Publisher: Black Library
Series: Urdesh (#1)
Publication Date: 2021
In the forges of Urdesh, a war is raging. A battle such as the Sabbat Worlds Crusade has never before seen. Into this battlefield comes Damocles Squad, pledged to protect the reincarnated Saint Sabbat from the forces of the Archenemy . . .
With the exception of three anthologies (the most recent of which I reviewed here), the Sabbat Worlds has for twenty years been the stomping ground of Dan Abnett. This massive conflict has more stories than one writer could ever tell, and this year saw the announcement of two novels set in the Sabbat Worlds written by authors who are not Abnett. Nick Kyme’s Volpone Glory is yet to receive a release date, but Matthew Farrer’s endeavour is available in hardback now. The question is, how will an expanded pool of writers change the Sabbat Worlds?
For now, and on a grand scale, the answer is not much. The Serpent and the Saint is set parallel to the events of The Warmaster and Anarch, following a different front of the battle of Urdesh. As such, it serves more to deepen the existing story than to move it forwards, though that may well change in the rest of the series. Yet while the story is separate, there is a fair bit of crossover when it comes to characters. The Beati, the reincarnation of Saint Sabbat, is of course a pivotal character having been off-screen for much of the Gaunt’s Ghosts series. Also returning from the Ghosts is one Brin Milo, complete with his pipes. However, these two characters play second fiddle to Damocles Squad themselves.
The first thing you notice when opening this book is the multi-page dramatis personae. For such a slim book, there is an overwhelming roster of characters. The Iron Snakes Space Marines take their names from pseudo-Greek influences, and I’m glad I recently listened to a Greek history text, as it really helped with the pronunciation. What it couldn’t help with was the characters themselves. The Iron Snakes fall into a common problem with Space Marines, in that they are essentially uniform in characteristics. A hundred pages in, I could no longer tell who was who. Not just due to the sheer volume of names, but because almost every Iron Snake thought, spoke, and acted the same way. Yes, Abnett’s characters are more familiar, but Farrer’s creations did little to imprint themselves on my memory. The whole book feels rather lifeless as a result. Partly because we know the outcome of the battle of Urdesh, there’s a lack of urgency to the action here.
But action is exactly what we get. And lots of it. The entirety of The Serpent and the Saint is given over to battle. Early on there is a great series of scenes as the battlefield is viewed through an ever-changing set of perspectives, passing the narration from one character to another in a rapid relay. But the constant action does grind to a narrative halt eventually. Without chapter breaks, the onslaught of adrenaline and explosions grows repetitive. This book is what a lot of people assume Warhammer 40,000 to be. All guts and very little glory. And light though the plot is, Farrer’s prose is surprisingly heavy. He’s one of the more lyrical prose writers of the grim, dark future, on a par with John French. There is a lot to admire in his writing, but it’s just not for me. All the skilful prose in the world can’t quite elevate a story that is lacking in other areas.
Overall, The Serpent and the Saint doesn’t quite hit the same heights as the rest of the Sabbat Worlds story. It’s far from the worst book out there, but it fails to shine as I hoped it would.