KeyForge – Tales from the Crucible
I cannot even begin to describe how happy the cover art to Tales from the Crucible actually made me when I first laid my eyes on the review copy publishers Aconyte Books kindly sent to me. Genuinely, unabashedly happy. Submerged in the grimdark universe of Warhammer 40,000, and the Horror genre in general, I actually think I had forgotten for quite some time that science-fiction doesn’t always have to be nothing but different shades of black and grey, speckled with arterial red. The anthology’s cover is a joyous and unapologetic riot of colours that bring to life half a dozen different species of alien creatures, all framed against a gorgeous blue sky with weird alien craft zooming through it. It is genuinely beautiful to look at, and the perfect piece of cover art: not only does it succinctly demonstrate what the reader will be getting into upon opening up the anthology, it also makes the book’s content look vibrant and appealing. Indeed, I had no idea what the Crucible was, who the aliens were or what their motives were, or even what the KeyForge system was. Yet all I wanted to do was to dive into that book and get reading, and the fact that the Table of Contents was stuffed full of recognizable names didn’t hurt either: a mixture of sci-fi veterans like Robbie MacNiven and David Guymer, as well as up and coming authors I’d only recently discovered, like the hugely talented Thomas Parrott.
[I did decide to do a little bit of research about KeyForge and the titular Crucible before I started reading, just to ensure I wasn’t going in completely blind. KeyForge is an intriguing-sounding Collectable Card Game (CCG) that sounds like exactly the sort of thing I’d be into if I didn’t have children and therefore no disposable income. The Crucible itself, setting for these tales, is a gigantic artificial planet that has a whole mess of biomes, cultures, societies and technological levels stolen from a variety of universes by a mythical race called the Archons. There’s a whole load more background reading that sounds rather interesting that I’ll dive into when I have more time, but honestly it just sounds like a fantastic excuse to have a whole load of sci-fi and fantasy fun, which is exactly what I’m looking for at the moment]
The collection opens with Contract by Tristan Palmgren, which follows Vira, an elvish assassin who’s taken the titular contract against an Archon, those incredibly powerful and godlike beings who inhabit the Crucible and try and unlock its secrets. Their power is amply demonstrated in the opening pages, where the assassin and various other ‘vaultheads’ watch as two Archons brawl chronically across the landscape. They’re supposedly immortal, which you’d think would make assassination impossible; it would also bring down undue attention on the shadowguild, which results in the guild trying to kill Vira to prevent the contract being fulfilled. They fail, fortunately, allowing the assassin to watch the Archons brawl and plan her attack accordingly. Palmgren has penned a fantastic introductory story, not just for the collection, but for the Crucible in general. Vira is an elf ripped from another universe, her friends and family slaughtered by Martians when they first appeared on the Crucible, leaving her to rapidly adjust to life on the planet; this in turn allows us as readers to see through her eyes and comprehend the Crucible as a setting. We can see the wonderfully bizarre and random blending of cultures, technology and magic systems as she attempts to execute Archon Ponderous Url, and the fact that the only thing to be expected in the Crucible is the unexpected and the chaotic. Vira is a fascinating character with some surprising depth, and I’d like to see more from her in future KeyForge titles. Action-packed, fast-paced and deftly bringing out the chaotic nature of the Crucible, Contract is the perfect start to the anthology.
We then move onto The Apprentice by Cath Lauria, in which our protagonist is Roz, an apprentice mechanic to a popular Goblin mechanic who repairs and creates many of the weapons, jetpack and other jury-rigged, often lethal pieces of equipment used throughout the Crucible. She’s damn good at her job, but still dreams of following in her dead parents footsteps and becoming an explorer. She just has to fix TRIS, an adorable and intriguing robot that can ferry treasure and equipment. And to fix TRIS, she needs to complete her apprenticeship and earn money. Simple, right? Well, equipment in the Crucible is never simple, as the jetpack Roz is trying to fix at the beginning of the story demonstrates; not a huge fan of safety features, goblins, it seems. And when a poor decision by her master affects her personally, it’s up to Roz to cut a new deal in the cutthroat world of the Crucible to try and survive. Lauria obviously has a technical mind, because the descriptions of the various things Roz encounters are bursting with imagination and merge perfectly with the bonkers reality of the Crucible and its inhabitants. In addition, we get some fascinating insights into the criminal underworld, and the illegal habits of the various species on the planet, such as goblins and saurians, and even a glimpse of things like the Nexian junk heap, a mobile trash depository plagued by terrifying (yet awesome) cyber rats. Once again I’m deeply impressed by the richness and depth of imagination invested in the KeyForge setting and the Crucible, and Lauria has done a tremendous job utilising various elements of that setting to write a quirky, engaging story with a surprisingly touching ending.
