If I’m completely honest, until around the beginning of 2019, I had effectively given up on reading Black Library titles, and Warhammer as a setting and I.P. had passed out of my range of interests. There were a few reasons for that – certainly diving into the Horror genre led me off in a very different direction and ensured I had far less time for reading sci-fi and fantasy titles. But much of my disinterest was a result of Black Library’s – and of course, by extension, Games Workshop’s – policies of seeming to push nothing but expensive, limited-edition hardcover novels or other titles that were just so far out of my financial reach that it felt ridiculous. Coupled with eBooks being as expensive as physical books (a complex argument, to be sure, but still resulting in my inability to purchase them) and cheaper paperbacks being delayed for at least a year, I felt like I had no choice but to move on to other interests.
It was only until late 2019/early 2019 that it seemed like that all began to change, and I felt like Black Library became accessible once again. First there came the announcement of the Warhammer Horror imprint, which not only intrigued me deeply but had an affordable mix of paperbacks, hardcovers and audiobooks; but Black Library also began releasing their Novella collection. It was a brilliant idea, and simple in its genius: a set of ten Novellas with matching covers, ranging through the various Warhammer settings (40,000; Age of Sigmar; Necromunda), written by a mixture of veteran and new authors and – most importantly to me – affordable. I could pick one up for a mere £3, and the whole (beautifully matching) set would only put me back £30 which was hardly breaking the bank if purchased a few at a time. I only managed to pick up a few of the Series 1 Novellas when they came out, but enjoyed them immensely, and was determined to purchase all of Series 2 when they were released. That duly occurred in November 2019, and they seemed like a natural fit for reviewing on the blog as and when I picked them up.
It was only when I began looking at the Novellas themselves that I realised just how many strange, wonderful and deeply intriguing elements had been introduced to the various settings since I had drifted away, the majority in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Radical and sweeping changes had been made to the internal canon and setting since I had last read a Black Library title. The destruction of the fortress world of Cadia; the introduction of the Great Rift and the subsequent Imperium Nihilus that split apart the Imperium of Man; the return of a Primarch; and the new and still deeply controversial Primarus Marines, to name just some of the major changes. I welcome all of them as much-needed changes to a setting that had become stale and moribund, but the development that has most caught my interest has been a relatively minor one. The Blackstone Fortresses have been canon for a very long time, but always as part of the background dressing; strange, indestructible bastions floating in space, built by a race or races dead long before the Imperium formed, at times they were pursued and captured by the forces of Chaos, but generally not much was done with them apart from a few big set-piece battles. I’d always thought that a lost opportunity, and was therefore intrigued when a new miniatures game was released by Games Workshop based on a Blackstone Fortress and the constant attempts by explorers to plumb its depths for archeotech and treasure. Where a game went fiction was certain to follow, and sure enough Black Library began to publish Blackstone Fortress tales.
One of those tales is Isha’s Lament by Thomas Parrott, the third book in the Series 2 Novella, and one of the titles in the series I was most interested in. I was fortunate enough to win a competition run by Mr Parrott via social media and gain a copy of the novella, and this seemed like an excellent opportunity to both celebrate a new author in the Black Library stable and explore the Blackstone Fortress fiction line. The back-cover blurb certainly promised an exciting adventure – a former Imperial Guard sniper turned deserter and now adventurer is forced to venture back into the Blackstone Fortress to desperately seek a cure for a plague breaking out in Precipice, the void-station anchored to the gigantic fortification that’s used as a base by those daring (or foolish) enough to act as explorers. That description, combined with the gorgeous minimalist cover design, got me reading the novella right away.
The first thing that strikes me is that Parrott has an instinctual way for descriptions and characterisation that meshes really well with the setting. In the first few pages we get a fantastic opening piece about the Blackstone Fortress and its place in the galaxy, and those who would dare venture inside it – or ‘walk the Twilight lines’ as Parrott so deftly puts it. The characterisation is just as good – ex-Guardsman Brakus Andradus stands out as a distinct protagonist within just a few paragraphs, and his trio of fellow explorers also come across as a fully fleshed-out bunch with their own personalities and goals. The strange cyborg Exactius is an especially memorable creation, stalking through the interior of an ancient voidwreck with the distinct air of something that would carve up its companions in a nano-second if it needed to do so. The relationships and tensions between the quartet feel natural and help propel the plot along nicely, as well as more generally engaging the reader. After all, it doesn’t matter how interesting the plot or setting is if the characters don’t make you want to follow them along on their journey.
