In Steve Parker's short story "Mercy Run," anthologized in the Warhammer 40,000 collection entitled "Planetkill," we meet Sergeant Wulfe of the Cadian 81st Armoured Regiment and the crew of the "Last Rites," his Leman Russ tank. Wulfe is a cross between Humphrey Bogart in the World War II film "Sahara" and Marvel Comics' Sergeant Fury of The Howling Commandos. He is a tough and savvy veteran, who in many instances knows more than the officers who command him.
In "Mercy Run," Wulfe escorts sisters of Sororitas to save Captain Waltur Kurdheim before Orks destroy Palmeros; however, as in all 40K novels, the Sororitas' agenda is more sinister and treacherous than immediately apparent.
Time clicks ponderously away as three tanks and the Sisters' Chimera rush across the world in panic. Death awaits them at every corner. The story is a nail biter to the final page and its end sets up the premise of the novel, "Gunheads."
In "Gunheads" Sergeant Wulfe has a new tank; he is haunted by a psychic vision, and he has a new nemesis, one corporal Lenck. This time out the 81st Cadian Armoured is dropped onto Golgotha, a death world inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Orks. Their mission is to retrieve the "Fortress of Arrogance," a battle tank that belonged to Commissar Yarrick, hero of Hades Hive. Yarrick is an Ork fighter extraordinaire and, in fact, is one of the only humans to master the Ork language.
Once again unscrupulous men and machines manipulate the Imperial Guard to achieve their ruthless ambitions. In "Gunheads," the Adeptus Mechanicus deceives both the Imperial Guard and Yarrick by dangling Yarrick's massive baneblade tank and glory before their eyes.
To achieve the retrieval of the legendary and sacred tank the Adeptus Mechanicus choose General Mohamar Antonius deVries, Supreme Commander, 18th Army Group Exolon. Imagine Henry Fonda, playing Lt. Colonel Owen Thursday in John Ford's "Fort Apache" and you will understand deVries' motivation and madness. Both men are looking for glory and they are both willing to sacrifice the lives of their men on the battlefield to get it. It is in this dynamic that Steve Parker excels. He captures the rigid, unforgiving organization of the Imperial Guard and the vagaries of the military life of the rank and file.
This ability to capture the day to day life of the military is Parker's strong suit (just as it was Ford's). However, we also know that as soon as he sets his pieces on the board of battle there will be blood.
In the case of "Gunheads," the playing field itself is dangerous. Golgotha soon begins to devour the men sent there. It is red planet, devoid of water and plants. The only life forms are poisonous and ultimately fatal to the guard. Expect good friends to die.
Additionally, just as Thursday in "Fort Apache" goes against the Sioux Nation with a pitifully small force, so too do the Imperial Guard, when they encounter the hundreds of thousand Orks inhabiting the planet. It is immediately evident to the rank and file that the guard is on a suicide mission.
"Gunheads" contains numerous set pieces of thrilling military science fiction. These scenes are the ones that make your scalp tingle. A primary example is at the beginning the novel when Colonel Tidor Storm and his 98th Mechanized Infantry Regiment find themselves surrounded by hundreds of thousands of Orks. Parker movingly describes the pathos of battle and captures the beauty of the futile gesture. That early battle scene is just one of many but it is fine piece of writing that immediately hooks the reader.
But let's not forget that this is a Warhammer novel so there must be treachery, deception, and evil. In this regard, Parker creates two stories: on a larger scale there is the deception of the Adeptus Mechanicus but on a smaller level there is the personal struggle between the luciferian Lenck and our protagonist, Wulfe. Lenck is an opportunist and a barracks rat. Wulfe immediately sizes him up and conflates Lenck with a past nemesis. Bad feelings and suspicions abound until the two clash in a final violent struggle for survival.
In concluding I want to note Parker's rendition of the Orks. Frankly, his description of the greenskins is one of the best in the Warhammer mythos (As a side note Chris Roberson has also created a realistic view in his short-story "Gauntlet Run"). In looking at Parker's oeuvre (yes I said oeuvre) to date, Orks appear again and again. They are the xeno foes of "Rebel Winter," "Head Hunted," "Mercy Run," "Gunheads," and I suspect in the forthcoming "Rynn's World."
Parker seems to be slowly sussing out the inner workings of the green brutes and in a sense I see him ultimately embracing them in the same way that Abnett has fleshed out and made real the "Blood Pact" in his Gaunt's Ghosts series.
All in all "Gunheads" is a satisfying novel with brilliantly drawn characters that convincingly present us with a dynamic rendition of military life in the far Gothic future of Warhammer 40K.
Wulfe is a strong character that could carry his own series. Let's hope we see more of him and the Orks.