The noble Ultramarines epitomise the Space Marines, the genetically enhanced warriors who protect the Imperium from its foes. Newly returned from the Eye of Terror, Captain Uriel Ventris must redeem himself in the eyes of his battle-brothers, who fear he may have been tainted by Chaos. When the planet Pavonis is invaded by tau, what better opportunity could Uriel have to join his Chapter in combat and prove that his honour is beyond reproach?
Courage and Honour is my second McNeill Warhammer 40K - the first being False Gods, in the Horus Heresy series - and I found the reading experience to be very similar. McNeill is quietly churning out good quality science fiction battle stories (albeit with some faults) and is quite clearly having a blast while doing it. The key essence to both of the books I have read by McNeill is the deep affection for the subject and an abiding desire to flesh out the 40K background with extra detail.
First of all, this is the fifth book in the Ultramarine series, and I did have my concerns that I wouldn't be able to pick everything up. Graham McNeill, however, does a good job in providing a gradual recap over the first few chapters which helps to being new readers on board. I presume he manages this without boring current readers, but obviously I don't know this for sure! He also makes it intriguing enough that I now want to read about the previous adventures of Uriel, especially his stint in the Eye of Terror.
There is plenty to like about this book. One factor I enjoyed was the enduring theme of courage and honour played out through the novel - what these concepts mean to different people and how hard they can be to stand by. Quotes such as the following litter the pages, and help to enforce the ideas of courage and honour:
" 'No, I don't,' agreed Lortuen, 'but I could not live with myself if fighting men died because I did nothing. How will you look yourself in the mirror every day with those deaths on your conscience? Think of your honour!'
'We are prisoners of war,' said Koudelkar. 'What honour do we have?'
'Only what we bring with us,' said Lortuen wearily, lapsing into silence.' "
McNeill has a heroic turn of phrase in the main which suitably conveys the baddassery of the Space Marines: "Emerging from the flaming wreckage of the tank assembly yards, the Space Marines came with fire and thunder... Behind them came the Space Marines, warriors in ultramarine whose weapons were hymnals to war and whose gold and blue flag was a beacon of righteousness among the slaughter." Every now and then, however, he lapses into rather cheesy lines which just fall a little flat or inadvertently cause amusement: "They were closer than friends, closer than brothers. They were Astartes." That particular line I can imagine being said in a booming voice over a film trailer.
Speaking of films, the whole novel is extremely cinematic, from quiet moments between two characters, to bitter declarations of betrayal, to the sweeping battle scenes that fill the second half of the book. Courage and Honour could honestly be a written representative of a film - a stonking summer blockbuster.
Once again with McNeill's work, I found myself struggling a little with the pacing. The start was quite slow burn, with a number of scenes between characters who had clearly been established in previous books (these were scenes that I might well have appreciated more had I read those books) but once battle was joined with the Tau, the book became less about the story and read more like a battle report. The relentless telling of various battles sat uneasily with the political machinations and quiet initial scenes between Uriel and various of his battle brothers.
Also, I believe there were a few flashbacks, but, if there were (I'm still unsure) then they weren't made particularly clear.
My last main issue was with some of the slightly clumsy exposition work. For instance, we have two pre-eminent Adeptus Astartes talking in a detailed fashion about the Codex Astartes, which both would know inside out and upside down, and would have no need to remind the other about. I do realise that the particular scene I have in mind was posed as a moment of epiphany for Uriel, but it still felt quite clunky and artificial.
Oh, and one minor point, which could well be a matter of taste: some of the bullets 'whickered' during the battle. Now, to me, whickering is a soft sound that a horse makes, so you can understand that I would find it an unusual choice of word to describe the sound of bullets!
Apart from those matters detailed above, one of the biggest strengths of this novel is the depiction of the Tau. They are a xenos race, anathema to the Space Marines and the forces of the Empire, and McNeill gives them an eerie and very alien personality. With descriptions such as: "They offer you slavery and call it freedom, a prison you do not know you are in until it is too late. They offer a choice, that is no choice at all" McNeill develops an image of a race that is clinical, dispassionate and fiercely intelligent - not the sort of enemy you wish to have. This is compounded when McNeill writes: "The tau made war with such precision that it left precious little room for notions of honour or courage. To the tau, war was a science like any other: precise, empirical and a matter of cause and effect."
The basic conclusion to this review is that you should know what you're getting with a Black Library book - it will never be the most well-written novel in the world (although McNeill is one of the best writing for Black Library in the 40K universe), but you should get a novel that is entertaining with pulse-pounding battle scenes. McNeill delivers this in spades. I guess the biggest compliment that can be paid to him is that I wanted to rush out and buy an Ultramarine army on completion of Courage and Honour.