Hearing about a new Warhammer Horror release is always something to celebrate, and especially when it comes from such an experienced and talented author like Nick Kyme. Not only is he someone with a huge amount of knowledge of the Warhammer settings as a whole, and an author who has written a huge amount of excellent, high-quality Warhammer fiction, he also seems to be a natural fit for the Warhammer Horror imprint. His short story Stitches, in the Invocations anthology that was recently released, was an incredible piece of Warhammer 40K horror fiction; blood-soaked, claustrophobic and with a slowly-increasing intensity, it led up to a genuinely unsettling and shocking ending. I described it in my review of that anthology as “A potent blend of psychological horror as well as physical – almost splatterpunk in some parts. Both a great Warhammer story and a great horror story – perfectly stitched together” and I still stand by those words.
As such, when I saw Sepulturum announced with Kyme’s name attached to it, along with that deeply sinister and yet beguiling cover art, I knew that this was going to be something special in the history of Warhammer Horror, even in an imprint that has deeply impressed me with the high quality and deeply original content it’s been releasing. In addition, the back-cover blurb only increased my anticipation: an amnesiac flees into the darkest, most wretched depths of a Hive city in an attempt to survive being hunted, while simultaneously trying to piece together her shattered memories. It all added up to something that sounded deeply intriguing, and I was eager to start reading my review copy.
The Warhammer Horror novels that I’ve reviewed so far have had a variety of different ways of pacing their opening chapters: some slower-paced, others faster and more intense. Kyme definitely sides with the latter, with the opening paragraph of Sepulturum itself reflecting this, protagonist Morgravia confronted with a dying man who claims to know her, yet she has no idea who he is or how he knows her. But there’s no time to try and gather together her tortured memories, as she’s being pursued by something terrifying and powerful through the filth of the underhive. There’s an inherent, feverish pace that is threaded throughout the novel, with Morgravia (and by extension the reader) rarely able to stop and relax and consider things in detail; Kyme skillfully and relentlessly pushes the plot and narrative forward, always bridging that gap between the pursuers and the pursued, the predators and the prey. Adrift in the depths of the lower Hive, her memories worryingly absent and her body a patchwork of scars, Morgravia’s only companion is a deeply unsettling death cultist named Hel, a murderess and assassin who seems barely human even on a good day – of which there are few. Morgravia must attempt to reknit her memories while inhabiting the brutal, violent, short-lived life of an inhabitant living in the dregs of a Hive, bargaining with heretics and dealing with strange occult things that can happen in far-off corners of the Imperium, like limbs grasping from sand to drag down warring gangers, and a horde of undead Hivers coming back to (un)life and rampaging through the slums.
The low-hive of Blackgeist is the setting for Sepulturum, and although it has some superficial similarities to the Necromunda setting, Kyme uses his skills to bring it to life in a way that just wasn’t feasible with Necromunda. The lower levels of the hive are brought to dirty, squawling, brutal life by Kyme’s pen, aided his prodigious and fertile imagination; though Hive Cities are a penny a dozen in the fiction of Warhammer 40K, Kyme still manages to make this one seem both distinctive and original. We don’t often get to see a sustained and detailed look at the lower depths of such an urban jungle, and it’s a real treat to soak it all in, with Kyme making dozens of small but distinct points about how such a place functions and evolves in an oddly organic manner. He also has a real way with environmental descriptions that brings you into the hive itself, walking alongside its wretched, short-lived inhabitants. Indeed, there’s a scene a few chapters into the novel that I found difficult to stomach, perfectly illustrating as it does the casual violence and utter indifference to life that the authorities and higher-born have for those below them; panicked crowds of hivers are cut down with callous disdain and brutality by the Proctors who are supposed to be protecting and guarding them. It’s a perfect summary of what life in the Warhammer 40,000 setting is like for the average citizen, but is written with unflinching prose and a degree of savagery that I suspect wouldn’t have been possible outside the freedom that the Warhammer Horror imprint has allowed its authors. It also acts as the perfect background and conduit for that underlying tension that propels the narrative along at such a pace; at no point is there anywhere in Blackgeist that could be seen as a refuge or even temporary safe space for Morgravia and her few, dubious allies.
Kyme assembles a rather diverse and engaging cast of characters for Sepulturum, and also isn’t afraid to have key characters horribly maimed or even killed if the plot requires it; again, this isn’t a title fenced in by the requirements of the setting’s metaplot or sales requirements. Morgravia is a brilliant protagonist, cold and mysterious yet engagingly so, besieged by random spurts of violent, gore-tinged and terrifying memories of something intensely wrong; despite the authority of her position and her obvious skills and experience, you can’t help but sympathise with her situation. Hel, who appears just a little too rarely for my liking, is a genuinely unsettling and weird creation, with a horrifying link to Morgravia that isn’t revealed until a shocking twist towards the end of the novel. Cleverly, Kyme balances out the instability of Morgravia and the horrors of Hel with the character of Drover, a hired-hand and sharpshooter mercenary who ends up accompanying Morgravia out of necessity to escape the undead hordes; he’s a quick wit with an easy, affable manner that hides a much darker interior, and I thoroughly enjoyed his scenes and his interactions with Morgravia. There are other characters as well, just as well-developed, but I fear to say too much more in case I reveal some major spoilers.
The plot and characters are first-rate, but the true star of Sepulturum really is Blackgeist itself, and the depth of detail and amount of imagination that Kyme has put into the underhive. It’s perhaps best described as Necromunda but unrestrained by the requirements of selling models or advancing a specific plot point, which in turn allows Kyme to fully unveil the horrors of life in the very bottom of a hive. Here we see the grime and dirt, the toxicity, the despair of people beaten into the ground by an uncaring stratified society and the brutality of the armoured, armed proctors who enforce a twisted and uncaring form of law and order. Plus the elements that lurk in the shadows of the underhive – the violent gangers, and the twisted horrors of the Imperial cult, insane cultists who preach an (even more) extreme version of the Imperial Truth, and torture and incinerate any who do not immediately swear allegiance to them. It all comes together to create a grim dark setting that gets under your skin inch by inch, to the extent that I felt distinctly grimy and unclean after finishing the novel.
Fast-paced, gore-soaked and the epitome of the industrial horror subgenre, Sepulturum is another fantastic novel from the pen of Nick Kyme. It grabs you by the throat and pulls you into the terrifying, atrocity-laden world of Blackgeist and its many hidden horrors, and doesn’t let go until the last page has been turned. Filled with engaging, three-dimensional characters, and a central plot that blends brutal, kinetic action sequences together with some of the darkest and most insidiously terrifying elements of the Warhammer 40,000 setting, Sepulturum is an amazing novel. Frankly, to me it ranks alongside Josh Reynold’s Dark Harvest and Graham McNeill’s The Colonel’s Monograph as one of the best titles in the entire Warhammer Horror imprint, and I really do hope that we see a sequel or continuation in some form in the next cycle of titles to come out from the imprint.