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The Black Library Samplers (Part 3)

by Max Brooks 6 months ago in review
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I have too much to say about Warhammer books, and these aren't even the full books yet!

"Why is that Adepta Sororitas coin all scratched up?" "Because I own a cat. Next question."

Yes that's right! We're still reading through the Black Library Sampler! If you'll remember, I first intended to do one article detailing all of my thoughts on the little free tasters that Games Workshop give you to get you hooked.

There were a lot of free tasters, and I had a lot to say. So I decided to split it into two lists. One for the Black Library 2021 Celebration book, and one for the Black Library Sampler itself. However the Black Library Sampler being a lot bigger, and having a lot more to talk about than I expected got a little too wordy.

Hence we move onto the third part of our readthrough. Am I going to say "Third and final"? No. Because I've been burned by my own cautious optimism before. I do recommend you read those previous two books to get an idea of where my mind's at and see if I do justice to your own favourites before you read this one. Or don't. I'm not your real dad. I'm not even your fake dad.

Let's crack in!

Fire And Thunder, by Rachel Harrison

We've had Commissar Gaunt, we've had Commissar Cain and now we have a third Commissar rounding out the Warhammer 40,000 books in this volume; Commissar Severina Raine. The lady on the top right corner of this volume, if you're interested. After seeing Cain defuse a situation at the end of the last chapter, it might be a bit jarring to read "execute her own troops" in regards to a Commissar, already I get the feeling that Honourbound, the book this chapter comes from, is more in line with Warhammer 40,000's default setting of grim darkness and bleak conflict.

While Cain doesn't like executing his troops due to not wanting to get fragged, and Gaunt doesn't like executing his troops because he has a personal bond with them, Raine seems more focused on doing her duty. There's no anger or malice, she seems at peace in the middle of fight and knows what her duty is. She doesn't seem utterly uncaring however, and shows acceptance and understanding of others' perception of her.

I want to talk about the present-tense prose that Harrison employs as that really helps set the tone of the story. Few stories are written in present-tense and doing so makes the reader feel omnipresent, as if they're seeing what's going on rather than having it recounted to them. This tense helps emphasise Raine's calmness and control, while at the same time making her seem as if she's disassociating and floating above what's going on. It's especially useful during the portions we see through the eyes of a psychic as well, adding an otherworldly and strange aspect to their visions.

I'll be honest, I was a little unsure if I wanted to read Honourbound at first. It seemed somewhat bleaker, somewhat more like the "real" setting of 40k than the more sanitised or mythologised stories I prefer. Additionally, it seems to have a major focus on a character who does truly believe in the Imperium, always something that makes me feel a bit icky. However a theme of the book seems to be self-discipline and self-belief rather than belief and discipline coming from the glory of the God-Emperor of mankind. And this first chapter's got some intriguing characters and concepts, and I'm falling in love with the way Harrison writes. I may have to have a look into this.

Horus Rising, Chapter One by Dan Abnett

I have to be honest, I've read Dan Abnett's Horus Rising. Twice actually. So it may be difficult for me to review it based on just this single chapter. But it's a great single chapter. If you're reading any novel in the Horus Heresy, you're vaguely aware of how it ends. The Emperor and Sanguinius dead at the hands of the Warmaster Horus Lupercal. So that starting line "I was there, the day Horus slew the Emperor" already hits hard.

It's weird to feel like a happy ending might be possible in a 40K 30K story, but the tone set up in the first chapter of Horus Rising is really a stark contrast to the point in the story I'm at now. It's early into mankind's interstellar expansion, it feels new, exciting and everyone feels eager to do good. There isn't the posturing and fury of the Imperium we know today, there's "amusement" rather than initial shows of force and power, and despair when it goes wrong, even cautious attempts at peace.

And we all know it's going to go horribly wrong. I think even newer fans would be aware of what's going to happen as the foreshadowing is awfully heavy, even in this first chapter. That's probably my only criticism with the book, Abnett's a great writer as always, not just with battle scenes across a variety of arenas, but he's able to write believable and funny interpersonal scenes. Not to talk too much about the rest of the series, but there's several characters here who he presents in a more nuanced and sympathetic way than later writers who carry on the series do.

I'm not sure what I can say about Horus Rising, the first chapter is a very well-written battle scene, foreshadowing the larger themes of the rest of the series. But the whole series runs so many different plots, and stories and themes that I'm not sure Horus Rising gives a good taste for the rest of the series. And while it's a series that I'm eager to explore more, I can't really say that it's Horus Rising that was the one that really sold me on it.

Black Pyramid by Josh Reynolds

Now we're onto the fantasy stories! Starting with Chapter One of Soul Wars by Josh Reynolds. The chapter focuses on Nagash, who I think is some kind of zombie king (thank you Codex Compliant!).

Nagash, unfortunately comes across as a generic doomsday villain, his empire crumbling to ruins, but still obscenely powerful. There's a great bit at the start where we see him pull his attention from waiting in a sort of void between life-and-death to the real world, but then it gets bogged down a bit. You can't give too much character to skeletons, but Reynolds does manage to get one-or-two humorous lines, that leave the reader wondering how much control Nagash has over his undead lieutenants, and even how much control he has over himself.

This is an odd chapter, as while it didn't make me want to pick up Soul Wars, it did make me curious enough to google Josh Reynolds, and I found a few other stories of his that I'm eager to try. Even though Soul Wars isn't grabbing my attention there's elements of Reynolds' writing style that show he's great at cosmic horror and Lovecraftian fiction, of which he's written plenty.

