I'd originally wanted to just write one article about the Games Workshop Black Library Samplers that they give you for free to get you hooked on literature. However, I realised I had a little more to say than I thought I did about the 2021 Black Library Celebration book.
I suggest you give that article a read first, then pop back here and we can dive into the proper Black Library Sampler and see what's in store for us. (Don't worry, I'll wait).
You're back? Excellent! Let's get started with our first excerpt ...
Avenging Son, Chapter One by Guy Haley
The first thing we get to read is chapter one of Avenging Son, the first book in the Dawn of Fire series by Guy Haley. The first lines do a great job of paralleling those of Dan Abnett's Horus Rising, letting readers of the Horus Heresy series know that this is part of a larger story and universe that's about to unravel. There's further ties to the idea that mankind can accomplish great things, something espoused in the earlier chapters of the Horus Heresy series, even referring to mythology of the Emperor as "a lie".
Despite this, the protagonist is still a Space Marine and Haley does a good job at exemplifying those differences. There's the tropes common to 40K such as calling them "mortals" adding a touch of fantasy to the grim science fiction, but also offhand remarks to "peons" that make it clear how far above humanity the Space Marines see themselves, even as they work to save them.
However it doesn't do an awful lot for me, it's a chapter showing a huge battle that informs the main character's outlook, but it's just not a huge battle I can really get myself emotionally invested in. Perhaps someone more familiar with the "current" 40K setting will enjoy it more than I think I will.
Indomitus, Chapter One by Gav Thorpe
We're treated to another first chapter of a book, this time Gav Thorpe's Indomitus. Like Haley, Thorpe is a veteran Warhammer writer, having written the Last Chancers and Legacy of Caliban series' alongside many others. One of the things I love about this chapter is that Thorpe manages to mesh the ideas of science fiction and fantasy, yes they're on a spaceship, yes they're clad in power armour, but the way he has the Ultramarines talk and act makes them feel very much like knights of old. Other authors have done this too, of course, but Thorpe manages to make those modes of speech permeate every conversation very naturally.
Thorpe does a good job of making each character's motivations clear, there's the optimistic captain Aeschelus, the energetic officer Nemetus, and Praxamedes, the second-in-command who feels overlooked. Even within the first chapter we can see these personalities try to maintain morale and avoid pressing each other's buttons, choosing what to say (and not say!) carefully. It's nice to see Space Marines showing some self-awareness and thoughts other than "For the God Emperor", a scene near the end of the excerpt of Nemetus trying to ignore nagging thoughts of Praxamedes' offhand comment does an awful lot to humanise and sympathise the Space Marine.
I'm actually really interested in getting this book, not just because I know the villains are one of my favourite factions; the Necrons, but because the core focus of the story seems to be clashing personalities and interpersonal conflict like some of my favourite books in the series. The first chapter of Indomitus is a promising taste of what the rest of the book contains.
Nexus, Chapter One by Thomas Parrott
The first chapter of Nexus by Thomas Parrott comes from Nexus and Other Stories a story collection by a variety of authors.
While Indomitus did a lot to humanise the Space Marines, the first paragraph of Nexus mentions "transhuman dread" and how strange Space Marines look to mortal humans. This is coupled with the alien descriptions of ... well the aliens. While they're a familiar sight in Warhammer, the way they're described makes them seem more organic, frightening and confusing than the little plastic miniatures I have on my shelf. There's an interesting part where our protagonist, Allectius avoids looking at the internals of a Necron as they're what the Imperium deem an aberrant alien technology. It's phrased almost as if he's worried that looking inside will drive him mad.
Even the locations are somewhat discomforting, a beautiful forest being the site of violence and bloodshed is one thing, but the description of what Necron weapons do to a city? Peeling vehicles apart and leaving people nothing but ash and bones is chilling. The Necrons in general feel more in line with their depiction in the 3rd edition of the game. Rather than a mysterious group with various factions politicking they seem eldritch and unknowable, which ties into that alien oppressiveness.
Story collections are something I love (come on, look at this article), and this was definitely a great choice of chapter to get new readers wanting more. By the end of the book I'm invested in Alleticus' seemingly hopeless situation and wanting to know where it leads next.
The Devastation of Baal, Chapter One: The Red Mist by Guy Haley
Our next excerpt comes from Guy Haley's The Devastation of Baal. Now, while it doesn't affect my opinion of the book, I do want to call attention to the very pouty Blood Angel on the front cover. It's an absolutely amazing piece of art, and Game Workshop do this very shady thing where they don't properly credit their artists. Someone please let me know who drew it.
Within the first page there's actually a really dark joke, with someone complaining about their "idiot son" who tried to become a Space Marine but was found wanting and, it's implied, was driven mad. The story opens on ordinary humans, and it's always refreshing to see the day to day lives of average Imperial citizens, especially those who, like Uigir (by the way, it takes me three pages to utterly hate the man), live a hard life on a dangerous world. It manages to give us the first-hand account of how scary Space Marines can really be, but that this doesn't stop resentment bubbling up, a nice little touch is that the characters we meet in this chapter don't know the proper terminology for Space Marines either (Primaris Chaplains are "Space Marine Priests" for example).
I'm in two minds about this book, the Devastation of Baal is an actual event in the Warhammer timeline and part of the "core" of the current setting. I'd have to look into the book a bit more first, if this first chapter is all we see of Uigir and his family then I might give it a miss, but if we have mortal point of view characters for much of the story then I think this could be a really interesting read!
