Released under the Space Marine Heroes label, Phil Kelly’s novella Death Knell takes a close look at a single squad of Ultramarines in action against overwhelming Chaos forces led by the Crimson Slaughter. After a direct assault against the enemy-held island of St. Capilene fails miserably, the Ultramarines change tactics, with Sergeant Sevastus and his Tactical squad hoping that stealth will see them safely past the island’s outer defences. With a pair of guardsmen in tow, Squad Sevastus infiltrate the haunted island and seek out its defenders, but even for the hard-bitten Tactical Marines the odds of success are steep.
As a tie-in to the Space Marine Heroes mini-range of miniatures, you might expect this to be a simple, straight-up action story with bolters blazing and little else. After a fairly generic start which sees the initial Ultramarine assault stymied by the Crimson Slaughter’s cunning defences, it quickly becomes clear that while this is certainly packed full of action it’s actually designed to really dig into the personalities and dynamics within the tight-knit Tactical squad. The viewpoint occasionally switches to other characters – the Crimson Slaughter Lord Thursk, or one of the guardsmen – but mostly it cycles between members of the squad, giving Kelly the opportunity to show one character’s actions through their own eyes before switching to reflect upon that behaviour from another character’s perspective.
Each of the Marines gets a distinct identity and a clear role within the squad, and while some get more page time than others (Sevastus, unsurprisingly, plus combat specialist Aethor and steady veteran Titus) it doesn’t take long to build up a sense of who they are and how well they work together. As the story progresses it nicely develops the idea that Tactical squads are made up of highly experienced Marines who are phenomenally capable in pretty much any situation, and it’s a lot of fun to watch these guys take on everything that the Crimson Slaughter can throw at them (even if there’s a bit of plot armour at work in places). There are some great little touches of humour as the Ultramarines and guardsmen interact along the way, not to mention a well-judged sense of how humans see Space Marines, and overall it feels remarkably characterful for such a short and action-packed book.
Look closely and you’ll find little links into wider 40k narratives – both past and present – scattered throughout the story, but the focus is kept nice and tight and Kelly maintains a rapid pace to suit the novella length. Sadly the Crimson Slaughter aren’t as well-developed or interestingly written as the Ultramarines, but that’s hardly surprising considering the short page count here – likewise there are hints at an exploration of faith amongst the normally secular Ultramarines, but there isn’t time to fully develop the idea. Ultimately, there might be a few elements of the plot which don’t quite hold up so well upon further scrutiny, but the core purpose of the book – to inject personality into a single squad and show just how badass Tactical Marines really are – is achieved with aplomb. It’s also just a lot of fun to read, and would make a solid introduction to 40k for new readers.