Inferno! Volume 1 – Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells (Ed.) – Review

Inferno! Volume 1

Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells (Ed.)

Black Library

Although the original Inferno! magazine published by Black Library was somewhat before my time as a fan of the various Warhammer settings, its influence was obvious in every novel and short story collection that I read in the early 2000s when I first got interested in the fiction side of Warhammer. If it wasn’t novels that had first been published in serial format within the pages of Innferno, or series inspired by the popularity of a single short story (such as Sandy Mitchell’s brilliant Ciaphas Cain series), then it was early anthologies filled with stories that had first been published within the monthly publication. As such, I was really excited when Black Library announced that they would be reusing the brand name to front a series of anthologies with short stories from across all of the Warhammer settings. I was able to pick up the first volume back in late 2018 when it was first published, but until now I hadn’t thought about reviewing it; however, with the gloom and doom of the current COVID-19 pandemic, I’m trying to move away from focusing entirely on horror titles and back towards some Science-Fiction and Fantasy to create some balance.

The first story in the collection – and also I suspect the inspiration for that excellent piece of cover art by Lie Setiawan – is The Unsung War by David Annandale. Annandale is one of the leading lights in the Black Library pantheon of authors in my opinion, and this story only further confirms that opinion. In the days of older Black Library fiction – the days when the original Inferno! was being published – the story of two Astartes trapped on a damaged freighter, caught between a crew of Genestealers and a Dark Eldar warband, might have been a humdrum and rather tepid affair. Under Annandale’s skilled penmanship, however, it is enhanced into something that echoes a Greek Tragedy, with an inherent level of pathos that slowly builds along with the story’s tension. Aetius and Calenus are the sole survivors of their squad who boarded a merchantman suspected of being crewed by Genestealers and infected crewmembers. Despite losses, they had almost completed their task when they were ambushed by the Drukhari raiders, and in the cross-fire between the two forces they were imprisoned. Released with the help of an unexpected ally but hopelessly outnumbered, the two Astartes are aware that the vessel must be stopped before either foe can disembark on a nearby planet, and that this will undoubtedly involve sacrifice. A clever plot melded with some brutal, closer-quarters violence really escalates the story into a first-class one, with a surprisingly emotional ending that humanizes the Astartes – a difficult thing to do for any writer to do – and perfectly fits the story’s title.

We then follow with Peter McLean’s No Hero,which introduces the Reslian 45th Regiment of the Imperial Guard, which Mr McLean has used as a basis for several short stories published by Black Library. In previous reviews on this blog I’ve highlighted how much I enjoyed McLean’s Imperial Guard stories, primarily because he refuses to go along with the usual tropes, and instead digs under the surface of the Guard to shine a hard and often unflattering light on its actions, while still writing fast-paced and action-packed stories that deliver a moral and emotional punch. That we’re not getting a ‘standard’ Guard story is clear from the start, with excerpts from Imperial propaganda clashing with more honest – and grim – assessments of the situation on Vardan IV. The Imperial Guard are retreating, and that includes a squad of the Reslian 45th who are shot down while evacuating the front; the survivors are cut off from help and only number a few, including the nameless protagonist. Their slow retreat highlights that the Orks are the complete antithesis to the near-comical xenos portrayed in Imperial training and propaganda, and that the actions of the human soldiers are separated from the aliens by less than you would think. Ugly truths are expertly blended with tense, high-quality action sequences, with an ending that is the epitome of ‘grimdark’ yet also imbues that trope with such power that it reinvigorates it.

I’m going to be deliberately vague and concise with my review of Evan Dicken’s The Path to Glory, a novelette that it set at the ragged edges of the End Times for the Warhammer Fantasy setting. That’s because it’s a difficult story – not in a bad way, as in poorly written or inelegantly structured; quite the opposite, in fact, as Dicken is clearly a skilled storyteller and it’s a story that sweeps you along with it. But it is a complex, multi-faceted tale that really needs to be experienced by the reader to truly enjoy, and in my opinion requires multiple readings to properly understand all of the moral quandries and clever plot points that are positioned early on in the story. The novelette follows three diverse characters who directly experience the fall of the Lantic Empire, a minor state in  Warhammer Fantasy, as the End Times rumble on and the forces of Chaos destroy all in their path. There’s no salvation in sight, no saviour – Sigmar’s return is centuries if not millennia away; there is only death and destruction and incredibly difficult decisions to be made: the ultimate Trolley Problem, with infinite tracks and an endless array of Lantic citizens begging to be saved. It’s a fascinating tale extremely well-told, and one that stayed with me for a while after finishing the anthology.

A Common Ground is a Necromunda story that also acts as part of the prologue to Mike Brooks’ latest novel, Rites of Passage. It follows Jaxx, a brawler in the brutal fighting-pits of Necromunda, and a strange offer that’s made to him by a mysterious aristocrat who visits his cell after his latest bought of fighting. It’s an offer that makes absolutely no sense to the Goliath ganger, yet one that he seems to have choice but to take lest it be taken up by one of his rivals. As the anthology’s editor notes, Brooks has an ability to humanize characters in their novels, and he does this extremely well here as well. Goliath gangers aren’t known for their intellectual abilities or high-minded pursuits, yet Brooks skillfully makes Jaxx a three-dimensional character by highlighting just what the offer means to him and his family, and how that it turns shines a light on certain surprisingly deep aspects of Goliath society that I don’t think have been witnessed before. It’s a fantastic story all around, and one of the highlights of an already impressive anthology.

