Aaron Dembski-Bowden

Don't worry. None of this blood is mine.

Alan Bligh

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My friend Alan died tonight.

Better posts than mine will come. They’ll be more detailed, more insightful, and with the benefit of time to take a finer form. I had to get this down, get it from skull to fingertips to screen, in the brief but merciful expanse of numbness between emotional poles. Right after I heard the news I went to speak with the others that had known about his illness for a while, only to find I had an hour of missed messages from them trying to contact me, to tell me he’d died.

I’d known for a while that he was sick, and then a few of us learned recently, privately, that he was much, much sicker than we’d all thought. The words “weeks to months left” were given out, and I clung to those words the way my five-year-old son Shakes clings to all of my “In five minutes, buddy…” delaying tactics. I held them to the same sacred standard of absolution, when really they’re expressions of timeless vagueness.

Ultimately, it leaned heavily on the side of Days and Weeks, not so much in the Months corner.

Alan was one of my closest friends. He was much smarter than me, without ever making me feel shitty about it. He drank more tea than any other human being I’ve ever met. He often read my work before it hit print, suggesting X, saying he liked Y. He smuggled me out WIPs of his own. I first read the text for two Space Marine Legions in Microsoft Word, f’rex, with Alan’s typos still baked into the text. He sent the kids book vouchers at Christmas. Our various channels of communication were filled with 40K lore talk more than anything else, which is practically a given if you’re a good friend of mine, though there was a significant amount of him telling me to stop putting it off every year and write some non-40K stuff, and there was a roughly equal amount of lamenting and laughing about life’s ups, downs, zigs, and zags. Nothing unexpected. Nothing unusual.

When I was at my most furious and least reasonable with the tick-tocking madness of Games Workshop behind the scenes (during the Dark Times a few years ago), it was almost always Alan that would calm me down. That was Alan in a nutshell. Insert vexation; receive wisdom.

He’d say things like “This too shall pass”. He said that one often enough that those who knew him would quote it in doing impressions of him. Alan always said it with the knowing smile of a man that knew. And he was always right. They always did.

As Alan was dying in England, I was here in N. Ireland, inking an Ophidian Archway. Given how often he teased me for not painting enough, I suspect that would’ve amused him immensely. As glad as I am at the cold comfort of coincidence, I would much rather have been at his side.

My flight to see him was tomorrow morning. We’d heard from the ward nurse that he wasn’t up to visitors this weekend, so earlier this afternoon I’d changed my flight to next weekend instead. All useless, all pointless. He died tonight.

I had so, so much left to say to him. There was no doubt a bajillion things he still had left to say to me over the course of X years, but even without that much time left, I was ready with a host of what I wanted to say to him. He was weak and drained, and frankly I was braced for him to just lie there in his bed and look despairingly at me, hoping I’d shut up, while I talked and talked and cried and talked.

Everything I wanted to say is meaningless now. I can tell him none of it. It will evaporate over time, occasionally forming chunks of conversations that I have with his other close friends, occasionally surfacing as regret wreckage in the oceans of 2am melancholy that seem intrinsic to the human condition.

Earlier this week, Shakes caught me crying. He looked awkward, worried I was upset because he’d done something wrong. When I told him the reason, he said “Your friend might not die if they find a way to make him better.”  

I hugged him hard, too hard, and sent him back outside into the sunshine. In my office, the pressure of emotion inside my skull was beyond crying. I had to shout into my cupped hands just to discharge it, just to get it out of my head.

I’ve done that more than once this week. My head space was a compass. North was an inability to think about it at all; it was too much, too impossible, too much, too much, so for those hours I was perfectly fine since it wasn’t happening. South was a practical and cold look at the truth: He was going to die, so what needed to be done, what times were flights, what needed to be said before there wasn’t a chance to say any more? What would the 40K fandom say? What would Horus Heresy meetings be like (and the email sessions afterwards) without Alan? East was mostly trying and failing to look at it critically, to imagine what other people in the know were thinking and feeling. I’ve wasted a lot of hours this week being unable to see anything from anyone else’s point of view. West was a place of pathetic but earnest, tear-streaked hope – it was Googling “Terminal cancer survival percentages” and screaming into my hands so the poison wasn’t behind my eyes any more.

