BOOK REVIEW: The Magister and the Martyr, by Matthew Farrer

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  • Book Two of the Urdesh duology
  • Set in the Sabbat Worlds
  • Focuses on the Iron Snakes
  • Published by Black Library in 2021
  • Grimdark SF
  • 311 pages
  • ⭐⭐⭐

On the battlefields of Urdesh, Damocles Squad and their allies face the massed hordes of the Sons of Sek. A miracle has galvanised the defenders, but can even the blessed Saint turn the tide of this most desperate battler . . ?

I wasn’t planning to buy this book. The Serpent and the Saint marked a bold new era for the Sabbat Worlds, bringing in an author other than series creator Dan Abnett to pen a full novel for the first time. As I said in my review at the time, it was all right, but far from my favourite Black Library novel. I burn out easily when it comes to space marines, and Farrer’s writing style isn’t really to my tastes. Yet the Sabbat Crusade is one of the most fascinating parts of the Warhammer 40,000 lore. A corner of the galaxy with a unique personality, and countless stories to be woven together. Then there’s the fact that I hate leaving a book unfinished, and the Urdesh duology does feel like a single novel split across two volumes than a true series. Put all this together, and you get one result: I’m pulled back in for another round. Turns out, this was a good choice. Because this second Urdesh novel is better than the first.

I’ll be honest. There are a lot of stylistic choices that I don’t get on with. The lack of chapters makes this an awkward book to keep track of when you set it down after reading. The whole three hundred pages are divided into just three parts and an epilogue. But within these three acts things move more rapidly than you might think. Because almost every page in this book is a scene in its own right. The longest scene covers just a handful of pages, and then we’re whisked away to another part of the battlefield. The battle for Urdesh is a massive and complicated affair, as battles tend to be, and Farrer is intent on showing as many viewpoints as possible. The dramatis personae at the front runs longer than any scene, and a lot of those characters are our viewpoints.

One complaint I have with the Sabbat Worlds up to this point is that we only really see things from the Imperial perspective. It makes sense for it to be this way. With Gaunt’s Ghosts, we follow a single regiment, so of course the point of view will be limited. And there’s a lot to be said for controlling what information your readers have access to. Farrer gives us some Archenemy perspective. Humanising the forces of Chaos is not the game here, however, and you come away from these scenes even more repulsed than before. The Sons of Sek are little more than animals that look like men. I don’t come to Warhammer for nuanced examinations of evil, but I would have liked to see more of the Archenemy’s motivations here. What we do get is a good start, and wanting more is often a good place to leave your readers.

The opening act of the book is the strongest portion. A rare moment of hope and light in the grim, dark future. With the Saint’s Miracle driving Imperial forces, we see the true power of faith in the world of Warhammer 40,000. One thing that often gets lost in the mud and blood of the Astra Militarum is that there is some form of divine power. Maybe it is the God-Emperor watching over His children, or maybe it’s just the sheer willpower of billions of worshipper’s manifesting flesh for their faith, but there is something there. Something tangible, and occasionally terrifying. The Chaos Gods may be real, but the Archenemy are not the only ones who are driven by their faith.

The Urdesh duology isn’t my favourite part of the Sabbat Worlds, but it has its merits, and adding more authors to the mix is bringing new aspects of the Sabbat Crusade to light. That can only ever be a good thing.

Did you enjoy this book? If so, you may also like:
The Founding, by Dan Abnett
Double Eagle, by Dan Abnett
The Serpent and the Saint, by Matthew Farrer

Published by Alex Hormann

I'm a writer, reader, and farmer, with an interest in all things speculative.

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