Publisher: Black Library (Paperback – 1 January 2001)
Series: Last Chancers – Book One
Length: 275 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read. For this latest Throwback Thursday, I check out a classic Warhammer 40,000 novel that has been on my to-read list for a while with 13th Legion by Gav Thorpe.
I have been in a very noticeable Warhammer 40,000 reading mood lately which has allowed me to check out a huge and varied range of books from one of my favourite franchises. This current obsession allowed me to finally get a copy of the outstanding older Warhammer 40,000 novel, 13th Legion, which I have been hoping to get for a while. The first book in the iconic Last Chancers series, 13th Legion is essentially billed as The Dirty Dozen in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, which is a pretty awesome concept. It has also been written by Gav Thorpe, one of the most significant authors of Warhammer fiction that I haven’t had a chance to read too much from yet. Thorpe has contributed a ton of novels to various parts of the larger Warhammer franchise, including Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000, but the Last Chancer novels are the series that I have most wanted to read. 13th Legion was one of Thorpe’s first Warhammer novels and I had an awesome time getting through this epic military thriller.
In the far future of the 40th millennium, the Imperium of Man boasts innumerable regiments of loyal and brave Imperial Guard. However, no Imperial Guard regiment is as despised, desperate and doomed as the infamous 13th Penal Legion, also known as the Last Chancers. Made up of former Imperial Guard who have committed terrible crimes against their fellow soldiers or the Imperium and under the command of the steely and mysterious Colonel Schaeffer, each member of the 13th Legion is given one last chance to achieve redemption in the eyes of the Emperor by dying in battle.
But, after fighting on some of the harshest battlefields in the Imperium, the 13th Legion is starting to run out of men. Out of the thousands of convicts originally drafted into the fray, only a few hundred remain, and that number is whittled down with every single conflict. Worse, Schaeffer continues to lead them into some of the worst scenarios imaginable, and with no reinforcements in sight, it looks like his bloodlust will see every single Last Chancer killed.
However, Schaeffer is playing a far more deadly game than anyone, including convict officer Lieutenant Kage, is aware of. Soon the remaining Last Chancers are given an opportunity that none of them expected, a full pardon and a return to service in the Imperial Guard. But to get their pardon they need to complete one last mission: infiltrate an impregnable stronghold in the middle of a deadly battlefield and end a rebellion. However, with deadly enemies all around, including their own commander, the Last Chancers are about to find out just how expendable they truly are.
13th Legion is a brilliant and extremely fun novel that does an amazing job of not only introducing the series, but also taking the reader of an exciting and action-packed adventure through several interesting parts of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Told from the perspective of Lieutenant Kage, 13th Legion introduces you to the motley collection of characters as they are dragged into dark adventure after dark adventure in search for redemption. Their journey in 13th Legion takes them to several unique worlds and each of the long chapters feels a bit like its own independent short story, albeit still connected through the overarching characters and the story. Each adventure is pretty fun in its own way, with dangerous crash landings, ork invasions, Dark Eldar incursions and more, with the Last Chancers losing more and more members in stunningly ways. All these semi-independent adventures are pretty exciting and well-written in their own way; however, they are also cleverly well-connected, making up an excellent and intense overall adventure. Kage proves to be an excellent narrator for this, as not only does he show the plight of the common criminal solider, but he is the only person Schaeffer will confide in, which gives him slightly more insight to where the characters are going.
These intriguing, mostly self-contained storylines are also complemented by several very short inclusions and interludes that provide some intriguing context to the larger story. Everything leads up to the big finale of the book, as the remaining Last Chancers arrive at the planet of Typhos Prime and are offered their pardon with about of the third of the novel left to go. I must admit that I was a little surprised at how long it took to get to the final battlefield, although the set-up for this last major sequence, as well as the multiple proceeding fights and adventures did make it worth waiting for. The final sequence is exceedingly intense and captivating as the protagonists slowly make their way into the enemy fortress using stealth, guile and an intense amount of firepower. You are on the edge of your seat the entire way through this part of the book, and I honestly couldn’t stop reading as I wanted to see how everything unfolded. There is so much going on in the last 100 pages of 13th Legion, including some big, brutal battles, a bunch of significant deaths, and some major revelations, including a particularly powerful one from the Colonel that makes you rethink every previous event of the book. Everything comes together in one glorious and intense collaboration of war, betrayal and surprising heroism, and I was very satisfied with how it all unfolded. I especially need to praise the overall conclusion of the novel, which provided a dark and ironic final twist of the knife for the protagonist Kage, while also hinting at some additional fun in the future.
