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.
Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghosts series is often cited as convincing Games Workshop and Warhammer 40,000 fans alike that you could have a decent 40K novel which didn’t centre around Inquisitors and Space Marines, the two most over-the-top breeds in the Imperial kennel. It was inevitable that sooner or later someone would attempt to do the same for the Adeptus Arbites, the police and justice wing of the Imperium whose officers are judge, jury and executioner all in one – and if that sounds a lot like the premise of Judge Dredd, that’s probably because the Adeptus Arbites are blatantly the Justice Department of Mega-City One transplanted to the 41st Millennium, right down to their uniforms.
Part of the reason the Arbites haven’t had so much attention from Black Library authors is probably because of the similarities to Judge Dredd, which could make it difficult for authors to write stories that don’t come across as 2000 AD fanfic. Another reason may be that they are simply a less high-profile aspect of the setting – there’s no official Arbitrator army for the tabletop wargame, the mean streets of Necromunda didn’t provide any official support for including Arbites in the game, and Inquisitor is out of print. The only currently-active Warhammer 40,000-themed game in which you can actually play an arbitrator is the Dark Heresy roleplaying game, and there the focus is on the activities of the Inquisition, not the Adeptus Arbites (though Fantasy Flight have announced a supplement focused on the activities of the Arbites and the criminals they pursue, which might make an all-Arbites game viable). The cross-media synergy you get with Space Marines, the Imperial Guard and Inquisitors simply isn’t there; a Dark Heresy player who wants to read Inquisition-based stories can buy Eisenhorn, someone particularly taken with Gaunt’s Ghosts can build an Imperial Guard army, but if the Black Library publishes novels about the Arbites it’s hard to say which Games Workshop product lines will really benefit from that.
A third, and perhaps the clinching reason why Black Library doesn’t give the Arbites more love, is the fact that as an institution they aren’t really meant to handle the sort of action most Warhammer 40,000 novels revolve around. Wars against demonic menaces, anti-Imperial rebellions and alien incursions are fought by the likes of the Imperial Guard and Navy, the Space Marines and the Sisters of Battle; whilst the Arbites might be involved in the early stages of a full-scale war, they’d be quickly overshadowed by organisations with superior firepower. Likewise, dire conspiracies on the part of Chaos-worshippers, alien collaborators, renegade psykers and secret heretics are investigated by the Inquisition – an Arbites investigation might stumble on such plots, of course, but once the arbitrators realise what they’re dealing with the natural thing would be to contact the Inquisition, who’d push them aside pretty much immediately. To write an Arbites-themed novel in which the arbitrator hero isn’t sidelined by the supporting characters, you’d have to find ways to tell interesting stories without really bringing aliens or Chaos or freaky paranormal shit into the equation. This should, given the amount of detail on Imperial society that has been developed over the years, be completely possible, but nobody’s really tried to do it yet.
So, when Matt Farrer started writing the Enforcer trilogy, he already had a big task in front of him: create a structure for telling stories about the Adeptus Arbites which doesn’t descend into Judge Dredd ripoffs on the one hand and reducing the Arbites into spear-carriers in their own stories on the other, whilst showing enough of the rest of the Warhammer 40,000 setting to prompt people to buy more books and games. That’s a difficult enough task, but Farrer went further than that by taking a bold and experimental step, a decision that (as far as I am aware) no Warhammer 40,000 author had taken previously, a move so brave and avant-garde that I imagine it must have given the Black Library’s editors sleepless nights, a conscious choice to confront and confound the expectations of the Warhammer 40,000 audience as opposed to simply pandering to them.
He made the hero a girl.
