Publisher: Black Library
Genre: Military SF
Publication Date: 2010
The Death Korps of Krieg are among the most infamous Imperial soldiers. Bred for war and determined to die for the God-Emperor, they are utterly without mercy. Now they face an enemy as cold and implacable as they are. On Hieronymus Theta, the ancient Necrons have awakened . . .
Originally released eleven years ago and now re-released after the results of a reader poll as part of the 2021 Black Library Celebration, Dead Men Walking is a book with a fearsome reputation to live up to. Happily, it absolutely lives up to it. This is unquestionably one of the best standalone Warhammer 40,000 books I’ve read. You don’t need to know anything about the setting before going in, and it doesn’t leave you hanging at the end as some long series do. These four hundred pages are a complete story in and of themselves.
And what a story it is! Steve Lyons impressed me last year with his novella Iron Resolve, and I am pleased to see that his skill translates just as well to longer for storytelling. Like that novellas, Dead Men Walking hammers home the absolute darkness of war in the forty-first millennium. It is brutal, bloody and bleak, and I absolutely love it. This isn’t war the way it’s often portrayed in Warhammer 40,000. There’s no larger-than-life Space Marines tearing their way through heretics and xenos alike. No mystical powers or psykers. Our protagonists here are human, and stand just about as much chance as you’d expect when faced with overwhelming odds.
Lyons has a decent spread of characters in this book, introducing more as the pages turn by. But to a one, they’re engaging from the outset. There are tired soldiers, cold veterans, young lovers, and more. All are different, and all are interesting. Lyons is also brilliantly unafraid to kill his creations. This is Warhammer, so you shouldn’t expect everyone to make it out alive, and they don’t. But the brutality of their end(s) is shocking even for an experienced reader. The fragility of these characters is half their appeal, with you never knowing if they’ll make it to the end of the chapter. It is the bloodiest book I’ve read in a long while, and really pushed the grim and dark aspects of the setting.
Beyond our protagonists, we have the Necrons. They’re one of the xenos factions that I find more interesting. Essentially legions of undead cyborgs, the Necrons here have one of their best portrayal. While authors like Nate Crowley and Robert Rath are bringing a more human feel to the ancient robots, here they are very much faceless legions. And that’s the whole point. How can you fight an enemy that is barely aware of your existence? One who has existed for longer than your species has been alive, and will probably be around long after your grandchildren are forgotten? Without any PoVs, the Necrons are a faceless and enigmatic foe, and I would love to see more of this side of them.
Dead Men Walking is one of those rare books where the hype is justified. More than that, even. It is phenomenal on every level, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.