I enjoyed Thorpe’s excellent writing style, which helped to really bring 13th Legion’s outstanding narrative to life in an exciting and fun way. The central character focus and the use of larger chapters, each containing one specific adventure, gave this book a pretty epic feel at times and you really appreciate the harsh events that the protagonists go through. Likewise, the incredible focus on the plight of the common solider, as well as the harshness of their punishment, ensures that you are really on the side of the Last Chancers, no matter how much bad stuff they are responsible for. The great parallels to The Dirty Dozen and other similar films or series (The Suicide Squad comics, for example) are fun, and I was especially pleased when it looked like Thorpe was going to send in a dozen Last Chancers into battle. The many, many action sequences are also a true highlight, and every intense and brutal battle really gets the blood pumping as you watch these doomed characters fight all manner of foes in bloody fashion. My one concern about 13th Legion’s writing was the lack of a good introduction, as well as all the references to events not shown in the book. Despite being the first Last Chancers novel, a lot of their unit history or key events from the past aren’t shown in 13th Legion. Instead, I’m pretty sure many of the previous adventures mentioned in this book originally appeared in short story anthologies and other places such as the White Dwarf magazine. While Thorpe did provide enough details about these events so the reader doesn’t get lost, the constant call-back to them did ruin the flow in places, and I think it might have been useful to include a few flashbacks or include some of these short stories again. However, this was a minor issue, and I still had an epic time reading this addictive and thrilling read.
I also felt that this was an excellent entry in the wider Warhammer 40,000 canon and one that established fans will have a great time with. Thorpe takes the reader to several unique locations throughout this wider universe throughout 13th Legion and you get a lot of experiences in the sort of dangers a soldier is likely to face out there. I loved seeing the reaction from these mostly normal people at the various aliens and traitors they encounter, and it helped to make this novel a bit more grounded and relatable in places. 13th Legion would also make a pretty good entry place into Warhammer 40,000 fiction, especially for those who love some good military fiction/thrillers. The Dirty Dozen inspired story of normal soldiers/criminals getting thrust into a dangerous mission is a classic plotline, and new readers can use that as a jumping point to appreciate some of the details of this universe. It helps that Thorpe is a consistent and detailed author who makes sure to explain some of this universe more unique elements, and he is also a great author to continue following if you enjoy 13th Legion. This book also serves as the start of a pretty interesting series and I know that I am going to keep going with the Last Chancers books in the future, especially as I have a copy of the second book, Kill Team, sitting on my shelf right now.
The final thing that I must highlight about 13th Legion was the amazing and complex characters that Thorpe introduced in this novel. All the main characters are criminal Imperial Guardsmen who have been forced into the 13th Penal Legion, and this leaves Thorpe a great collection of chaotic and murderous characters to work with. You get introduced to quite a few unique and fun characters throughout the course of the book, although due to the dangerous nature of the missions and the multiple violent battles, most characters don’t stick around for long. I was a tad surprised (I really shouldn’t have been) at how brutal Thorpe was with his characters in this novel, and the resulting high death rate really enhanced the stakes of the book and ensured you were constantly on edge during a battle.
The main exception to this are the two main characters, the narrator Lieutenant Cage and Colonel Schaeffer, the mysterious commander of the regiment who handpicked each of its members. Both are great characters in their own way. Cage is the everyman, who has barely survived his experiences and is quite traumatised as a result, desperately seeking a way out of the situation while also trying to keep his men alive. Cage goes through quite a lot in this book, and watching his friends die for a purpose he doesn’t understand really hits him hard and you grow pretty close to him as a result. Schaeffer on the other hand is an aloof and distant figure who is clearly manipulating the Last Chancers for his own hidden purpose. Thorpe really paints Schaeffer as a supremely dangerous and harsh figure who manages to keep the entire regiment of criminals inline through will and intimidation. The reactions of the other characters when Schaeffer appears are pretty hilarious, as none of them, no matter how insane or murderous, is willing to stand up to him. Thorpe really uses Schaeffer to his full potential throughout 13th Legion and I especially loved the brilliant revelation towards the end of the book that showed just how callous and manipulative Schaeffer was the entire time. The intense relationship between Cage and Schaeffer is an outstanding part of the book, as Cage simultaneously fears, hates, and respects his Colonel, and each of their conversations reflects this. Despite the enmity between the two, they do have some great interactions, especially after some of the team’s deadliest missions, and they do respect each other, especially as Cage proves to be the one Last Chancer Schaeffer relies on and would hesitate to execute. Their final meeting in the closing pages of the book perfectly encapsulates their relationship, and I am very excited to see what happens to both in the next novel.
Overall, I had an amazing time reading 13th Legion and I felt that it was one of the most intense, exciting and fun Warhammer 40,000 novels I have had the great pleasure of reading. Gav Thorpe made excellent use of his amazing story concept of The Dirty Dozen in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, and the resulting novel was littered with death, battles and awesome character moments. This honestly lived up to all my expectations and I cannot wait to continue the Last Chancers series in the future. A very highly recommended novel that any Warhammer fan will have an outstanding time with.