We are now getting to the point where the series is starting to pick up some momentum. The first three novels have laid out the conflict and we now are starting to see some real movement every which way. Leading up to the fourth novel in the series, we are now in that particular mode where you can start to predict how certain characters are going to react to certain situations and that anticipation is what is driving this series more than anything else because in the meta-sense, these characters and their strife really do leave a mark.
David Annandale’s The Last Wall had a lot to deliver on, given how Gav Thorpe ended The Emperor Expects. It was certainly a very unexpected ending, and the questions that it raised got me to push through this novel, finishing it in less than a day, as the clock counts. It is full of some amazing action and tons of intrigue all of which deepens the mysteries behind the resurgent Ork threat and I feel that it is a great addition to the series as a result. David definitely didn’t disappoint in any way.
Note: Some major spoilers from the previous novels and this novel are mentioned here.
In Gav’s The Emperor Expects, the big set-piece action scene was a massive space battle between the Imperium and the Orks. As the first major response to the Ork threat since they unleashed themselves on Ardamantua at the end of the first novel, it had a huge expectation rider on it, and thankfully Gav delivered in spades. Now however we deal with the aftermath of that battle, even as things take a turn for the worse in the final pages. And none of that is pretty.
Before we get to that however, I do want to touch upon the narrative that hangs around Captain Koorland of the Imperial Fists, the last surviving member of his Chapter as it turns out since everyone else was annihilated in Ardamantua’s death-throes. In the last novel, the message was sent out to all the Imperial Fists Successor Chapters that the Last Wall was being called. When the Primarch Roboute Guilliman broke down the Legiones Astartes into the Adeptus Astartes Chapters, reducing armies of these post-human warriors that numbered in the tens of thousands to just a thousand strong each, Primarch Rogal Dorn did not agree wholeheartedly. That is putting it rather mildly, I admit, but for the sake of brevity it is so. Dorn built in a contingency plan for his sons as they were divided up, a fail-safe to be acted out should a great enough need ever exist. And that is now.
In the last novel, we saw the beginnings of this as Koorland appeared before the Chapter Masters of the Fists Exemplars, Crimson Fists and the Excoriators to make his case for the Last Wall. Some of the Successors such as the Iron Knights and the Soul Drinkers could not attend in time and were left out of the deliberations, but that’s a minor point. I really enjoyed this particular narrative since it hearkened back to the glories of the Great Crusade while also melding in the sensibilities of what followed. And David Annandale continues that in this novel as the Last Wall gathers its forces in the Phall system before it takes action.
Honestly, this part could have been expanded significantly I feel. There was never a good case for why Koorland and the others wait so much and I wanted more scenes with the deliberations between these veteran Space Marines. That’s the kind of stuff in Warhammer 40,000 that I really enjoy and there was precious little of it here.
However, we had the biggest folly of the High Lords in this conflict to balance all of that out. For when an Ork attack moon appeared in orbit of Terra at the end of the previous novel, it was a certainty that there would be some kind of major military response, and in that sense David doesn’t disappoint. With the Imperial Fists devastated and their Successors marshaling their forces some sectors away, and most of the Segmentum Solar fleet either deployed elsewhere or lost in action at Port Sanctus in the previous novel, there are few defenders left to the Imperial throne-world. But find some defenders, nay an army, Terra must and that is what most of The Last Wall is all about.
I have to say that the utter genius and folly of the end-result is just amazing. Kudos to David for pulling it off so well in the novel, and if any of the other writers and the editors were involved in the planning of it, kudos to them as well. The way that the Imperium gets around to this was completely unexpected and I have to say that I was pretty flabbergasted even as I was reading it all happen. The Proletarian Crusade is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the entire conflict, and David captures the grandiosity of it really well.
And more than anything else, we are finally back in the thick of the action against the Orks. The death of Ardamantua and of Undine were all good stuff, and the retaking of Port Sanctus was no slouch of a battle either, but there’s something rather visceral about a combined ground and space assault that never gets old. That is what David captures in this novel. This entire sequence brought to the forefront again the concept that the Orks the Imperium now faces are of a different breed entirely, more ferocious and more cunning and more inventive and even, more cruel than ever before. The highs and lows of the Proletarian Crusade were awe-inspiring and stirring.
This doesn’t mean that all the politicking amongst the High Lords takes a back seat however. Nope. If anything, it intensifies by several degrees. That was something else that I liked about the novel. And amidst all of that, the best scenes were those that had to with Inquisitor Wienand who is fending off a coup against her by others in the Inquisition. In this David gives us a great example of a “spy-chase” and I loved every moment of it.
One other big twist here is that David takes us further along the path of the potential conflict hinted at by Inquisitor Veritus, that the forces of Chaos are involved in some manner. We get some pretty rough-and-tumble scenes with an Iron Warriors Great Company led by Warsmith Kalkator, and though it was a bit disorienting at first, the scenes gelled together fairly quickly. Kalkator’s forces are themselves attacked by an offshot of the Ork invasion against the Imperium and in these we get a sort of counter-point to the Ork assault on the Fists Exemplar homeworld of Eidolica in the previous novel. More Space Marine action, all day, everyday.
There’s a sense in this new sub-narrative that Kalkator is going to become a major player in the series, and I honestly do look forward to that since this entire narrative is so… fresh I guess you could call it. It is good to see the writers exploring other perspectives and not just focusing on the Imperium and the Orks at every turn.
Of course, in addition to all of this, we are still left in the dark about how the Orks came to be so dominant all of a sudden and how they got access to the technology that they did. This will be a running theme of the next couple books unfortunately (full disclosure, I’m currently reading the eight novel in the series) so I won’t discuss this thing any further until I write the review for the seventh novel. Suffice to say that the answers, once they come, come as if in a flood.
If there’s anything else that I’d spotlight from this novel is the emotional pace of it, something that David is well-familiar with considering his first full-length work for Black Library, The Death of Antagonis. Throughout The Last Wall there is this feeling of utter despair and futility that permeates every page, even those that deal with the Last Wall itself. He captures the collective social quotient of the characters on Terra really well, and by the end we get some big payoffs for that, which was fantastic. He doesn’t just create the stew and leave it be, he maintains it with care. After everything that happened at Port Sanctus, I was totally wanting something like this, and I got exactly that. The conflict isn’t just about the physical action, but is more than that. It is about how it affects the mentality of everyone it touches, especially the main cast of characters.
Overall, The Last Wall is a solid entry to the series and one that might signal that things are actually about to change finally, given everything that happens here. We are at a particular high in the novel, at the tip of a momentous change, and thankfully, Throneworld by Guy Haley is a sublime follow-up.
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