Cold Open Stories
Collection Theme – ‘Reclaim’
In the recent revamp of their website, Cold Open Stories have an interesting byline for their Short Fiction collections: “Fanfiction often gets a bad reputation for being derivative, low-culture, or poorly written. Let’s change that.” I’ve kept the text unchanged, including the bolding, because for me these two short sentences really do encapsulate my past and current mindsets towards the idea of fanfiction, regardless of genre or setting. As I admitted in my previous review of the website’s Winter 2020 Short Fiction Anthology, until I encountered Cold Open Stories I had really had little to do with fanfiction as a concept, particularly for any stories set in the various Warhammer settings belonging to Games Workshop. There had always been enough canon fiction put out by publishers Black Library to keep me entertained; and even when that output dramatically dipped in quality for a few years in the mid-2010s, I was slowly but surely becoming more interested in the Horror genre, which diverted my attention.
There was also, I must admit, an inbuilt disdain for fanfiction based around the ideas evinced in the phrases above – I assumed that fanfiction as a whole wouldn’t be worthy of my time as a reader, and would consist of lengthy, rambling and poor-quality fiction that desperately and universally required an editor. So I stayed away from it in general, and didn’t consciously think about it until Cold Open Stories’ first anthology suddenly appeared on social media. Stories like Daniel Bell’s exquisite New Moon, which could easily have appeared in any anthology formally published by Black Library, forced me to reconsider my biases, and take a far deeper look at what was being produced. I thoroughly enjoyed the stories found in the Winter 2020 anthology, and was therefore curious to see what else Cold Open Stories could produce. I saw the call go out to authors through social media channels for two new projects – a Spring 2020 short story anthology, and also a collection of flash-fiction stories based around the theme of reclamation. While I’m eagerly awaiting the release of the Spring 2020 anthology – still some time away – the April 2020 Fast Fiction Collection was recently released, and I decided to jump in and see what it contained.
Flash fiction can be incredibly hard to write, as I’ve discovered during my years reading and reviewing in the Horror genre, and it’s also not a direction I’ve seen taken with Warhammer fiction very often; even Black Library have only released a handful of flash-fiction stories, most notably the Angels of Death anthology a good half a decades ago now. Constructing an effective piece of flash fiction can be an extremely challenging process, having to distill an entire story into a handful of words while advancing a plot, framing characters and engaging the reader, and to be successful at it can be the mark of a potentially great and skilled writer. Given that, and pedigree of Cold Open Stories and their chosen judges, I suspected I would discover a large number of high-quality stories, and was quickly proven correct. As each story could only be a maximum of 1,000 words, and flash/fast fiction has intrigued me during my time reviewing, I thought I would do a quick review of the entries and give some thoughts on them.
The published stories have been divided by Cold Open Stories into three categories, with a total of seventeen tales in all: some were chosen by the site’s editors, others by the judges as official selections, and then a single story as the overarching winner and Featured Story. It’s an interesting hierarchy, and one that helps divide up the stories into manageable sections, and I hope they retain it in future contests. I wish that I had time to replicate such an incisive structure, but instead I decided to just read all of the stories and then come up with my particular favorites in that classic format – and a first for the blog – a Top Ten list that will highlight those I thought especially well-written, or distinctly memorable, moving down until we hit what I considered to be the absolute best within the contest entries.
[Regardless of position, its important to note that, as the stories are so short, my reviews are going to be necessarily short – flash reviews perhaps! – in order to avoid comprehensively spoiling each story in turn]
Top Ten Entries – Reclaim
10 – Reclaim by Ignatius Fischer – I was impressed by Fischer’s story, which has a strange, ethereal atmosphere to it as it unfolds. For quite some time it’s unclear what, exactly, our protagonist is terrified about, apart from the fact that he fears for his daughter and is prepared to fight to the death to protect her from the unknown forces coming for her. The twist is perhaps somewhat obvious to long-standing fans of the setting, but regardless of this Fischer evokes tension and fear well in the text, with a pleasingly dark ending.
9 – Jail Break by Greg Williams – An action-packed short that follows a band of Renegade Astartes as they brutally fight their way through an Imperial prison complex, Williams has a certain knack for portraying the limb-breaking, blood-splattering manner of fighting embodied by the superhuman warriors of the Adeptus Astartes. As a bonus, the ending actually helps to fill in a small hole in the official Warhammer 40,000 Canon, and features a fan-favourite character that brought a (tortured) smile to my lips.
8 – The Consuming Gaze by Jenny Strath – It’s always good to see more fiction involving the Sisters of Battle, especially now that we have Danie Ware publishing top-quality fiction about the Sisters that turns them from two-dimensional religious fanatics into rounded, fully fleshed characters. Strath’s story reminded me of Ware’s stories, especially in the sense of camaraderie that she evokes between the Sisters, as they investigate unsettling disappearances and other incidents in a mining complex. Deftly moving between third-person prose and first-person confessional entries that are especially horrific, and bolstered by a disturbing twist in the ending, Strath’s is a memorable tale that reminds me of the Warhammer Horror imprint.