Of all of the things I was potentially expecting, a tale of higher academia in the Crucible certainly wasn’t anywhere on the list, and the novelty of the scenario depicted by Robbie MacNiven in Extermination Examination quickly won me over. Though as the story progressed, that sense of gleeful, barely-constrained chaos that seems endemic to the Crucible (and KeyForge) soon came to the fore. Graduate student Nal’ai is stunned to find herself woefully (and dangerously) unprepared for a surprise assessment. In an attempt to salvage her academic career, Nal’ai and her roommate must conduct fieldwork with a fanatical and secretive Martian subsect with only the vaguest idea of what to do. It’s a darkly hilarious set-up for a story, aided by MacNiven’s ability to create likeable characters in the form of Nal’ai and Kolli, two university student stereotypes that I couldn’t help but empathise with from my own years of studying. I enjoyed the Martian’s portrayal as full-on, War of the Worlds-style militarists complete with heat rays, force-fields and dome-like habitats, and their homicidal and intensely paranoid nature acts as an excellent foil to the two students, who find themselves undertaking a research trip from hell. But MacNiven also introduces some deft and skilful examination of the Martians and their society that fleshes them out and ensures they don’t remain crude stereotypes; I was particularly intrigued by the concept of ‘rogue’ Martian enclaves and their relationship with the central Martian bastion of Nova Hellas. It all comes together in an action-packed and delightfully unexpected ending that had me laughing out loud, ensuring that this was one of my favourite stories in the anthology.
The Librarian’s Duel by M K Hutchins starts with a mother dealing with the fact that her daughter’s soul is trapped in the walls of her library, another unique story opening that I’m coming to expect from tales set on the Crucible. The more, and better quality, books that the library has, the more that the daughter’s soul is able to manifest and be with her mother. On a journey to return books to a central library, a particularly dangerous book causes a lethal incident – and an incredibly surprising change of circumstances that once again had me laughing. What could have been the setup for a disastrous, grimdark and downheartening story in another anthology, based on another setting, here becomes the basis for a fun, raucous and hugely enjoyable story that blends together a band of giant, clumsy barbarian warriors, a ghost girl, and a cautious librarian thrust into an unexpected, unwanted yet strangely fulfilling new role. It’s a truly heartwarming tale, and one I plan to read to my own children at bedtime.
We then come to Thomas Parrott’s entry, To Catch A Thief, my most anticipated story in the collection; Parrott is a new author, but one that deeply impressed me with his Black Library novella Isha’s Lament, and I looked forward to seeing what he would produce. Parrott introduces Nalea Wysasandoral, elvish thief, who as the story begins is in the midst of burgling a wealthy person’s house, delighting in sampling and stealing various luxurious items. She’s excellent at her job, fleeing a highly-guarded mansion with various expensive goods before guards can even be alerted, and all without the violence she abhors. Frustrating the local police, famous detective Talus the Thief-Taker is hired to catch Nalea. Parrott has a knack for creating original, memorable characters and does it again with this story; Nalea is a wonderful protagonist, and Talus is a delight, a stone-like creature that wears only a top hat and carries a cane as an affection. The cat and mouse chase between them is a light, fast-paced and effortlessly entertaining affair, allowing Parrott to deploy his imagination as he weaves a picture of the criminal underworld in Hub City and the intriguing Lawless Zone; and there’s a twist towards the end that caught me unawares, and which I hope leads to a sequel. Indeed, I really do hope Mr Parrott is contracted to do more stories for KeyForge; he seems like a natural fit for the universe, much like with Black Library and Warhammer 40,000.