The series starts with crack arbitrator Shira Calpurnia’s arrival at Hydraphur, having been transferred from her former post elsewhere in the Imperium to become one of the star system’s four Arbitor Senioris – in other words, one of the ruling council of the Adeptus Arbites in the system, answering only to the Arbitor General. The planet Hydraphur itself is a major nexus for the Imperial Navy, and as a key strategic site has a major presence from every branch of the Imperial government. The planet itself is gearing up for the Mass of Saint Balronas, a major celebration administered by the Ecclesiarchy but, by tradition, also overseen by a randomly-selected member of the planetary nobility – in this case, the arrogant Hallyan Kalfus-Medell – so the capital is choked with revellers as Shira arrives.
Making a point to visit the various centres of Imperial power on-planet as soon as possible in order to familiarise herself with local politics, Shira’s stopover at the Adeptus Mechanicus headquarters (necessary because she needs immunisation jabs against the planet’s native diseases) is slightly spoiled when an assassin with psychically-enhanced marksmanship skills attempts to kill her. By the time that a truck-bombing, a disaster in space, and several other ambushes happen, it becomes clear to everyone that the target isn’t Shira per se – it’s the smooth running of the festival itself. On top of that, whilst she is more used to a hands-on, guns blazing, lead from the front, stick the suspects’ feet in the fire until they fucking talk style of investigation, Shira has to get used to the more discreet approach demanded by the complex network of political relationships in the Hydraphur system.
In his introduction to the Enforcer omnibus Farrer talks about how so much of the SF he’d grown up with featured protagonists who “looked and thought Just Like Us (for a particularly white, Western, Anglophone, middle-class and male definition of ‘us’, as unconscious as I was of that at the time)”. In Crossfire Farrer seems to have tried to counteract that a bit on two fronts.
Firstly, he decides that he is going make Shira female, which sets her apart from every other Warhammer 40,000 protagonist I’m aware of. OK, you had Mita Ashyn in Lord of the Night, but she barely counts because she was co-protagonist with an indisputably male Space Marine in a one-shot novel, whereas Shira gets to helm her own goddamn trilogy – and Lord of the Night came out 2 years after Crossfire, so Farrer can still claim to have written the first Warhammer 40,000 novel with a female protagonist (unless there’s an earlier one I’m not aware of). Not only is Shira a woman, but the fact that she is a woman isn’t even anything particularly unusual in the novel; there are plenty of other women in the Arbites, there are women in the nobility, there’s female Naval officers, there are women in the Ecclesiarchy, there’s Sisters of Battle, there’s actually Adepta Sororitas who aren’t in the Sisters of Battle who play an important role… (That last point is particularly good, actually, because many Warhammer 40,000 fans – and writers – seem to forget that whilst all Sisters of Battle are Sororitas, not all Sororitas are Sisters of Battle.)
I don’t think he reaches full 50/50 gender parity, I wasn’t counting, but women are much more visible in Crossfire than they are in most other 40K novels; suddenly, the 41st Millennium seems like much less of a sausage party than it used to be. What’s more, Shira basically takes charge of every situation she gets herself into – she’s an important person who is expected to take command responsibility for her investigations, after all, and the Arbitrator General gives her full authority so even though she answers to him, you don’t get the impression that he’s ordering her around. She’s a successful and competent cog in the machine of Imperial law enforcement, and she’s probably the strongest female character in any Warhammer 40,000 novel I’ve read.
The second way in which Shira is not Just Like Us (for that James T. Kirk definition of “us”) is in her thinking. Her values are not ours. It would be incorrect to call her a jackbooted Nazi because Nazism tended to carry with it a contempt for the rule of law – it was all about the strong rising to their rightful place through their own merits, the triumph of the will, submitting to the will of a leader whose word was the only law, all that crap. Theoretically the Empire is kind of like that, except in practice the ultimate leader isn’t exactly giving many speeches these days and might be a braindead vegetable for all anyone knows. Shira is a fanatical believer in the word of law, as it is recorded in the Lex Imperialis; whilst the Emperor is the ultimate fountainhead of all authority, there are millennia of precedent and rulings to draw on as well, and to her Imperial society is not a matter of the weak obeying the whims of the strong. She is the draconian enforcer (hence the title!) of a code of law formulated by a futuristic feudal system in which each person has their own allotted place in society and must be held accountable by the terms of their duty to the Empire.
