Black Library Celebration 2020 Anthology
Although it took a bit more time than I had hoped, thanks to the nation-wide presence of a certain virus-related pandemic and the whole ‘a nation goes into lockdown and self-isolates’ scenario, not to mention a prolonged period of illness that was probably Covid-19, I was finally able to get my hands on a copy of Black Library Celebration 2020 Anthology, the latest annual event anthology from Black Library. I was particularly excited to read this anthology because of the particular combination of authors that had stories within it. Not only was there finally a print copy of Danie Ware’s Forsaken, which looks at the very beginning of Sister Superior’s Augusta’s career as a Sister of Battle, but also the first published story (or so I believe) by Robert Rath, who wrote the excellent The War in the Museum I reviewed recently on this blog. Plus four more stories by David Annandale, Mike Brooks, Aaron Dembski-Bowden and Sarah Cawkwell, all talented and highly-skilled authors who have demonstrated unique and engaging angles on the various Warhammer settings. Taken all together, the anthology promised to be extremely enjoyable, perhaps even more so than the 2019 edition that I reviewed back in March.
The anthology opens with Danie Ware’s Forsaken, which as mentioned above is the first Sister Superior Augusta tale chronologically, going back to when the veteran Sister of Battle was a young neophyte in her first squad. I’ve really enjoyed Ware’s take on the Sisters of Battle and her ability to turn them into three-dimensional characters fuelled by faith and devotion to the God-Emperor, rather than as generic religious fanatics as they’ve so often been portrayed as in Black Library fiction. As such, I was eager to see what see where Ware would go with this story, especially as it’s set so early in Augusta’s story. Augusta’s squad, under the command of the fearsome veteran Sister Superior Veradis, have boarded the apparently abandoned cruiser Santa Xenia in search of answers to the mystery of why the vessel hangs in space, motionless and without her crew answering any hails. After a grim and atmospheric opening that deftly demonstrates the sheer size of one of these vessels, the squad are ambushed by the Orks that have boarded the cruiser, and in the ensuing clash Augusta loses her bolter and is hurled into the depths of the cruiser. Separated from her squad, and indeed anything else alive in the tomb-like bottom of the cruiser, fear and despair threaten to set in to the novice’s mind as she wades through filth and water looking for a way back to her sisters. Ware does an absolutely fantastic job of getting into Augusta’s mind and psyche as she continually trudges forward, exploring the nature of faith and conviction, and how difficult they can be to maintain when alone, injured and inexperienced. It makes for an excellent comparison to the older, wiser Augusta of the previous stories, although the core of what she will become is amply demonstrated when the Sister is forced to confront the reason for the crew’s disappearance. The last few pages of the story are pure sci-fi horror and demonstrate that Ware could easily write for the Warhammer Horror imprint, as a genuinely disconcerting set-piece unfolds in the bowels of the cruiser, capping off a fantastic story that also acts as a great opening to the anthology.
We then come to The Garden of Mortal Delights by Robert Rath, the second of his stories that I’ve read after the darkly amusing and action-packed The War in the Museum which focused on the complex scheming of Trazyn the Infinite, Necron Overlord and beloved fan favourite. Rath now turns his attention to the Age of Sigmar setting, writing a far slower, and far more intense and atmospheric, tale that follows a branchwych captured and enslaved by a Slaaneshi lord. Rath once again demonstrates that he has a real eye for setting and tone in his stories, as we are brought into the twisted, malicious and incredibly dangerous beauty of the ‘pleasure garden’ that fostered and grown in an obscene fashion by Revish the Epicurean. Playing against many of the tropes associated with Chaos, and especially Slaanesh, Rath refrains from describing the usual displays of nudity, sexual depravity and general depraved excess associated with that Chaos power. Instead, he seems to understand that the true horrors of Slaanesh can be far more subtle and insidious, as we see demonstrated in the manner in which Revish keeps branchwych Wilde Kurdwen contained within the garden. Crippled physically after a previous escape attempt, and unable to leave because of the dryads that Revish has tortured and imprisoned by effectively ‘planting’ them in the ‘garden’, Kurwen is forced to tend to the garden for the Chaos lord, who in turn lavishes his attention on the foul and misbegotten things growing all around. Rath describes the area with an eye for detail and a subtle touch in terms of descriptions, really bringing it to disturbing and often disgusting life without it coming across as forced or voyeuristic. He also possesses this inherent ability to get into the head of Revish, showing us how even a mighty lord of Slaanesh can become bored and distracted after centuries of engaging in excess, and subsequently want a quieter life; there’s this fascinating clash between Revish and his lieutenant over priorities and what they should be doing that cuts to the heart of the story, and is one of the best elements of the story. Combine that with an action-packed and surprising ending, as well as some incisive insights into the lives and views of the dryads, and you have an author that I think will go very far with Black Library.
Mike Brooks has written a couple of stories, and now a novel, in the Necromunda setting, and it really seems to suit his writing style and particular imagination; he brings it to life in a way I haven’t seen in a very long time, really bringing out the dystopian, even Darwinian nature of the underhive without ever descending into stereotypes or bland characters or plots. In Dead Drop, Brooks focuses on the Road Dogs, a gang associated with House Orlock, and their mission to ambush a transport vehicle and its escorts moving through the wastelands. It’s an incredibly valuable prize that they’re aiming to seize, and despite some fierce resistance from its owners, Danner Grimjack and their comrades are able to secure it and take it to a nearby town to try and sell it. However it becomes clear that the cargo is far from the harmless asset that the gangers all believed it to be, and before long the Road Dogs are having to deal with heat from rival gangs, the hive enforcers, and even betrayal from within their own ranks. Honestly, this story really was the highlight of the Black Library Celebration anthology for me, even managing to outdo Rath’s phenomenal effort; Brooks just manages to develop his own unique take on Necromunda, imbuing it with an energy that brings the story to life in your mind. From the Mad Max-stylings of the opening chaotic assault on the convoy, so loud, brash and bullet-ridden that it seems like a post-apocalyptic movie distilled onto paper, to the intimate and complex relationships within the Road Dogs, to the surprisingly emotional ending with its ruminations on the nature of loyalty and punishment, Brooks places his own brand on the setting and makes it his own. I am really looking forward to reading his first full Necromunda novel that was released in late March, Road to Redemption.
