I’ve read Space Marine so you don’t have to. Though I will strongly encourage you to read it to form your own opinion. Are you vaguely familiar with the Warhammer 40K brand? But not so much that you won’t get distracted by the wrong lore? Do you like space soldiers and weird adventures? Are you a fan of uncommon words and poetic language when describing the dismemberment of an alien creature? Then maybe this book is for you.
Space Marine Info
Space Marine was published in 1993, long before Warhammer 40K became what is today (there is even a streaming platform called Warhammer Plus, who would believe this?!). Needless to say, Ian Watson worked with what he was given and so Space Marine has the most recognizable elements of Warhammer 40K, but also a lot of stuff that would not be accepted today as standard lore. In addition, the author also took a lot of personal liberties and made Space Marines even weirder than they were in reality. And I mean, way weirder. I’m afraid to even mention one minor scene for fear of spoilers because these weird scenes are the best part of the book. Okay, I can’t help myself. I’ll mention one. They eat shit, literally. Why? It’s in the novel.
Should I mention that there is little plot and the novel Space Marine acts as an introduction to the weird, bizarre world of Warhammer 40K? And yet, because it’s no longer part of the modern Warhammer 40K, must stand on its own? And it does, largely by the strength of the world-building.
Space Marine Story
The story follows the life of three Space Marines of the Imperial Fists Chapter on their journey from cadets to full Space Marine status. Lexandro, Yeremi, and Biff are very different people, all three coming from the hive world of Necromunda, each part of a different social caste. Their interaction is not as whippy as we are used in military SF, and to be honest, it is a little weird. Their world views are different, even in how they perceive the order and the religious faith required of the Space Marines. At first, the novelty will draw you in, but go too long and too fast, and only weirdness remains.
The story goes from Necromunda to the classic Warhammer enemies: heretics, chaos, orks, squats, tyranids. We almost have the whole cast in one single book, and that is amazing. The book never feels like a checklist but like a natural transition into the next encounter. To its merit, this novel doesn’t read like a video game, as many adventure books nowadays appear to be.
The best and the worst
One of the strongest points of the novel is its weirdness. I think I’ve mentioned this already, but let’s say it one more time. Characters are weird. Events are weird. The descriptions are weird. Everything is weird. And I would even say that it’s weird in ways you don’t expect. If you’re reading this, and you think you can handle it, read it, and I bet you’ll encounter at least one moment where your mind will be like “Huh, weird.”
One of the major flaws of the novel is also its weirdness. While at first, your mind is engaged and curious, by the end of the novel, the weirdness is starting to become ridiculous. That’s bad because I cannot take the story seriously. And that’s a problem. I especially enjoyed the overall mood of the novel. It’s a combination of melancholy with faith and resignation. A really weird and powerful mix as long as you can take it seriously.
Another point that is both in favor and against the novel is the writing style. It resembles a theater play narrative, almost like Shakespeare writing for Warhammer 40K. In the beginning, it’s just weird, but awesome. But slowly, it becomes annoying because plain and simple events are hidden in obtuse language. For sure, if I would have to pick one Warhammer book and give it a literary award just for the writing style, I would pick this one.
But I’m not a fan of the lyrical narrative.
Read this if…
I recommend this book for people who enjoy a literary tale in a bizarre and often contradictory world, and characters that are not stereotyped, and yet they act as guided by destiny. I would also recommend it for Warhammer fans who want to know how the universe, with its deep lore, come to be. Surprisingly, many of the important bits were already in place since the 1990s, but feeling a bit off, a bit more serious, a bit darker. In the beginning, even the Space Marine Chapters were alien to us, closer and further away from humanity.
I’m reluctant to recommend it to new fans because Warhammer as presented here is too grimdark, too opaque, and too lacking in the awesome and fun factor. Yet I know for some people, this was the first introduction to the Warhammer 40K Universe. That’s inevitable given it was among the first books ever released dealing with the subject matter.
I’ll rate it four skeletal fingers out of 5, and I dare you to read it if you want to understand the reference.