Winter 2020 Unofficial Warhammer 40,000 Short Fiction Anthology
Cold Open Stories
I have to admit that I’ve never been hugely interested in Fan Fiction in general, or at least not since my formative teenage years, though I can’t really put a finger particularly on why. I suppose there’s always been enough published fiction for me to read that I’ve never really delved into the world of fan-written stories and audio dramas, especially when it comes to Black Library and all of the licensed fiction for the various Warhammer settings, especially Warhammer 40,000. Black Library have always released a steady supply of novels, novellas and anthologies for me to purchase where possible, and in recent years that fiction stream has been of an extremely high quality. In the past two years alone, we’ve seen new formats like the Novella Series 1 and 2, which have introduced a host of new authors to the Warhammer settings, as well as a range of affordable and highly engaging novellas; and of course the excellent Warhammer Horror and Warhammer Crime imprints, with the latter due to start later this year.
Those new developments have given me a great deal to read and review, as can be seen on the blog, but inevitably the extent of Black Library’s catalogue far outpaces the relatively meagre contents of my wallet, and I’m forced to bring my reviews to a halt until new funds can be sought and allocated in the same grimly efficient way as a tithe collected by the Astra Administratum. It was fortuitous timing then (or perhaps even the hand of He on Terra) that led me to notice the announcement by Cold Open Stories that their latest unofficial Warhammer 40,000 fan fiction anthology had just been released. I was eager to read more fiction set in the grim dark future where there is only war; and rather intrigued to see what the fan authors could concoct when not constrained by the editorial requirements of Black Library.
Now when it usually comes to anthologies I review on this blog, I generally tend to review all of the stories contained within a collection, with the exception of those stories that really didn’t mesh with me in one way or another. However as these are stories written by fans who often aren’t always professional authors, with the services of proofreaders and editors available to them, it felt wrong to subject them to the same exacting standards. Many of the stories in the anthology really would have benefitted from proofreading and a good round of copyediting to bring out their best qualities; not to mention one tale that made feel nauseous and uneasy, and not in any good way let me tell you. However, that being said, the collection yielded several diamonds in the rough – and a single, gleaming jewel that stood out above all of the other stories.
The Voice in the Void by Matt Smith opens the anthology, and befitting the fact that Smith has had several stories published by Black Library, his tale is one of those that stands out in the collection. An isolated watch station in the outer reaches of the Harredes system is a great setting for a slow-paced and atmospheric slice of quiet horror, as Smith takes us through the duties of Security Chief Barrack Iadon as he oversees the arrival of a new squad of naval armsmen to the station, and then investigates the mysterious disappearance of servitors in the depths of the station. I had guessed the twist in the story about halfway through the story, but such is Smith’s skill as an author that he still manages to make it an engrossing story, with some nice characterization and some thoughtful takes on life in such a remote outpost.
Delio Pera delivers an unusual take on the Adeptus Sororitas in Between the Lines, delivering a glimpse of the life of a Sister of Battle when they aren’t engaged in battle or dedicated in prayer to the God-Emperor. Sister Dovella Reinstall of the Order of the Buried Word is tasked by her superior to traverse the endless stacks and shelves of the underground libraries of the world of Palma Alternum, in search for a specific title. But the Sister is unclear why she has been given this particular duty, and confides her concerns and fears to Glint, the faithful servo-skull that accompanies her on her lengthy journey. As she hikes down corridor after corridor, it becomes clear that the objective is far less important than the journey itself, leading to a crucial and deeply unsettling revelation. I’m not certain that Pera’s take on servo-skulls and their capacity for autonomy would get past the Black Library editors, but it’s a fascinating thought exercise regardless of its status in the Warhammer 40,000 canon. In addition, the story as a whole is deftly paced and well-written, and it’s nice to see a side to the Sisters of Battle other than their prodigious fighting abilities.
Although there a few internal inconsistencies, and clarity on a few plot points would be needed prior to publication, The Cobra’s Hope by Lukasz Furmaniak also greatly impressed me. There’s nothing like a homebrew Astartes Chapter, especially one that’s gone renegade like Furmaniak’s Steel Cobra’s, and there’s plenty of brutal, close-quarters combat against armsmen and Techpriests as the Cobra’s attempt to escape from the clutches of the Imperial blockade set up around the world they’ve been trapped on. There’s some original thinking on display here, from the impressive descriptions of the hellish, ammonia seas that the Astartes are forced to operate from, to the novel nature of the drop-pod assault that allows a Cobra squad to assault one of the battle stations forming the blockade. With some cool mythology and imagery used for the Astartes, as well as an open-ended finale, I would be interested to see more from both the Steel Cobra Chapter and Furmaniak.
The three preceding stories stood out to me amongst their peers, but there was only one entry in the anthology that genuinely stunned me at just how emotive, atmospheric and well-written it was, while simultaneously demonstrating an innate understanding of the core themes of Warhammer 40,000. That story was Daniel Summerbell’s New Moon, which was not only the highlight of the anthology, but also displayed the same finished quality seen in published Black Library titles. It’s a perfectly-paced story focusing on a squad of local militia on an agri world, who suddenly become aware of the titular new moon in orbit above their planet. No-one knows what it is or how it got there, and their vox-unit does nothing but transmit static or looping music. Anxiety and paranoia increase as they continue to man their assembly point, only to be given no intructions; and when an Imperial Guardsman finally does appear to lead them, the information he gives is both fragmentary and utterly terrifying. Summerbell deftly ramps up the claustrophobic tension as the story relentlessly progresses forward, and it was a simple yet brilliant idea to focus the story on militia members, who would of course be the last to know what is happening due to their provincial and isolated nature. I genuinely enjoyed New Moon as much as stories I’ve read in recent Black Library anthologies; and Summerbell demonstrates the same deft touch with Warhammer 40,000 canon that new and up and coming authors like Thomas Parrott, Edoardo Albert and Danie Ware have shown in Novella Series 2. If he is not a published Black Library author within a year or two, I will be genuinely surprised and disappointed with the publisher.
All of the stories to be found in the Winter 2020 Unofficial Warhammer 40,000 Short Fiction Anthology have been written with passion and dedication, and an inherent knowledge of canon which are a credit to their authors. While some of them required further work in terms of proofreading and copy-editing, several really stood out from the rest of the entries in the anthology as worthy of specific praise, most notably New Moon by Daniel Summerbell. However, it isn’t just the authors who deserve credit – it should equally go to Cold Open Stories, who have provided a slick, professional and easy to use platform to view these stories on. Another Warhammer 40,000 anthology has been announced by Cold Open Stories, and I can guarantee I’ll be reviewing that collection as well when it is released.