This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Simon Spurrier’s Lord of the Night is a Black Library novel in which one of the protagonists is a Chaos Space Marine – something of a rarity before the launch of their Horus Heresy series. Specifically, the two viewpoint characters in the novel are Zso Sahaal, a Commander of the Night Lords Legion of Chaos Space Marines, and Interrogator Mita Ashyn, a member of the Imperial Inquisition determined to take him down.
Zso Sahaal is no ordinary Space Marine turned traitor against the Imperium and corrupted by the forces of Chaos, mind. The Night Lords are pretty idiosyncratic as a Legion; their combat capabilities are based around the guerrilla warfare and terror tactics formulated by their Primarch, Konrad Curze, and before they defected during the Horus Heresy they used these capabilities to do the Emperor’s dirty work. What’s more, they betrayed the Imperium for their own reasons and regard the forces of Chaos as allies rather than masters – there are even a few of them, like Zso, who have resisted the corruption of Chaos to retain the wholeness of their body and mind.
And Zso is more special than that – he’s a veteran of the Horus Heresy itself. Hand-picked by Curze to lead the Night Lords after his death, Zso’s plans to succeed his master were thrown into disarray by the theft of the Coronus Nox, a potent artefact of the Night Lords. Although he recovered the item, his starship was critically damaged and made a crash landing on the frozen world of Equixus – Zso was the only survivor, and unable to leave the planet entered cryogenic sleep for almost ten thousand years. He’s awakened at the start of the novel when thieves from the Glacier Rats – a band of pirates and scavengers from the local hive-city who specialise in daring expeditions into the outdoors in search of loot.
Automatically awakened by his ship’s systems after the break-in, Zso kills all but one of them and traces the lone survivor back to the hive city. Sneaking into the darkness-shrouded Underhive (and when you’re a nine foot tall Space Marine in power armour you need darkness to have any hope of sneaking), Zso initiates a brutal campaign to win back the Coronus Nox, beginning with ritualistic serial murders designed both to strike fear into the locals and to make it clear to those knowledgeable enough to read the signs what is required in order to stop the killings. After duping a feared gang of uneducated, hyper-zealous followers of the Emperor into thinking he still serves the Imperium (the folk in question not being aware of the Horus Heresy or the Chaos Legions), Zso escalates to a full campaign of terrorism which soon brings the hive to its knees – ripe for conquest by his brothers, to whom he has sent a request for reinforcements.
Mita Ashyn, meanwhile, is a psyker working for the Ordo Xenos, the branch of the Inquisition devoted to investigating and neutralising covert alien threats. Previously accustomed to luxurious treatment at the Inquisitorial headquarters for the sector, Mita has found it difficult to adjust to working for Inquisitor Kaustus, a roving investigator for the Ordo. Part of this is because of the Inquisitor’s obvious distaste for psykers, of whom she is pretty much the only one in his large and expansive retinue of assistants. Part of this is his leadership strategy, which involves asserting his authority over said retinue by belittling and mocking followers who displease him before the assembled team, and he’s especially fond of doing that to Mita. And part of it is his sense of priorities. The retinue as a whole is on planet to investigate a cell of suspected Tau sympathisers; Mita is tasked to investigate the supposedly Chaos-related ritual murders in the underhive in order to keep her out of the way. But the Inquisitor itself spends his entire time cloistered with the planetary governor in the gubernatorial palace at the top of the hive, taking part in neither investigation. As well as calling on all her talents to track down and stop Zso, Mita finds that she has to battle to survive not only Zso’s violent attacks on the hive, but Kaustus and his retinue when he declares her an outlaw.
Spurrier’s novel is based around the fact that the Warhammer 40,000 universe is a setting based around extremes which ultimately (like extreme left- and right-wing political views) end up behaving in surprisingly similar ways. On one side of the conflict in the book are the murderous followers of a vast and powerful presence in the Warp which accepts mass human sacrifice on a daily basis in order to project its power across the galaxy. On the other side are the followers of Chaos. On the side of the Imperials, Mita is a barely-tolerated mutant, and her plot arc mostly involves her asking the question her entire society is built around not asking but which turns out to be of paramount importance to her: if the entire Imperium despises psykers, why should psykers submit to it? On the other side, Zso kids himself that he’s beyond the corruption of Chaos, and that his Legion could have remained allied with Chaos Undivided for the past ten thousand years without eventually being taken over by the Ruinous Powers.
At first Mita and Zso couldn’t seem more different, but towards the end, when Mita makes telepathic contact with Zso and recognises a mind extraordinarily like hers, it completely makes sense. The paranoia, the sense of being cheated out of their birthright, the determination to do what they see as their duty have all been clearly established from the get-go – in the end, only their alliances and their methods differ, and both of them are reconsidering their loyalties by that point. Likewise, the planetary authorities react to Zso’s terror tactics with a brutal purge of the underhive; at the end of the day, the only difference between Zso’s strategies and theirs is that they happen to be on opposite sides of a campaign of asymmetric warfare; if you swapped things around so that the story was about a small unit of Imperial Guard stranded on a Chaos-controlled world little would change.
As well as doing a decent job on the characterisation of the protagonists and establishing the parallels between the factions, and in addition to being good at delivering entertainingly over-the-top violence and atrocities, Spurrier proves himself capable of slipping in a few decent subplots here and there. Inquisitor Kaustus turning out to be a traitor is predictable, but the precise nature of his treachery is the best sort of surprise – the sort which takes you completely unawares, but at the same time makes complete sense based on the hints you’ve seen earlier on. Lord of the Night is a decent enough Warhammer 40,000 adventure story which might not be as ambitious as Dan Abnett’s long-running sagas or the Horus Heresy line, but is consistently entertaining and achieves all of the modest goals it sets itself.
Thanks again to Rami, who gave me his copy.