Now my friend is dead. My life is poorer for it, but immeasurably richer for what he brought to it. From the confidence and wisdom he gave me, to the fucking way he’d say “The perfidious Elllldaaaaaarrrr” which has stuck in my head for years now, unable to be shaken.

I once brought my fear to him that I wasn’t a worthy successor to Andy Chambers and co.; that the Codex Imperialis of 2nd Edition 40K was never going to be surpassed, but that I wanted to at least equal it. I thought his Badab War books for Forge World were on the same level as the old greats. I meant that, wholeheartedly. He could see that I meant it.

He looked me dead in the eyes and said “You worry about the strangest things.” He then gave me a look, the look he always gave me when I was charging up some ill-advised path but there was time yet for a Blighian scowl to make me rethink things. I sipped my gross tea and realised why he – an avid tea-drinker, hadn’t got any here himself. He’d known it was gross.

I miss him dearly already, with the insane selfishness of being caged by my own feelings.

I’m in pieces. I am in pieces. I miss my friend.

May 27, 2017 Posted by | Uncategorized | 57 Comments

INTERVIEW – The Imperial Truth

Me and my good pal John French were invited to do a double-interview on The Imperial Truth, which dealt with (among other things) what it’s like to write 40K, the brief controversies around PRAETORIAN OF DORN and THE MASTER OF MANKIND, and – of course! – Gav Thorpe.

Enjoy! Or don’t! I’m not your boss. You’re a free spirit, the architect of your own destiny. All that good stuff.

We start at about 20 mins in: CLICKY-CLICK. Please note this giant WARNING: Contains many spoilers for PoD and TMoM.

Amazingly, I didn’t swear once. Not even one time. Achievement fucking unlocked, right there.

May 16, 2017 Posted by | Uncategorized | 7 Comments

The HELSREACH Animation

Richard Boylan’s HELSREACH animation started going live in instalments about a month ago, with his artwork set to (laid over?) a heavily edited version of the audiobook. About 5% of every chapter, by my vague estimate.

Watching these a while back prompted me to get in touch with Richard to say how much I loved them, and there’s nothing I can say here that isn’t going to be obvious from watching them yourself. Suffice to say, they’re absolutely incredible. The look of them. The mood. The freaking feel. 

I avoided linking them for a while – in fact, I completely refused to respond to their existence – since I wanted to talk to both Richard and my publisher first, to get the lie of the land. And while I usually can’t abide listening to my own audiobooks or re-reading my own work, these were different enough to not trigger my “I need to get away from this desk” reflex. And, way more importantly and less self-indulgently, they’re also just bloody brilliant.

A personal fave moment, and one that really drives home how Richard’s animation and direction elevates the material way above the source material, is the arrival at Helsreach in Part III. The head tilts, the body language; the sense of weight and emotion from guys in freaking helmets with their faces masked. That moment when Grimaldus is silent in the gunship, with Bastilan answering on his behalf, conveyed everything I wanted to express about his despondent fury and the directionless, guilty discomfort at his exile – and in this it was all done without the main character speaking a word. Just great direction and editing.

Annoyingly humbling… But mostly just awesome.

Part IV is coming soon, so keep your eyes peeled.

Anyway, enough talk. Enjoy!

May 4, 2017 Posted by | Uncategorized | 21 Comments

The BLACK LEGION Cover Reveal (and Selfie Contest #2!)

Here it is, at long last (so please stop asking me to finish the Goddamn book, you heathens): the cover reveal for BLACK LEGION, out this August.

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I think this cover conveys the most substantive, emotional quality yet, capturing the haunting and soulful aura of the artist’s intent, really brought to the fore through advanced techniques like how bits of the fire are still white – which at first can look like it was taking ages to use the filling tool in MS Paint, but is actually because of cool art reasons that normal, stupid people can’t understand.

There’ll be two alternate covers available in the unlikely event my publisher chooses not to use mine, one for the Ltd. Edition, one for the normal edition, seen here:

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Some of you may remember the Selfie Contest from a few years ago(with its resultant heroic winners) – and yes, there will indeed be another one for the Ltd. Edition of BLACK LEGION, with prizes just as fucking fabulous as last time.

