The Last Son of Dorn by David Guymer (Book Review)

The Beast Arises has been steadfastly moving towards an epic conclusion for the last several books. Everything changed for the Imperials once the long-lost Primarch Vulkan was rediscovered, bringing true hope for the first time in the ongoing losing war against the Orks. The lord of the Salamanders led a massive army drawn from across the Segmentum Solar against the Ork world of Ullanor, once the site of the Imperium’s greatest triumph, now reborn as the hellish homeworld of the Beast and its new Ork armies. With The Last Son of Dorn, the end truly begins now.

This is the tenth novel in the series, and perhaps the most poignant so far. Armed with new weapons and arms, both physical and otherwise, Lord Commander Koorland leads a second massed attack against Ullanor and the Beast, hoping to end the threat once and for all. The novel, more than any of the others before, is a true homage to the character and culture of the Imperial Fists, even though only one of their number now remains, and David Guymer writes perhaps the best novel of his that I’ve read so far.

Note: Some major spoilers from the previous novels and this novel are mentioned here.

David Guymer’s previous entry in this series, Echoes of the Long War, was a somewhat disappointing read. For me, it focused on the wrong element of the conflict to highlight, and the story itself was nowhere near as exciting as some of the other narratives that have been prominent all through. He changes that completely with his stellar The Last Son of Dorn. Combined with an awesome cover by Victor Manuel Leza Moreno, this novel stands spine-to-spine with the other great novels of the series.

The novel begins by carrying over the elements of Watchers In Death, the previous novel in the series, as various Deathwatch Kill-Teams supported by the newly-rediscovered Sisters of Silence infiltrate Ork-held worlds to capture and contain an equal number of Ork psykers for the next phase of Koorland’s war against the xenos on Ullanor. I’ve read various Deathwatch stories before, but none except Steve Parker’s excellent works match the details or intricacies of the missions that David lays out in these opening chapters. Brief and to the point, these scenes show how potent a weapon both the Deathwatch Kill-Teams and the Sisters of Silence are, and it bodes well for the rest of the novel.

From these capture missions we move swiftly to more politicking at Terra as Koorland lays out his wider strategies. And here too David was exceptional. I mentioned above that Koorland is pretty much just done with the do-nothing politics that plague the High Twelve and that he has begun to take matters in his own hands. But now he has to contend with the larger realities of what the Deathwatch potentiates for the future of the Imperium. Koorland in command of both the Last Wall and the Deathwatch is a hard pill to swallow for most of the others but when a compromise is reached to involve the Inquisition, there is a feeling of… destiny. In the M41 era, the Deathwatch are the official chamber militant of the Ordo Xenos of the Inquisition, a standing army that answers directly to the Ordo. But here, we have only the beginnings of such a cooperation and it is awe-inspiring to see how it all started. Kudos to David Guymer for handling this so well. And it all ends in one of the most defining moments of the series, when Koorland addresses Ecclesiarch Mesring’s growing mental instability and his heretical worship of the Beast. I really wish that this narrative had been given more prominence because it felt as if Mesring fell too quickly, and there’s certainly a ton of possibilities in it, but the finality of it all was excellent nonetheless.

On the topic of character, for me, this novel really crystallised the relationship between Koorland as the Chapter Master of the Imperial Fists and High Marshal Bohemond of the Black Templars. The two of them clashed from their very first scenes together and though their relationship has been incredibly rocky despite their shared lineage, there was also the seed of something larger in it. That’s what David captures in The Last Son of Dorn. We get some really poignant moments between the two Chapter Masters, one the last surviving of his order, the other still commanding hundreds. This is something else that I had hoped the series would build up, the inter-personal relationships between the various senior Astartes that we see. We have seen much of the friendship between Koorland and Thane, but little of any others. David certainly outdid himself here, and the final scene between the two Astartes is deservingly the highlight of the entire series. No other scene moved me as much as that one did, the grim finality of it, the utter emotional pain of it. Big salute to David for that scene in the final pages. They are as different as two Astartes of two different Chapters could be, and yet they are so similar.

