The Jagged Edge/The Siege of Greenspire
Maria Haskins/Anna Stephens
I thoroughly enjoyed writing my last Quick Review of two Black Library short stories (Thomas Parrott’s Loyal To The End and Robert Rath’s War In The Museum) and when I saw that – accidentally or deliberately – Black Library had reduced the price of many of their short stories on the Kindle store, I saw an opportunity to stretch my rather meagre budget and review several more stories. Scrolling through the myriad of options, I decided to stick with the theme I had chosen from my initial review, and choose two authors who were new to the publisher. I also made the conscious decision to choose one Warhammer 40,000 story and one from the Age of Sigmar setting in order to try and balance out my Warhammer reading in general; while I was initially sceptical of the latter, the exceedingly high quality of stories by the likes of Evan Dicken, Jamie Crisalli and Sarah Cawkswell have led to me warming to the setting and deliberately reading more stories in it. To that end, I purchased The Jagged Edge (40,000) by Maria Haskins and The Siege of Greenspire (Age of Sigmar) by Anna Stephens and settled down to start reading.
The back-cover blurb for The Jagged Edge rather intrigued me, especially for an Astra Militarum story where I’m always looking for some sort of unique angle to make the story stand out from the many other stories focusing on the men and women of the Guard. A dangerous mission into a mountainous region is a difficult enough task for Sergeant Aurealia Shale, but it becomes infinitely more complex when the Commissar accompanying her squad happens to be her own sister. It’s a fantastic set-up with a huge amount of potential for tension and fraying loyalties, both regimental and familial, and I looked forward to seeing what Maria Haskins could deliver with such a scenario in mind.
The very first thing that struck me is that Haskins is a damn fine writer – the opening description of the Northern Reaches that act as the geographical setting for the story are amazingly evocative at setting the scene, and I was utterly and immediately taken in by her writing style. That quality also then extends to the overall atmosphere of the piece, with Haskins deftly establishing early on an intense and brooding atmosphere that seems rife with distrust and paranoia. That’s amplified by the characters she populates the story with, each one conflicting with the others in some manner – some less subtle than others. Our protagonist, Sergeant Shale, faces a multitude of conflicts as she and her squad slowly work their wait into a set of claustrophobic tunnels seeking out their enemies. Not only is she newly-promoted over her friends and colleagues in the squad, meaning there’s now a natural barrier of rank between them, but her sister the Commissar publically and vocally rebukes her for accidental familiarity as the story begins. Add in a grizzled veteran Captain leading the mission who sides with the Commissar, and Haskins presents us with all the components for a tense, character-driven story.
It is indeed a great story, those components flawlessly integrated to create a truly memorable narrative as the squad infiltrate a cultist-occupied manufactorum wreathed in Chaos filth and miasma. The action sequences as the squad enact their desperate mission are visceral and distinctive, against a grittily-described Chaos cult that are more vividly portrayed than generic cultists usually are in most 40k stories. That’s bolstered by some great characterisation, which offers some surprising depth despite the small wordcount, especially in the relationship between Aurelia and Theodora; there’s even the seed of a fascinating idea that’s been explored recently in Rachel Harrison’s Severina Raine stories – how the official persona of the Commissar role erases the personality of the individual assuming the rank, and to what extent individuality can remain after finally graduating from the Commissariat. Ending with an emotional gut-punch that perfectly suits the themes Haskin has built up since the start of the tale, The Jagged Edge is an utterly brilliant, first-rate Warhammer 40,000 story. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that it’s one of the finest one-shot Imperial Guard stories I’ve ever read, easily on a par with Peter McLean’s incisive takes on the Guard, and I demand more Warhammer stories from Maria Haskin in the near-future.
We then come to Anna Stephens’ The Siege of Greenspire, which focuses on the efforts of Freeguild Captain Brida Devholm, commanding the Lady’s Justice company, to help hold the Greenspire watchtower against a Chaos incursion. Greenspire is just one of a large number of watchtowers that form the Emerald Line, a series of fortifications that stretch across the land and guard against the Chaos occupants of the nearby Hexwood. Raids against the watchtowers are growing more and more regular, and stronger, with the green flames above each watchtower turning red – to warn of danger – with depressing and increasing predictability. Something is coming – something that hasn’t been seen before – and Devholm finds herself struggling to mold her company of veterans (too few) and raw recruits (far, far too many) into something that can resist whatever is approaching. Stephens does a fantastic job of highlighting the myriad problems of a Freeguild company fighting against Chaos – the need to rely on recruits barely out of childhood and simple farmers to replace veteran soldiers, and the painful and scarring process of breaking those raw recruits and forging them into something that can resist the vile influences and sheer numbers of the followers of Tzeentch that lurk in the Hexwood.
As if the issues with the recruits, the low number of remaining soldiers in the company, and a lack of supplies wasn’t enough for Devholm to worry about, it soon becomes apparent that there is a traitor within the garrison – poisoning food and water, and spiking the guns needed to hold the watchtower. Stephens cranks up the tension and paranoid as Devholm races to try and ferret out the cultist in their midst, prevaricating between focusing on raw recruits and veterans she’s known for decades, in turn giving us some fascinating insights into the day-to-day running of a watchtower and the soldiers within it. This then leads into a full-scale assault on Greenspire and some intense, vivid action sequences as the watchtower is assaulted from without and betrayed from within simultaneously, culminating in a gut-wrenching cliff-hanger that just cries out for a sequel of some kind.
The action sequences in the latter half of the story are brilliantly written, but the characters are the best part of The Siege of Greenspire, especially our protagonist. Stephens imbues Devholm with a real sense of power and command – her rebukes to a recruit who stumbles and breaks open a barrel of gunpowder at the start of the story are a masterclass in authority and discipline, and demonstrate that Devholm is not someone to be messed with. She also deftly illustrates the mental exhaustion and PTSD suffered by veterans like Devholm – painful memories are vividly described as being ‘rolled like a corpse in a river and submerged again’ which is just an amazingly evocative metaphor. In many ways, the heart of the story is not just the assault on the Greenspire, but also the assault on what remains of Devholm’s humanity as she is swamped with decision after painful decision. The Siege of Greenspire is brilliantly written and composed, with a real understanding of the Age of Sigmar setting, and I’d love to see more such tales from Stephens.
The Jagged Edge and The Siege of Greenspire are both outstanding Warhammer short stories, and exactly the sort of material that Black Library should be – and indeed have been – seeking out and publishing in the last few years to revitalise the fiction side of the various Warhammer settings and make them more engaging for readers and players alike. I hope to see more from both authors in their respective settings, and would be incredibly surprised if I did not see Haskins and Stephens with their names on Black Library novellas, or even full-length novels, in the next few years.