After an exciting and rather breathless action set-piece that has the four explorers engage in a bloody fracas with some of the mutated beastmen that lurk in parts of the Fortress, they are able to return to the ‘city’ of Precipice, the void-station anchored to the Fortress and the first – and only – port of call for those who make it through the debris field of asteroids and shattered vessels that orbits the Fortress. Precipice also comes alive through Parrott’s prose, a chaotic, bustling and alive place serving those who dare to explore within the Blackstone Fortress. It’s a fantastic-sounding location full of weird, wonderful and dangerous people and aliens, and I can’t wait to see more stories set in and around it. But it also has the potential to be a powder-keg with humans, xenos, cyborgs and who knows what else mixing together. That’s ably shown by Parrott when Andradus’ return from his latest exploration within the Fortress coincides with a deadly virus breaking out in the depths of Precipice, and a violent quarantine procedure being put in place that herds the humans into a tiny section of the city. There’s a real tension and fear to this part of the plot as Andradus is forced to venture back into the Fortress in search of a cure while also dealing with the deep-rooted PTSD that means he’s a near-wreck when not chasing adrenaline-inducing fights in the Fortress itself.
Venturing back in would be bad enough on his own, but he’s not only accompanied by his murderous cyborg companion Exactius but also two xeno companions – a mysterious Eldar warrior, and a lethal Dark Eldar assassin who inevitably clash together given their background and differing goals. Once again, Parrott has created an engaging and disparate ensemble of characters, and also manages to skilfully get across the uniquely tempting and yet murderously dangerous interior of the Blackstone Fortress – the amazing things to be found within it yet also the myriad dangers to be encountered. He really nails the atmosphere of opportunity balanced with lethality and even risk of damnation. However, the really enjoyable thing about Isha’s Lament, especially towards the latter half of the novella, is how obvious it is that Parrott is openly enjoying writing this story and propelling forward his characters. Imaginative writing and well-executed twists and turns are accompanied by insane challenges and murderous traps that are hurled at the little band with barely a pause for breath, resulting in a fast-paced action-adventure with cosmic horror and weirdness that will keep you glued to the pages until the very end.
That would certainly be enough to make Isha’s Lament an enjoyable Black Library tale, but what really makes the novella stand out from its many competitors – both in the Novella series and within the rest of the Black Library range – is the care and skill that Parrott devotes to each character, and especially Andradus in particular. Despite the relatively limited word-count of the novella, each character feels so well developed and fleshed-out to be the protagonist of their own novel. They clearly have their own backgrounds, independent motivations and goals, all of which have only temporarily been thrown together on this desperate journey to seek out a cure, and by the end of the novella I was desperate to know what would happen to all of them in the future. I absolutely want to see all of these characters again, whether together or in separate tales – they’re all awesome and memorable people that fit perfectly into the Blackstone Fortress setting, and Warhammer 40,000 more generally.
Isha’s Lament is an assured, confident and action-packed debut title by Parrott, and demonstrates that he has rapidly and deftly mastered the ability to write stories in the Warhammer 40,000 universe – which is no mean feat given how many have done so in the past and failed after a few tries. He seems to have an instinctive feeling for the lore and canon and how to mould it into a great story; can write some brutal, adrenaline-pumping action scenes blended with an engaging plot; and of course has been able to conjure up a suite of three-dimensional characters that fit perfectly with the setting. Mr Parrott is now well on my radar as an author, and while I look forward to seeing what he can produce outside of the Warhammer settings, I suspect in regards to Black Library fiction he will soon be mentioned in the same breath as authors like Wraight, Reynolds and Annandale – those who really get the setting and how to write high-quality and memorable tales within it.