Just as before, I’ll announce the prizes on Twitter, but if you recall last time they were pretty special and not at all a waste of yours, mine, and everyone else’s time.

May 3, 2017 Posted by | Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Just got this photo…

 

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“On my snow leopard expedition deep on the Himalayan Plateau, I read Armageddon. Then I realize you were probably the only Black Library author’s having one of his book on the location of the Imperial City. Well, where it would stand in 32000 years. When I saw that bharal skull on the shrine, I thought your novel would made a nice addition. Hope you like it.”

— from a gentleman called Fred B. Raven, currently in India.

 

And may I just say: “…holy shit, that’s fucking awesome.”

 

February 18, 2016 Posted by | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Shakes Plays Vermintide

(Apologies for the low volume. I no do technology good, apparently.)

Here’s Shakes playing Vermintide in a display of fairly terrible parenting by Yours Truly. I didn’t let him play long (the game is gore-tastic to say the least) but Katie was asleep, so I escaped disapproving bridal stares for a good few hours.

February 13, 2016 Posted by | Uncategorized | 18 Comments

We Need to Talk About Captain Phasma and Boba Fett

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We’ve all seen the memes. We’ve all seen the articles called “X Things Wrong with The Force Awakens” and the rebuttals that point out what should have been obvious to anyone with an iota of awareness. If you genuinely use ludicrously meaningless and inappropriate words like “emo” and “weak” to describe a nuanced character like Kylo Ren, then none of your fellow humans will be able to drag you from your miasma of foolishness, no matter how well intentioned they are in trying to do so.

But in a lot of these rebuttals there’s a section that does its vague best to defend Captain Phasma. They come free with reminders that, hey, everyone just loved Boba Fett, didn’t they? And he didn’t do a damn thing either, right? All that guy did was look badass and people loved him. Phasma totally deserves the same treatment! After all, she didn’t even go out like a punk, a la Fett’s embarrassing demise. Right? Right!?

Well, no. Dead wrong.

I have no particular love for Boba Fett (and holy shit, did I ever want to love Captain Phasma) but people didn’t just love Fett because he looked cool, people loved him because they responded to the excellent way he was portrayed in the movies. Captain Phasma, by comparison, came across as clumsily presented at best and grossly misused at worst. This wasn’t Gwendoline Christie’s fault. This was script, pure and simple.

I loved The Force Awakens. It sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise (I’m not! I swear!) when I say it was exactly what it needed to be, a wonderful soft reboot/sequel for a new generation, a whole freaking mountain of fun, and it felt like raw, undiluted Star Wars again. I loved the new protagonists in Rey, Finn, and Poe; I loved the new antagonists in Snoke, Hux, and Kylo Ren. I was all prepared to love Captain Phasma, not just because she looked great and a Stormtrooper elite officer is such a good idea, but because it’s blissful to see more women in Star Wars and Phasma happens to be played by one of the raddest actors working right now. I’m not even a huge Game of Thrones fan, but as far as I’m concerned Gwendoline Christie can do no wrong.

I’m aware she’ll likely be a big deal in the next two movies. I’m also aware her role in the marketing and press tours seemed to be hugely amped up in response to the very fair “Why are there hardly any women in this movie?” backlash when the cast was first announced. And, frankly, if you’re one of those folks who judge her late casting as unfair pandering when almost all of the characters in the movie are still male, then go fuck yourself.

We were even treated to direct comparisons, such as in this very quote:

“She is a Boba Fett-style character, which means she makes a lot of impact but she’s not at the forefront of the action all the time.”

So, I get it. She was caught between a rock and a hard place from the start: heavily marketed for obvious reasons, and with great expectations because of her casting. What would’ve been a comedic and/or throwaway character had far higher expectations because of the info released surrounding her. And yes, there’s surely great stuff to come. But that quote is sort of key to the whole deal. That part about impact.

So let me tell you why Captain Phasma isn’t TFA’s Boba Fett.

Get comfortable.

