The Scythes of the Emperor have always been an interesting Space Marine Chapter to me. Not only is their color scheme striking, but their history is rather tragic and engaging too. Their home world having infamously been wiped out by the Tyranids, Slaughter at Giant's Coffin by Laurie Goulding picks up immediately after, but can they survive what follows next?
The story of the Scythes of the Emperor has gotten even deeper in recent years with Sotha's inclusion in the Horus Heresy. Sotha was the home world of the Scythes in the 41st millennium, but back then it was home to the Pharos beacon, a strange alien artifact that Guilliman used to act as a lighthouse for the Imperial forces caught in the Ruinstorm. It's heavily implied though that this beacon also accidentally attracted something else to our galaxy, the Tyranids. Any 40k history buff knows that Sotha and the majority of the Scythes of the Emperor were destroyed by Hivefleet Kraken. This novel actually picks up right after this horrible event, with the surviving members of the Scythes that had defended Sotha fleeing to Miral Prime. There they are waiting for any other surviving remnants of the Chapter and picking up new recruits from the world to begin replenishing their numbers.
We are first introduced to Thracian, the de facto acting head of the Chapter on account of being the only surviving officer. Everything is a bit surreal for all of the Space Marines, and they are all a bit lost. This has the side effect of peeling back a lot of the layers that most Marines have built up around themselves and makes them appear more human. In this case it makes them all a bit more morose, angry, and petty. To be honest this pulled me out of the story at first since I'm not used to seeing Marines this way. Once the story starts rolling though it fits better as you see this Chapter coming to terms with what its future may be. It's definitely not a way you will be used to seeing Marines portrayed though. They lash out at each other, doubt each other, and look down on the "filthy savages" of Miral Prime. This last bit I think has a good amount of room to expand in future stories, since these filthy savages will one day become full Battle-Brothers that they must trust their lives with. I would really like to see this explored further, as I think it provides something new we haven't seen before in Space Marine stories.
The inner turmoil for the Scythes really picks up when the first group of survivors arrives in system, and their Chapter Master, Thorcyra, happens to be with them. He had been off world when Sotha fell so has a little catching up to do. He also sees their potential future a bit differently since, in my opinion, he doesn't fully appreciate the threat of the Tyranids and the impact they had on his Chapter's psyche. Where Thracian and the rest of the Scythes from Sotha want to restock and move on, Thorcyra sees Miral Prime as a good location to establish their new fortress monastery. It's a death world that had long been a source of recruits for the Chapter, so makes sense as a new home base. Unfortunately for all of them, surviving Marines were not the only ones able to track themselves to Miral Prime, and a splinter fleet of Hivefleet Kraken arrives in system. The rest of the book focuses around the Scythes of the Emperor as they defend their new budding fortress on the Giant's Coffin plateau against the encroaching Tyranids.
Being a Space Marine Battles book it's no surprise that this novel centers mostly around just one battle, and there are some pretty cool moments during it. My favorite is definitely when a Hive Ship crash lands into the death world's jungles and promptly disgorges all of it's surviving occupants to start swarming the Scythes. It's a heroic last stand story, which we have seen before, but has a new twist on it, since only about half of the Chapter wants it to be a last stand, while the rest want to retreat and ensure their Chapter's survival. I won't go over the rest of the plot because I don't want to ruin anything for you.
There isn't really a central character to this book, and instead the focus kind of shifts around between Thracian, Thorcyra, Culmonios, a regular Marine promoted to fortress commander, and Machaon the now chief apothecary. One thing I really enjoyed was seeing how all of these characters, bar the Chapter Master, were suddenly thrust into new command roles solely based upon the fact of still being alive. They all react to these roles slightly differently, with Thracian taking to it the quickest despite not really wanting it. In fact, I was a bit disappointed once Thorcyra appeared since it meant Thracian took more of a back seat, although it did present a whole host of new issues which I don't want to go into because of spoilers. Thorcyra was also not one of my favorite characters since he seemed wholly unqualified for being such an important leader. To me he mostly came across as someone who constantly made the worst possible decision and was definitely responsible for the hundreds of additional casualties the Chapter endured on Miral Prime.
Culmonios was my least favorite character because he just felt a little flat to me. He was consumed by rage the whole time which makes me wonder why he was even promoted to fortress commander. In the beginning we see him cleansing out the last of the Tyranids who had hitched a ride on the Scythe's fleet, and he essentially revels in the killing, taking numerous grisly trophies with him including a Tyranid Warrior's head crest as a makeshift shield. He essentially represents the faction of the Chapter who have given up hope after Sotha. All that's left to him is revenge and dying a glorious death. He did have a really cool scene with a Land Shark though, a local mega fauna who lives up to its name. There are also quite a few plot threads that are started, including one very central mystery, that are never wrapped up, presumably to set up future novels. I kind of wish the mystery was revealed at least a little more, but hopefully they come back to it in a future novel, since it influenced a lot of what happened in this book. One of my favorite little nods to past books is how the Chapter Master wears a skull shaped helmet in honor of the first Warden of the Pharos, who just so happens to be Warsmith Dantioch. It's a nice little touch that really makes everything feel interconnected.
I feel like this book would benefit from reading all of the other Scythes of the Emperor short stories, which I unfortunately have not done. I would have liked to have seen the actual battle at Sotha, being such a pivotal battle. As part of an ongoing story Slaughter at Giant's Coffin probably works great, but isolated in its own book it can feel a bit disjointed, like it's a major battle from a larger tale. I do wish that there had been more down time between all of the fighting to go a bit more in depth with some of the characters. The fight scenes were pretty fun to read, with the previously mentioned Land Shark and a scene with a brood of Carnifexes standing out to me in particular. If you're a fan of the Scythes of the Emperor this is a good book to pick up since it explores the Chapter post Sotha and sets up some possible future story lines. Thracian was the definite standout character to me and I hope to see more from him, though I'm a little unsure on what path he's heading down based on the end of the novel and the unexplained mystery I mentioned earlier. I hope Laurie Goulding gets a chance to explore this chapter more, particularly with the fall of Sotha itself.
Until next time,