Severed (Black Library Novella Series 2: Book 4)
The Necrons are one of the most terrifying races in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. A race of ancient aliens who had their minds transferred into near-indestructible cyborg bodies, they are relentless, implacable and utterly determined to eliminate all other life within the known universe. They possess fleets of space-faring vessels that can go toe to toe with anything fielded by the Imperium of Man, the Orks, the legions of Chaos or even the Tyranids; their use of warp-portals allows them to travel across vast gulfs of space simultaneously; and their gauss rifles and other technologies can flay the flesh from a man’s bones in milliseconds. They are perhaps the greatest threat in the entire setting, rivalled only by the Tyranid menace, and their blank-faced visages have been the last things seen by billions – if not trillions – of living beings.
And yet despite all of this, after finishing Nate Crowley’s Severed, I find myself in the dangerous position of being sympathetic to these psychotic cyborg killbots. In fact, not only do I now feel sorry for their existence and what they have been through, Crowley even managed to get me to empathise with them. Empathise with them! This is unprecedented territory – for this is not the first time that the author has been able to humanise previously inscrutable and murderous alien races. In his short story The Enemy of My Enemy (published as both a digital short and included in Inferno! Volume 1) Mr Crowley made a convincing case for an Ork Warboss being the more honest, and less manipulative, person when compared to a General of the Imperial Guard, in what was one of the stand-out stories of that anthology. I believe we now stand on an undeniably dangerous precipice – for who knows what alien race in the Warhammer 40,000 universe Mr Crowley will take on next. In the future will I cry along with a Lictor as it explores its abandonment issues, or come to understand that Commorragh is actually the more enlightened and progressive splinter of the dying Eldar race? Or perhaps a trilogy exploring why the daemonic Chaos Primarch Mortarion was just fatally misunderstood, and is actually a pretty nice guy once you get to know him?
Severed is the fourth book in Black Library’s Novella Series 2, 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 cheap enough for anyone to collect without particularly straining their budget. Both Series 1 and Series 2 helped to bring me back into Warhammer as a hobby and begin reading Black Library fiction again, and Severed was one of the titles I was most excited about, alongside Thomas Parrott’s magnificent Isha’s Lament. I was already a fan of Mr Crowley after reading his above-mentioned short story, as well as his humorous Twitter feed, and was curious to see what he could do with the iconic yet coldly inhuman Necrons. The cover for Severed is fantastic, with that gorgeous minimalist design showcasing the illustration of a Necron Lord, and the back-cover blurb was intriguing, though distinctly misleading in tone; I don’t know if this was done on purpose to avoid spoiling the complex, multi-layered nature of the novella, but it makes Severed sound like something of a generic Warhammer 40,000 story when it is so, so much more than that.
Nemesor Zahndrekh is a high-ranking Necron Lord of considerable martial talent, as aptly demonstrated in the opening chapter of the novella when he completes the conquest of an entire solar system, grinding the not-insubstantial forces of the Adeptus Mechanicum into so much dust with all of the undying, metallic forces at his disposal. He’s ably aided by his loyal subordinate Vargard Obyron, who acts as a blend of aide-de-camp, bodyguard and long-suffering companion. Why long-suffering? Because his lord and master suffers from the delusions that he is still a living, breathing being and not a soulless, living-metal cyborg with damaged memory engrams. Therefore everything he sees and does is viewed in that erroneous context: enemy forces are rebellious Necrontyr, and planetary governors are high-ranking hostages to be feted (in an early sequence that is as grim as it is darkly hilarious), and he even affects to have a cough and be affected by dust or heat when his body is actually impervious to all the elements. Obyron and others have attempted to persuade him otherwise for centuries, if not millennia, and then given up, leading to this tragi-comic figure presiding over a host of lesser Necron aristocracy who are well aware of their metallic, inhuman nature but unable to act against him, such is his power. Even Imotekh the Stormlord, the supreme leader of the Necrons, deigns to go along with his fantasies because of his effectiveness as a tactician and warlord. Throughout the novella, Crowley deftly walks the line between tragedy and humour, creating a blend of ultra-dark black humour as Zahndrekh relentlessly views everything through ‘living’ eyes and Obyron is forced to go along with it and guard him against rivals and enemies.
Regardless of his master’s condition, Obyron is bonded to him, and must therefore follow him into a mysterious new campaign, in a deadly region of space and accompanied only by an ‘old ally’ who inspires little confidence in Obyron, and who obviously has his own nefarious agenda that Zahndrekh appears blinded towards. Zahndrekh and Obyron accompany their new ally, an old friend and colleague of Zahndrekh, through this remote area of space and begin laying siege to a Necron tomb-world. This is a rare world where the guiding machine spirit/AI failed to ‘wake’ properly and has led to a ‘Severed’ world (hence the novella’s title) where the freshly-awoken Necron are effectively like zombies, guided only vaguely by the corrupted spirit. There’s something at the heart of the tomb-world that their new ally wants, and it will take all of Obyron’s skill and experience to keep himself and Zahndrekh alive – or as ‘alive’ as a Necron can be.
Zahndrekh and Obyron, and the complex and often fractious relationship between them, is at the heart of Severed, along with a swathe of issues that are rarely, if ever, considered in Black Library fiction. Even as Crowley delivers a fast-paced and intricately-plotted story of the Necron lords waging war on the Severed forces in bloodless but brutal combat, with political intrigue constantly going on in the background, he also tackles weighty issues like the concept of ‘life’, ‘reality’ and even whether a humanoid-turned-machine can retain a soul after such a process. If you can no longer feel the wind on your face, or taste the food you pretend to eat, or smell your environment, are you actually ‘alive’ even if you are sentient and waging war against fleshy (and metallic) foes? Can your soul and very nature be severed when you transition (willingly or not) to a undying machine body – and what happens if that transition doesn’t work as planned, as with Zahndrekh?
These are just some of the weighty issues that Obyron grapples with throughout the course of the novella, and in the hands of a less confident or experienced author, it might have resulted in a hot mess of a title that asked these questions but answered none of them, while also impacting on the overarching storyline. But Crowley is more than up to the task, deftly and assuredly blending the plot and meta-plot together to deliver some genuinely moving and even heart-breaking sequences between Zahndrekh and Obyron. They are two of the most original and engaging characters I have encountered in Black Library fiction for a very long while, and the manner in which Crowley dissects their complex relationship is just absolutely fascinating and an extraordinary character study.
Add to all of this a seemingly innate understanding of how Necron society and culture functions, occasional flashes of incredibly dry black humour that helps to leaven the generally grim and downbeat tone of the novella, and engaging, even poetic prose that perfectly suits the tone and characters, and you have a potent, thrilling and often surprising novella that is unlike any that Black Library have ever published before. The Novella Series’ have come across as experimental in many ways, both in the low price, word-counts and varied settings, and Severed is by far the most experimental of all of the novellas – and consequently the best. In my opinion this is exactly the sort of writing, setting and viewpoints needed to ensure that Black Library fiction remains fresh and attractive to new and old readers alike. Severed is an absolute triumph, and I can only hope that we see more of its type in the future – both in general, and also very specifically from Mr Crowley.