With the ending of this book, the Gathering Storm trilogy has come and gone. With it we have witnessed a number of sweeping changes to three of the setting's major factions, and the re-introduction of a number of major elements within the narrative. Obviously this was a massive game-changer, and it has reinvented a number of major parts of the setting on the whole. As the name also implied, this seems to have also been an opportunity to have Warhammer 40,000 spring-board its way into larger events, and a much bigger ongoing narrative.
So, having read through this, the question is so what happens now?
Because of how prominent this question is, and just how far reaching the possibilities are, this part will be both referring back to events in the book, but considering what they might imply. Specifically how they might reflect upon how future events will be handled and how the thematic approaches of future tales will differ from past works.
Plus, we'll also be looking into a few of the mistakes which were made in my opinion; because there are some structural flaws here which simply cannot go unremarked upon.
The Age of Legends Over End Times
The very fact we're advancing the story is a massive change unto itself, both thematically and in terms of future books. While that might sound like a obvious statement, please seriously stop to consider what this means for a moment. Warhammer itself has always been made based upon the idea that it was just a few years away from annihilation. Every codex from the Fifth Edition onward repeatedly emphasised this point, over and over again by adding in more and more gigantic Armageddon grade events for each faction. Some were ascending, annihilating everything in their path, others were gripped in civil wars, while a few were fighting a desperate battle for survival. While some have exaggerated the technological decay of the Imperium, it cannot be denied as a factor in storytelling. Save for the likes of the Tau Empire or the daemons of Chaos, every faction is working with remnants of better ages. Relic weapons, vehicles and even baseline psychic concepts were all taken from a better age. Often a step forwards was either only made by building upon what little had been recovered, or it was reclaiming what had been lost, like with the Storm Eagle entering production once more.
The whole point was that almost every story focused upon a dark, almost nihilistic tone to one degree or another, where characters knew that something grim awaited them in the next millennium. It was akin to how the Cthulhu Mythos handled its own tales, and while some tales such as Gaunt's Ghosts, the Ultramarines saga, Ciaphas Cain books or others would lessen the effect, they could not escape it entirely. The grim darkness of the far future was as defining a theme for this setting as boundless optimism was for Star Trek. The problem is, now we have removed that stopper, and the game itself seems to have been shifting about us. What the lore focuses upon now is less an age where Chaos might reign supreme so much as the era of a new Eldar Empire or second Great Crusade. It's more hopeful, more upbeat and positive despite everything, and in some ways it seems to have gained and lost something in equal measure.
The obvious aspect it has gained stems from the creative freedom on offer now. With that seal broken, writers can begin working and experimenting with many of the ideas which have been hinted at for decades. The return of a primarch to the Imperium alone is enough to send shock-waves across the galaxy, and his reaction to things like the Imperial Church, new powers, technologies and threats the Legions never faced is ripe for story opportunities. Equally, the idea that the eldar could be united once more as a race is a genuinely good one. It would be a difficult uphill battle, it would be a chance to more thoroughly explore the species than anything seen before and, for all the criticisms I had of Fracture of Biel-Tan, a well executed approach would be an engaging narrative. Yet, because of this much of the initial mystery and wonder born of the original work seems to be gone.
What often drew many people to Warhammer 40,000 was the same thing which made Dark Souls' lore so fascinating. Players were greeted with half-truths of older eras, an age of decline and a time when greatness had been seeping out of the galaxy. The truth behind many ideas needed to be pieced together by individual players, and everything was put into question to some degree. With this new start, that aspect seems to be bereft of this setting. Many of the old question are being given definitive answers, the old fan-fiction ideas rapidly dealt with immediately, and an unfortunate number of plot hooks are either being rapidly resolved or discarded entirely. The latest among these was M'Kar's invasion of Ultramar, which is only granted a passing mention in the Rise of the Primarch. While these stories are admittedly seeded with new hints and mysteries - including one surrounding Guilliman and Ynnead which could be very fun to see play out - they are approached in a very different way. Their scope is much narrower, much more limited to a few individuals, and is less "galactic" in terms of scale.
In brief, it's less the sort of thing you would expect from Warhammer 40,000 and more something akin to the Age of Sigmar.
