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.
The primary and most fundamental task of a Warhammer 40,000 tie in author is to make sure that the story they tell is appropriately metal. Not only does the story have to be intrinsically metal in the first place, but on top of that it needs to be the right kind of metal. For instance, if you’re telling a story about Space Marines your metal needs to fill the heart with pride and set the soul soaring with the glory of battle, like this. On the other hand, Imperial Guard stories aren’t going to be so idealistic – there’s going to be a certain jadedness, a world-weariness, and a resignation at the absurdity of the universe combined with a resolution to get the job done, like so.
Chaos Space Marines are an even trickier prospect because on top of being totally metal, they’re also meant to be evil. Writing a novel with protagonists who are clearly meant to be villainous is a tough tightrope to walk, even outside the constraints of tie-in fiction – all too many authors aim for something like this but end up here. Mike Lee and Dan Abnett struggled with the Malus Darkblade books to portray the Dark Elves of the Warhammer fantasy setting as anything other than a pack of losers who constantly screw themselves over because they spend all their time being pointlessly malicious to everyone they encounter, including each other. Then again, at least in the 40K universe the Chaos Marines have a very clear motivation – they’re out to overthrow the Imperium and bring death to the false Emperor and avenge Warmaster Horus – which at least means that they aren’t completely aimless. At the same time, of course, the tie-in novel authors can’t ever let them actually succeed at that, but then again they can’t let the Imperium succeed at stamping out Chaos either so that shouldn’t be an insoluble problem.
There’s been a steadily increasing number of Chaos Marine-themed series coming out of the Black Library in recent years, I think because writing all those Horus Heresy books have made the authors realise the potential of them. The Chaos Marines are sufficiently like normal Space Marines that if you’ve got a grip on writing Space Marine fiction you can switch to Chaos Marine fiction without an exceptional amount of effort – in particular, an individual Chaos Marine is going to be operating on the same sort of scale as an individual Space Marine, whereas if you’re shifting from writing about Marines to writing about the Imperial Guard or the Arbitrators you’re going to have to adjust the scale of what your protagonists can and can’t do accordingly. At the same time, the different flavours of Chaos Marines are just as varied as the different flavours of Space Marines – if not more so – but there’s also far more scope for heresy, sorcery, backstabbing and demonic weirdness than when you’re writing for the vanilla Astartes.
The Word Bearers are one of the more prominent Chaos Legions, and are arguably the oldest; even before Horus had turned to the dark side, their Primarch Lorgar and the rest of the Word Bearer leadership had turned to the worship of Chaos – in fact, it was the Word Bearers who were responsible for the corruption of Horus in the first place. Dedicated to Chaos Undivided, the Word Bearers are a ruthlessly theocratic bunch in which power is held in their various Hosts by their Dark Apostles, priest-warlords with the emphasis on “priest” – in fact, the primary responsibility for handling the military planning side of things is usually delegated to one of the Apostle’s immediate underlings. Anthony Reynolds’ Word Bearers trilogy follows the career of the Word Bearer Marduk from First Acolyte – second-in-command and heir-apparent to a Dark Apostle – to becoming a member of the ruling Council of the Legion.