Let's start talking about Galaxy in Flames by nipping back to the two books we've already covered. After all, this is a trilogy; there's just no way the final instalment isn't going to end up being compared with its predecessors.
I mentioned last time around that Graham McNeill had a tough job on his hands with False Gods, but of course the truth is each of these books brought with them unique problems. The first installment had to be a belter to ensure the series had any real chance of surviving over the long term, hence why it was given to Abnett, the safest pair of hands Black Library can boast. The second book, as I've noted, required pulling off the genuinely difficult trick of starting out with a depressed but still loyal Horus, and ending with a Warmaster baying for his father's blood. And whilst I've never spoken to anyone who's said they were glad McNeill got this job rather than Abnett, it's hardly like it was an indefensible move. In the years before False Gods was released McNeill had already published seven novels for the Black Library, including books set both in the 40K universe and the Warhammer Fantasy Setting, and he had proved by the solid sales figures of his Ultramarines books (the first omnibus is currently on its second printing, I believe).
Ben Counter, in contrast, was a comparative newcomer. Before Galaxy In Flames, he had published just four books, and three of them focussed on a Space Marine chapter of his own invention. There was then rather less reason to be certain of Counter's ability to adapt to the brief required here. In other words, it seems someone in charge at Black Library decided that the concluding instalment in this opening trilogy was the book least in need of a proven hand at the tiller. Perhaps this decision
was made on the assumption that with the story of Horus' fall already mapped out, Counter's contribution need not involve much beyond connecting the dots. Certainly, dot-joining is essentially all that's in evidence here.
Galaxy In Flames is not a tale well-told. Indeed, large sections of it don't particularly feel told at all, so much as noted. When I initially read the book, I thought the prose poor. But that's not quite it. It isn't poor, it's just achieved a level of functionality almost unattainable by authors permitted to tell their own tales. The events are laid out on paper and linked with brief sketches of the motivations for those involved, but the overall impression is less of a novel and more of a dry history text which happens to be covering a period with more explosions than usual. But even for a history book, this does quite feel right. It's more like one of those awful summaries of historical battles you find dotted around the internet written by those far more interested in warfare than can be considered healthy; the kind of writers for whom detailing the exact weapon used to murder a man is of greater importance than the choices that led that man to his death in the first place. A blog dedicated to a military sci-fi franchise might seem an odd place to make such complaints, but there's enjoying fictional violence, and then there's fetishising it. Not that I think this novel is trying to fetishise violence. I don't think it's really trying to do much of anything.
Still, if Black Library believed the tale to be all but author-proof, they weren't completely wrong. The Battle of Istvaan III and the last stand of the Luna Wolves - along with Lucius' vile betrayal - provides ample opportunity for adrenaline-aimed pulp entertainment. There may be nothing even approaching a subtext, but the all-surface story offers plenty of resolute heroes and hissable villains, all set against a death toll galloping upwards. This is hardly a disaster. Still, the impression left is very much that works here does so despite Counter's efforts, or at best independently of them. This is a story easy to avoid screwing up, but also easy to spin into something truly remarkable. That Counter was only able to achieve the former can hardly be considered much of a triumph. This is a book without even the ambition to fail in a way we might find interesting.