Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker by Steve Parker

Deathwatch Shadowbreaker Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 25 April 2019)

Series: Warhammer 40,000/Deathwatch – Book Two

Length: 16 hours and 37 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive into the extended universe of Warhammer 40,000 (Warhammer 40K or 40K), as science fiction author Steve Parker presents Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker, an action-packed and exceedingly exciting sequel to his 2013 novel, Deathwatch, which pits the deadly Deathwatch Space Marines against an entire planet full of T’au.

Thousands of years in the future, the galaxy is constantly at war. Humankind has survived as the massive Imperium of Man, under the divine protection of their long-dead Emperor. However, this beacon of humanity is under constant threat from all sides. Destructive alien races, demons from the warp and the traitor forces of Chaos continuously assault its borders, whilst heretics, mutants and witches attempt to destroy it from within. Over the millennia, the Imperium has created many different forces to protect their worlds from these threats; however, none is more feared or revered than the Adeptus Astartes, the Space Marines. Space Marines are legendary warriors genetically modified to become significantly stronger, larger and faster than a normal man. Swathed in power armour and armed with the deadliest of weapons, the Space Marines are a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield, bringing the Emperor’s wrath down on all who oppose them.

But even amongst these deadliest of soldiers, there is one organisation of Space Marines who are respected above all others for their fighting ability and skill, Deathwatch. Deathwatch is an elite group made up of best Space Marines veterans from across the Chapters, trained to become the ultimate tools in one of the Imperium’s holiest missions, the extermination of the xenos, the alien. Utilising the most advanced technology in the Imperium and receiving specialist instruction in the strengths and weaknesses of their foes, Deathwatch work in small kill-teams under the Ordo Xenos of the Imperial Inquisition in order to hunt down and destroy the most dangerous xenos threats in the galaxy.

Lyandro Karras, Codicier of the Death Spectres, is a powerful Space Marine Librarian serving in the Deathwatch as the leader of the kill-team, Talon Squad. Barely recovered from the disastrous events of their last mission, Karros and Talon Squad once again find themselves under the command of the mysterious Inquisitor Sigma. Their new mission takes them to a former Imperial world that has been conquered by the alien T’au, who have indoctrinated the majority of the human population into their society and philosophy. An Imperial Inquisitor, Epsilon, has gone missing in T’au space, and Sigma believes that she is being kept prisoner on the planet. Desperate to free her before the T’au extract vital secrets about the Imperium from her, Talon Squad and a force of Ordo Xenos Storm Troopers are deployed to find her. Working with the local human resistance, Talon Squad identify the prison she is located in and must work to release her before the massive T’au garrison knows they are on planet. But what happens when Epsilon refuses to accompany Talon Squad back to the Imperium?

Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker is part of the massive extended universe which has formed up around the Warhammer 40K tabletop miniature game produced by Games Workshop. Warhammer 40K, which was first released in 1987 and pits armies of science fiction miniatures against each other, has always contained an interesting and grim science fiction narrative to serve as a background to the game. With every new edition of Warhammer 40K that was released, this background narrative got more and more detailed, resulting in an extremely deep, compelling and gothic-themed fictional history surrounding all of the different races, armies and characters featured within this tabletop game. Due to the popularity of the Warhammer 40K universe, a huge amount of expanded material has also been released over the years, including several videogames, comics, board game spinoffs, an animated movie (with a remarkably good cast of British actors) and there is currently a television series in production. However, the main medium that has been utilised as part of this expanded universe is books.

Over the years, there has been a tremendous amount of Warhammer 40K books produced, featuring the works of a number of skilled and talented science fiction authors. There are now hundreds of Warhammer 40K books currently published, covering the different periods and races featured in the tabletop game. In 2019 alone there were nearly 20 different novels, anthologies and audio dramas associated with Warhammer 40K. This is a very impressive amount of material, and I have not even mentioned the multiple book releases associated with the separate Warhammer Fantasy universe.

While I am a man of many, many different fandoms, the products of Game Workshops are among the earliest fantasy and science fiction products that I was a major enthusiast of. I was extremely into Warhammer Fantasy when I was a kid and I have many fond memories of painting and battling with the models, reading the company’s monthly White Dwarf publication and playing some of the Warhammer 40K computer games, such as Dawn of War. While I was solely playing with Warhammer Fantasy models, I did learn a lot about Warhammer 40K at the same time, especially as I really enjoyed reading all the lore and background of the various Games Workshop products. I have been meaning to read some Games Workshop fiction for a while now, and I have previously mentioned that I want to read the cool-sounding Gaunt’s Ghosts series. However, I ended up reading the recently released Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker instead, mainly because it featured two of my favourite groups from the Warhammer 40K lore, Deathwatch and the T’au, facing off. Shadowbreaker is the latest book from Steve Parker, a science fiction author, who has primarily written Warhammer 40K fiction. Shadowbreaker is his first release since 2016, and it is actually a sequel to his 2014 novel, Deathwatch, which featured the same group of primary characters.