Sarah Cawkwell is an author that I haven’t seen published by Black Library in quite some time, and it was with genuine pleasure that I saw her name on the Table of Contents of this anthology. Back in the day I was a huge fan of her Silver Skulls stories in the 40K setting, as well as the excellent Warhammer Chronicles novel, Valkia the Bloody, and so I was eager to see what she would make of the Age of Sigmar setting. Her tale, Heart of the Fallen, follows a band of youths from the Untamed Beasts warband as they set off into the depths of the treacherous wilds of the Bloodwind Spoil in search of another youth, who left their camp in search of a legendary monster to hunt and slay. Cawkwell interleaves sections of the short story so that we seamlessly move between Sharp Tongue, the lone hunter, and the trio of youths following after him – Dhyer, Open Skies and Fleet-Foot, the latter related to Sharp Tongue by blood. The structure makes for a tense and fast-paced story, as we simultaneously see what happens to both groups, with the added tension of the time delay between the two groups: what happens to Sharp Tongue is not discovered by the other three until some time later. It’s a difficult framework to pull off, but Cawkwell is more than up to the job, leading to a distinctive and memorable tale enhanced further by her atmospheric descriptions of the Bloodwind Spoils and its Chaos-influenced terrain, wildlife and even plants. It’s fantastic to see Cawkwell back with Black Library and I can only hope that the publisher will see sense and commission her to write more stories that make use of her innate understanding of the Age of Sigmar and Warcry settings.
I previously reviewed David Annandale’s The Hunt, a Warhammer Horror short story in the Age of Sigmar setting, when it was included in the Invocations anthology. But it’s such a good story that I think it bears repeating that review here:
“I’m a huge fan of David Annandale, and his contributions so far to Warhammer Horror have been some of my favourite stories in the imprint, so I was glad to see [Invocations] open with The Hunt from his pen. I haven’t come across many stories told in second-person, and I know it can be a difficult point of view to pull off; fortunately Annandale is more than capable of pulling it off, using it as an engaging and chilling framing device for portraying a Witchhunter being haunted by terrifying screams and wails that emerge from the darkness each night, joined by strange flashes of unlight that only Bered Davan can see. Annandale’s mastery of atmosphere and descriptive prose only ever seems to grow with each story he writes, and he uses it here to effortlessly portray a growing sense of horror as Davan watches his spectral doom approach his quarters. Add to that a terrible decision made in the past that gnaws at the Witchhunter at every opportunity, and you have a genuinely creepy and unsettling tale, with a gut-wrenching twist in the ending. It’s easily the highlight of the entire [Invocations] anthology and well worth the price of purchase alone.”
Finally, the collection closes with the Horus Heresy tale Bringer of Sorrow from Aaron Dembski-Bowden, an author upon whom much praise is heaped upon, and entirely correctly in my opinion. I’m proud to say that I’ve followed Mr Dembski-Bowden’s career with Black Library from the very beginning, and one of my favourite 40K novels to endlessly reread is his very first, the underrated and often darkly humorous Cadian Blood. Whether he’s writing about the Night Lords, the Cadian Shock, or the Emperor of Mankind Himself, Dembski-Bowden always knocks it out of the park with his stories, and Bringer of Sorrow is no exception. This is another story that features the quirky and unusually focused (even by the usual standards for the Priests of Mars) Archmagos Arkhan Land, who now resides on Terra after being rescued from the clutches of the Dark Mechanicum as Mars fell to the forces of Warmaster Horus. Accompanied by his Psyber-Monkey Sapien, he now tinkers with various technology, and also forms an unusual yet surprisingly strong relationship with Blood Angel Dominion Zephon, a member of the Crusader Host who remained on Terra while the Heresy raged. Grievously injured while fighting a xenos race, emergency surgery saved Zephon’s life but left him with crude augmetic limbs that make it near-impossible to act as an Astartes, leaving him isolated and anguished about his inability to join his brothers. Having taken a liking to the Astartes, Land decides to help restore the warrior back to his full capabilities, a process that makes up the core of the story. It’s a thoughtful tale with an unusual pace compared to most other Heresy stories, given the lack of combat or politicking, with Dembski-Bowden artfully contrasting the weary, stoic Zephon with the furious energy and fearsome intellect of Land, and results in an ending with a surprisingly emotional note that made my lip quiver, ever so slightly.
Another triumph for Black Library, the Black Library Celebration 2020 Anthology is a collection of top-notch stories that demonstrate just how varied and colourful the Warhammer settings have become, and how the publisher has adapted in the past few years to create new imprints to explore those settings. The anthology acts as an excellent introduction to the settings, as I’m sure was intended, moving between Warhammer 40,000, Necromunda, Age of Sigmar, the Horus Heresy and the new Warhammer Horror Imprint. But just as importantly, it functions as a showcase to demonstrate the wide breadth of talented authors commissioned by Black Library – from experienced authors like Aaron Dembski-Bowden and David Annandale to talented newcomers like Robert Rath and Mike Brooks. That makes it the perfect collection for new recruits to the Black Library fiction, and veteran readers such as myself.