On the backwater world of Ceocan, a suspicious shuttle crash has claimed the life of the governor and his eldest son. As a result, Ashielle Matkosen, Governor Ruprekt’s daughter and eldest surviving child, finds herself in at least nominal control of the planet. However, Governor Ashielle is not secure in her post: she knows that whoever arranged the assassination of her father and brother is still out there, and will want her to either play ball or suffer the same fate, and she’s near certain that the ultimate culprit is the Vaneisen family, whose matriarch Esilia serves in a sort of second-in-command role in the planetary government and who stand to take the Governorship should the Matkosen line perish.
This puts Ashielle in great danger – for her younger brother Hanrik, by virtue of having entered the service of the Adeptus Arbites (the Imperium’s interstellar police force), has disqualified himself from the succession. As a result, the only thing between the Vaneisens and the Governorship is Ashielle’s heartbeat – which the sadistic Tanzeg, eldest son of the Vaneisens, wastes little time in attempting to silence. As Ashielle flees an audacious assassination attempt, she discovers a hidden vault beneath her ancestral home of Darcarden, in which a sinister entity has been kept bound. For aeons, the rulers of Ceocan have had the right to command this entity, as a result of an ancient covenant – should they choose to exercise that power.
Ashielle isn’t stupid – she knows that to use this power would be considered heresy and anathema, and see her destroyed by the Imperium should any of its bodies discover she has used this gift. But with her life on the line and her world on the edge of falling into the hands of a family of sadistic criminals, can she afford not to call on the old covenants?
J.C. Stearns’ The Oubliette is the second Warhammer 40,000 novel to come out in the Warhammer Horror line, following on the heels of David Annandale’s House of Night and Chain, though it really feels like both books have a common origin; both of them present the stories of hereditary heirs to the governorship of a backwater Imperial planet, who after ascending to the rulership of their world discover a deadly secret hidden beneath their ancient family home.
It’s almost as though the Black Library’s editors requested pitches for books based on that general theme and were so impressed by Annandale and Stearns’ suggestions that they greenlit both of them. I’m glad that both books exist, because they’re each enjoyable in their own distinct way – Annandale and Stearns employing refreshingly different styles – but I feel like it’s a bit of a bad look for the first two full-length Warhammer Horror novels to be set in the 40K setting to have such a similar concept. It makes it look like the Black Library roster can’t come up with a broad range of compelling novel-length horror stories; hopefully upcoming releases like Nick Kyme’s Sepulturum will help to correct this impression.
Of course, it helps here that Stearns takes the basic theme in a very different direction from Annandale. House of Night and Chain was very much a gothic-type story of a protagonist’s utter disintegration and eventual descent into phantasmagoric illusion where his sense of reality was utterly lost by the end of the affair, and the source of the evil there was good old-fashioned Chaos, which seems to have become the go-to source of antagonists for Warhammer Horror (not without justification).
Here, however, Stearns plays a somewhat more unexpected game. For one thing, despite the essentially Faustian dilemma that Governor Ashielle is presented with, this isn’t yet another “Chaos demon does shit, it all goes to Hell” story – the backstory here is, in fact, a bit different from that. For another, Ashielle is a bit less helpless than Maeson was in House of Night and Chain when it comes to figuring out what is going on. Indeed, her overall character development the decisions she makes at the end of the novel – as well as much of the horror that comes in the climax – hinges on her asking the right questions of the right people to unravel the mystery of this strange entity in her basement, which puts her in a position to make her choices and carry the full moral weight of them. (You cannot be wholly held responsible for choices you make when you don’t understand what is being asked of you, after all; making an irrevocable decision when you don’t have the full facts in front of you is at worst negligent or indicative of a failure of due diligence, making the same decision when you do have the facts implies that you really mean it.)
Indeed, halfway through the novel I was in two minds about whether it really fitted into the Warhammer Horror line, since it could have just as easily been a high-stakes politically-themed novel in the mainline Warhammer 40,000 novel line, particularly since Stears doesn’t put as much energy into establishing an atmosphere of horror as Annandale does in House of Night and Chain. This very much changes by the end of the book. Stearns writes in a highly readable, almost addictive style, and in the last third or so of the novel he really turns the pace up, with events hitting hard and fast. This is not so much a horror of aesthetics or atmosphere as it is a horror of deeds, atrocity piling on atrocity.
Some may find that the character developments and plot revelations late in the book come a little too much out of nowhere, but actually, the more I think about it in retrospect, the more impressed I am by it: the late-book twists and turns sit neatly next to things established early in the book, the backstory of the world of Ceocan is adequately explained without going into excessive detail (even non-Warhammer fans, even if they don’t know exactly what the deal with the entity is, will come away with at least a vague understanding of what’s going on there), and the decisions made, though drastic, are plausible given what we know about the characters in question and their priorities.
Overall, there is a sense of the pace of events accelerating to a point where Ashielle, if she does not make her choices quickly and decisively, will have those choices taken away from her – and the consequences when she does are suitably dramatic. Indeed, the stage seems to be set for further outrages to come on Ceocan – to the point where I really hope we get a sequel to this one, because whilst this would be just fine as a standalone novel, it’d also make the great first entry in a series.