Priests of Mars – Review
I’m in the process of finishing up all my Christmas reading and was thinking to myself, “I made some excellent choices this year!”
Books from the list included Pariah by Dan Abnett (early gift to myself), Fear to Tread by James Swallow, Know No Fear by Dan Abnett, a wonderful book on the art and design of The Hobbit movie, the X-Men: Messiah Complex trade paperback, and Priests of Mars by Graham McNeill.
I have a certain bugga-boo about my reading and cannot get through some authors’ words, so I often go back to the same trough again and again. Graham McNeill is no exception here. His contributions to the Horus Heresy series are excellent, commendable works. False Gods hit the nail on the head in witnessing the corruption of the series’ titular character. Fulgrim was a romp in excess and delivered exactly what I wanted to see: a man obsessed with achieving perfection and the path (read: descent) he reaped towards betrayal.
Mr. McNeill also wrote the Horus Heresy account for the actions of the Adeptus Mechanicum on Mars, simply titled Mechanicum. In the world of Warhammer 30,000, he wrote a superb novel about the varying factions on Mars and the priests of the machine cult, showing off divine spirits, taboo techno-automata, and cyber assassins. If you are a fan of the Warhammer 40,000 cult of the Omnissiah, Mechanicum is the novel to read to immerse yourself in their culture and history. Mr. McNeill revisits the cult of the Machine God with his latest work, Priests of Mars.
So does much change in 10,000 years for a cult/religion/culture dedicated to technology, machine-spirits, knowledge, and continued improvement? In a word: no. The world of a techno-priest is much more ordered and hopeful in Mechanicum, in Priests of Mars the servants of the Machine God are in search of technology lost in millennia of conflict and chaos.
Instead of the planet Mars, home of their mechanical religion, Priests of Mars is set on an expedition to the Halo Stars in search of a lost techno-magos. We have an ensemble cast to follow in this novel: the leader of the expedition aboard the super-ship Speranza, a rogue trader captain and his crew with an essential piece of information to the expedition, a few press-ganged serfs to the Mechanicus fleet, a handful of Black Templar space marines, a division of Cadian Imperial Guardsmen, a Legio of Titans and their crew, and an Eldar Farseer with her mind’s eye set on the actions of this expedition. No partridge or pear tree, they were jettisoned out the airlock.
My first critique of the novel is that I couldn’t feel comfortable following one perspective over the other. There’s a handful of Mechanicus priests to follow, the rogue captain, the space marines, the Cadians, the Moderati of the titans, the Eldar Farseer, the poor saps that got press-ganged into shovelling toxic sludge in the belly of the spaceship… I was hoping for a perspective to lock on to and never got it.
But that’s ok because what Mr. McNeill excels at is giving something new and unique to each character. I may not have remembered each of his hard-to-pronounce names, but the imagery of his characters soared over that issue, whether it was the magos with the floating jar-brains, the father/daughter magi-team obsessed with studying astrological bodies, the skitarii-secutor with his fully-augmented battle-body, or the scheming magos with the long cowl and dwarf retinue. Once the self-aware robotic gestalt-entity Galatea entered the mix of techno-brainiacs aboard the Speranza, I silently clapped to myself a little. Mr. McNeill really upped the cybernetic, technological, and sci-fictional ante in a book that is clearly about awesome machines and the madmen that worship them.
The prose in Priests of Mars would do Neal Stephenson proud, it is full of noospheres of data blipping by and tightly-welded cargoholds full of mythos. The creativity on display appeals to both the 40K fanboy who wants to see space marines kicking butt and spraying bolter fire, and also the quiet cyber-dorks who want to hear more about how an ancient ship the size of a continent has a sleeping sentience guarding thousands of years of technological promise. This book is doing its best when it’s showing off something cool like a friendly sparring match between a space marine and a skitarii programmer or when a techno-magos explains to another magos how his plot estimations through the nebulae of the outlying space system are inefficient due to their reading of the information and then swiftly reprograms and calibrates a better plot using math, science, and words I cannot accurately use without spending an obscene amount of time on dictionary.com.
The various characters aren’t deep, nor are they particularly compelling on their own, but the plot moves at a decent clip and shows off plenty of sci-furniture. You do get a dose of the Mars priesthood and the book is swimming in marvels of technology, but I was a little disappointed by the bits that didn’t emphasize them. In particular, the stories of the men who are unlucky enough to be in the wrong bar at the wrong time, only to be forced into space-labor is a completely unique perspective full of toil and conflict. However, I felt this took up too much time and was rushing through those pages to find more of the servos and mecha-dendrites of the actual priests for my reading enjoyment.
My last critique of this book is that it is not finished. This book is reaching towards a finale through all of its pages and does not get there. I wanted to know what happened to the missing magos beyond the Halo Stars, I wanted to know what the Eldar Farseer’s vision was and how her actions affected them, I wanted to see a complete arc of motion from beginning of the exploration, conflict in the middle, and resolution at the end.
Instead, there’s this weak borscht of unresolved revelations, promises to keep moving towards the goal, and not even a message on the last page to stay tuned for the sequel. Graham McNeil and the Black Library pulled this stunt in his Warhammer novel Defenders of Ulthuan in 2007, but failed to supply a follow up until 2011. Well, disappointment from that soured the end of this book as I cried, “Not again! Can Graham McNeill finish one story within a single book?”
I liked Priests of Mars, the scene and scenery really hit it for me, but that lack of an ending was a thorn that I did not enjoy.
Final grade: six and a half hours on dictionary.com