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For the sake of fairness, we’ll ignore Return of the Jedi. We can ignore his sleazy-cool underworld flirting with Rystall and Lyn Me in the Special Editions. We can forget the cool way he jetpacks into the action right when things kick off above the Sarlacc. Similarly, we can ignore the hilariously awesome pulpy death inflicted by a blind Han Solo. I don’t want to ignore them – and a lot of his Jedi moments, brief as they are, only add character to him anyway, further making my point – but it’s not fair to give him two movies.

Let’s ignore everything in the old Expanded Universe, too. Let’s just stick to The Empire Strikes Back, where Fett first shows up to the majority of the world. (This doesn’t count, and even if it did, we’re ignoring it for the purposes of fairness.)

Phasma gets one movie where she’s introduced. Let’s do the same for Fett. Fair’s fair. People loved Boba Fett after Empire – his Jedi appearances and all the stuff he does in the EU are irrelevant.

Like I said above, the reason Boba Fett became such a beloved character was his presentation. It was a bit of a masterclass in how to write and present secondary characters. Several characters (characters we already love and/or respect) treat Boba Fett like he’s very serious business. That’s crucial. No one smack-talks him. Similarly, he directly affects the movie’s plot in brief but significant ways, and in ways no one else has the skills to do. That matters just as much.

That doesn’t sound like much, really. And yet, it’s everything. This is some core stuff to how to write believable characters. How other characters relate and react to them. What influence they have on the events of the plot. Super-crucial stuff that informs the reader and viewer about that character’s place in the story – and within the setting itself.

Let’s be specific, though.

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  • Captain Phasma sees one of her stormtroopers showing signs of deviancy and either does nothing about it, or fails to fix it. The first time we see her interacting with another character, we see her fail at the thing she’s attempting to do, either because Finn escapes too soon or the reprogramming/punishment doesn’t stick. That’s fine! The bad guys can’t win them all. But in context, it doesn’t do her any favours given that this is how she’s introduced.
  • We see several ground battles involving stormtroopers, none of which really show her doing anything at all. Imagine if Phasma had been the one to duel Finn instead of TR-8R, only to be hurled back from the killing blow at the last minute. She’d be significantly more dangerous, having nearly killed Finn. But I digress. We rarely see her actually being any good at her job – at what she’s supposed to be excellent at in the story. When presenting characters, that matters a hell of a lot.
  • She gets captured by Han and Finn with a hilarious lack of effort. They pull a gun on her, and that’s that. Nothing in that scene infers or shows anything of particular competence or capability, either. Her job is to be one of the top-level (possibly brainwashed/psycho-conditioned?) elite soldier officers of the First Order. And yet…
  • She capitulates to Han’s demands with no resistance at all, selling out Starkiller Base’s defence codes without putting up even a modicum of a fight. Not even resisting. All while Finn is smack-talking her in his charmingly funny way.
  • She then vanishes off-screen, apparently disposed of (no pun intended) in a particularly Star Wars-esque comedy fashion: a trash compactor.

And that’s that. At no point do we see characters actually displaying any fear of her – with the exception of Finn, who’s already in mid-nervous breakdown when she warns him he’s being a bad boy. Her threats lose a lot of gravitas there because Finn’s already emotionally engaged in his own issues, and he doesn’t show a huge amount of concern beyond the fact he’s already freaking out.

Ultimately, at no point does she really affect the plot except through her failures and her incompetence at her job. She doesn’t do anything. She’s passive. Things happen to her.

Boba Fett (who, as so many memes are saying “never did anything”) was the exact opposite of that. Look at how he affects the plot, and how other characters react to him. Look at how good he was at his job (and his role in the story). He does a bunch of things – some subtle, some off-screen and inferred, and some on-screen and obvious – that just bleed character.

Look at how those elements come together to show why he was so beloved:

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  • This is a character that Darth Vader – Darth fucking Vader – has to warn about not being too violent. Vader wants the Falcon’s crew alive, and he singles out Boba Fett from all the bounty hunters, to say the classic line: “No disintegrations.” The fact Fett was already there with the other bounty hunters ready to be hired by the Empire’s big cheese to chase some of its most important prey, well, that says a lot. But this is the one guy out of all those scum with the darkest reputation, the one that gets singled out. This is a man that Darth Vader (who, lets remember, everyone is terrified of) has to tell to calm the fuck down. That establishes character.