Most importantly, Shira puts the office before the individual. To Shira, the best any person can hope for is to be equal to the responsibilities their station in life assigns to them; you are not given a high office in recognition that you are a wonderful and brilliant person, you are required to be wonderful and brilliant in order to meet the responsibilities the Emperor has assigned you, and if you fail at that? Well. Then you need knocking down a peg or two.
Shira’s is not an attractive worldview, and is sympathetic only by comparison to that of other denizens of the 41st Millennium but it does put across the idea that the grim darkness of the far future isn’t like the 21st Century Anglosphere. It’s also pretty much the only well-rounded outlook we get, since the characterisation of more or less everyone else in the book takes a back seat to Farrer’s exploration of all the interesting ways the many heads of the Imperial hydra can gnaw on each other’s necks. Shira’s investigations lead her through encounters with the Ecclesiarchy, the Imperial Navy, the Adepta Sororitas, the planetary aristocracy, and the Adeptus Mechanicus, and Farrer takes great joy in thinking through the ways all those groups interact with the Adeptus Arbites. He also greatly enjoys fleshing out the society and culture of Hydraphur itself, and in particular the Feast of Saint Balronas; a number of plot points revolve around the curious nature of the way the festival is policed jointly by the Adepta Sororitas and the Adeptus Arbites, and each chapter begins with a small excerpt from a book of Ecclesiarchial etiquette detailing the appropriate preparations and observations for the days leading up to the Feast. (It’s only halfway through the novel that you realise that the Feast involves citizens self-flagellating until they bleed…) Although his characterisation is sparse, the attention to detail pushes Crossfire‘s page count up a fair bit – it’s not Dune by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a good deal thicker than either of the other Calpurnia volumes in the collection.
Whilst the ultimate bad guy behind all the mayhem’s motives might be slightly nonsensical, Crossfire does achieve one important goal – it proves that you can write a Warhammer 40,000 novel which doesn’t involve alien invasion, Chaotic corruption, or all-out warfare. Although there’s no full-scale battles Shira gets into enough skirmishes to keep anyone happy, and Farrer does more than enough to convince the reader that great stories can be told just from the interactions between parts of Imperial society. Just because Crossfire itself is only a good story rather than a great one doesn’t undermine its value as a proof of concept, and Shira herself is a compelling enough character to carry the reader through the novel’s slow patches.
Shira isn’t quite as central to Legacy as she is in Crossfire – she’s one of several viewpoint characters as opposed to the sole protagonist – but that kind of makes sense since she’s working in her capacity as a judge rather than as a law enforcer this time around, and the other viewpoint characters are members of the different sides she is forced to rule between. Farrer once again sets his sights on an underutilised element of the Warhammer 40,000 canon – the institution of Rogue Traders, freelance merchantile starship captains with a letter of marque from the Empire that allows them to go where they like and trade with whoever they choose (even aliens!). This major advantage over most interstellar traders, who usually operate under restrictive charters, means that being a Rogue Trader is potentially incredibly rewarding, as well as being extremely dangerous; what’s more, Rogue Traders are given effectively unlimited autonomy over the internal affairs of their ship and are only outranked by the likes of planetary governors, Inquisitors and the High Lords of Terra, so some Rogue Traders are effectively able to carve out personal empires for themselves, whether these take the form of colonies out beyond Imperial Space where the Trader’s word is the only Imperial-sanctioned law, or a vast armada of ships flying under the Warrant of Trade, like a nomad nation travelling throughout the galaxy.
