Yarrick: Chains of Golgotha
I’m a huge fan of the Warhammer I.P. fiction published by Black Library, particularly the Warhammer 40k line; I have over a hundred novels on my shelves, and continue to buy them when I get the chance. However the quality of the novels, novellas and short stories put out by Black Library, to put it politely, varies massively in quality. At its worst, it can be indifferently-written and turgid, easily reverting to what some fans refer to as ‘Bolter-Porn’ – endless pages of giant, heavily-armoured Space Marines mowing down enemies while shouting generic platitudes at each other, the characters a bunch of stereotypes that are barely fleshed-out, if at all.
However, there are a small number of authors writing for the Black Library that easily rise above the rest, producing brilliantly-written fiction that puts their own definite stamp on the Warhammer 40k canon. David Annandale is one of these authors: starting with the short story The Carrion Anthem, an intriguing take on how music could be used to spread a contagion, he has gone on to write a number of excellent short stories and novels, which I believe easily puts him into the front-rank of Black Library authors in terms of quality and readability. Yarrick: Chains of Golgotha, is in my opinion still his finest piece of writing.
Commissar Sebastian Yarrick is easily one of the most popular and well-known characters in the entire 40k canon. The very definition of ‘grizzled’, Yarrick really only has two defining attributes: a fanatical belief in the Emperor, and a fanatical hatred of the Ork Warlord Ghazghkull Mag Uruk Thraka. Yarrick’s entire character really only revolves around those twinned concepts, and could therefore easily fall into a two-dimensional stereotype. Perhaps as a result, prior to this novella Yarrick rarely appeared in Warhammer fiction; when he did, it was always as a cameo, never as a point-of-view character. It is therefore to Annandale’s credit that he has managed to flesh Yarrick out as a character, retaining those key characteristics while managing to make the Commissar an interesting and engaging character.
Annandale’s Yarrick, portrayed here nearly (but not quite) at the apex of his character arc, is a man devoted to the cause of finding and killing Thraka; he will go to any length to achieve this goal, calling in every favour and using every iota of influence that he has to assemble a force to hunt down the Ork Warlord. At the same time, however, he is also aware of the legend that is already growing around him, which makes him deeply uncomfortable – he understands that it will happen regardless of his feelings about it, and uses the legend to pursue his goal, but believes that he is ultimately no different to any other soldier of the Emperor.
Yarrick is superbly realised and well-written, and the same high standard is present in the novella itself. Chains of Golgotha is tightly-paced, well-written and atmospheric as hell, with an innate understanding of its main character and what drives him. The first half of the novella never lets up the pace, from the creepy and atmospheric opening chapter, in which a monster slowly inches its way up a shaft towards freedom, and bloody vengeance on its captors, to the Blitzkrieg-paced tank battles that take place during the pursuit, and then rout, on Golgotha. The second half of the book, in which Yarrick is taken prisoner, along with the survivors of his force, does slow down somewhat, but only to allow a greater insight into Yarrick’s mind, and to see how even in the worst of situations, he is able to use his faith and hatred to rally the prisoners in a suicidal attack on their Ork captors. The final chapters, in which Yarrick discovers just how much he has underestimated Thraka, are a brilliant set-up to a story that, unfortunately, has yet to be told.
Ultimately, this is not just a brilliant Warhammer 40k novel, but a brilliant piece of science-fiction writing in general, and a book that deserves to be on the shelf of any discerning science-fiction fan, irregardless of whether they are a fan of the Warhammer setting itself.