Fists of Mediocrity

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.

Regular readers might have noticed that I haven’t actually been reviewing Warhammer 40,000 books quite as regularly as I used to. There’s various reasons for this, a major one being that I just find myself increasingly less interested in Black Library’s output. Interesting experiments like the brief, abortive gamebook like have been cut short, and the dominance of disposable Space Marine-based novels, always a significant feature of the catalogue, seems to be running entirely out of control. Dan Abnett’s output has slowed down alarmingly, and it seems like the Inquisition-based novels which had previously always had a healthy niche in the Library’s output are vanishing entirely, and the Imperial Guard output feels like it’s drying up too (though there was a mild spike this month thanks to the new Guard rules for the tabletop wargame coming out).

It wouldn’t be so bad if the books in question were more entertaining. Although I wouldn’t put any of the Space Marine books I’ve reviewed on here in the category of great literature, a few seem to have had something more going on – Imperial Fists novels like Space Marine and Sons of Dorn played around with exactly how much you can subvert the whole Space Marine deal by riffing on the wackier bits of canon like the Pain Glove, whilst Dan Abnett’s Brothers of the Snake was a nice exercise in adding a little Homeric gravitas to the formula. But I’m not seeing that ambition any more – most of the Warhammer books I’ve read recently have aspired to be nothing more than disposable page-turners, and several fall short even of that standard.

To show you what I mean, here I’ve got a brace of standalone books put out more recently, each surrounding a different descendent Chapter of the Imperial Fists (or the Fists themselves), none of which really qualifies as a “keeper” by any stretch of the imagination. Let’s see how they fare.

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Commissar Stuck In a Rut

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.

So, previously we’ve discussed the first few Commissar Cain books by Sandy Mitchell – Warhammer 40,000 tie-in novels surrounding the adventures of a character who’s part spoof of the hero of the Gaunt’s Ghosts series, part Blackadder, and part Flashman. They’re entertaining enough, but I found the first three books a little formulaic and was hoping that the novels collected in the second Cain omnibus, Defender of the Imperium, would shake things up a little.

Mitchell, for his part, seems to have felt that the time had come to get a little bit more ambitious with the series. The three novels, whilst they more or less stand alone, have a plot arc running through them that extends for most of the length of Cain’s career. As you might remember from the last articles, the Cain novels are ostensibly reconstructed from the rambling autobiographical notes Cain cobbled together whilst he spent his twilight years as an instructor to the next generation of Imperial Guard Commissars, edited into something coherent and readable by Inquisitor Amberley Vail, who Cain had an occasional working (and a parallel romantic) relationship with over the years – mainly for the entertainment of other Inquisitors, since Cain’s irreverent depiction of the historical events he gets caught up in is decidedly not for public consumption. The conceit here is that Vail assembles these three particular books, each based on an incident at wildly different points in Cain’s career, because they each relate to a particular strand which only came to fruition at the very end of Cain’s career.

Question is, is this mild embellishment really enough to break the series out of the formula it’s had to date? Let’s find out.

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Selling Out To Chaos In Three Easy Stages

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.

Those of you who are new to the Warhammer 40,000 setting and perhaps have only been exposed to it my reviews might be inclined to ask “hey… why is the grim darkness of the far future so grim and dark in the first place?” Well, there’s many reasons. (“This universe has many themes…”) In fact, every single major faction in the galaxy is at once one of the worst things ever to happen to the universe as a whole and, at the same time, utterly and irreversibly fucked over and doomed. (Except the orks, who are perfectly happy with a grim dark future where there is only war because they consider war to be the height of lulz.) But from the point of view of humanity and the Imperium of Mankind in particular… well, there’s the fact that hyperspace is alive and hates us and wants to eat us, of course. There’s also the fact that the Emperor of humanity was basically Conan and Ferric Jaggar mashed together and cranked up to 11. There’s the way that humankind has for over 10,000 years thought to exterminate every single other culture in the galaxy expressly because of the Emperor’s guidance. There’s the fact that the venerated and adored peak of human perfection, the Space Marines, are a race of atomic supermen genetically engineered monstrosities created by the Emperor to take over the universe. There’s the way that humanity is only able to navigate the stars in the first place thanks to the daily sacrifice of thousands of psychics to the Emperor.

But the thing which really screws the Imperium over – the thing which transforms it from an abhorrent monstrosity inflicting random cruelty on the galaxy to an abhorrent monstrosity inflicting random cruelty on the galaxy to distract itself from the fact that it’s dying of cancer – is the current status of the Emperor. Kept on life support for the past ten thousand years and more or less incapable of interacting with the outside world beyond the occasional miracle (which might just be the result of humanity’s faith in him resonating in the Warp), the Emperor exerts no control over Imperial policy and yet every major policy is developed as a means of perpetuating his agenda, as interpreted by a monstrous theocracy who consider the war crimes of his crusade to conquer the galaxy to be holy writ. And yet, the fate of the Emperor is the fate of the Imperium. As long as he is alive and is manifestly responsible for the continued viability of space travel there is no real prospect of these fucked up distortions of his maniac designs being abandoned. But the steady state currently imposed on the Imperium as a result of his current predicament can’t last forever because sooner or later entropy will do its work and the Golden Throne will break down. (In fact, in current canon it’s specified that at the end of the 41st Millennium the tech-priests maintaining the Throne discover serious problems with it requring urgent repairs… for which they don’t actually have the spare parts.) When he eventually dies, space travel will suddenly become radically more difficult, if not outright impossible. The resultant shock in the Warp as a result of the Astronomican suddenly cutting off will almost certainly have consequences, but Games Workshop have never specified what they are. (Dan once ran a Dark Heresy game which implied that the Emperor would ultimately become the Chaos God spawned by the fall of humanity, like Slaanesh is the Chaos God spawned by the fall of the Eldar; this isn’t canon but it’s sufficiently consistent with the metaphysic that it doesn’t seem at all unlikely.)