The Phrax dynasty is one such powerful line of Rogue Traders; over the years, the flotilla that the dynasty has accumulated has become so vast it has developed its own culture, with generation after generation of crew member born, growing up, serving, and dying onboard ship. After the death of Hoyyon Phrax, the Flotilla must return to Hydraphur so that the Adeptus Arbites – in the person of none other than Shira – can witness the proper handover of the Warrant of Trade to Hoyyon’s heir, Varro Phrax. Varro was sent away to the Imperial world of Gunarvo as a youth to learn something of life outside the flotilla, so as soon as he gets word of the death he sets off for Hydraphur to meet up with the flotilla. Varro has three problems, though. The first is that he’s a decadent, foppish, weak little wuss who won’t even have athletes get themselves killed in interesting ways for his own amusement, which makes him entirely too wet to hold any sort of position of authority in the 41st Millennium. The second is that he’s fallen under the influence of House Dorel, a clan of Navigators traditionally allied with the Phrax family who see Varro as an easily-manipulated puppet, who’ve sent along the brutally efficient Domasa to make sure he realises who calls the shots; if that requires her keeping Varro’s wife and child as “honoured guests” on a House Dorel-controlled ship, so be it, but she hopes it won’t come to that.
Varro’s third problem, and by far his largest, is that his own inheritance wants nothing to do with him. Hoyyon’s former chief officers and confidantes, the masters of the flotilla, are not happy with having a yellow-bellied pacifist in charge. They are aware that Varro lacks spine, and they’re convinced he would be a disastrous leader for the flotilla. It’s a good thing that they have a plan – Petronas, a petty officer of the flotilla, happens to be the son of one of Hoyyon’s concubines, and the Masters plan to put him forward as the true heir. It’s a shame he’s not actually Hoyyon’s son… but reworking his genetic structure from the ground up to make it seem as though he is can’t possibly go wrong, can it? And as well as dealing with this subterfuge and Varro’s incredible wetness, Shira must also handle the ineffectual – but disruptive – efforts of the Ecclesiarchy to seize the Warrant of Trade for themselves so that it can be taken out of service and revered as a holy relic – for the Phrax Warrant is an ancient one, signed by none other than the Emperor himself.
Reading Legacy is a lot like watching two trains colliding head-on as it happens. You know that the parties involved are going to collide, you can see exactly at what point they’re going to clash, you know that it isn’t going to be pretty afterwards, and you know that it’s way too late for anyone to stop it. What you don’t know is precisely where the shrapnel will end up flying, and that’s really what you’re looking forward to. Farrer uses the multiple viewpoints to establish all the major characters before they step into Shira’s courtroom, which naturally is where the explosive final act is triggered; the actual action, once it kicks off, is comparatively brief, but it is at least a decent payoff for the buildup.
And the buildup itself has a lot going for it. On the flotilla side, Petronus’s little errand’s on when we’re introduced to him – hunting down Hoyyon’s runaway concubines so they can be killed off following the death of Hoyyon himself, as is customary on the flotilla – is a nasty but effective way of underlining the fact that the flotilla has its own culture, a culture hinging almost entirely on the whims of past Rogue Traders. (And since Petronus’s own mother was a concubine of Hoyyon’s, his bloody-handed mission also provides a reason for him to resent the masters of the flotilla, so when he works to undermine their plan it isn’t such a huge surprise.) The interlude during which the flotilla’s head tech-priest attempts to slip a tampered tissue sample from Petronus past an ancient and revered piece of Adeptus Mechanicus lab equipment – and the outraged and excessively violent response of the Mechanicus to this blatant tech-heresy – is heaps of fun.
Personally, though, I was more invested in Varro’s story – not because he was a nicer person than anyone on the flotilla (or Shira, for that matter), but because he and the characters in his retinue were much more vividly characterised. I especially liked Domosa’s barely-veiled contempt for him and the incident where he and the other characters on his ship have to hunt down and kill a demon-possessed teammate. (This, in fact, is the only time Chaos ever makes its presence felt in the Enforcer series, and it’s more of a tragic but unavoidable accident than an intervention by reality-corrupting gods – getting possessed by demons is an occupational hazard of warp travel.)
