Inferno! Tales from the Worlds of Warhammer – Volume 4
Richard Garton (ed.)
In these grim times, I find myself moving further and further away from the Horror genre and instead pivoting towards those genres that can provide me with a bit more escapism and bit less bleakness and, well, horror. The worlds of Warhammer might not seem the most logical of places to seek any of that, given that they were one of the earliest adopters of the term Grimdark, but in recent years publisher Black Library have really brought their A-Game when it comes to their fiction releases for the various Warhammer settings. While the settings are still very much grimdark, morally dubious and far from cheerful, an influx of new authors, combined with a sense of flexibility and imagination from the publisher in terms of the stories being published, has made the publisher’s titles more and more appealing to me as time goes on, especially these days. The relaunched Inferno! brand, now a series of anthologies compared to the old-school monthly magazine, is to me a fantastic example of that approach; each volume contains a mixture of new and veteran authors serving up fresh, imaginative and often thought-provoking stories that couldn’t be more different to the content of the original Inferno! magazines. Having reviewed Volume 1 last month, it obviously makes logical sense for me to go straight into reviewing Volume 4; well, not so much logical as that’s the one I got through the post first but I digress. So please accompany me on another long and slightly-rambling tour of the volume’s contents, as I try and fend off lockdown psychosis.
The first story in the volume, The Karsharat Abomination by George Mann, brings into print the character (and retinue) of Inquisitor Sabbathiel, previously featured in the on-going Warhammer 40,000 series from Titan Comics. I haven’t been able to get hold of any of those volumes, but the reviews I’ve seen have been uniformly positive, and Sabbathiel has been mentioned as a strong character, so I was intrigued to see what Mann would do with her in the story. Landing in the ruins of an Ecclesiarchy outpost on the planet of Karsharat, the Inquisitor and her comrades investigate the strange warp rift near to the outpost, and what inside the outpost could be causing it. Bringing to the fore his experience in writing sci-fi mystery novels – such as his excellent Newbury & Hobbes series – Mann weaves an atmospheric and tense story of slowly-increasing tension and paranoia, as it becomes obvious that something deeply sinister and wrong is occurring in the outpost. Mann makes great use of the reality-altering effects of the warp as each member of the retinue is affected in a different manner, with some chilling descriptions of mutations and blasphemous doings, and the tale ends in a deftly-written duel between the Inquisitor and the arch-heretic causing all of the chaos.
The Hand of Harrow by Denny Flowers is the prequel to his excellent novella Low Lives, which I reviewed in January, and contains the same energy, wit and darkly-laced humour as the novella itself. Caleb Cursebound, Ninth Most Dangerous Man in Necromunda (supposedly – references probably not available upon request) is hired alongside his sidekick Iktomi to infiltrate a heavily-guarded hivespire museum belonging to the influential Harrow clan, and steal the titular Hand of Harrow. No-one knows what it looks like, and the previous thief sent to find it has disappeared, but minor details like this aren’t something to bother Caleb and his long-suffering compatriot. The heist itself is smoothly-written, with a couple of nice twists and turns along the way and some action at the end, but the best part of the story are the insights Flower gives us into high-level society in Necromunda, in particular the intricate ball-cum-play that the spire nobles perform before their latest progeny enter the slums of Necromunda to hunt and kill. While the whole point of the Necromunda setting is to show the disparity between classes, Flowers demonstrates it in a particularly vivid and disquieting manner that perfectly captures the tone of the setting.
Filip Wiltgren impressed me with his contribution to the first volume of Inferno!, so I was delighted to see him in this volume as well, with a sequel to his excellent Vostroyan Astra Militarum story. A Firstborn Exile picks up where the first story ended, with Lieutenant Ekaterina Idra of the 86th Vostroyan Firstborn having to contend with both the rebels on the world her regiment is attempting to pacify, and the rigidly conformist and patriarchal nature of the Firstborn hierarchy. Leading the shattered remnants of her regiment, Idra suddenly finds herself under the command of Colonel Gurlov, leading another desperately understrength regiment with a mission to both hold a vital strategic point, but also eliminate the local rebel forces. While at first Wilgren gives the impression that this is going to be a standard, trope-laden story of a rebel junior officer clashing with a stuffy, hidebound senior officer, it slowly becomes clear that it’s actually so much more than that. While Gurlov seems to fit that archetype, it becomes apparent that he has a dark and surprising past, as do the rest of his troops, and Idra becomes embroiled in complex military politicking. Alongside some intriguing and often surprisingly thoughtful observances of the Vostroyan culture, Wilgren writes some adrenaline-pumping, gritty action scenes as the understrength Vostroyans attempt to evict a superior rebel force from a manufactorum. It’s another cracking story from Wiltgren, and I look forward to seeing the next instalment of Idra’s journey in a future volume.