Now, I have nothing personally against the Age of Sigmar (how it was brought about, yes, but let's not open up that can of worms again) but they're two very different games. One is a Norse war and celestial conflict, a mash up of Spelljammer, Flash Gordon, and the Marvel idea of Jack Kirby and Walt Simonson, with the ideas of Warhammer Fantasy behind it. It's a great setting in its down right, but it focuses less upon establishing a vast universe and setting over a series of epic sagas following larger than life characters. By comparison, the dark nature of 40,000 worked better on a larger scope, focusing more upon the armies than the individuals. There were always the odd exceptions to this, yes, but if you were to sit down and compare the likes of Sentinels of Terra with the Vraks Campaign, it quickly becomes clear which style is more appropriate to the setting.
By following a few focal characters or general narrative threads, we run into the old issue of a very narrow narrative focus. It becomes less a story about various armies, less a story about empires and granting players the opportunities to build their own forces, and more about the few people leading them. While the opening Fall of Cadia might have been extremely character focused, there was still enough room to show that the ground troops and warships involved were playing an incredibly important role in events. Unfortunately, this was promptly thrown out of the window with Fracture of Biel-Tan and ignored entirely with Rise of the Primarch. In each case, the only important figures involved were the newly introduced characters, with everyone else effectively just serving as their fodder. It leaves me worried that, while the story itself might progress, it won't be enough to actually emphasis the sheer scale of galactic warfare, or the vast legions involved in any fight. When we have a story moving forwards, it makes me concerned that the narrative won't focus upon the potential loss of a major world or an army, but how it will simply affect the demigod leading it.
This also leads into the next subject rather nicely.
No Men, Only Gods
So, Guilliman is alive, Magnus is active again and the Yncarne is ascendant. We have beings so powerful that they can break armies on their own striding about the galaxy, capable of pimp-slapping Bloodthirsters about and fell mini-Titans in slugging matches. So, where does that leave room for everyone else, then?
It's the old problem of introducing someone like Superman into a story, as once you have someone who can beat almost everyone at their own game, there seems to be no room for anyone less powerful. The problem is, however, that while DC Comics and Marvel have their own methods of balancing out the obvious differences in power between such groups, Warhammer doesn't have that same opportunity. There's no morality issue to hold back any of these characters, no kryptonite to rely upon, and quite frankly few skills where they can edge out against these figures.
This mentality of pushing anyone who isn't god-tier aside can already be found within these stories very early on. On the side of the eldar, the Yncarne is the single most important being of the entire book, understandably perhaps given his role, but also the only other characters of real worth are also linked directly to his power. Eldrad barely gets a mention, Yriel is pushed into being little more than a sacrificial lamb to show off their abilities, and Iyanna is all but forgotten within a few pages of her introduction. The same problem arises with Guilliman, but it's taken to an absolute extreme. While a few figures do receive glory moments early on into Rise of the Primarch, once the Avenging Son awakens he effectively hijacks the story for himself. Calgar is reduced to a background mention along with the entirety of the Ultramarines' command staff, Celestine only shows up in secondary mentions, and even the other released characters are little more than a means to an end. There's no real narrative balance here, and there are few moments indeed for characters to shine.
A rather heated discussion in the comments section of this review's second part (which I did not get involved in for reasons of neutrality) repeated such fears at a few points. While personally I cannot agree with several points - such as the fact the story will focus only upon the primarchs - I do think we'll see a rise in these sorts of characters over the coming editions. From Farsight to Ghazghkull, every faction has its own figure which can easily become a demigod and an ascendant power in their own right. Each has been seeded with figures which can be upgraded to a level on par with the primarchs and, going from past Supplements, the extremely character based tales effectively set them up for this sudden rise to power. The problem is, the story honestly seems like it doesn't fully know what to do with them once it crossed the line of adding them into the setting, at least besides having them fight one another,
Rise of the Primarch in particular showed Guilliman as a near unstoppable force capable of ripping apart Terminators with his bare hands. In terms of tactics, planning, leadership and sheer skill at arms he is presented as completely outdoing everyone else beneath him, and this turns him into the sole focus of the tale. So much so, that only the addition of Tzeentch's most powerful servant briefly stops him, and he runs into few problems at all until Magnus decided to personally have a go at fighting his brother. This has the unfortunate side effect of turning Warhammer 40,000 into a Godzilla film, merely with the JSDF replaced by standard troops and the kaiju switched out for the big guns. The latter can only be beaten by another of their kind it seems, at least going by narrative requirements, and by doing it effectively removes a great deal of player involvement from the story. As we mentioned way back in the Sentinels of Terra review, it renders any of your own creations or armies completely moot as it's always going to be someone else taking center stage and making the important decisions here.