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  • When the Empire loses track of the Millennium Falcon, and when Han Solo has just pulled off his awesome trick that even Princess Leia honestly compliments (after spending the whole movie teasingly mocking him), Boba Fett is the one to outfox them. The Falcon drifts away in the Star Destroyer’s garbage… then flies away unseen. Except for the fact that Boba Fett played the same trick, and follows the rebels. That’s how fucking good at his job he was. Han Solo pulled one of his coolest tricks, and Boba Fett was waiting for it.

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  • Oh, man. What a moment. That awesome moment when we see Darth Vader has been waiting on Bespin for the rebels, and they’re now well and truly fucked. “I had no choice,” Lando says as he’s selling Han and Leia out, right to their faces. “They arrived right before you did.” Vader performs his rather cool dinner conversation “We would be honoured if you would join us…” and who should walk out from stage right? Why, that would be Boba Fett. The man who led Darth Vader to the rebels. The man who told Vader not only where the rebels were going, but he worked it out before Han and Leia arrived, letting the Empire get the drop on our beloved heroes. In case it needs spelling out again, this is called Being Good At One’s Job, as well as Affecting The Plot. Fett is the architect of why the protagonists are fucked in the darkest part of the second act of the trilogy.

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  • As already mentioned, part of what makes Boba Fett work in how he’s presented is in how other characters react to him. It establishes his presence in the story and place in the character hierarchy, so to speak. On Bespin, there are two characters that argue with Darth Vader. One of them is Lando Calrissian. Lando is frustrated by being humiliated and deceived by Vader (whom he calls “Lord Vader” with respect at all times.) Vader couldn’t care less. “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it further.” The other is Boba Fett. Vader  gives Fett exactly what he wants. “You may take Captain Solo to Jabba the Hutt after I have Skywalker.” Fett argues back: “He’s no good to me dead.” Vader assures him that Solo won’t be permanently damaged. When it looks like Han might not survive the carbonite freezing process, Fett again calmly challenges Vader about it – and Vader assures him “The Empire will compensate you if he dies.” The difference in how these two characters treat Vader, and are treated by Vader, is immense.

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  • What was Boba Fett’s goal, as a character in the movie? To capture Han Solo. Here’s a picture of him saying “Put Captain Solo in the cargo hold”, which are words I find way more inspiring militarily speaking than “Mission Accomplished”.

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  • When Boba Fett is leading Han Solo, in carbonite, towards Slave I, Luke Skywalker is sneaking through the hallways of Cloud City, ready to undertake a rescue. There’s a moment when you see Luke watching Fett, several Cloud City staff, and a few stormtroopers walk past – and (still in hiding) Luke quietly unholsters his pistol. Boba Fett turns his fucking head at the sound. Fett keeps walking and Luke thinks he’s undetected. He sneaks up a little further once the parade has gone by, and hushes R2 who’s being a jerk. Just when Luke’s peeking around the corner again and everything’s silent, Boba Fett springs back and starts blasting. He knew Luke was there. He doesn’t want to kill Skywalker – he doesn’t give a shit. He’s bailing now he’s got what he came for. But Luke’s stealthed around just fine so far, until Boba Fett opens up on him.

 

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  • And then, of course, there’s this classic moment. Boba Fett, whose patience for bullshit is so monumentally thin, that when Chewbacca starts showing any resistance at all he decides to murder the poor hairy fucker. This is a character who – again – Darth Vader, that guy who cuts old men in two, tortures Han Solo without asking questions, and strangles his own allies with magic – tells to settle down. This is a legendarily violent and dangerous dude.

And that’s the difference, more or less. Christ, it pains me to defend Boba Fett. Has there ever been a character so heartily and heavily fanwanked in the history of geekdom? Admittedly, a chunk of that rose from his endless, endless EU appearances, but still. It doesn’t change the facts, Jack: people who say Fett doesn’t do anything are wildly missing the point. Fett doesn’t need to posture or pose or run around blasting endlessly. He comes across as dangerous and intriguing and competent because of his role in the story, what moments in the plot happen directly because of him, and the way other characters react to him. That’s good characterisation.

