Inferno! Volume 2 – Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells (ed.) – Review

Inferno! Volume 2

Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells (ed.)

Black Library

Continuing my journey to review the entire series of Inferno! anthologies published by Black Library, albeit in an non-chronological order in terms of when they were released, I find myself reviewing Inferno! Volume 2 edited by Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells and with a variety of stories set in the Warhammer 40,000, Age of Sigmar and Warcry settings by new and veteran authors. While those settings are 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.

The collection opens with At the Sign of the Brazen Claw: Part Two – The Merchant’s Story, the second entry in Guy Haley’s tale that is serialised through the first five Inferno! anthologies, and 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 the second part of the tale focusing on surly duardin Stonbrak and his tale of greed and betrayal. While initially wary to speak, the other patrons trapped in the Inn are finally able to tease the tale out of him – about a duardin craftsman with a rare talent for working with jewellery. Contracted by a secretive and wealthy aelven stranger to produce a necklace festooned with incredibly rare and beautiful watergems, the duardin spends many days producing the necklace, only to receive no payment from the client, who refused to even give a name and therefore cannot be located. Frustrated, and blinded by both greed and a classic duardin grudge, the craftsman determines to hunt down the elusive client; but rather than payment for services rendered, the duardin instead finds himself faced with the client’s terrifying secret and a tragic ending. It’s a slowly-paced, atmospheric and elegantly told tale that Hayley expertly matches to the slower, more introspective nature of the duardin, and really develops the character of Stonbrak despite him not being the main focus of the story.

 The Thirteenth Psalm is another of Peter Fehevari’s unique takes on the Warhammer 40,000 setting, with the author producing a claustrophobic and brooding horror tale tinged with an atmosphere that borders at times on nihilism; it’s another of Fehevari’s stories that takes a close and often uncomfortable look at the realities of the setting and its cultures, focusing this time on the Adeptus Astartes. Once known as the Angels Resplendent, an Astartes Chapter whose warriors were famed for being artisans far more than warriors, an encounter with a strange individual known as the Undying Martyr led to the Chapter renaming themselves as the Angels Penitent after a bloody purging of its ranks. Now devoted to hunting down the blasphemous items they once created, the Chapter scours the galaxy for their creations. Chaplain Castigant Rathana leads a small squad of Penitents to the world of Oblazt, a world overrun by the T’au and also the last known location of a particularly potent object– a strange mirror created by the Chapter’s former Chief Librarian. Rathana and his men enter a strange mansion that houses the mirror, only to encounter a powerful heretic, the Warp-influenced effects of the mirror, and above all the legacy of the Chapter’s poisonous history. Fehevari has written an utterly entrancing and masterful piece that cuts to the core of the concepts of blind faith, redemption and self-hatred, artfully blending the themes together with some brilliant characterisation and transcendent writing.

I seem to be accidentally reviewing the stories by Thomas Parrott in reverse order, but it does give me a fascinating insight into just how one of Black Library’s most talented new authors has developed his craft. Spiritus In Machina focuses on Skitarius warrior 7-Cyclae, who is abruptly awoken from stasis to find that his comrades have been killed, the vessel he has been travelling in has been torn apart and its crew decimated, and the only clue to the cause of destruction is a mysterious Servo-Skull that claims to be the representative of the sole surviving Tech-Priest onboard. Guided by the Servo-Skull, and hampered both by the ruined terrain of the vessel and his own shattered memories, 7-Cyclae must attempt to complete the tasks given to him by the Tech-Priest while discerning just why a brutal conflict broke out. There are quite a few stories focusing on the Skitarii of the Adeptus Mechanicus, but relatively few seem to delve into the personalities and beliefs of these cybernetic warriors, which is why Parrott’s debut story is so appealing. He digs into 7-Cyclae’s core beliefs, and then throws challenge after challenge at them until the warrior is pushed to breaking point, and the terrible truths behind the chaos and destruction on the ship are finally revealed. Spiritus in Machina demonstrates Parrott’s affinity for writing compelling characters, as well as his deft hand at atmospheric writing, and highlights the elements that would make his later stories, such as the novella Isha’s Lament, so engaging.

From The Deep is from award-winning author Jaine Fenn, and is a vivid and imaginative look at the Naerids, the guardians of the depths who live in the Sea of Serpents in the Age of Sigmar setting. While I hadn’t really had any interest in either that element of the AoS setting before, or the Naerids, Fenn did a brilliant job of engaging me and pulling me into the story, as Kelara leads her comrades against the depredations of Nurgle’s taint as it slowly leaches the life from the shores above them, and descends into the crystal-clear waters of the Sea of Serpents. There are some fantastic, ballet-like action sequences as the Naerids fight against the strange, bloated corpses sent down by the forces of Nurgle to infect the waters, which is neatly merged with a great deal of lore, as we see the relationship between Kelara and her deeper-sea kin. Uncaring of the developments far above them they refuse to assist Kelara in her desperate struggle, and a desperate defence soon becomes something of far greater import when the Naerids swim towards a strange light in the ocean and become enmeshed in a titantic battle that could seal the fate of the entire realm. It’s a fantastically-written and expertly paced short story that gives depth of character to the Naerids, and I’d love to see more of them from Fenn’s pen.