7 – Fallen but Not Forgotten by Troy Sterling Nies – It’s only been incredibly recently, with the publication of Peter McLean’s short stories, that concepts such as PTSD and the effects of everlasting war on the average soldiers in the Astra Militarum have been allowed to come to the forefront. Troy Sterling Nies now joins McLean in writing about this sensitive subject, and really hits the spot in a raw and emotive story that looks at memory and how its affected by the rigors and stresses of combat. It’s brilliantly written, with a staccato rhythm that reminds me of the nihilistic, post-apocalyptic writing of Adam Baker, and it spoke to me in a way most of these other stories didn’t. A first-class tale
6 – Prime Helix by Darren Davis – Although an Apothecary is a key part of an Astartes squad or company, it seems to me that we so rarely get to see a story from their point of view. That’s all the more remarkable given the sacred duty that they are given – to not only oversee the health and well being of their brothers, but to reclaim the holy geneseed from their bodies when their duty to the Emperor finally ends. Friendship, brotherhood and sacrifice are at the heart of this fast-paced and action-packed story that read like it had the potential to be something far longer and more detailed – perhaps even a novel.
5 – The Price of Being No One by Matthew Burgess – Although we do get quite a few pieces of Black Library fiction focusing on the various assassin cults that form the Officio Assassinorum, rarely have they been as in-depth in terms of character as in this short piece by Matthew Burgess. Burgess really gets into the mindspace of one of these assassins, and the sanity-breaking personality changes that come about as a result of having to adopt a variety of disguises and personalities in the course of their missions. A rare glimpse into the mind of one of these operatives, and one I’d like to see more of in future contests.
4 – Quartermaster by Josh Tibbs – Given the amount of horror fiction I’ve read over the years, resulting in a fairly jaded attitude, it takes quite something to give me the chills these days. But Josh Tibbs succeeded with Quartermaster, a genuinely unsettling piece of flash fiction that focuses on the Krieg regiments of the Astra Militarum. It can be incredibly easy to write clichéd fiction focusing on the Krieg given their background in the 40,000 setting, something that even Black Library have been guilty of on occasion, but Tibbs has composed an original piece of fiction that is genuinely dystopian, and which perfectly evokes the nature of war for the Krieg.
3 – The Scream of Vengeance by Jacob Peterson – While I was initially sceptical that an Astartes entry would become one of my favourites of the contest, Peterson rapidly won me around by presenting us with a unique, engaging and surprisingly emotional scenario for the superhuman warrior-monks. We’ve often seen stories published by Black Library based on the idea of an entire Chapter being destroyed completely, down to the last Astartes; or reduced to such a small number that, devoid of sufficient geneseed, they are unable to reconstitute their numbers. In the latter case, the usual scenario is for the survivors to undertake some final, suicidal crusade into death. But here Peterson presents an intriguing amendment – the surviving Astartes are instead split up to different Chapters requiring reinforcements. But then, at a specific time, they flee from their adoptive Chapters in order to undertake a perilous and controversial mission connected to their original Chapter. An excellent story that just begs for a follow-up story at some point.
2 – Lost Property by Leon Davis – It can be incredibly difficult to write a story from the viewpoint of an Ork without immediately falling into cliched writing and stereotypes that fail to explore the huge amount of potential in the greenskin race. There’s a very clear reason why there have only been a tiny handful of short stories published by Black Library with that particular Point of View; and why it took until 2020 for someone with the unique writing skills of Mike Brooks to be contracted to write the first Ork-centric novel. But with this story, it seems like Brooks might just have some competition; and while flash fiction is near-impossible to compare to the theoretical quality of a short story, let alone a novel, Lost Property to me demonstrates that Davis also has a keen insight into the Orkish mind, and a distinct ability to write Ork characters that have depth of character and don’t immediately fall into stereotypes. A brilliantly entertaining and occasionally even laugh-out-loud story of one Nob searching for his stolen beloved shoota, Davis really hit the nail on the head with this story.
1 – Her Name by Delio Pera – As if there was going to be any doubt here – Pera’s story won the contest for a damn good reason. Perfectly evoking the Reclaim theme, in a manner I don’t think any of the other entries came even close to, Pera gives us a tale that strikes at the very heart of a bloated, uncaring and bureaucratic Imperium. It is a hoary saying that the Imperium is composed of a billion billion cogs, each an anonymous person being ground down by the demands of endless war; but for the first time I can think of, we have been given the viewpoint of one of those citizens, a quite literally nameless person who goes to great and terrible lengths to receive the name and identity they believe they deserve. Chilling, haunting and intensely memorable, Her Name is clear evidence that – like Daniel Summerbell and New Moon – Pera has an innate understanding of the Warhammer 40,000 universe and the skills to write for Black Library. If he submits a story to their next open submission period, I would be genuinely surprised if he was not published.
Once again, with the Reclaim Fast Fiction Collection, Cold Open Stories have published an accomplished collection of Warhammer 40,000 stories by a group of incredibly talented authors – not only collating together these fantastic stories, but hosting them on a deeply impressive website with some fantastic visuals and a smooth and engaging user interface. I really do look forward to reading and reviewing their next collection of stories, and strongly recommend that any fellow fan of Warhammer 40,000 – or high-quality scifi in general – do the same. Cold Open Stories are single-handedly rehabilitating the reputation of Warhammer 40,000 fan fiction through contests like this, and as a result I firmly believe that they are becoming a leading light of the Warhammer fan community.