Lords of the Storm is the fifth 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 I enjoyed all of the titles in Series 2 so much, that I decided to try and review all of them here on this blog. I managed to review half of the entire tranche before getting distracted by other things, but I’m now making a valiant attempt to review the rest before the inevitable Series 3 is announced by Black Library and I become distracted yet again.
Although the novellas penned by established authors like Danie Ware (Wreck and Ruin) and Graham McNeill (The Colonel’s Monograph) caught my eye immediately when Series 2 was announced, the titles by lesser-known and brand new authors intrigued me just as much, if not more. A published setting can only thrive if new blood is brought into the mix, and so I was curious to see what writers new to the various Warhammer settings could deliver; what visions, unique to their imaginations, would be conjured up and delivered to us as readers? Nate Crowley’s Severed was an amazingly nuanced and multi-layered tale that brought a rare insight into the workings of the Necron aristocracy, and Thomas Parrott served up a slice of assured, fast-paced and hugely enjoyable action with Isha’s Lament, setting down his own unique and highly memorable take on the new Blackstone Fortress setting.
Both of those novellas offered unique angles on story-telling aspects of the Warhammer 40,000 setting, and Edoardo Albert’s Lords of the Storm seemed to do the same. The cover art for the novella offers an indication of where Albert’s tale will be going – a Primaris Reiver stares out from the cover, bolt pistol and combat knife at the ready, the bottom half of his face covered by a sinister mask etched with a skeletal mouth. The back-cover blurb reinforced the first impressions, highlighting that the novella would revolve around the efforts of a squad of Astartes from the Fulminators, a new Astartes Chapter composed entirely of Primaris Space Marines, to safeguard a crucial relic from the last Imperial stronghold on a planet besieged by the forces of Chaos.
The focus on the Primaris marines, especially an entire Chapter of them, was an angle that I had been waiting to read for quite some time, almost as soon as Games Workshop moved the Warhammer 40,000 metaplot forward and introduced them into both the setting and its accompanying fiction. Put simply, Primaris are better than the ‘original’ Astartes – faster, stronger, taller, and generally better designed to withstand the dramatic changes that have occurred in the Imperium of Man, with the destruction of Cadia and the Great Rift (Cicatrix Maledictum) splitting the Imperium in two. Their introduction has been controversial in terms of the game’s playerbase, and this has been reflected in the fiction published by Black Library since the advent of the Great Rift. There have been some excellent short stories and novels that have demonstrated the clash of personalities and viewpoints between Primaris Astartes and their predecessors, and the difficulties in integrating the newcomers into existing Chapters; but Albert’s Lords of the Storm was the first title I’d been aware of that focused exclusively on members of a Primaris Chapter – and I was eager to see how they would be depicted when not mirrored against those who had come before them.
That was an intriguing hook for the novella, and the setting that Albert developed only sunk that hook deeper into me: the storm-wracked world of Chevreuse, a pilgrim planet that has been defiled by an invasion of Chaos forces, led by a vanguard of Chaos Astartes. The entire planet has fallen to the invaders, with the exception of what has become known as the ‘Storm Zone’, an area that covers a pilgrim’s path to a reliquary containing the bones of an Imperial Saint. The storms protecting the reliquary’s position are nothing short of miraculous, constantly changing their position and utterly destroying any Chaos forces that try and overrun the ragged pilgrim militia that are desperately holding out; however, they have their limits and have not driven the invaders off of the planet entirely, resulting in a bitter and tense standoff. It’s an incredibly imaginative and highly original setting, and one that instantly grabbed me as a reader, aided by Albert’s deft descriptive language that really brings the storm-flensed place to life. The storms are utterly lethal and seem to strike at random around the shrine’s perimeter, even killing pilgrims if they are particularly unwise or careless, and the local flora and fauna is just as lethal. Albert depicts a planet that, even before the forces of Chaos landed, was one that had to be treated with immense care by its population, and it adds an extra layer of tension to the narrative.