David also touches in on the fate of Captain Zerberyn of the Fists Exemplar who, by necessity, has allied with a warband of the Iron Warriors led by Warsmith Kalkator. More and more it feels as if Zerberyn’s fate in this series is to be a pawn and a tool in the hands of those smarter and craftier than him. From the first overtures by Kalkator he has been manipulated and from what little we see here, it doesn’t look as if that’s changed. And I confess that I am confused why he is playing along so when he clearly has the upper-hand in all ways above the Iron Warriors. More men, more resources, and yet he plays nursemaid. Somewhat infuriating too, I might add.

And similarly we have seen the Soul Drinkers, another successor of the Imperial Fists, being ignored throughout the series. They pop up now and then in passing and do little more. As a huge fan of Ben Counter’s Soul Drinker series, when they were first mentioned by Guy Haley in Throneworld I was pretty excited but that excitement has worn off by now. They just haven’t done anything significant at all. This novel is more of the same and there’s definitely something convoluted happening with their narrative, which may or may not be the product of the vagaries of the warp, to go with the easier explanation, rather than the fact that they are just a complete after-thought, a sideshow.

However, all of that pales before the heart and soul of this novel, the second invasion of Ullanor. After the first invasion, the Imperium’s resources are scarce. What little is available for this campaign is also in desperate need of repair. But Koorland proceeds all the same, for he has finally understood at some level about the symbology of how things are and how they should be. It is something that Vulkan attempted to practically drill into him with before he went… missing again at the end of The Beast Must Die, and it seems that Koorland has heeded those words. Plus, the Beast is truly still at large, as horrifying a prospect as that seems. And so it is that once more the Imperium will attempt to lay waste to Ullanor.

As is the way of things in this conflict though, they don’t entirely catch the Beast unawares. The second invasion of Ullanor is every bit as grandiose and momentous as the first. Vast armies clash for control of a world long thought by one to be relegated to the pages of history, to myth and legends, even as the other was rebuilding it bit by bit. This is when David Guymer lets his action chops loose and goes to town as he details the entire conflict, from the first landings to the final epic boss battle that is full of drama and tension. The pace is full throttle and the action never lets up. Mass casualties on both sides follow but the enjoyment is in the details, which is where David’s writing really shines here.

There’s not much that I can say about the final few chapters without giving away some huge spoilers, but suffice to say that David more than makes up for the failings of Echoes of the Long War with The Last Son of Dorn. Whether in terms of the straight-up action or the drama or the emotional side of the larger narrative, he delivers almost constantly and there is very little in the novel that I found to be less than what I expected. He keeps surprising you with various twists, and though it hardly needs to be said that much of these twists are entirely the product of his story, having undoubtedly been planned by the team behind the series in advance, his execution is what really matters. This is also something that is very important later on for Guy Haley’s The Beheading.

And as I mentioned before, the final chapters are just plain epic. There’s so much emotional heft in those scenes and their repercussions will definitely echo down in the next two novels, the final two in the series. If not for the details on how the Imperium recovers from the first invasion to Ullanor and proceeds with the second, read this novel for these last few chapters that stand as some of the finest writing in the series, some of the best action scenes involving Astartes legends facing off against Orks.

In all, a perfect read for me, and one that stands as David’s best work for Black Library to date, whether we talk about Warhammer 40,000 or Warhammer Fantasy.

Rating: 9/10

More David Guymer and The Beast Arises:

  • The Beast Arises#1: I Am Slaughter by Dan Abnett (Review)
  • The Beast Arises #2: Predator, Prey by Rob Sanders (Review)
  • The Beast Arises #3: The Emperor Expects by Gav Thorpe (Review)
  • The Beast Arises #4: The Last Wall by David Annandale (Review)
  • The Beast Arises #5: Throneworld by Guy Haley (Review)
  • The Beast Arises #6: Echoes of the Long War by David Guymer (Review)
  • The Beast Arises #7: The Hunt For Vulkan by David Annandale (Review)
  • The Beast Arises #8: The Beast Must Die by Gav Thorpe (Review)
  • The Beast Arises #9: Watchers In Death by David Annandale (Review)
  • Gotrek & Felix: City of The Damned (Review)
  • Gotrek & Felix: Kinslayer (Review)

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