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Know No Fear by Dan Abnett – review
A late review for anyone who might be on the fence about this book. Know No Fear is unashamedly bolter porn, Dan Abnett style. To me this means the thinking man’s bolter porn. No lacklustre storyline hidden behind lashings of violence, instead we are treated to a powerful story of betrayal on an epic scale.
Primarch of the Ultramarines, Roboute Guilliman, has been tasked to bring his legion to bear and join the Word Bearers and their wayward primarch Lorgar in a crusade against an Ork Waaagh. Thinking this to be a subtle attempt on the part of the Warmaster Horus to repair the relationship between the legions after the events in Aaron Dembski Bowden’s excellent The First Heretic, Guilliman throws himself and his legion into the campaign.
However, Lorgar has been turned by the forces of Chaos, and Calth, the jewel of Ultramar and the starting point of the campaign, is about to become the most bitter of battlefields as brother fights brother after the most heinous of betrayals.
There was an immediacy to the flow of the story, and I needed a few pages to realise what caused it. This book is written in the present tense. And tense it is. I soon realised that I took comfort in the past-tense nature of most storytelling. The events, whatever they are, have already happened; the story is a survivor telling us of what transpired or a storyteller relating an old tale. There is no such comfort here. This story unfolds as it happens, moment by moment. On reflection it seems such a simple literary device, but the effect on my reading experience was profound.
The scope of the battles, the violence, is both epic and deeply personal. Abnett zooms out to show us the sheer scale of the betrayal and incredible force of two legions unleashed at one another, powered by the sort of bitterness and hatred that can only be experienced by those who once called each other brother. And then, when I felt that the power and scale of death and destruction was almost overwhelming, he zooms in to the individual struggles of the Ultramarines caught out on Calth and that of their Primarch on board his flagship.
I loved Abnett’s characterisation of Roboute Guilliman. To my eye, he presents him as both remarkably down to earth and at the same time a quantum leap above even the extraordinary minds and bodies of his legion. There is one scene, the one depicted on the cover, that was just remarkable. A primarch at war in a way that brings his superhuman capacities very sharply to the fore.
The Ultramarines’ motto, “information is victory,” is brought to life in a few ways, but for me there is one scene, where a Sergeant has been sent to Guilliman for censure, in which the sergeant makes a joke with Guilliman, the meaning of which only becomes clear near the end of the book. The point of information being victory is that the value of information can only be judged in the context of where it becomes useful, and when the cause of his censure becomes clear it is only then that the sergeant’s attempt at humour with his primarch is revealed. That shows a depth to the writing that is so very typical of this author.
The Word Bearers are painted as unrepentantly, unreservedly, evil and make a great counterpoint to the nobility of the Ultramarines. Abnett also brings the Imperial Guard levies of Ultramar into the story, and for me that added a needed regular human element into it. There is also a reference to Abnett’s earlier Heresy novel Legion that really intrigued me, which I suspect was the point.
The battle scenes, which are undoubtedly the focus of this novel, are written with the same in-your-face immediacy I mentioned above. It really brought me in to the battles being fought, whether from the perspective of the Guardsmen, the Ultramarines, or the Word Bearers and left me with a keen sense of a world turned upside down and the stark inescapable uncertainties faced by Guilliman and the forces under his command.
Know No Fear is yet another fantastic entry into this extraordinary series, boatloads of bolter-blasting action in the context of the very emotive themes of loyalty and betrayal. In our interview a little while back, Dan mentioned to me that he wanted to make the Ultramarines cool again after years of being thought of as a little bit vanilla. In my mind he has succeeded, and then some. Highly recommended!