Another factor, and one which can't be ignored, is the fact that by focusing more upon these "big guns" of each army, the Imperium and Chaos have a massive advantage over everyone else. While I disagree with the idea that it will somehow render all other races superfluous to the setting, the fact they have far more to work with and release cannot be ignored. After all, each side has seven of these figures to call upon. As it stands, the Tau Empire have only one potential figure, the Orks have perhaps two, who knows if the Tyranid Hive Fleets will even see one at all, the Necrons might have two, and the Eldar only have three at the most. Okay, perhaps more, but that depends heavily upon the Phoenix Lords getting a long deserved power boost. Because of this, even without going into the re-introduction of the Custodes or Sisters of Silence, we're likely to see the human races still taking an extremely prominent role in the setting. Likely one to the detriment of the other factions, and with an even more tunnel-vision focus upon Chaos.
Even if you don't accept that, however, consider this: Above all others here, the primarchs are the ones who the majority of the fandom would want to see. They're the ones who have had the most written about them, the most personality in their events and with the continued successes of the Horus Heresy line, and they're the ones with the biggest population of relevant armies. Unfortunately, the simple truth is that the fandom would be more excited as a whole about Leman Russ' return than a C'Tan partially reforming itself out of shards.
What's Now Is Now
Above all else, something which seriously needs to be considered here is the speed and pacing at which certain tales will be dealt with. Specifically how quickly events will resolve themselves and rapidly tie up loose ends so they can move forwards. When you sit back and really look at the Gathering Storm event for a few minutes you will realise two things: It accomplished exactly what the fandom wanted, advancing the storyline to a degree unseen in past years and rapidly retooling the universe to fit a new status quo. At the same time however, it cannot be denied that it went from "Chaos is victorious, we're screwed!" to "Time for the Second Great Crusade, long live the new Emperor!" in the space of perhaps a few days at most.
Little time was actually taken to really explore the consequences behind each event, or even the revelations that arose between the Fall of Cadia and the second Battle of the Webway. We had the Thirteenth Black Crusade succeed, we had Chaos spilling forth and attacking countless worlds, but no time at all was spent exploring the supposed Apocalypse which was to follow this event, nor the end of times which was supposed to follow. For what should have been the death knell for all that was good in the universe, we received what basically was presented as a bad few weeks for a few worlds and a few Chaos raids. Even the very assault upon Ultramar itself was almost nothing special. How unexpected, how impossible an attack, this should have been was all but completely ignored until the event lacked even a fraction of the scale it needed to reflect upon the major changes going down. Given how speedy a resolution we had, you would almost be forgiven for thinking it was more of a daring assault than any titanic invasion force.
When you sit back and compare this event to other outings, it doesn't take long to realise just how many missed opportunities there truly were. If there was ever a time to explore Chaos, to really shake up the status quo and rapidly change things, this was now, and we have seen that handled excellently in the past. The often mentioned Shape of the Nightmare to Come, my personal gold standard for these stories, spent its entirety examining how this would effect each group in turn. From Abaddon establishing his own Dark Imperium while fighting off opportunistic daemon primarchs to Biel-Tan establishing its own small empire at long last, to the fate of the Imperium breaking up into small feuding kingdoms, it covered everything.