I am actually really glad that I chose to read and review Shadowbreaker, as this excellent 40K novel contains an awesome and extremely entertaining story that features all manner of action, adventure and intrigue, while also diving deep into several fascinating parts of 40K’s lore. Shadowbreaker is an excellent sequel to the author’s previous book, Deathwatch, and Parker does an amazing job of continuing the story that was started in this prior book, while at the same time setting up some intriguing potential directions for the series to go next. Prior knowledge of the events of Deathwatch is not a necessity to enjoy this book, as Parker does a good job of re-introducing all the relevant events of the previous novel, and readers should be able to follow Shadowbreaker’s story without any real issues. Parker has created a rich narrative for this book that utilises a huge number of character viewpoints to not only examine the development within several characters but also explore a number of different angles and features of the harsh gothic universe in which this book is set. These multiple viewpoints work especially well during Shadowbreaker’s extended action sequences, as they allow Parker to show off every aspect and side of the brutal battles, resulting in some exciting and detailed combat set pieces. Shadowbreaker’s story ends up going in some rather intriguing directions, featuring some fun twists and reveals, and this was an overall fantastic and exciting story to check out.

While Shadowbreaker is an amazing novel, it might not be as appealing to those readers who are not familiar with the Warhammer 40K universe. This book is pretty lore heavy, containing a whole lot of references to history, technology, alien races and other unique aspects of this fictional universe. While I felt that Parker did a great job of explaining most of the Warhammer 40K elements that are relevant to the story, a certain amount of prior knowledge about this massive universe will really help readers understand what is going on. Do not get me wrong; readers unfamiliar with the franchise will easily be able to follow and enjoy Shadowbreaker’s story, but they may have trouble appreciating all the interesting lore references or depictions from the miniatures game. As a result, I would probably recommend this book more to established fans of the 40K universe, although casual science fiction readers are definitely going to have a good time reading this. That being said, I note that some other readers of this book who are more familiar with the actual tabletop game than me were put off by a couple of apparently incorrect depictions of weapons, armour and vehicles. While these apparent anomalies in no way impacted my enjoyment of the book (honestly, I am not knowledgeable enough about battle gear to have really picked up on this), I can imagine that this could annoy some hardcore 40K fans, so fair warning about that.

For me, one of the major appealing aspects of this book was its excellent examination of fascinating elements from the Warhammer 40K universe. As I mentioned above, the universe of the 40K games are filled with all manner of fantastic, complex and unique features which are all backed up with a ton of lore and fictional history. Parker does an awesome job of setting Shadowbreaker within this universe and he ends up utilising quite a lot of detail from the games in the story. There is actually quite a lot going on within this book. Not only do you have the primary storyline of Space Marines versus T’au but you also have storylines that relate to infighting and intrigue within the Ordo Xenos, examination of the constant threat that is the Tyranid, the machinations of the Eldar, and the long-term plots of a demon lord thrown in on top. All these various storylines actually come together really well into an outstanding story, and fans of the 40K franchise are almost guaranteed to have some mention or discussion about their preferred army or race in the game (with a couple of exceptions).

However, the thing that really excited me the most about this book was the central conflict between Deathwatch and the T’au. I am a major fan of both of those groups and have always been really intrigued by the cool lore and background that surrounds them. When I started reading this book, I was half-expecting the story to be shown purely from the perspective of the Deathwatch characters. If this had been the case, the author would have been forced to do a classic humans versus aliens storyline, where aliens are automatically the bad guys due to the Space Marines’ inherent hatred of all things alien. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised when Parker presented a much more complex storyline which showed neither side as “good” or “evil”. Instead, thanks to the author’s excellent use of multiple perspectives, it is shown that both sides of this conflict are dominated by dangerous fanatics driven by their beliefs, either in the purity of destroying all things alien or the defining T’au philosophy of the “Greater Good”. This belief results in both sides doing some very questionable things in order to achieve their objectives, most of which result in large amounts of destruction and death. Interesting enough, it is Lyandro Karras and some of the members of Talon Squad who are the most reasonable characters in this book, and all of them have been heavily indoctrinated about the evils of the alien. This all makes for a much more intriguing and clever story, and I loved how it helped highlighted how complex this universe can get.

Shadowbreaker contains quite a bit of information about how the legendary Deathwatch operates, which is just downright fascinating, and I can imagine a lot of readers would be really interested to learn more about. While there was a lot more about the layout of the organisation and their training in the initial Deathwatch book, readers of Shadowbreaker learn a lot about them in this book. For example, Shadowbreaker contains information about Deathwatch’s unique relationship with the Inquisition, their skills in battle, their knowledge of the aliens they fight and the fact their ranks consist of Space Marines from various chapters. All of this is really cool, and there were a fantastic central organisation to centre the book on.