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Fists of Failure

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 story so far: It is the 41st Millennium which as any fule kno is Warhams time. In Soul Drinker our hero Sarpedon takes over the Soul Drinker Chapter of Imperial Fist-derived Space Marines and leads them in rebellion against the Imperium because the Imperium are poo heads who won’t make the Adeptus Mechanicus give the Drinkers their toys back. Then they realised that they were being manipulated by Chaos and yelled NO CHAOS YOU ARE POO HEADS TOO and tried to go a third way, refusing to either be normal Space Marines or Chaos Space Marines because they’re just that special.

Then in The Bleeding Chalice they tried to stop being mutants and they ended up stopping being mutants thanks to some Stop Being Mutants juice they found. Also there was an Inquisitor who did some cool shit and a Sister of Battle who did some cool shit.

Then in Crimson Tears they fight some Crimson Fists and some Dark Eldar and a planet gets blown up and you get the impression that Sarpedon isn’t that good of a leader because he kind of accidentally lets underlings go off and worship Khorne on his watch.

Then Ben Counter wrote three more novels about them! Let’s go!

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Super Secret Chaos Club: No Girls Allowed

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.

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Fists of Miracles

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.

So, Christmas Eve I get an e-mail circular from Black Library suggesting that they would be sending out a special freebie on Christmas Day, which would involve an opportunity to acquire an e-book version of Rob Sanders’ Legion of the Damned, the latest volume in their Space Marine Battles series which doesn’t emerge in print until April. Oh, what a good idea, I thought. There’ll be lots of people with brand new e-readers on Christmas Day, so giving out a substantial sample of Legion of the Damned, or offering a big discount on the ebook download price, or even giving away a free ebook from the Black Library back catalogue which is connected to the book in some way, or anything like that would be a really good way to hook those potential new customers of their ebook range.

Christmas morning comes around and I’m sat with a freshly unwrapped Kindle in my hand, I check my e-mail and sure enough, there’s a message from Black Library bearing links to an exclusive download of… a desktop wallpaper featuring the cover art of the book. Plus a link to buy the thing at their standard e-book price. Not one to be thwarted, I plugged in my credit card details and got to downloading the thing.

Ha! I thought. That’ll teach ’em to drop oblique hints which could be misinterpreted as suggesting a free e-book giveaway, prompting people to build up expectations of being able to read Legion of the Damned on Christmas Day! I’ll just pay money to do it and it’ll be just like they gave me that free sample after all! Those cheapskates can’t stop me from giving them money and buying their stuff… from… buying…

Huh.

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Fists of Rebellion

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.

Space Marines in Warhammer 40,000, in principle, come in two distinct flavours: there’s the evil, deranged Chaos Space Marine, comprising those Legions who betrayed the Emperor back in the Horus Heresy and a number of renegade Chapters who dropped out to join them later on in Imperial history on the one hand, and ranged against them are the honourable and proud Imperial Space Marines, whose Chapters are all descended from those Legions who remained by the Emperor’s side back in the day. When Games Workshop had to explain why early 40K materials referred to Space Marine Legions and later ones referred to Chapters the Horus Heresy was over and the High Lords of Terra laboured to repair the Imperium, it was decided that no one individual should have control over an entire Space Marine Legions, so the Second Founding took place – each Legion split up into a number of Chapters, with the core of the Legion retaining its old name and leaders and the newly-founded Chapters taking on new names and establishing their own command structures.

This means two things. Firstly, if you want your Space Marine army to work like a Space Wolves army but have a different paint scheme and name, you totally can – you just say your army is from a Second Founding chapter of the Wolves, or from a subsequent Founding descended from the Wolves. Secondly, it means Games Workshop have a pile of Space Marine chapters that they have names for but don’t have anything to do with – perfect fodder for up and coming Black Library authors to cut their teeth on.

The Soul Drinkers, a Second Founding successor chapter of the Imperial Fists, were thus offered to Ben Counter so that he could have his way with them – perhaps on the basis that Ben, being a previously unpublished novelist, might botch the job, and if he did nobody would really get upset that some Second Founding chapter nobody had heard of had been ruined by some duff novels. The initial idea was to chart the Chapter’s rebellion against the Empire and descent into the vile worship of Chaos, but along the way a more interesting idea presented itself: given that both the Imperium of Mankind and the forces of Chaos are completely abhorrent on many different levels, could a Space Marine chapter rebel against both? Well, obviously they couldn’t do it and win, but Ben and his editors decided it’d be worth exploring what sort of situation that chapter might find themselves in. They’ve been playing it out for six novels so far, the first three of which are collected in the imaginatively titled Soul Drinkers Omnibus – let’s see how they did.

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