On balance, I think Legacy is easily the best of the lot in this collection: it’s shorter than Crossfire, has a better climax than Crossfire or Blind, and it manages to establish more tension and uncertainty than either with it. My only complaint would be that there isn’t enough Shira in it, although it does lay the groundwork for Shira’s characterisation in the final book in the trilogy.
So, without getting too deep into spoilers, the trial in Legacy is a complete fiasco and utter chaos (with a small c) breaks out. Whilst the situation was, eventually, forcibly subdued by the Arbites, having a trial explode on you doesn’t look good. And whilst in the 21st Century the Arbites might have been inclined to extend Shira some slack, seeing how it was her first time managing a trial that important, the 41st Millennium does not forgive.
So, at the start of Blind Shira is a prisoner, awaiting her own trial – for negligence in her oversight of the Phrax case. The best she can hope for if convicted is hard labour in an Arbites penal squad, sent out to impose martial law on some hellhole of a planet and subjected to brutal and dehumanising discipline in-barracks; at worst… well, there’s a plethora of terrible things the Imperium can do to her, but in consideration of her years of good service Shira probably can’t expect much worse the old bullet to the back of the head, Winston Smith style. But before her trial even happens there’s the interminable pre-trial hearings, held at numerous locations dotted around the Hydraphur system, since prisoners such as Shira are routinely shuffled from location to location throughout the system for security’s sake, hearings which resemble a cross between holy confession, Soviet-style self-criticism, and rehearsals for the eventual show trial.
Shira, her Chastener Dast, and her confessor Orovene are en route from one remote holding facility to another when they receive new orders from the Arbites authorities: they are to change course and head directly for the Bastion Psykana, the remote space station on which most of the Hydraphur system’s astropaths reside. Since astrotelepathic communication is the only means the Imperium has of faster-than-light communication, short of handing someone a note and sending them on a warp journey to deliver it by hand, the Bastion is obviously a key strategic location in the system – and because psykers of all stripes are touched in some way by the Warp and risk being possessed every time they use their powers, it’s also an incredibly sensitive and dangerous location.
So it’s quite the emergency when Otranto, Master of the tower and leader of the system’s astropaths, is brutally murdered – especially when the psychic repercussions of such a death can reverberate throughout the delicately maintained balance of the Bastion in unpredictable ways. Shira, Dast and Orovene are the closest Adeptus Arbites to the Bastion, aside from the place’s own onboard contingent of arbitrators, so they are sent in as a rapid-response force ahead of the main Arbites force from Hydraphur itself. Shira is temporarily restored to her former rank for the sake of maintaining appearances, but it’s Dast that is given overall control of the investigation. Of course, it’s no surprise that Dast is taken out of action fairly soon, leaving Shira in the position of having to solve the case knowing that even if she does survive her confrontation with the killer, she doesn’t exactly have a hero’s welcome waiting for her back home.
Blind is in part Farrer’s exercise in crafting the most bizarre environment he can, and to be fair to him the Bastion is a pretty original creation. The blind astropaths are constantly accompanied by their vitifiers – the attendants who wait on them night and day with gun in hand, ready to kill the astropath assigned to them if they show even the slightest sign of demonic taint. The entire structure is filled with portcullises, bulkheads and walls engraved with psychic wards to contain the psykers – and those which might take control of the psykers. The astropaths spend their days alternating between being cloistered away in their eyries undergoing profound spiritual peril for the sake of keeping the communications lines open and lounging around being tended to by the concordiasts whose function it is to keep the astropaths happy, healthy, and above all not stressed – because even the slightest stress on the part of an astropath causes worrying ripples in the nearly environment. The spiritual penumbra of the collected psykers all brought into one comparatively small space means that the entire station is choked with astral pollution, a sort of psychic smog which puts normal human beings on edge and makes them prone to hallucinations, delusions, and amplifies all of their most extreme emotions.