Xenos, Chapter One by Dan Abnett
I think I have Dan Abnett's Xenos somewhere in my parents house. It was a Christmas present from my stepsister. It's the first of the Eisenhorn trilogy, following the titular Imperial Inquisitor as he does various unsavoury things in the name of the God-Emperor of mankind.
Abnett is a great writer, I've read a handful of his Warhammer work before, and he also holds the distinction of writing The Harvest, my favourite Doctor Who story of all time.
Like Thorpe, Abnett meshes a science-fiction world with fantasy trappings. There are cars, the ubiquitous data-slates and gigantic tombs holding the ruling class of a planet. The book is written in first-person from Eisenhorn's perspective, and the narration shows him as an interesting character aware of his character traits but viewing them as neither flaws nor strengths. As the chapter itself says he has "a singular force of will", and it's interesting to contrast how other characters take bad news and respond to it with anger, while still maintaining that cold professionalism and protocol you expect to see in the Inquisition.
It's Abnett's writing style and narration that draw me into this book, expect me to root around my parent's basement to see if I still have my copy because I really want to see more of this character.
Tieron by Chris Wraight
Tieron is the first chapter of The Emperor's Legion by Chris Wraight. It's the first of the Watchers of the Throne series and it starts off bleak. Like in The Devastation of Baal we're introduced to a normal (ish) human being, Tieron, as he talks about the state of the Imperium and the grim nature of the universe. Plenty of characters in Warhammer 40K are familiar with the fact their universe is a horrible, depressing mess. But many seem to just think of it as a matter of fact, Tieron instead feels beaten down by the state of the galaxy. However, despite seeing the flaws, Tieron does believe that the Imperium works. Whether he's got a good reason or is just in denial, one can't really tell.
Wraight seamlessly blends worldbuilding and revealing information about a character into the prose, whether it's about the fruit someone's eating, or how Tieron knows who is visiting, it feels natural, normal, and still tells us a wealth about the world they live in. I love that sort of offhand worldbuilding that also tells you about a character's situation. This first chapter gives us so much intrigue into the royal court of Terra and the council of twelve. While the Warhammer series has always been about War, Hammers and conflict, it's nice to see the more cerebral (no less vicious) side of the setting.
The story still manages to make the Imperium grand and expansive, and it gives me the same energy as Asimov's Foundation books did when describing how huge the Empire was. This is another book I'm desperate to read, not because of how the plot is unfolding but of how the story is told, and how the world unfolds around the plot!
First And Only, Part One: Nubila Reach by Dan Abnett
The Gaunt's Ghosts series has been recommended to me by no less than five people. Reasons ranging from "It's basically Sharpe in Space" to "It's a good introduction to the setting". To the credit of these friends I have read two of the Gaunt's Ghosts books: Straight Silver and Sabbat Martyr after I saw them in a charity shop for £1.00 each. But I haven't actually read First And Only, the first (but far from only) book in the series.
It's a very short chapter, and one that doesn't actually give us anything to do with Gaunt, or the Ghosts, instead a chapter that sets up the plot of the rest of the book. We get a good view into how Abnett writes combat; claustrophobic, intense, full of small details and yet very fast-paced. It would be wrong to say that I'm not planning on reading Gaunt's Ghosts, or that I didn't think this chapter was good. It's just a short introduction that doesn't tell us anything about the main characters, and I kind of have to question if choosing the first chapter of the first book was the best way to get potential readers into what most people say is the best series in the Warhammer 40K canon.
For The Emperor, Chapter One by Sandy Mitchell
The same people who recommended Gaunt's Ghosts to me, also recommended another series just as frequently and just as eagerly: Sandy Mitchell's Ciaphas Cain: HERO OF THE IMPERIUM! series. The next excerpt is the first chapter of the first book in the series, For The Emperor. I'll be honest, I have read this first book before, a friend who recommended the series to me literally grabbed the first omnibus off of his shelf, pushed it into my hands and told me to read it.
As with anything I am asked to read, from university texts to books recommended by my own wife, it was years before I sat down on a train and actually started reading the thing. And it's been a number of years since, so let's see if I can jog my memory.
The Ciaphas Cain series is considerably lighter than many of the other Warhammer 40K books, it's been described as "Blackadder in space" by some people and I can definitely see that. If you imagine it in Rowan Atkinson's voice it's got that great combination of dry self-deprecation and gallows humour that made Blackadder Goes Forth so funny. Lighter of course doesn't mean "less dangerous" and it's a great comparison to the more Space Marine dominated books. Our protagonist isn't looking for glorious battle, he's looking to survive the glorious battle but not look like a coward (while fully admitting he is).
The thing I love the most about the Cain series, is that they're presented as his memoirs, with footnotes from the Inquisitor looking over them. And I absolutely adore that they make notes of less-than-stellar conduct and phrasing as well as holes in Cain's memory and footnotes to add more information. Not only does it help build this lighter, funnier 40K setting around us they're also dead funny.
This chapter has absolutely reignited what it was that made me love that first book, the ambiguously unreliable narration, the exasperated footnotes and the dry matter-of-fact telling of the jokes make it that rare funny 40K series that I really want to get back into.
Now, I'm starting to realise I'm already running longer than the first article I wrote about these two books ...
Oh no. It looks like I'm going to have to go onto a third article!