I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Guy Haley’s multi-part series At the Sign of the Brazen Claw which sees a group of travellers waylaid by an unnatural storm as they attempt to board an airship. Forced to wait in the Brazen Claw Inn, each tells their life story and how they came to the inn, with Part Four – The Sorceror’s Tale seeing sorcerer Pludu Quasque weave a compelling tale of youthful indiscretions and boasting leading to an apparently-impossible task that leads him from the sunlit realm of Hysh into the darkest and foulest realms possible to imagine, searching in an increasingly-desperate manner for a sacred relic. Haley continues to tell a masterful story, showcasing some fantastic and imaginative settings as the sorcerer falls further and further into darkness, and ends with a shocking twist that had left me genuinely saddened. It was with great relief, therefore, that I learnt recently that the fifth part of the tale is in Inferno! Volume 5, which I will now procure as soon as possible.
I was both surprised and delighted to see Jonathan Green’s name in the Table of Contents, because he was one of the first Black Library authors I ever read; The Dead and the Damned remains perhaps my favourite Warhammer Fantasy (now Warhammer Chronicles, I suppose) novels of all time. So I was curious to see what Journey of the Magi would deliver, and was intrigued to find a slow-paced, atmospheric and multi-layered tale revolving around three sorcerors from the Thousand Sons Legion landing on a seemingly-abandoned planetoid in search of a prize buried in the depths of a strange temple. While the trio breach its external defences easily enough, they soon find that the metallic, undying defenders inside have no intention of allowing them an easy journey. I appreciated the old-school feel of the story, with some detailed descriptions of the three sorcerers, their powers and the complex relationship between them, but also the way in which Green deftly brought the plot up to date with the latest lore and canon. It’s a striking story written with a narrative richness I think is unique to Green, as is the ending which deploys twist after twist to create a complex yet deeply rewarding story that immediately bears fruit from re-reading after finishing.
In some ways I’m actually approaching things backwards, for this volume actually contains the first stories by several authors who subsequently published titles in Novella Series 2. The first is The Serpent’s Bargain by Jamie Crisalli, which takes place in the Age of Sigmar setting, and sees a small village being raided by a particularly brutal group of Slaaneshi raiders. Having lost her husband in the raid, and against the objections of the village elders, grieving widow Laila leads a small band of friends into the Valley of the Oracle’s Eye to make contact with a mysterious group legend says can help them. The aelven maidens live at the heart of the valley, which Crisalli describes in spine-chilling and often unsettling detail, and are more than happy to strike a bargain that will take them to war with the chaos warband; however, as always with aelves, there is a hidden price for those unwary enough not to examine the fine print, resulting in a grim and ironic ending. There are echoes here of Crisalli’s novella, The Measure of Iron, in the way she describes the raiders and their actions, but also an intuitive understanding of the hatred that exists between aelven and Slaaneshi that would, I think, make the excellent basis for a novella or even novel.
Then Thomas Parrott, author of the peerless Blackstone Fortress novella Isha’s Lament contributes his second short story for Black Library, Salvage Rites. It takes as its basis the hoary old trope of a group of scavengers boarding a mysterious vessel in order to loot it, only to discover more than they bargained for; however, as with his novella, Parrott takes a potentially generic plot and imbues it with an energy and imagination that makes it stand out to the reader. Not only are the members of Captain Ved Tregan’s motley crew fully fleshed-out characters, a remarkable achievement by itself given the small wordcount, but Parrott also develops a disconcerting atmosphere through the story’s pages that had me hooked until the very last page. I think it also says a great deal for Parrott’s skill as a writer that, despite my in-depth knowledge of the Warhammer 40,000 setting, he caught me completely unawares with the reveal of the exact nature of the ship and its occupant.
We then come to Green and Grey from Lords of the Storm author Edoardo Albert, an intensely claustrophobic story set entirely within the shattered remains of a Leman Russ battle tank. Caught in an Ork ambush, the only survivor of Sancta Fide is rookie loader Lucius Stilo, who is trapped in the blood-soaked interior of the tank, which has toppled onto one side. As if to make things worse, an Ork warband is about to surround the tank, the vital bridge that Stilo’s tank platoon was supposed to guard until it was destroyed hasn’t fallen yet, and rescue Valkyrie’s are a great distance away. His only human contact a crackling vox link with a senior officer, Stilo is forced to use his scant training and innate bravery to engage the orks and try to stay alive long enough to be rescued. Impressively written, with an eye for detail and an ability to get into the head of Stilo and bring the reader with him, Albert has written an action-packed story with an emotional core, including a stirring and heart-wrenching ending that I don’t mind admitting had my upper lip trembling a little by the last few lines.