However, whilst the environment is interesting, Farrer doesn’t seem to have been given the space to do with it what he’d like. Blind has a fairly short page count – I suspect Games Workshop asked Farrer to scale back the wordage after Crossfire – giving Farrer barely enough room to deliver the locked room detective story he’s opted for, and cover Shira’s reaction to her woeful fate, and establish the unusual setting for the story. This means that there’s really little to no room for anything resembling a subplot; there’s plenty of seeds which could grow into one, but Farrer never gets around to properly exploring them.
For example, whilst whilst Shira does learn of the Polarist school of thought, a quasi-heretical philosophy which would reduce psykers to little better than cattle, no actual Polarist appears to actually take a role in the story; likewise, whilst Farrer does establish that there is tension between the leading astropaths as to who will be the new Master of the Bastion, the contest for succession never actually kicks off. Whilst the Polarist thing could be written off as a standard detective story red herring to throw the reader off the scent of the real killer, the lack of action in the succession contest is less easy to write off – you’d expect the contenders to be rallying support, gathering rumours about their rivals’ activities, facing each other down or trying to buy each other off… something at any rate. Instead we just see them sitting around thinking to themselves about how they should be Master – but because they don’t put any of those thoughts into effect, there’s absolutely no point in us learning about this except to provide us with suspects for the Master’s murder. The resolution of the murder mystery isn’t even that good, to be honest – the best thing you can say about it is that it gives Shira a chance to be awesome one more time before her final bow.
Shira, in fact, is what salvages Legacy – specifically, Farrer’s examination of her coming to terms with everything she is about to lose and accepting the punishment her sense of duty demands that she submit to. Shira’s belief in the rule of law and the office being more important than the person occupying has been a constant throughout the series, and putting Shira at the painful end of Imperial justice gives Farrer a chance to underline that – and to make her, in retrospect, a more sympathetic character than she had been in the past. The code of justice Shira applies might be distasteful, but at least she is willing to have herself judged by the same standards she judges other people by. She does, in fact, end up deriving this odd sort of strength through her surrender to the Emperor’s justice, because it is to justice she is surrendering, not to any individual person – and by surrendering in that manner, she disarms the people who are administering justice to her, because everyone in any sort of position of the authority in the Imperium knows they could be next if they screw up, and most would certainly not endure the long interplanetary slog to the execution as well as Shira does.
To be honest, Shira’s meditations in guilt and justice and duty are pretty much the only reason to read Blind; the story alone isn’t worth the price of entry. But as a coda to Shira’s story it’s pretty good.
The Final Judgement
Legacy is far and away the best book in the trilogy, with a better story than either of the other two books and less waffle than Crossfire. (It’d also make good inspirational reading for anyone participating in a Rogue Trader game.) That said, Crossfire itself is pretty good, and most Warhammer 40,000 fans who are tired of the same old Inquisition/Space Marine/Imperial Guard stuff would probably enjoy it; it wouldn’t be an especially good introduction to the setting, though, since it relies on the reader having at least a vague knowledge of the structure of the Imperial government and how all the various flavours of Adeptus interact. As for Blind, it’s best taken as a coda to Shira’s character development rather than a fully developed story in its own right.
Hopefully, the Enforcer omnibus will sell well enough to convince Games Workshop that more stories about the Arbites – and more stories with female protagonists – will sell to the Warhammer 40,000 audience. The fact that they recycled the Crossfire cover art for Legacy when it originally came out suggests that they weren’t so confident about the Shira books when they were first published, but the fact that they’ve given them the anthology treatment suggests that there may have been more demand than they expected. At the same time, though, I do hope Farrer isn’t tempted to write a fourth Shira novel; the trilogy’s pretty complete as it is, and any sequel to Blind would undermine the whole point of Shira willingly submitting to Imperial justice, though it may mean her death, for the sake of not compromising her principles. After all, if she’s in any state to have further adventures, that would carry with it the implication that suffering the consequences of failure isn’t that much of a big deal – which would further imply that in Blind she wasn’t nobly facing the possibility of permanent exile or a death sentence with all the dignity she could muster, she was stressing over nothing.
That said, if there’s a new Shira novel coming out I’d buy it in an instant.