear. However, Grimaldus cannot shake off the conviction that he will die fighting in the war that immediately follows the ritual ordaining him Reclusiarch. “The thought plagues me not because I fear death, but because a futile death is anathema to me,” Grimaldus thinks to himself during the ceremony itself.
In other words, it would be as if he had been promoted to such a lofty position, only to lead his Space Marines, not to mention countless other men and women, to their certain deaths while defending the hive city Helsreach from an assault by millions upon millions of Orks. Readers familiar with other works featuring Orcs such as Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, and Warcraft may already have an inkling what these muscular green-skinned creatures are like. However, the Orks of Warhammer 40,000 are a spacefaring race that exists only to wage war – or WAAAGH! as they call it – and to build bigger, deadlier vehicles for the sake of destroying anything and anyone standing in their way.
Grimaldus regards with disgust and contempt the prospect of getting killed by a mere savage Ork. To him, such a petty and ignominious death would be unfitting for the godlike Reclusiarch of the esteemed Black Templars. Also, he finds the mundane task of reviewing logistics and figures as completely beneath him, but most telling perhaps is whenever he refers to ordinary people as “humans,” implying that he is not one of them. That he is above and beyond them.
And yet Grimaldus is still very much human. He may deny knowing fear, but he is still constantly beset by doubts, premonitions, and other troubling thoughts. Time and again he meets disappointment, failure, and grief enough to break a lesser man many times over. Nevertheless, he prevails, and rouses with one powerful and iconic speech (which the curious reader can listen to on YouTube) the defenders and citizens of Helsreach as they make their last stand against an implacable and unforgiving foe.
Helsreach manages to be a profound character study and a gripping action novel, both at the same time. One issue readers may have with Dembski-Bowden’s writing is how he shifts from Grimaldus’s first-person perspective in one instance and then to the third person some paragraphs later, and then back once more to Grimaldus’s personal point of view. This back-and-forth might be confusing – but thankfully, only at first. Should the reader persist in spite of this, he will not only forgive this stylistic quirk, but also grow to enjoy it, and thus find himself completely immersed in a distant future where there is only war, which, as we in the present time already know, tends to bring out the best and the worst of humanity.