Our protagonist, Montalte, is one of the few pilgrims left within the Storm Zone; poorly-trained, motivated only by a combination of fear and a soul-deep love for the Saint he protects, he is sent on a desperate mission to make contact with reinforcements landing in the Storm Zone. After a treacherous journey, he makes contact with them – only to discover that the squad of Primaris Astartes from the Fulminators Chapter are almost as bad as the Chaos filth the pilgrims are fighting against. Primaris Sergeant Augustin makes it clear from the outset that he cares little for Montalte and his kin, and that his only objective is to secure the reliquary and its contents and ship them off-world; if the pilgrims get in his way, then they will either be ignored or killed. It seems like a relatively simple mission for the superhuman warriors, but it rapidly becomes obvious that retrieving a Saint’s bones is not something to be done lightly – or quickly.
The reason behind that is one of the best parts of Lords of the Storm, and one of the many things within the novella that deeply impressed me. To get to the reliquary one must travel the path of the pilgrims, a path that shifts and changes constantly, and cannot be shortened or cheated; as Augustin discovers early on, any attempts to do so are met with lethal force from the mysterious force controlling the storms and the pilgrim’s path. Instead, the arrogant Primaris is forced to work alongside humble pilgrim Montalte and earn the right to follow the pilgrim’s path and eventually reach the reliquary. It’s a fascinating idea that Albert uses to great effect, with Chaos forces dogging the Primaris squad and its attendant pilgrims at each point in the trail, leading to bouts of violent, explosive death and destruction as the two forces clash. It also dovetails neatly with the character study of Augustin that takes place across the novella, and also a wider examination of the attitude of the Fulminator Chapter as a whole.
Like many Astartes Chapters, its members are incredibly arrogant, and Augustin and his squad members are contemptuous and dismissive of the mortals they have to work with in order to secure the reliquary; yet, perhaps unique to any ‘original’ Astartes Chapter I’ve seen in Black Library fiction before now, Albert slowly draws out why that duality of arrogance and resentment might actually be warranted. Here we have a force of super–soldier warrior-monks who entered stasis in the aftermath of the Horus Heresy, a time of myth and legend in the current setting of the 41st Millennium, and who are quite obviously superior to those they are fighting alongside when they come out of stasis. Yet humanity has, if anything, regressed in the ensuing ten millennia, becoming superstitious and weak, barely able to hold onto the shattered remnants of the glorious empire that survived the Heresy. So the attitude of Augustin is perhaps warranted in a way, and if Albert had left it there Lords of the Storm would still have been a good novella; what makes it great, indeed truly exceptional, is the way he then reflects that arrogance back at the Primaris, forcing them to humble themselves and follow the pilgrim’s path in the same manner as any other mortal worshipper would be forced to undertake to prove their worth. Albert brings to the fore many elements I genuinely hadn’t expected: the nature of blind faith, the costs of institutional arrogance, and an intense examination of the complex relationship between humanity and Astartes, and its inherent contradictions and conflicts. Are the Astartes – Primaris and their older brethren alike – humanity’s shepherds? Or wolves that could – and perhaps should – turn on them in order to confront an inherent weakness. Cleverly Albert refuses to answer all of these questions, though he does throw down some red meat to chew on and debate long after finishing the novella, and ultimately leaves it to the reader to consider and come to their own conclusions.
Once again I find myself incredibly impressed with another of the Series 2 Novella entries, and it’s easy to see why the editors at Black Library decided to publish Albert’s story. Lords of the Storm is a surprisingly complex, multi-layered and thoughtful take on a number of elements lurking underneath the grimdark exterior of the Warhammer 40,000 setting, skilfully integrated with a fast-paced, well-organised and original plot that includes enough gunfights and hand-to-hand combat to satisfy the expectations of any Black Library reader. I would readily rank this alongside other Black Library newcomers like Thomas Parrott and Nate Crowley, and I believe that, like them, Albert has a unique and engaging take on the Warhammer 40,000 setting that I am eager to see more from.