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The Killing Ground (Ultramarines) Hardcover – July 8, 2008
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About the Author
Hailing from Scotland, Graham McNeill narrowly escaped a career in Surveying to join Games Workshop, where he worked for six years as a game developer. As well as fourteen novels, Graham has written a host of sf and fantasy short stories. He lives in Nottingham, UK. --This text refers to the Mass Market Paperback edition.
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Warhammer 40,000: The Killing Ground by Graham McNeill
The Story: Having fulfilled their Death Oath, Ultramarines Uriel Ventris and Pasanius Lysane managed to escape the damned world of Medrengard, deep in the warp-infested Eye of Terror. Alongside their mutant allies, the Unfleshed, they emerged from the warp on the war-torn world of Salinas, where rebellion has been stirring under the iron fist of the Imperial Guard Regiment that rules the world. Uriel and Pasanius most now survive the restless spirits of Salinas both living and dead, if they are ever to return to their chapter.
The Good: This story is the fourth volume in the Ultramarines series by Graham McNeill and continues from the previous story of Dead Sky Black Sun and continues the adventures of the two Ultramarines, Uriel Ventris and Pasanius Lysane, who have found themselves stranded on a planet ruled by a contingent of the Imperial Guard.
The Space Marines tend to look down upon the mere mortals of the Imperial. The Ultramarines tend to be the exception to this role, still it visibly disconcerting for Uriel and Pasanius to be completely at the mercy of mortals. This is an interesting dynamic that takes the Space Marines out of their element, which is essential to creating a good character. The further exploration of Uriel and Pasanius and by extension the Space Marine’s personalities is well done here. A good way to test a characters is too take them out of their element. This was done superbly in Dead Sky, Black Sun, and it continues in the Killing Ground. The two Ultramarines have no idea where they are, Pasanius lost an arm, and Uriel is without his armor. Finally, they have a bunch of mutant abominations in their stead and they have no idea what to do with them.
Uriel’s caring persona is a great part of his appeal and the way he bonds with the Unfleshed is very appealing in its innocence, but there is a Steinbeckian tragedy in the works here and their ending while tragic is almost inevitable. In fact, there is a parallel between Of Mice and Men and The Killing Ground, in regards to the Unfleshed.
Leto Barbaden is an excellent villain and really reflects the mindset of the Imperium of Man. A character like Leto Barbaden is not that unlikely in the 41st millennium. The Imperial Guard or Astra Militarum, cannot be considered an ideal army even by today’s standards. Most don’t survive their first year and win by little more than sheer numbers than any real strategy. Since even their own officers could execute them at will, those that manage to survive for any length of time are conditioned to see enemies all around them, even if none are present. They are disciplined with an iron fist and tend to see the world through those lenses. It is not a big stretch of the imagination that they are not good at ruling civilians who are not soldiers. Barbaden sees human lives as numbers and not living souls which is common throughout the Imperium. All he cares about is results regardless of the cost of lives or material. The truth of the matter is…that in a lot of battlefields that mindset can bring victory, but it does not work on peaceful worlds. Barbaden doesn’t care and is convinced that his way is the best way. The worst kind of bad guy is the one who is totally convinced of their moral high ground. Emperor knows that we see enough of those in the real world.
The writer does a good job of building up the atmosphere. Even though Salinas is a whole lot better than the Eye of Terror, there is a definitely a gloomy and brooding atmosphere saturating the whole planet and city. The book begins in a rain storm after all. It really sets a stage for the more horror story that is being told.
The Flaws: One of the problems, or at least where this book is lacking is in the character of Pasanius Lysane. He is not a boring character by any means, but at the same time he is a bit of blank slate. The main focus of the Ultramarines series is Uriel Ventris and it is primarily his story. Pasanius is sort of a big lug, sidekick character. There is nothing wrong with that but it would be nice to see the story from his perspective every now and then. We never get into his head for more than fleeting moments.
This can also be said for Leto Barbaden, good character but not very three dimensional. That is not always necessary but it does add a nice touch. This also extends to several other of the side characters, who are simply not allotted a great deal of time to expand on their natures. Again, this simply can’t be done with every character.
While the ghost story elements are good, some may argue that they do not really fit in with the style of Warhammer 40K. It is good to stretch boundaries in storytelling, but the author has to be careful to not stretch them too much, lest they alienate the reader base.
Final Verdict: A different approach to the typical Adeptus Astartes story but it is a good approach and a good addition to the tales of the Ultramarines.
Four out of Five Stars
MacNeill, and not just because it is so much better than Black Sky,
Dead Sun: it also evokes the forty-first millennium convincingly,
especially what being a superhuman space marine would be like in it,
like the first two novels in the series; and like them it is a compelling page turner. And like them and Storm of Iron, when MacNeill wants to go metaphysical, he does a terrific job of showing what living in a world so close to the weird and horrific made manifest might be
It really isn't a true return to form, however, because unlike
Nightbringer, his first and best effort, Killing Ground isn't a
complete novel--and not just because it is the most obviously
serialized of his efforts, impossible to enjoy on it's own, though it
is that absolutely--but because the 'real' story of it only commences
in the last quarter of the novel, and with only the most cursory of
setup in the preceding three-quarters. The whole book feels
incomplete, and very awkwardly paced--just a continuing series of
chapter-adventures about our heroes, not a stand-alone novel.
That said, once things gain traction, the fitful setup seems worth it:
it is enjoyable to follow the journey of heroes Ultramarine Captain
Uriel Ventris and his loyal sergeant Pasanius, who remain both
convincingly superhuman throughout and yet eminently 'human' enough to
emapthize and identify with (lacking one, the other or both being
consistent flaws in Black Library novels); all the questions about the
world our heroes are introduced to get answered, most satisfyingly;
and the book's real strength, the introduction late in the proceedings
of a major Imperial institution and a compelling character to give it
a face, is handled with the skill and insight into the background of
the 40Kverse that only Abnett excels MacNeill at, when he is at his
There *is* the issue of what subtext MacNeill is attempting to address
in Killing Ground: especially late in the novel, he puts words in some
characters' mouths that seem to clearly be commenting on real world
events, moreso than the instory conduct of some of MacNeill's unsavory
Guard characters in the book. It is awkwardly handled, whichever side
of those events one may fall on; reviewers who like to diminish genre
work, especially work derived from other media, as 'non-literary' will
find plenty of fodder for their viewpoint in this clumsily-handled bit of authorship. MacNeill is entitled to the strength of his convictions,
any writer is--one just wishes if he were going to do this, he'd've
done so with more artistry.
Killing Ground will not join Nightbringer as one of the two or three
introductory novels I hand to prospective hobbyists wanting to know
more about Warhammer 40,000, but for those already hooked and
especially fans of the previous Ultramarines 4th Company adventures,
it is a fine tale, and especially worthwhile in evoking the Imperium,
the Guard, the metaphysical threat of the Warp and one of it's front
line Imperial forces of resistance. I would read further adventures of
Captain Ventris--and would *very* much look forward to a stand-alone
adventure about the character Ventris engages, at this book's climax.