Book bought from Amazon.co.uk, where this review was first posted
This is yet another of Aaron Demski-Bowden's superb books. I received the Emperor's Gift on Monday evening and had finished it by the end of the next day before starting another of ADB's books. This time, the focus is on the Grey Knights, the most secretive of all Space Marine Chapters to the extent that all humans that learn about their existence must be purged. As Warhammer 40k or readers of Ben Counter's Grey Knights Omnibus will know already, the Grey Knights Chapter - the Emperor's Gift - are Psyker Space Marines specialized in fighting the Daemons of Chaos across the Empire. They mostly operate in small units at the call of Imperial Inquisitors. This book is centered on one Hyperion, a young Grey Knight who joins Castan Squad and the events take place before, during and after the first war for Armageddon. There are numerous reasons for loving this story, which is told in the first person by Hyperion himself.
One is that it presents the Grey Knights in a different light than what Ben Counter has done a while ago. Gone are the super-heroïc Grey Knights who make "ordinary" Space Marines seem like children. Instead, you tend to get another Chapter of Space Marines, but a secretive one with specialized skills, and these Space Marines have their weaknesses, just like any of the others. As ADB tends to favor, his Space Marines are first and foremost human, and then super-warriors. They are not invincible, far from it, and are no stronger than other Space Marines, especially not the fierce Space Wolves of Fenris.
Another is that the book brings in the Wolves and opposes them to the Inquisition and the Grey Knights. This is particularly interesting because it allows it to get ADB's take on the Wolves, which, while not original, emphasizes their fierce independence and their sense of honor, as opposed to what they see as the traitorous Inquisitors. A related point is that opposing the Wolwes to the Grey Knights allows to contrast the two organizations, although both are traditionnally viewed, in different ways, as the Emperor's executionners. This is where ABD seems to have introduced a bit of a novelty when compared to other novels where the Wolves appear: they care for "ordinary" humans in a way that the Wolves of Leman Russ do not in previous novels.
Anyway, introducing the Wolves and giving them such an important role is likely to draw in many readers for whom the Wolves have a special attraction: they have always been among the most favoured Space Marines Legions for many readers. A related point and another original streak is to oppose two sets of heroes - the Grey Knights and the Wolves - and the "goodies" are somewhat difficult to determine when the two get to fight each other, just lik,e in any civil war.
In a similar vein, ABD paints Hyperion, and the Grey Knights more generally, with all their qualities, but also all their flaws, insisting on their contradictions, emotions and limitations as has become his trademark. In a way, this book can be seen as the "initiation" of the young and largely untested Hyperion through trials, errors and sacrifices in what can only be a long, painful and bitter process.
Apart from that, his battle scenes as a good as usual, with this feeling that every fight is a desperate struggle and every "victory", if they can be called that, is a costly achievement and comes with grievous losses. There are no shining triumphs in this book.
Finally, the most striking feature of this book is, once again, ADB's originality and the way he stands apart from what we have come to expect from most other Black Library authors. This is not to say that he is necessarily "better" than the others but rather that he has a different take which comes out as a breath of fresh air as moves away from the paths that others have already trod. In a way, this book, like others, make him into some kind of "First Heretic" among Warhammer 40K authors. This originality makes the book worth reading in itself, regardless of whether you agree with ABD's take or not.
I loved it and I hope many other readers will love it as least as much.