M K Hutchins’ Useful Parasites introduces Taryx, a tree-like creature that lives in the Lesser Uncanny Forest (another awesome and evocative placename) and tends to the creatures there with some considerable skill. As the story opens, he’s confronted with a mysterious creature that crash-lands in his vegetable plot. Tending to it is a useful distraction from his heartbreak, and also a chance for Hutchins to bring to life the lush, verdant flora and fauna of the Forest in all of its glory. The creature, which Taryx nicknames Burble, slowly gets better and becomes something between a pet and companion, cheering Taryx up immensely. Unfortunately, this being the Crucible, mysterious things are often dangerous, and Hutchins does a fantastic job of slowly, insidiously, demonstrating the two sides of Burble and how it affects Taryx and those around him. It’s a slow, measured tale that weaves in some thoughtful takes on love, loss and guilt, with a bittersweet ending that perfectly caps off the story.
CL Werner is another Black Library author contributing to this anthology, and his offering is The Perfect Organism, focused on the Martians and their obsession with technology and genetic manipulation. Briilip is a Martian Elder and scientist, who believes that their creature Number 647 is the ultimate genetically-adapted war machine that will be able to conquer the entire Crucible, once testing has been finished. That test is to fight, and hopefully defeat, the eldritch abomination known as Tyrant, an opportunity for Werner to utilise his Warhammer experience to create two horrifically impressive abominations. And when even more genetic creations are required, Briilip becomes more and more obsessive, with Werner cleverly highlighting just how fanatical and determined the Martians can become when riled up and presented with an obstacle. Obviously inspired by old 1950s and 1960s kaiju movies, The Perfect Organism is a hugely enjoyable monster romp.
The delightfully named Wibble and Pplimz, Investigators for Hire from M Darusha Wehm is the penultimate story in the collection and opens with that classic of the detective genre: a missing persons case. Our protagonist approaches Wibble and Pplimz to find their sister, who was last seen being chased by a pack of horrific, bladed monstrosities. Finding her means venturing into the Lawless Zone, accompanied by the worryingly over enthusiastic Wibble and the taciturn Pplimz. I thoroughly enjoyed the two detectives and their Odd Couple-vibe, sharing the protagonist’s bemusement at their eccentric behaviour (and hilarious outfits) as they followed the trail to the kidnapped sister. Finishing with a twist that completely changes the direction of the story and leads to an unsettling and rather disturbing conclusion, Wibble and Pplimz, Investigators for Hire is evocative, cunningly plotted and the most unusual stories in the anthology.
Finally, we close with David Guymer’s Vaultheads, which is a frankly brilliant and subversive take on both the KeyForge game specifically, and the scifi and fantasy in general. I’ll try not to give too much away, but Guymer makes the interesting observation that there’s absolutely no reason that roleplaying and LARPing would be confined solely to humanity’s reality. Guymer has a real eye for engaging, original characters, and the story is as much a character study of various re-enactors – or the titular Vaultheads – as it is an adventure story, getting into their heads and the various motivations one might have to join such a dedicated hobby. It’s got a surprisingly upbeat and emotionally resonant ending, even for a collection full of fun and engaging tales, and is the perfect way to finish the anthology.
Usually in any anthology there’s one or two stories I skip because they just don’t engage with me for some reason, but as the length of this review suggests, this didn’t happen with Tales from the Crucible. Each story is a unique look at a different aspect of the world that acts as the setting for KeyForge, and the various species that populate it, and I absolutely loved every minute of reading this anthology. There’s a real sense of fun and enjoyment that runs through each of its stories, all which mix action with heart and an often sly sense of humour, as well as a surprising amount of depth; and it rapidly becomes obvious that each author was carefully chosen by editor Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells because of how well they engaged with the setting, in addition to their high quality of writing skills. If KeyForge as a game is even a tenth as fun, enjoyable and heartening as this anthology, then it will have found a dedicated fan in me and, I’m certain, many other readers.