Black Library Celebration 2019 Anthology
While I can never really afford to purchase any of the expensive Limited Edition books, models or other curios that are made available on Black Library Celebration Day each year, I do always try and get hold of the print anthology that is released during the event, and which helpfully comes free with any purchase. There’s always an interesting and carefully-curated selection of stories from across all of the various Warhammer settings, and quite often grabbing this anthology is the only way to ensure you have certain stories in print format rather than just as an ebook. And I do love having stories on my bookshelf, rather than my Kindle; it just feels nicer that way, I suppose. In anticipation of receiving the 2020 anthology as part of a bundle of Black Library-themed birthday presents in the next couple of weeks, I decided to re-read the 2018 and 2019 anthologies and review them for the blog, before moving onto the latest one. I started with the 2019 anthology because it was the most recent, but also due to its rather distinctive and eerie cover image, created by Phil Moss; it’s a memorable combination of skulls, masks, totems and icons, all degraded and blackened into something quite off-putting, and is an image I often come back to when pulling books off of my bookshelves.
The collection opens with Gav Thorpe’s contribution The Board is Set, which takes place during the later stages of the Horus Heresy and sees Malcador the Sigillite play a curious game – part Tarot, part boardgame, part wargame – with a mysterious, robed figure known only as Revelation. The fleets of Warmaster Horus are only days away from reaching the edges of the solar system, if not mere hours, and yet the second most powerful man in the entire Imperium of Man, save for the Emperor Himself, sits at a table and plays a curiosity with a stranger. Obviously, both from the title of the story and the fact that this is veteran author Gav Thorpe, this is not merely a game that is being played, but instead a complex, multi-faceted and shadowy simulation that actually acts as a rather cunning synopsis of the coming Siege of Terra. There’s no real doubt as to the true identity of Revelation, but that isn’t the point of the story: Thorpe’s real focus is on how the Siege will be fought, and whether there is anything that can be done to prevent the apparently inevitable result. Is everything pre-destined in the universe, not even changeable by the Emperor of Mankind, or can the concept of fate – in its many and varied forms – change the nature of a battle or campaign? It’s a fascinating tale extremely well told, and while not crucial to the overarching narrative of the Heresy, helps to raise a number of questions that will only be answered in the aftermath of the Siege; as well as many that will never truly be answered for good or for bad.
Guy Haley then gives us a Heresy-adjacent tale with Grandfather’s Gift which shifts the focus onto the traitor Primarch Mortarion, scion of the Death Guard Legion. I haven’t really had a chance to make any headway into the Horus Heresy Primarchs series, so this was a nice way to engage with it without having to come to grips with an entire novel or the series as a whole. Mortarion is one of the less-examined Primarchs in the Heresy as a whole, and the Death Guard perhaps the Legion least well-served by the wider Horus Heresy series, so I appreciated getting some insights into Mortarion before he came fully under the aegis of Nurgle. Haley delivers a short yet incisive tale that looks at Mortarion’s background prior to the Heresy, and even before he met with the Emperor of Mankind, and also looks at his relationship with the man who adopted him when he landed on Barbarus as a youth. It isn’t really a spoiler to say that they have an antagonistic relationship – to say the least – and that slowly comes to the forefront as the bemused Primarch awakens in a strange, plague-laden forest after an experiment goes awry in his laboratories. There’s some great Nurgle-based imagery here for the setting, with Haley deftly getting across just how wrong such a domain would appear, and also some more details of the relationships Mortarion has with various figures in his life – his adoptive father, the Emperor, and even Nurgle itself. The ending really sets the stage for Mortarion’s journey during and after the Heresy, and I really hope that Haley gets to write more from the Death Guard’s perspective in general.
Nurgle and plague-bearers, as well as the shambling undead that the Plague God likes to unleash on the Imperium, feature heavily in Chris Wraight’s Endurance, which focuses on a rapidly-dwindling band of Astartes from the Imperial Talons Chapter defending a hive world wracked by an undead plague. While this story starts off in a fairly straight-forward manner, with the last few Astartes warriors reduced to clubbing zombies to pieces and rallying the last few remaining defenders from the Imperial Guard for one final last stand, it rapidly becomes something of a mind-bender, with Wraight taking many of the tropes associated with Space Marines and then twisting them out of recognizable shape. It is perhaps the ultimate cliche that an Astartes knows no fear – but what about other emotions and feelings? Exhaustion, bitterness, betrayal? Even a superhuman, genehanced warrior can still feel those, because otherwise they would be absent of any humanity at all. Wraight gives us a situation where an Astartes can be isolated and then slowly but surely worn down, to a point where even additional organs, ferocious strength and combat acumen cannot sustain the body, let alone the soul within it. He then takes all of that and blends it together with some fantastic writing and deft observations about the nature of being a Space Marine, as well as some great Plague Marine foes, to create a memorable and weighty story so multi-faceted that it feels like a novel has been condensed into just a few thousand words.
