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The Black Library Samplers (Part 1)

by Max Brooks 7 months ago in review
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The Black Library Celebration 2021

Now this is definitely going to end on a cliffhanger ...

First off, I wanted this to be one article looking at both books, but I definitely had more to say than I thought I would! Be on the look out for part 2 where I read through the "proper" Black Library Sampler...

This year I got into a hobby that I've always wanted to get into: Warhammer 40,000. Of course, being new to the hobby meant I got some of the free sample stuff to get me hooked. Two of the free plastic Space Marine miniatures (tangent, but this particular shop has been giving those Space Marines out whenever I've said I've got a new painting idea, just so I don't fuck up my actual Intercessors) and two of the free Black Library samplers, those books that have a load of excerpts from Warhammer books.

Now, I've read and listened to a handful of Warhammer books before, probably more than a handful if we're honest. But it's been a little sporadic and from different parts of the canon, including reading books from the middle of the series (this isn't a problem with the Horus Heresy, but can be a little bit of an issue with more serialised stories like Gaunt's Ghosts).

Being on the look out for new reading material I decided to crack the books open and see if there's anything that really grabbed my attention. There's two books, The Black Library Sampler is a larger "greatest hits" collection, while The Black Library Celebration 2021 sticks to some of the anticipated and widely renowned releases of this year. And as the latter is shorter, we're going to start with that one!

Black Library Celebration 2021

Let's see what there is to celebrate.

2021 has been one of the worst years of my life so far, so I'm already pretty put off by the word "Celebration" in the title. But whatever, let's dive into it.

To Speak As One

The collection starts with To Speak As One the first chapter of Guy Haley's Bellisarius Cawl: The Great Work. As someone who's more familiar with the Horus Heresy series, the current state of the 41st Millenium isn't something I'm all that familiar with. I'm aware that Guilliman has been resurrected and is essentially ruling the Imperium, shaking up the status-quo for the first time in years. This first taster chapter shows us that this situation hasn't been welcomed by everyone in the Imperium, pointing out that Guilliman hasn't actually been appointed by the Emperor, and is actively against some of it's policies and doctrines.

As to be expected from a book that focuses on Bellisarius Cawl, a maverick by the standards of the Adeptus Mechanicus, it's to be expected that the story shows some different facets of the Adeptus Mechanicus, from obscure forge-world colour schemes (reflecting the different paint jobs one could give their own Skitarii, and tying into the idea that anything you paint is in some way canon) to even members of the cult who are downright cheerful rather than robotic. It's honestly something that makes me more interested in a faction I usually find a little boring. The excerpt, of course, does not shy away from the body-horror of the Mechanicus, leaning into the bizarre shapes and forms the cultists take.

The structure of the chapter is great, with some very interesting misdirections and twists that still seem natural and properly foreshadowed. This was definitely a great choice for an excerpt as it sets up the rest of the story and I'm dying to see what happens next.

Death On The Road To Svardheim

The second excerpt is from Warhammer: Age Of Sigmar, a series I know very little about. I'm not a huge fantasy guy, especially grimmer and darker fantasy stories like Warhammer Fantasy tends to be. Death On The Road To Svardheim is the first chapter of Darius Hinks' Ghoulslayer, a novel about Gotrek Gurnisson, who I believe is already an established character in the Warhammer Fantasy series.

Before the end of the first page already sets the tone of the story, grim not just because it is violent and bloody fantasy, but because the setting has a more existential darkness and bleakness surrounding it. It's not just grim it's oppressive. Even the character arguing against the cynical Gotrek refers to themselves as a pawn in the schemes of Gods that may not know they exist, and thinks of the setting's equivalent of Heaven as blood-stained temples devoted to Gods of violence and war.

Like I said, I'm not a fantasy guy, but this opening excerpt, while evidently starting midway through a larger setting begins to flesh out the setting for newer readers, for the most part in a natural way, although there are one or two lines of dialogue that feel like an "as you know" exposition dump. Even then, there are some mentions I'm not picking up on. I suppose if someone more familiar with Warhammer Fantasy than 40K might get these references, but struggle with the mentions of Guilliman in To Speak As One? The chapter does a much better job of showing the relationship between Gotrek and his elven companion Maleneth, showing that although the two are on the same side there's a genuine hatred towards each other.

While it's a great piece of writing, and actually works quite well as a stand-alone story, which I enjoyed thoroughly the world of Age Of Sigmar just feels a little too bleak and depressing for me to fully get into it. But I think that's what Warhammer Fantasy fans are looking for from the setting, so it's probably a good shout for them.

Champions All

Champions All is Marc Collins' entry into Inferno Volume 5 a collection of short stories from various parts of the Warhammer canon. As such, we're mostly judging the story on it's own rather than if it makes me want to go out and read the whole book.

Being someone who's largely familiar with the Horus Heresy rather than the "current" 40K it's interesting to compare the depiction of Space Marines in this story to how they are depicted during the Heresy. "The Imperial Truth" of the Heresy era is about seeing off superstition and renouncing Gods. This story opens with a Space Marine, Cenric, praying and receiving a vision of the emperor blessing the next battle of the Black Templars. It's further compounded by featuring the fanatical Sisters of Battle alongside them.