Captain Phasma has almost none of that.

But, y’know, she probably will. At the very least, she’s been set up for a hell of a rehabilitation after that poor showing. I’m sure vengeance is on the cards. That’ll be awesome.

 

January 9, 2016 Posted by | Uncategorized | 45 Comments

Witness Me (…and David, Arguing.)

RTJ Meeting

Here’s a screenie in the middle of an almost-three-hour discussion/argument/debate between me and my beloved artist pal, David. You may recognise us as the dashing and erudite creators of The Road to Jove.

Or perhaps you merely recognise us wielders and sporters of fine goatees. Mine’s closer to a Van Dyke beard though, which sounds way cooler. But I digress.

The short version is that we’re shaking up our Patreon, our webpage, and a few ways in which we do the comic itself. Expect a video update in the next few days, wherein I’ll probably be wearing black and swearing a lot, both of which I perform with the same ease of normal people breathing and drinking water.

 

 

 

December 30, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Hey. Hey, you. Name this bear.

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This is Annah. Her real name is Savannah. Increasingly, I just call her Scout.

Other names include: Chubbs, Chubbalina, Chubbalina Fatface of Plumpington, and Bubbles. Or, as her brother Shakes calls her, Z’vanna.

I made her. I’m given to understand that Katie helped. Annah is a modestly sized human baby-being, who spends her time teething, crying, and demanding to be carried around like some sort of Ptolemaic queen, like I was her fucking litter bearer or something.

Look at that morose bear, right there. What’s his name? I don’t know. Help me, internet people.

Name that bear. The best suggestion wins.

December 29, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | 56 Comments

Ragnar eBookmane, and 2015’s End

I didn’t think up that unbelievably tragic wordplay, but it was so deliciously bad that I just had to steal it for a blog post title. You guys and girls know me by now. If I’d thought up something that fucking dire, I’d have been legitimately proud of it.

2016 is going to be a hell of a year, work-wise. I’ll keep you posted, natch, because it all pertains to pretty much every question I’ve been asked in 2015 (“Where is The Master of Mankind?” and “Where is The Black Legion?”

But firstly, as 2015 comes to an end, let me just slide in a quick “Thanks, Gang.”

Thanks, as ever, for liking my work enough to want to read it – and doubly so for every review you leave online, and the feedback you wing my way via forums or social media. Thanks for helping us raise over £1,000 for Ellie’s charity last month. Thanks for being patient with how slow I’ve written of late, too. If it’s any consolation to those of you eager for The Master of Mankind and The Black Legion, I’m powering through at something like my old speed again. (Which, admittedly, was still always pretty slow. But it’s still progress.)

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For those of you asking when they could get hold of a non-limited-edition version of Ragnar Blackmane, the answer is… Right now, apparently. I know, right? That took me by surprise, too. It’s good to see it getting out there – I tried a lot of new stuff with that accursed novel and it ended up taking me almost all of 2014 to write.

I managed to squeeze in a vignette story for the Black Library Advent Calendar called ‘Without Fear’, which got a short but lovely review from Track of Words:

“…to illustrate Dembski-Bowden’s personal take on the Ultramarines, their character and idiosyncrasies. He goes far beyond their usual portrayal as being rigid and precise, the ‘perfect Marines’, delving into their linguistics, their pre-battle rituals, and the devastating power that they (and all Marines) possess, and his Ultramarines are at once powerfully human and terrifyingly alien. It’s characteristic of his writing, full of careful little touches that build up a beautifully detailed picture for the reader, and a far more thoughtful and considered tale than most Black Library stories.”

Given the subject matter and how much ground has been trodden with the Ultramarines before, that was a helluva nice review.

But enough of all that.

I owe all you wonderful bastards a Christmas present, don’t I? An extract from The Master of Mankind, right?

I’m sending some stuff in to my editor this week, to help choose which section to post. Maybe some insight into the Emperor’s dealings with Angron. Maybe a little about the Emperor’s supposed childhood on Ancient Terra.

December 28, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | 23 Comments