If you’ve played a game of Warhammer 40k, there’s a good chance you at least know who the Death Korps of Krieg are. They wear the greatcoats. They have the skull-faced rebreather masks. They look pretty badass. However, beyond the rather costly Imperial Armour books, there hasn’t been a ton written about them. Steve Lyons (Death World, Ice Guard) changes that with the Black Library’s most recent Imperial Guard output, Dead Men Walking.
Dead Men Walking tells the story of Hieronymous Theta, a mining world that unwittingly unearths a necron tomb, awakening the slumbering necrons within. As Hieronymous Theta has been a previously peaceful, ordered world, they only have a small PDF force to and enlist the aide of the Death Korps of Kreig to defend their world. To drive the narrative, Lyons breaks up chapters between three major characters: Gustaf Soreson, a mining overseer turned soldier, Constellin, the commissar assigned to the Kreig regiment, and Arex, Soreson’s would-be love interest that finds herself trapped in the under siege city. This is a calculated decision by Lyons that serves the narrative greatly, as it provides points of stark contrast between the protagonists in the novel. Lyons also does a really nice job of fostering the idea of hope in the face of extreme adversity in the novel. It serves his narrative well, though going too far into this idea would require some spoiling of the plot, which I won’t do.
The choice of the necrons as the protagonist serves its purpose well: to mirror the Death Korpsmen. To the other people of Hieronymous, both groups are eerily similar. They are unfeeling. They are calculating. Most of all, they are inhuman. The Korpsmen don’t go by names, merely numbers, and like the necrons, their skull faces are devoid of emotion, despite the gravity of war. Constellin serves as the Kreig commissar, but even more so as their go-between for contact and deliberation with other humans. Throughout the book, his exhaustion is tangible as he constantly struggles with his role as the commissar of a regiment that, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t need one save to communicate with outsiders.
While Constellin is a good character and Arex serves to provide the ‘average citizen’ element to the novel (despite the fact that she is the Governor’s niece), it is through the eyes of Soreson that the narrative shines. In Dead Men Walking, Soreson serves to display the dehumanizing aspect of war, particularly one fought with the Death Korps of Krieg. Throughout the novel, we see Soreson’s descent from ordinary man to Korpsman. He moves from cowardly overseer to unfeeling automaton, willing to serve the Emperor at all costs. Lyons does a really nice job portraying this. Soreson’s agony through the change is believable, and ultimately painful to bear witness to.
Soreson’s is easily the best characterization in the novel, and is Lyons’ high point. The pacing of the novel is good, as the shifting focus helps to move the story alone without becoming too stagnant, but it does create some problems within Lyons’ prose. There are points in the novel that just don’t read ‘right.’ I had a hard time placing it, but it seems that the narrative voice Lyons employs shifts subtly at peculiar times. Were it to change per different character, I think I’d have appreciated it more, but as it stands, it simply stood out and bothered me. To be fair, it is a minor quibble, but it grated on me as I read, so it seems worth pointing out. I also particularly enjoyed the portrayal and description of the necrons. They are as robotic as one would expect, but Lyons does a nice job of mirroring them to the Death Korps. Additionally, he does a really nice job of integrating the well known units of the necrons without slapping the reader in the face with Immortals, or Flayed Ones, or Scarab Swarms. He refers to them as any human might, and it works well within the confines of the story.
Lyons has done a good job with Dead Men Walking. The narrative is solid, with good pacing, appropriate characterization, and solid battle scenes. His mirroring of the Death Korps in the necrons is a nice addition, and allows Dead Men Walking to be, overall, a very solid read. It is not, however, a happy read. The world of the Death Korps is bleak, cold, and calculating. Just as a Korps book should be.