The next story acts as almost a mirror image to Peter McLean’s entry, as Steven B. Fischer’s The Emperor’s Wrath demonstrates another side to the actions of the Imperial Guard, as well as providing a disturbing and often downright chilling look into the mindset of the Imperial cult and its servants. The titular Emperor’s Wrath is a brutal, dogged militia that executed protagonist Caius’ entire family for being on the wrong side of a civil war, and for the rest of his short life Caius has loathed the militia and everything that it supposedly stands for. Fischer does a great job of showing just how villainous the militia are, especially considering that their actions at the start of the story could well have been portrayed as positive in older Black Library fiction; and then, just as you think you have a handle on the story’s direction, Fischer flips it completely and introduces a new and often uncomfortable perspective that leaves you uneasy and questioning by the final, deeply memorable lines.

The first of Josh Reynold’s two offerings in the anthology is his Warhammer Fantasy/Chronicles tale Waking the Dragon, which once again brings to life his fan-favourite character Heimlich Kemmler and his dogged, undead champion Krell for another story of Chaos, treachery, back-stabbing and thousands of corpses being brought back to (un)life. Kemmler continues to be a delightful character that Reynolds writes extremely well, constantly bemoaning his fate in life and his continual defeats at the hands of Duke Tancred, while still able to artfully wield some terrifying necromantic powers. He journeys into the Grey Mountains seeking corpses to raise and act as yet another undead army, only to encounter a band of Chaos renegades who get in his path and block him from his return to glory; not only that, but their leader seems suspiciously skilled in the same arts as Kemmler, and seems to know a lot about him. There’s some great brawling combat in the story that Reynolds brings to life with his usual verve and skill, while also introducing an underlying tension with Kemmler’s suspicions of the mysterious figure that delivers a deliciously satisfying ending.

It’s rare that I find myself smirk or chuckling at a Warhammer story, unless it’s a Ciaphas Cain story, but that’s what happened when I read through Nate Crowley’s The Enemy of My Enemy which, as the title hints towards, sees former foes General Nestor Pyrrhus of the Imperial Guard and Colonel Taktikus of the Orks forced to band together to fend off the sudden appearance of a Tyranid Hive vessel in orbit over the planet of Cavernum Tertius. There’s action aplenty in this story as the reluctant allies face wave after wave of relentless organic killing machines, but at its heart Crowley’s story is an absolutely brilliant character study laced with black humor, as General Pyrrhus is forced to reassess the capabilities and intellect of the average Ork warrior, and Taktikus in particular. It’s a brilliant way of engaging with the source material in a way I just haven seen before, and much of the story direction and humor foreshadows Crowley’s magnificant novella Severed which was released late last year.

Moving towards the end of the anthology, How Vido Learned the Trick is Josh Reynold’s second story, and brings back another set of fan favourites, detective Zavant Konniger and his halfing servant Vido in a tense, mystery-filled tale that places the focus squarely on Vido. The great detective himself is missing, possibly permanently, and menaced by thug Pike, the halfling is forced to use all of the skills learnt working with Konniger to solve the mystery of where his comrade went. It’s a great tale that flows smoothly as it builds up to the final revelation, and allows Reynolds to again showcase his skills as perhaps the premier occult detective writer currently working. It’s then followed by The Firstborn Daughter from Filip Wiltgren, another Imperial Guard story that this time focuses on the doughty, frost-bitten Vostrayan regiments, as it follows the travails of Lieutenant Ekaterina Idra as she tries to prove her worth in a deeply patriarchal society and regimental structure. It’s a deft and often subtle look at the pressures placed on military commanders in the 41st Millennium, even moreso a female one, and also provides a rare look a the direct effects of the forces of Chaos on an Imperial Guard regiment.

Finally, the anthology closes with two last tales. The first is Danie Ware’s Mercy, which acts as a prologue to her most excellent pair of novellas, The Bloodied Rose and Wreck and Ruin, and once again demonstrates just how smart Black Library was to give her the Sisters of Battle to work with. Ware’s portrayal of Sister Superior Augusta and her squad is utterly brilliant, full of nuances and subtleties that she would go on to expand upon in the novellas, and I fervently hope that one day she’ll be allowed to pen a full-length novel about the Sisters. I’m certain it will be as high-quality and enjoyable as this story, which sees Augusta have to navigate both the treachery of the local Ork insurgent population, and treachery from her own side, in an effort to re-sanctify an abandoned cathedral on a world distant from the heart of the Imperium of Man. And finally, Guy Haley closes with the start of a multi-story tale, At The Sign of the Brazen Claw, with this first entry setting the scene: tavern-owner regales a band of refugees from an awful storm with the tale of just how, exactly, he came to own his tavern, and why its situated in the Brazen Claw, a sinister rock pinnacle that hides a terrifying secret. Haley is always good at artfully telling a fascinated, multi-layered story that draws the reader in, and this i another example of his skill and understanding of the Age of Sigmar setting.

Editor Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells has done a superb job in gathering together a disparate yet highly skilled set of writers for Inferno! Volume 1, ensuring that the collection is packed full of stories that both inherently understand the various Warhammer settings they take place in, but also engage with the source material in ways that the short stories contained within the previous Inferno! magazines would never have done. Each story is a masterpiece, carefully written and considered, and the entire anthology is a genuine triumph that deserves – indeed, requires – to be on the bookshelf of any discerning fan of Black Library fiction, or anyone interested in learning more about the background and lore of Games Workshop’s many universes.

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