Sacrosanct by C.L. Werner

The first chapter of C.L. Werner's Sacrosanct from Sacrosanct And Other Stories introduces us to Arnhault, a Knight-Incantor and Stormcast Eternal. I'm pretty sure those are the fantasy equivalent of Space Marines. Pretty sure.

What jumps out at me about this chapter is that we get to see chaos corruption in more than just terms of ambition, mutation and desperation as we do in Horus Heresy. We get to see what Khorne's touch does to local wildlife, how an animal mind understands (or doesn't understand) what has happened to it and even a glimpse of the wider effects on society from something like this. In this short chapter we also see how much other transformations can shape a person's mind and their perception of the past.

The chapter is visually spectacular, which is odd to say for written prose but stay with me, Werner meshes dynamic action with a talent for descriptions of colour and effect and it works wonders. It's also the most viscerally gory I've read so far so if that's your thing you may like this. Through this action and this description Werner really manages to show us what the team of Stormcast Eternals are like.

Trollslayer Chapter One by William King

Trollslayer by William King is another book about Gotrek Gurnisson, who you may remember had a story in the 2021 Black Library Celebration this time it follows his adventures with Felix Jaeger, his companion for twelve more books after this one!

The Gotrek in this book is a lot different from the chapter I previously read, seeming slightly more boisterous, slightly more loud, and a little less gloomy. I already want to grab the Gotrek and Felix books just to try and trace this character development. As the first chapter of the first book, this excerpt is a little more exposition heavy, discussing why the two characters have been exiled from their homelands and are wandering together.

The story is honestly one of the funniest I've read so far, second only to the Ciaphas Cain story early in this book. Gotrek is such an absolute bastard that I can't help but laugh at him accidentally(?) angering innkeepers and dragging Felix along on his suicidal quest. I think after just this one chapter, that holds up very well on it's own, I'm inclined to check out more of this series!

Intruders by Cavan Scott

Intruders is the first chapter of Attack Of The Necrons by Cavan Scott. It's part of the Warhammer Adventures series which is aimed at kids and young adults. I remember reading about this series in Penny Arcade a few years ago, and how jarring they found it. Cavan Scott is also a writer of some of the Doctor Who comics and audiobooks including the main entries in the Forge storyline (Project: Twilight, Project: Lazarus and Project: Destiny) which are some genuinely heartbreaking stories. So I'm going into this with an open mind and ... an inquisitive mind towards the tone.

Going into this was a bit strange. There's a very different tone and writing style from most Black Library books, simpler sentences, it isn't casual about cruelty and oppression when describing the background, the human characters don't seem entirely xenophobic. Even some of the word choices stick out a little bit ("Mum" for example). The length is also shorter than a lot of the other chapters in the book.

I can't really make a comment on it, I sort of want to read the whole book if only to compare it to some of the more "adult" 40K books out there. I feel maybe it's not leaping out at me as I'm not in that intended age demographic (anymore).

The Silent Market by Tom Huddleston

Our last entry is The Silent Market the first chapter of another Warhammer Adventures book, this time the fantasy story City of Lifestone by Tom Huddleston. I'm even more out of my depth with this one, as I'm unfamiliar with Warhammer Fantasy as a whole, but from what I've seen it really doesn't shy away from the violence, entropy and sheer grimness (oh, Hell, let's say Grimdark, let's call it what it is) of the setting.

Somehow it still manages to be a kid-friendly story without actually straying away from that overarching theme that this was a high-magic fantasy world that has fallen on tough times and tougher luck. It's arguably bleaker as we're seeing a child lose her hope for the future!

Again, it's quite short, but it does seem, from my limited knowledge of the setting, like a good introduction to the Warhammer Fantasy setting for younger readers.

Final Thoughts

Checking my notes I did feel like a bit of a cop-out, with the exception of two, all of the Warhammer 40,000 books are calling to me like demons in the warp. Conversely none of the fantasy offerings, apart from the Gotrek and Felix tale are appealing to me too much. Admittedly, some of those are books I already have or that have already been recommended to me, but some are newer stories that this anthology has convinced me are worth my time.

Gaunt's Ghosts, Eisenhorn and Ciaphas Cain: HERO OF THE IMPERIUM are the three series that have been recommended time and time again to me. It's not fair to say that these chosen chapters didn't push the books further up my ever expanding, like, Oh Lord my work will never be finished "To Read" List. But it would also be unfair to say that these excerpts were the sole factor in making me want to read them.

Nexus and Indomitus both grabbed my attention as they focus on Space Marines but in a more humanising way, even though they're one of my least favourite factions. Of course, both books featuring one of my favourite factions does a lot to increase that appeal. By a similar token Devastation of Baal and Watchers Of The Throne are both grabbing my attention as they focus on ordinary human beings from two very different social strata. (I'm curious, if that is making anyone else really want to play Dark Heresy?). Part of me has some morbid curiosity as to whether Attack Of The Necron can actually even work. But I doubt I'll really act on it.

When we come to the fantasy novels it's a bit of a different story, I still want to go for the Warhammer Adventures story, City of Lifestone but more to see if it will be a good primer into the Age Of Sigmar and Warhammer Fantasy series'. This is largely because I'd really like to read the Gotrek and Felix books and would like to better understand the overall setting.

Now, if anyone needs me, I'm going to be asking my Mum if she can find my copy of Xenos and wrap it up for me as a cheap Christmas present ...

review

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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