Being from the point of view of the Imperium, and taking place during a battle, it's no surprise that when the Orks show up they're described as "xenos-filth", "animals", "pigs". It's obviously a view into the fascist mind of the Imperium of man, and not the author's own beliefs, but it always makes me a little uncomfortable. Lot's of people will say that Warhammer is satire, but there was no point in this where it seemed satirical. There was no payoff, no irony, no joke. The characters thinking these thoughts are still depicted as sympathetic, we aren't supposed to laugh at them. It's a slightly depressing reminder that 40K uses a lot of iconography and language mimicked by real world fascist groups.

... this is perhaps a little too heavy for a book review. Let's get back on track:

The main draw of any Warhammer story is the combat, and Collins excels at battle scenes. He gets to flex his writing muscles with large and small scale conflicts as the story goes on, his writing style is visceral and captures the chaos and franticness of battle while still having time to describe dramatic movements and actions to keep the action easy to follow. Furthermore, he's one of those writers who knows that the weapons of the far flung future are ridiculous and brutal and describes the damage they do in fantastically gory detail. The climactic fight is definitely the highlight for me, but the interpersonal story of devout Emperor worshippers doesn't do enough to keep me emotionally invested in the story.

Skull Throne

Our next tale, Skull Throne by Jake Ozga , is a horror story, I'm writing this the day before Halloween so that's very appropriate. Again, it's a short story this time coming from the anthology The Harrowed Paths.

Written in first-person it already puts the reader ill-at-ease within the first few pages. A girl watches her own murder at the hands of Khornate worshippers. Then it gets trippy and disconcerting. At first I kept misunderstanding what exactly was going on, then as I got further in I started to wonder if the narrator themselves didn't know exactly what was going on.

It examines a facet of both Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40K that most people, myself included, mostly see as a bit of a meme, and it's always great for something casual and funny to be put up against you while someone goes "Hey! Isn't this kind of messed up?". Again, as it is a Warhammer Fantasy story it has that oppressive, bleak atmosphere that lends itself well to a horror story. The terror comes from a mix of helplessness, casual descriptions of horrific violence and an alien landscape that you, the reader, can't really get a good feel for. The ending left me genuinely creeped out and I had to put the book down for a few hours and do something cheerful.

The Strong Among Us

The last entry in this book is The Strong Among Us the first chapter of Steve Lyons' Dead Men Walking. I'll be honest Steve Lyons is a writer I'm already familiar with from his work on Doctor Who (Killing Ground, Blood of the Daleks and, one of David Tenant's first appearance in Doctor Who; Colditz among many others). So before going into this I had high hopes.

Dead Men Walking is an Imperial Guard novel, no post-human space marines or power-armour wearing sisters. The focus is on regular un-augmented human soldiers, and this chapter starts from the point of view of a factory worker rather than a soldier. Already, we've got a slightly desperate situation as our protagonist, Jarrah, awaits the Imperial forces to break through the defences he's reluctantly putting up and free them from the Chaos cult.

Lyons is great at delving into a character's motivation, their desires, fears, their joys and frustrations, this excerpt delivers on that with characters expressing hope in others, and self-loathing for themselves. We rarely get to see stories from the point of view of Imperial citizens, and it's always nice when we see those citizens exposed to the grim realities of life in the Imperium. Still believing that the Imperial Guard will be merciful and see them as allies for trying to survive an invasion by keeping their heads down. Such as when one character imagines the Death Korps of Krieg as heroes of legend in bright armour.

What I didn't know was how good Lyons' is at meshing that believable internal monologue with the horrors of war. When the inevitable happens and the guard attack the cult, we get to see revulsion, fear and nervous energy leading to panicked choices and deadly mistakes in the midst of brutal fighting against the Death Korps. All of this culminating in a great scene at the end of the chapter that leaves me hungry for more, and to see how the rest of the story develops!

Final Thoughts

After all is said and done, there's two stories that make me want to read further. The Strong Among Us grasped my attention, the story focuses on the Death Korps of Krieg but seems set to portray them as unnerving and unnatural. Indeed they're one of the creepier and more subdued Imperial Guard regiments so it's intriguing to me that they're the main characters of this book. The overall premise, and if the style of the first chapter is any indication is really making me want to go out and read Steve Lyons' Dead Men Walking.

And while it's the premise of Dead Men Walking that draws me in, it's the plot of Bellisarius Cawl: The Great Work that I'm dying to follow. To Speak As One left off with some interesting intrigues, all sorts of developments, and a host of colourful characters that I want to follow more closely.

This isn't to say that the other stories aren't good, Hell, if I'm honest Ghoulslayer legitimately made me giggle. These two are merely the ones that the taster has given me a taste for. Who knows, maybe you'll be reading a book review of them from me sometime soon ...

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About the author

Max Brooks

My name is Max, part-time EFL teacher, full time nerd. I like writing about books, games, and the educational aspects of both.

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