The Oubliette (Warhammer Horror)
J. C. Stearns
The Warhammer Horror imprint has been one of my favourite new developments coming from Black Library, only narrowly beaten by the two Novella Series’ that were released in 2018 and 2019 and which helped draw me back into the Warhammer fiction fold. Although the Warhammer settings (principally 40,000 and Age of Sigmar) have a general underpinning of cosmic and supernatural horror (40,000 was one of the originators of the term Grimdark, after all) I don’t believe that any Warhammer fiction could ever really fully utilise that horror before the creation of Warhammer Horror because it was always inevitably restrained by the need to advance a certain meta narrative for the settings overarching plot, or to advertise a new unit or campaign or model released by Games Workshop.
As such, I was excited by the idea of a series of titles unhindered by the requirements of the games developer; shorn of those limitations, surely we would be able to see new and veteran authors alike develop terrifying and unsettling horror stories using the 40,000 and Age of Sigmar universes? Fortuitously that is indeed what happened, and I’ve become such a cheerleader for the imprint that I’m determined to review every novel, anthology and audio drama that is released as part of Warhammer Horror. The latest title, released on Boxing Day 2019, was The Oubliette by J.C. Stearns, a new author to Black Library but one whose stories have already impressed me. His short story The Marauder Lives was a highlight of the Maledictions anthology because of its subtle blend of psychological horror and character-driven plot, and as such I looked forward to seeing what Stearns could do with a full-length novel.
The cover illustration for The Oubliette is one of the most arresting pieces of art I’ve seen in quite some time. The Warhammer Horror titles have had uniformly high-quality illustrations used for their covers, but this piece is by far the best I’ve seen, both for the imprint and Black Library titles in general. What at first glance I took to be a multi-hued flower of some kind is instead a stunning illustration of a woman in a petticoat falling through darkness, a spectral hand grasping at her as she falls. Some kind of pendant or jewellery piece falls with her, just out of her desperate reach. It’s a hugely evocative and memorable piece, and really brought me into Stearn’s tale before I’d even started reading, aided by an intriguing back-cover blurb. Ashielle Matkosen is now the new Governor of the planet of Ceocan, unprepared for the harsh realities of ruling a planet in the God-Emperor’s name and faced by enemies in every direction. A pact with an ancient monstrosity under the Governor’s Palace may hold the key to surviving the treachery of her family, friends and enemies, but – this being Warhammer 40,000 – can only have dire consequences for her and the world in general.
The Oubliette opens with an Administratum document that handily summarises the planet Ceocan and its population, highlighting that it’s an agri-world that produces a nutrient paste for Mechanicus workers and Tech-priests, with a small population that doesn’t seem to have any real hardships. It’s a deft move by Stearns as it makes a nice change from the warn-out trope of war-torn, Chaos-blighted worlds that usually feature in Warhammer 40,000 novels, and contrasts nicely with the coming darkness, thereby making it all the more shocking. With the death of her father, Ashielle now takes her place as Governor of Ceocan, and realises that political manoeuvring against her has begun even before her father is in his grave; she has no allies save her younger brother who offers no support, and is socially and professionally isolated at the exact moment she needs help the most. Assassins are soon coming for her and those few she trusts, and in desperation she finds herself throwing her lot in with something ancient, abominable and heretical lurking in the depths of the ancient labyrinth underneath her Palace. It saves her life – but at a cost she cannot even begin to fathom, and one which becomes more and more sinister and beguiling as time passes and her enemies draw closer and closer to ending her short reign as Governor.
One of the best elements of The Oubliette is the richness and depth of the world-building to be found in the novel, with Stearns deftly and engagingly building up a portrait of Ceocan and its population. As the plot progresses, we get to see a minor planet that’s been all but forgotten by the wider Imperium, valued only vaguely for its agricultural output. As a result, lack of oversight has allowed the planetary elites to ossify and become decadent and corrupt even before the actual Chaos being underneath the Palace comes into play. Stearns shows us a quasi-feudal state that is dominated by the subtle snobbery of the planetary elite and the perilous, isolated existence of the Matkosen family as the hereditary Governors encircled by vicious enemy families. This is a society where even the order of speaking in a conversation can lead to a loss of prestige or social problems, and the cut and thrust of politics has prevented anything but the most conservative form of economic and social development. Stearns has a masterful eye for barbed wits and cutting comments, writing natural and multi-layered conversations between socialites, elites and politicians that develops the planet into something unique and memorable compared to the settings of many other Black Library titles. This is also a world that has an original and strikingly impressive Pre-Imperial History that Stearns weaves into the narrative and then leads to a number of major plot-twists in a manner that I don’t think I’ve seen done before in Warhammer fiction; or if it has been done, then never as well as this.
So the world-building is absolutely first-rate, and the plot is evenly-paced and moves along at a nice pace, with some rather cunning and surprising plot twists that actually surprised me in places and weren’t telegraphed at all: again, that’s rather rare in Warhammer fiction and something that seems to be common in the Warhammer Horror imprint. The characters are also first-rate, well-developed and multidimensional people that never really fall into the clichés that often dominate Warhammer fiction. Ashielle is a fantastic protagonist who’s character develops significantly through the plot of the novel, and her decisions always seem to be organic to the world-building that Stearns has created, rather than because the plot summary and remaining word-count demand it. The abomination itself is also a fascinating character because, while at first it just seems to be the usual tropey warp spawn seen in a hundred Black Library titles, it slowly develops into a genuinely repulsive creation that Stearns imbues with a sardonic personality and a merciless lethality that the new Governor comes to rely upon. It’s entirely alien nature really comes across in the text, as does its instinctive sadism, and its imbued with this raw, primal energy that left a real impression on me days after finishing the novel.
There’s so much more I’d like to say about The Oubliette, but I fear to do so would both bore you as a reader, and spoil some of the best bits within the novel. It really is a fantastic read, even more impressive when you consider that this is Stearns’ first novel for Black Library, and given the thought, detail and passion that the author has clearly put into it I expect to see much more from him in the near future. Indeed, given that one of the best plot elements of The Oubliette is the investigation by a veteran Arbites into the murders committed by the Chaos creature, Stearns seems like the obvious candidate to write a novel for the Warhammer Crime imprint starting later in 2020. Multi-layered, deftly paced and with some incredibly dark and grimly shocking moments of both cosmic and human horror, The Oubliette is a superb debut novel by a talented and skilful author, one who joins the ranks of other impressive newcomers to Black Library such as Thomas Parrott, Nate Crowley and Richard W. Strachan.