The longest story in the collection, Rachel Harrison’s A Company of Shadows is one of several prequel tales to her recent Imperial Guard novel Honourbound, which follows protagonist Commissar Severina Raine and the regiment she’s attached to, the 11th Antari Rifles. I can only imagine just how difficult it can be to write a fresh, original Commissar character when there are so many existing ones in Black Library Fiction, ranging from the black comedy of Sandy Mitchell’s Ciaphas Caine, to Dan Abnett’s classic take on the archetype, Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt. Yet I’m pleased to say that Harrison has managed to thread that needle perfectly, creating in Raine a protagonist who is both serious enough to come across as a political officer with the power of life and death over the troops she serves with, yet imbued with sufficient humanity to not become a two-dimensional trope. In fact, the same can easily be said for all of the characters in A Company of Shadows, with Harrison creating a small cast of vivid, believable and three-dimensional soldiers, ground down by the constant fighting against the Archenemy yet still loyal. And they need to be, when Harrison has also brought to life a particularly grim and crunchy Chaos cult for Raine and her troopers to take the fight to – the Sighted are perhaps the best and most convincing Chaos antagonists I’ve come across since Abnett’s Blood Pact. Great characters, a fast-paced, grimdark plot that has plenty of tension and atmosphere to keep the reader swiftly turning the pages, and a thoroughly engaging protagonist makes for both an excellent story, and a taste of things to come with Honourbound.
I think that in Hamilcar Bear-Eater, the loudly bellowing, deeply arrogant and peerless fighter that stars as the protagonist of Gods’ Gift, David Guymer has created an instant classic character, one who is going to join the ranks of Ciaphas Cain, Ibram Gaunt and Ezekiel Abaddon as a long-running fan favourite. He has this energy to him that those other classic characters have, something inherent in the way that Guymer writes him that makes him stand out from the crowd of other Black Library protagonists and almost jump off of the page as he brawls and boasts (quite often at the same time) while fighting the enemies of Sigmar and the forces of Order. God’s Gift was the first time that I encountered Hamilcar, and I was instantly enamoured with him and this tale of death, destruction and future prophecies while the Lord-Castellant leads a hunt through the treacherous depths of the Gor-wood. He’s a fantastic character, and so is this story, aided by Guymer’s excellent writing skills and vivid imagination; I like Guymer’s 40,000 fiction but I find that I absolutely love his Age of Sigmar stories, which just seem to have this extra vividness and depth to them. It’s an ideal introduction, both to Hamilcar as a character and the Age of Sigmar setting, and I have Guymer’s novel Hamilcar: Champion of the Gods now sitting on my shelf just begging to be read and reviewed as a result of finishing this story.
The collection closes with another Age of Sigmar story, and indeed another story featuring a Stormcast Eternal, Josh Reynold’s Hallowed Knights: Ghosts Of Demesnus which focuses on Lord Celestant Gardus SteelSoul. It’s one of the longer tales in the collection, and merits that length because it is a surprisingly complex and emotional tale that takes an unexpected dive into the very nature of what it means to be a Stormcast Eternal, and the sacrifices made by the person who is eventually forged into this immortal, near-invulnerable superhuman warrior who also suffers from a fractured memory and persona. Gardus returns to a town that seems achingly familiar to him, and upon exploring discovers a group of inhabitants who worship a suspiciously familiar figure in the ruins of a building. There’s also an evil presence lurking somewhere, and Gardus is forced to try and find out what it is, and what links them all together. As he investigates, Reynolds gives us glimpses into his psyche and emotions, and in doing so provides some much-needed insights into how the Stormcast-Eternals think and feel, and their attitude towards the process that created them. Reynolds has a special ability I’ve never seen in another Black Library writer, to bring us as readers into the mind of a protagonist and understand them, and even empathise when it seems like that shouldn’t be at all possible. He does this with Gardus despite the inhuman nature of a Stormcast Eternal, and one need only look at his work with Fabius Bile to see how he can turn a stereotypical, two-dimensional character into something special indeed.
The Black Library Celebration 2019 Anthology really is a marvellous little collection, gathering together some of the best authors published by Black Library, with each providing complex, multi-layered and action-packed stories that effectively demonstrate just how varied the different Warhammer settings can be. Whether you’re a fan of Age of Sigmar, the Horus Heresy or Warhammer 40,000, you’ll find stories to engage and enthral you, and this collection absolutely deserves to be read by anyone interested in Warhammer as a whole. I’m genuinely delighted as a fan that these anthologies are released as freebies during each of the annual celebrations, and am really looking forward to getting my hands on the 2020 edition as soon as this wretched pandemic is over.