Each of the Inferno! volumes seems to have a slightly longer story in it, and Volume Four’s novelette is Eric Gregory’s The Fourfold Wound, an intense and engrossing globe-trotting story about obsession, revenge and the futility of the human condition. Shinua Gan is a young woman who is relentlessly searching for a Stormcast Eternal, one of Sigmar’s hand-picked immortal warriors able to regenerate after each death in battle. Her goal is simple: murder the man inside the armour and take revenge for his failings before he was chosen by Sigmar. But, as Gregory so skilfully demonstrates throughout the story, how do you conclude vengeance on an immortal being who cannot die? And what would such an obsession do to the person with the blade in their hand? Not only do we get a fascinating look at how the Stormcast Eternals are viewed by those select individuals who might not take kindly to their existence in mortal society, but we also get a glimpse of the fractured personalities lurking inside the glowing armour of the Eternals, and an idea of what endless dying and rebirth might do to someone who wasn’t particularly ready for Sigmar’s glory when they were chosen. Honestly, this is an absolutely mind-blowing tale that’s stunningly well told by Gregory, and packs in an immense amount of detail and thought-provoking concepts in such a tight page count.
Coming to the close of the anthology, we’re given three more stories. The first is Where Dere’s Da Warp Dere’s A Way by Mike Brooks, a story focusing on an Ork warband storming a Mechanicus flotilla. It can be very easy to stereotype Orks and turn them into two-dimensional characters, but Brooks has managed to get inside their heads and write a story that is not only the Ork-iest story I’ve ever read, but also by far the funniest: I think I laughed out loud at least once a page, and often went back and re-read a sentence or paragraph just to laugh again at what Brooks had written. It’s a beautifully chaotic blend of Ork brutality, ingenuity and low wit, all mixed together with a constant barrage of brutal, close-quarters combat as the orks work their way deeper into the Mechanicus vessel. It’s over far too quickly for my liking, even if re-reading it is as enjoyable as the first time; and if there’s one author that could write a full-length novel from the viewpoint of the Orks without it descending into pastiche and generic two-dimensional action, then I think it could only be Brooks.
The Manse of Mirrors from Nick Horth features his aelven treasure hunter Shevanya Arclis, who’s hired, along with an eclectic group of thieves and magic users, to infiltrate the mansion of long-disappeared wizard Phylebius Crade and see if there’s anything worth looting now that no-one’s heard from the man in years. Getting into the mansion is relatively easy, but the further they probe into the house, the more that Arclis becomes uneasy; it certainly doesn’t look or feel like a house that was abandoned, and instead feels like the owner simply stepped out for a moment and would return any second. Horth does a great job building up the atmosphere of the story, especially inside the mansion, and when things do start to go wrong he suddenly conjures up a terrifyingly fast-paced and surprisingly brutal horror story with an ending that requires all of Arclis’ skills and knowledge to try and survive. I hadn’t realised that this story serves as the prequel to Horth’s novella Thieves’ Paradise, but that will now be next on my reading list as a result of enjoying this story.
Finally, J.C. Stearns takes us to the depths of an Imperial hive in Blackout, which sees a group of hive gangers slowly come to realise that the latest blackout isn’t just because one of the slowly-crumbling power generatoriums has finally collapsed in on itself; or because the Astra Militarum are doing a sweep to catch the dregs of society and ‘recruit’ them into a regiment to fight in some far-flung corner of the Imperium. Instead, there’s something utterly unfamiliar and terrifying suddenly lurking in their territory, cutting through rival gangs with firepower and armour that’s never been seen before, and seemingly not taking any prisoners in the process. With most of their gang dead in their hideout, brutally scythed down as they fought back, Chib and his few remaining friends flee even deeper into the hive in an attempt to escape. Stearns perfectly evokes the wretched, kill-or-be-killed nature of living in the lower levels of a hive, as well as the strange pride of being a ganger, and allies that with some adrenaline-laced, fast-moving writing as Chib tries to stay one step ahead of his pursuers.
Black Library continues to impress with the Inferno! volumes, with Volume 4 being the best so far – filled with engaging, action-packed and often thought-provoking stories that that take the most interesting elements, settings and factions in all of the Warhammer worlds, and use them to tell original stories that stay with you long after finishing the anthology. It’s all pure, undiluted Warhammer in a deeply refreshing way, and I absolutely cannot wait to get my hands on the next volume.