I also quite enjoyed the examination of the different Space Marines that make up the various Deathwatch kill-teams featured within this book. Thanks to the author’s use of multiple character perspectives, the reader gets to see through the eyes of a number of Space Marine characters. Parker cleverly utilises this to show off the varied personalities of the Space Marines, and it was interesting to see how diverse these genetically enhanced and indoctrinated killing machines can really be. A lot of this is due to the specific Chapters that they come from, as each character seems to reflect the traits of their Chapter and their founding father. I liked how the multiple perspectives helped highlight he different fighting styles of the various members of the Deathwatch kill-team, especially as each of them utilises different weapons and tactics to achieve their goals, reflecting the defining skills of their original Chapter. For example, the Raven Guard character continuously utilises a jump pack and lightning claws in his fights, while the Imperial Fist preferred to use heavy weapons. These different combat techniques add an extra layer of spice to the various fight sequences, and I really liked seeing the different characters in action. I was also really intrigued by the author’s deep dive into the history and peculiarities of two of the lesser-known Space Marine chapters, the Death Spectres and the Exorcists. Parker reveals some really interesting facts about these two Chapters, mostly when these respective characters think back on their past or their Chapter. I really didn’t know that much about these two Chapters before this book, and I really enjoyed learning more about them, especially as they have some very cool and unique traits (one summons and betrays demons for an initiation test; the other has a mysterious glass throne hidden on their home planet). As a result, fans of Space Marine history and lore are really going to love this book, and even non-fans will appreciate the world-building associated with them.

In addition to the intriguing examination of Deathwatch and other Space Marine Chapters, Parker also features an excellent look at one my favourite races in the Warhammer 40K universe, the T’au (or Tau). The T’au are probably the newest race in 40K canon (although that was quite a few years ago) and have been featured in a couple of books and have even had their own video game, Fire Warrior. T’au are a young race of aliens whose empire has quickly expanded in recent years thanks to their advanced technology and wiliness to incorporate alien races into their empire. Their sudden expansion has made them a real threat to the stagnant Imperium of Man. Parker does an amazing job incorporating the T’au into this book, and there are some fantastic depictions of their technology and unique physiology. The T’au serve as excellent primary antagonists for this book, and Parker takes an interesting view of them, diving into the darker side of their empire. Thanks to the various character perspectives contained within Shadowbreaker, the reader gets to see more than their typical depiction as a beatific race who merely wish to share their technology and their message of the “Greater Good” throughout the universe. Instead, you get to understand how slavishly devoted to their philosophy they really are, and the lengths that some of them will go to achieve their race’s goals. There are some really interesting discussions about how they control the populations they conquer, as well as some brief but curious mentions of T’au who do not follow the Greater Good and are persecuted or punished for this. I also really liked the detailed examination of a human world that is being ruled by the T’au, especially as you get to see all the various benefits and downfalls of this control. The fact that neither the T’au nor the Imperium actually care about the planet or its people is a bit of a dark spot in the novel, and some of the conclusions of the book reveal just how much better off this planet would have been on its own. If I had one complaint about Parker’s depiction of the T’au, it would be that they went down way too easily in a fight. While a couple of their units and commanders were able to hold their own for a bit, the rest of the T’au forces were pretty much slaughtered in one-sided battles throughout the book. While I appreciate that the author was probably trying to demonstrate Deathwatch’s skill at killing aliens, I think he could have perhaps added in a bit more of a fight from this popular race. Still, I really enjoyed this inclusion of the T’au, and I need to check out some other books that feature them.

I ended up listening to the audiobook format of Shadowbreaker, which was narrated by Andrew Wincott. Shadowbreaker clocks in at just over 16½ hours, so it is a fairly substantial audiobook which takes a little bit of effort to get through. I was very impressed by this format of the book, and I personally found it a great way to absorb all the amazing things occurring in the story. Wincott is a really good narrator, coming up with some distinctive and appropriate voices for the huge raft of characters that were featured in this book. I really liked how Wincott was able to capture the emotion and mood of the various characters, and I was especially impressed with the harsher tone that he took for many of the Imperial characters, which fitted perfectly into the gothic style of the Imperium. As a result, I would highly recommend the audiobook format of Shadowbreaker to anyone who is interested in checking this book out, and it is a wonderful way to enjoy this great piece of Warhammer 40K fiction.

Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker by Steve Parker was an incredible read which I found to be extremely entertaining and which proved to be a perfect reintroduction for me to the Warhammer 40,000 franchise. Parker presents an exciting and compelling story that dives deep into the universe’s lore while also exploring some of the complexities of the various featured races and armies. Overall, this is an outstanding novel and I am really glad that I checked it out. I fully intend to read more Warhammer 40K fiction in the future, especially after enjoying this book so much, and I hope that Parker continues his Deathwatch books in the future as well.

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