Now, while that story might have been a monumental event across ten thousand years, the author made sure to do two things: Firstly, to make sure that he did everything possible with these opportunities. From Yarrick falling as a hero to large factions of the Black Templars becoming nihilistic insane warmongers, it wasn't afraid to experiment with what might happen should Cadia fall. Each and every one of those mini-stories featured more fine detail and more substance than much of what was found here, covering enough to ensure anyone would be taken in by the in-depth narrative. Secondary however, it also ensured that there was a darkness before the light. When a primarch returned, it was only after the universe had suffered and readers realised just how badly they were needed, and it allowed them to have immediate impact upon the setting, adding to their grandeur.
Even if you don't want to count fanfiction options though, also consider what we have seen in the past. Imperial Armour always accomplished showing the long term consequences of each war, and the build up towards the ongoing battles. Smaller, minor, things like the affect a war would have upon shipping in the area or even the politics of the Inquisition were always present, and there was always enough there to give a sense of genuine conflict between two huge forces. More importantly, it managed to feature a number of prominent characters on each side, made their role essential to the story and featured a fair bit of personal drama, all while retaining a key focus upon the army as a whole throughout most of each story. Hell, even if you're tired of that one or think it has the benefit of a larger page count, the likes of Battlefleet Gothic also accomplished the same thing on a much more restrained length. It might have lacked a few of the character bits and featured a shorter ending, but it nevertheless built up the image of a hellish war and a sense of dread building towards the first battles.
The simple point is that many of these stories seemed to only focus upon what was important at that moment. They never paused, never seemed to move towards showing more of Ultramar affected by this war, and never stopped to really give a greater sense of scale. While it did have a few moments where it fleetingly touched upon this, such acts were often tied into the "protagonist" of that particular book, and were often quickly skimmed over.
On the one hand, such an approach does mean that they can more easily advance and adapt the narrative as the tale evolves. On the other however, it seems as if Warhammer 40,000 is about to lose one of its greatest strengths in delivering something the fans have asked about for so long. While a new approach is certainly needed to help encourage an ongoing tale and adapting storyline, it needs stories to back up the advancing plot and to give each twist more meaning. Perhaps Black Library can be used to fill this gap, but lore books or even extended segments within campaign releases would easily be able to carry out this role without too much trouble.
A New Dawn
More so than anything else, we need to cover this part. This is going to be very brief, but it seems to be something that few people have picked up on, despite the big warning lights going on throughout these books. So, here it is: This isn't a continuation, it's a soft reboot.
Now, this is down to personal opinion, I will admit, but everything here fits in with that definition of the term. A soft reboot is where a writer tries to reset or retcon a series back to its initial starting point as something of a do-over, but it doesn't simply abandon what was established. Instead it works around the stories established, and brings them to a point where they can focus upon a new status quo after usurping the old one. In this case, what we have is a new Imperial crusade being launched against Chaos, a new seemingly united eldar people and Chaos growing in power. Many of these points fit into events closer to M31 than anything else, and while some M41 ideas remain, thematically and even in terms of general presentation, it is trying to almost start over. It's following a new direction entirely, and what we get is largely opposed to what came before.
This is most evident when you actually sit down and compare how the books treated established plot-hooks and cliffhangers with its own events. Each time, they were either rapidly resolved at a breakneck speed or quickly abandoned/dealt with off-screen so they didn't get in the way. Everything was rapidly shuffled side and reworked so that nothing would remain to get in the way of a fresh start for someone, and each army could focus upon something new instead.
Most of the stories we will see will likely revolve around the older ideas more than anything else. So, while Cypher's tale will be told at last, it's unlikely the Celestial Lions will see any resolution to their tale, nor will the abruptly dropped suggestion that the Dark Angels and all their successors had reformed into a single legion and were advancing towards Cadia. Again, this is good and bad, with the bad relating to the loss of ongoing ideas and story opportunities, while the good allows for more of an ongoing tale to be rapidly updated as time goes by. What will shift this in one direction or the other will ultimately depend upon how the writers choose to handle certain key events.
There's little left to say which hasn't been mentioned already here. Ultimately, we're off the edge of the map here and it seems that anything can go from here on. Whether or not that will be for good or ill will ultimately come down to the skill of the writers behind this, but it's hard not to shake the feeling that for everything we'll gain here, we'll lose something of equal value. Only time will tell if this push will have truly been worth it in the long run.