Book Review: Helsreach by Aaron Dembski-Bowden

Helsreach by Aaron Debski-Bowden (I’ll be referring to him as ADB for brevity) is the story of an epic siege that, as a novel, can be described as being possibly the most Warhammer 40k thing I have ever read. It perfectly blends the grim darkness, excessive violence and horror of the setting with the more satirical and over-the-top parts really well, and combines this with a relentless pace.

The central story is pretty simple. Set on the world of Armageddon (prophetic name there, good job whoever came up with that one!), we find the world preparing for an invasion by one of the largest Ork (space orcs!) hordes to ever assail the Imperium of Man. The orbital defences and naval forces have been smashed aside and the men of the Imperial Guard find themselves hopelessly outnumbered and entrench themselves around the planet’s cities as they ready themselves for the brutal onslaught that is sure to come. A flicker of hope is sparked by the last-minute arrival of various Space Marine forces and Titan Legions. This is where the story truly starts. Commanding over a hundred space marines of the Black Templars chapter (crusading space knights!), Grimaldus is tasked with the defence of the Hive City of Helsreach. Carnage and bloodshed ensue – think Helms Deep/Minas Tirith but in space, and much gorier.

As I mentioned at the start of this review, the pace of this book is very high and it doesn’t really let up for a minute. If you have read Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter, then that is the sort of plot tempo we are talking about. And honestly, I felt exhausted just reading about what the characters here had to go through!

Alongside this unrelenting pace, ADB absolutely manages to capture all the awesome, crazy and gothic elements of 40k and brings them to life on the page. Whether that is 8 ½ foot, genetically engineered and psychotic space knights; immense, half cathedral, half war machine titans; criminals being repurposed into mindless drone-like servitor droids; or just the whole idea of space orcs – it has it all!

But what really makes this book for me is the characters. This is something that, being honest, some books set in 40k struggle with. 40k is all about war on a horrific and galactic scale as humanity embraces the worst aspects of itself just to survive. This focus often means the truly human elements of characters get lost – but not here! ADB creates a wide-ranging cast of characters that capture the Siege of Helsreach through all possible eyes. We get everyone from a humble dock worker to senior Imperial commanders. My personal favourite was a guy called Andrej. He’s a veteran Imperial Guardsman and has some fantastic lines and jumps out from the page as a normal guy. Which was very refreshing in this setting – plus, from the way his accent is written, he totally sounds South African to me!

For me, the most impressive part of the character work here is how he brings the personalities and thought processes of a space marine to life. They’re not human and they don’t think like a human, and ADB really gets this bit right. They have psychological flaws and weaknesses, and the plot plays on these throughout in some interesting ways – especially when his Black Templars meet space marines from the Salamanders chapter, who have a different philosophical view on warfare.

Overall, I definitely recommend this one to any fans of 40k books, grimdark sci-fi or fantasy and just anyone that thinks it might sound like a cool read. There is a lot of violence and action, and I know that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, so it might not be for everyone, but I enjoyed it.


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