Loyal to the End & War in the Museum
Thomas Parrott & Robert Rath
As the latest week in COVID-19 quarantine boredom began, I decided to spend the last vestiges of my birthday money on two recently published Black Library short stories, both by new authors who have caught my eye for the quality of their writing, imaginative plots, and interesting takes on the subject matter of their chosen settings within the worlds of Warhammer. Thomas Parrott’s Loyal to the End focuses on an Imperial Knight pilot forced to flee from Chaos-corrupted comrades; while War in the Museum from Robert Rath sees the return of beloved Necron kleptomaniac Trazyn the Infinite and his museum of time-frozen wonders and horrors.
At this point, I have absolutely no need to internally justify purchasing any titles written by Thomas Parrott. Given that he only has a novella and a handful of short stories under his belt, and been writing for Black Library for such a comparatively short time, it’s astounding just how well he’s settled into the Warhammer 40,000 setting. As I’ve noted in previous reviews on this blog of his works, Parrott seems to have an inherent understanding and ‘feel’ for the setting that relatively few authors published by Black Library have, and meshes that with a prodigious imagination and skillful writing. Each of his tales has centred on a different aspect of Warhammer 40,000 – Skitarii; Blackstone Fortress; void scavengers – and so I was eager to see what he could do with the Imperial Knights, those scaled-down versions of Titans that are a (relatively) recent addition to the setting and lore.
Loyal to the End is set on the once formidable forgeworld of Agripinaa, now cut off from the rest of the Imperium by the Great Rift and besieged by the forces of chaos, including the mighty Titans of Legio Mortis and the vile, renegade House Vextrix. The defenders of the forgeworld are supported, in turn, by Legio Praesidium Vortex and the Knights of the honourable House Viti. Our protagonist is Bondswoman Constance, piloting the Knight Armiger Swift Justice, following her master Sir Vaelon, piloting a Knight Preceptor. It’s a powerful force of mechs, and in the opening passages Parrott deftly gets across the immense power and presence of these machines as they turn back the latest demonic incursion, with some nice, gore-spattered action that sets the scene nicely. But just when victory seems assured, something happens that turns Vaelon and her comrades against her, forcing Constance into a slick, fast-paced game of cat and mouse as she evades both her corrupted fellows and Chaos forces in a desperate attempt to reach the safety of friendly lines.
As Constance flees in an increasingly-damaged Knight, we’re treated to a view of the desolate, war-torn landscape of Agripinaa that acts as the perfect terrain for ambushes and desperate, brutal close-quarters combat between the god machines, with Parrott also treating us to descriptions of distant clashes between Titans. Cleverly they loom in the background, never coming any closer, giving the whole story a suitably magisterial and apocalyptic feeling; rather than an isolated tale, Parrott makes us feel like we are merely seeing a glimpse of one tiny, near-insigificant element of a titanic struggle for the fate of the forgeworld. The grim nature of the physical landscape is matched by Constance’s mental landscape, as we witness her complex mesh of emotions: intense pride at piloting a Knight, while there’s a subtle, lingering resentment at having to constantly prove herself due to her lowly background and inferior circumstances. Coupled with an ending that is the pure, undiluted essence of Warhammer 40,000, you have a hugely enjoyable, atmospheric and multi-layered thriller that highlights the many complexities of the Knight Houses serving the Imperium of Man.
By contrast, Robert Rath’s War in the Museum is a slightly more light-hearted tale that, as the title hints, follows in the footsteps of Necron Overlord Trazyn the Infinite. Part undying, metallic monstrosity, part academic and part kleptomaniac on an unimaginably galactic scale, Trazyn is the Warhammer 40,000 equivalent of Indiana Jones – if Indiana Jones had legions of undying metallic soldiers at his disposal, unimaginable powers and knowledge, and a penchant for using ridiculously complex technology to steal relics, curiosities and occasionally thousands of soldiers, civilians and xenos creatures. Anything that takes his interest, basically; and he has a lot of interests to fill the time caused by being an undying, immortal being. That’s amply demonstrated as the story opens, with Trazyn artfully arranging the last few items in his latest collection – an entire Tyranid splinter fleet, complete with a terrifying Hive Tyrant.
It’s an impressive accomplishment, even for Trazyn, who idly notes that ‘rehydrating’ the Tyrant alone took an entire century, giving an indication of just how genuinely alien the Necron’s existence is; a hundred years to restore a single item in his collection means absolutely nothing to him, especially as he needs the time to set up all of the other tyranid creatures in an exacting, perfectionist manner. Just when the Tyrant is ready to be positioned, and Trazyn has the final Genestealer set just so, his perfectly conditioned Museum suffers a catastrophic malfunction. The level he’s in with the hive fleet splinter is sealed off, preventing his escape, and his exhibits begin to come alive. Forced to flee with an ever-decreasing number of aides and bodyguards, disconcertingly jumping from body to body as they’re eviscerated by a Lictor that has mysteriously been released from stasis, Trazyn has no choice but to rely on the skills of some of his living exhibits if he’s going to survive.
Rath absolutely nails Trazyn as a character and gets right inside his head, seamlessly dragging us along for the ride as the story progresses. We get to see exactly how he thinks, feels (or doesn’t given the subject on hand) and observes, as well as some of the reasons for his obsessive collecting, kidnapping and general magpie-like behaviour. By the end of War in the Museum, Rath has managed to make Trazyn feel like an actual, three-dimensional character rather than just a long-running series of entries in various game codexes. That’s in addition to the wonderful insights Rath gives us about the vast, near-incomprehensible size of the museum itself. In practically every paragraph we’re introduced to new exhibits, either explicitly named or subtly hinted at depending on the context, as well as drily amusing takes on how they were acquired, or what Trazyn does with them. I think my favourite was that the Necron actually records his own audio narration for each exhibit, on the off-chance that he dies before he can guide visitors around in person. There’s also some fantastic character work for the secondary cast of the story, the exhibits that Trazyn is forced to wake up; there’s a Magos that effectively just likes being part of the exhibit because he gets to while away his time calculating and plotting, as well as a pair of Sisters of Battle with a genuinely unsettling story behind their acquisition. It all adds up to a deeply impressive accomplishment, especially as it’s one of Rath’s first stories; and I look forward to reading whatever he next has coming out from Black Library.
With Loyal to the End and War in the Museum, Parrott and Rath have written two intelligent, thought-provoking and action-packed tales that examine aspects of the Warhammer 40,000 setting that still haven’t really been explored in fiction published by Black Library until now. I thoroughly enjoyed both stories, and am delighted that both authors will have the opportunity to demonstrate their obvious skills as authors later this year, when both men have their first novels published by Black Library. Parrott will take on the Raven Guard in Space Marine Conquests: Masters of Shadow; and it’s just been revealed on social media that Rath will be penning a full-length Trazyn the Infinite novel titled The Infinite and the Divine. I’m eagerly awaiting the publication of both titles, and they’ll be at the very top of my review pile when they come out!