Faith in Thunder by Robert Charles is another Age of Sigmar story, though this time set in the furthest reaches of the wilds of Ghur. A quartet of humans and duardin have been captured by the savage, brutal ogor clans and now live a hellish life of long periods of confinement and short, savage fights in the ogor fighting pits against a variety of animal and inhuman foes. It’s an interesting look at ogor society and how it functions, albeit not the main focus of the story, which is in fact the interactions between those few remaining prisoners and their plots to escape. We get to see the many different ways in which humans (and non-humans) react to captivity and brutalisation, and how the act of escaping from prison can be as much a challenge mentally as it can be physically. The characters are well-written and given some surprising depth despite the short word-count of the story, and I was particularly enamoured with protagonist Niara Sydona and her attempts to wrangle the rest of her fellow prisoners together. Add in some brutal, chaotic fight scenes that really bring you into the fighting pit, and the mysterious Valruss who refuses to join in with the escape attempt, and you have a fun and action-packed story.

Miles A. Drake’s contribution, What Wakes In The Dark, is the lengthiest story within the anthology, effectively a novelette, and uses that additional word count to weave a complex yet compelling story featuring the Death Spectres, a particularly secretive and mysterious Astartes Chapter that are founded upon a culture of the acceptance of death and the impermanence of life, as well as some incredibly grimdark concepts like the Black River and the Megir which just cry out for an entire novel to be dedicated to them, given how skilfully Drake portrays the Chapter as a whole, as well as the members of the squad in particular that feature in the story. Summoned by the urgent orders of an Inquisitor belonging to the Ordo Xenos, Sergeant Achairas and his squad arrive at the Inquisitorial black site Thirsis 41-Alpha to be informed that the location has suddenly fallen silent, and its cadre of Inqusitorial staff and Adeptus Mechanicus overseers are not responding to any communications. Descending to the surface of the planet to investigate, accompanied by an Inquisitor and a contingent of Adeptus Mechanicus troops, Sergeant Achrairas slowly uncovers the truth behind the strange object being studied on the planet and the exact reasons why the location went silent, culminating in a desperate battle against a certain redoubtable xenos foe that has been awakened beneath the planet’s surface. Throw in some nicely-composed Inquisitorial secrecy, and treachery from an unexpected source, and you have a rather enjoyable and action-packed tale.

I have been a huge fan of Steve Lyons for a very long time, with some of the first Warhammer novels I ever read being written by him – I especially adored his tales of the Imperial Guard (as it was then) such as Death World featuring the near-savages of the Catachan regiments, and Ice Guard which focused on the ice-world veterans of the Valhallans. Lyons has written a number of stories about a variety of different regiments in the Astra Militarum, and has used his clear talents to bring all of them to life and forge different, unique identities that turn them from faceless soldiers to distinctive combatants – quite literally, in the case of the Krieg. But it’s the Mordian Iron Guard that is the focus of his contribution to this anthology, with Solace following a small group of Mordians cut off from their regiment after a particularly brutal fire-fight. Attempting to reconnect with their comrades, Guardsman Maximillian Sturm and his men suddenly find themselves in the village of Solace, which appears to be completely untouched by the aeldari forces the Mordians are fighting throughout the rest of the encroaching jungle. Confused but happy to accept the villager’s aid, too late does Sturm realise exactly why the villagers have not been massacred by the xenos and must struggle to escape. I must admit I rolled my eyes when I came across the story in the anthology – not because of the author, but rather due to the regiment itself: I’ve never been a fan of the Mordians and their depiction as a rule-bound, smartly-dressed regiment. But throughout Solace Lyons actually managed to change my opinion, demonstrating some of the inner strength and qualities of the Iron Guard despite their rather ridiculous uniform and general culture, and I’m intrigued to read Lyon’s novella Iron Resolve which also features the Mordians.

Ties of Blood by Jamie Crisalli was a story I was looking forward to reading – rather like Thomas Parrott, I’ve been encountering Crissali’s story in the reverse order of being published, and absolutely loved her novella The Measure of Iron, set in the Warcry setting and following an Irom Golem warband. Much like that novella, Ties of Blood is also a Warcry story, this time taking the viewpoint of Lord Savrian, a Slaaneshi cultist leading a small group to infiltrate a Khornate stronghold known as the Bastion of Red Dust. Trying to make your way through an entire facility teeming with insane, bloodthirsty cultists is certainly a ballsy move, and we’re fortunate that Crisalli is up to the job of providing us with such a protagonist – Savrian is a genuinely delightful character, one who demonstrates all of the trappings and casual arrogance of a follower of Slaanesh while slowly revealing the fault-lines in his soul created by worshipping one of the Chaos deities. It perhaps isn’t a shock to the reader if I state that, given the forces involved, there’s a huge amount of betrayal and blood-shed in the story; but Crisalli’s innate understanding of the setting, and ability to write three-dimensional characters that escape the constraints of cultist stereotypes, ensures that she delivers a complex, surprisingly emotional and stunning Warcry story that demonstrates why she is another one of those rising stars with the Black Library, alongside Parrott and J.C. Stearns.

Speaking of him, the penultimate story in the anthology is Turn of the Adder by J.C. Stearns, in which the author turns his attentions to the drukhari (or Dark Eldar to long-time fans like myself) and what appears – at first glance – to be a fairly routine story about one of the many internal feuds between drukhari factions that escalates into all-out conflict. Angered by the treacherous actions of a Wych cult, Archon K’Shaic rallies the Kabal of the Bladed Lotus and sends them into battle against the wyches in an attempt to wipe them out before they can escape from Commorragh. However, as his most excellent Warhammer Horror novel The Oubliette so amply demonstrates, any story written by Stearns is going to have numerous twists and turns that will shock and surprise the reader, and Turn of the Adder is no exception. While an attempt by the good Archon to turn his two sons against each other, to further exacerbate their rivalry and see which is skilled enough to potentially succeed him, is to be expected by the reader, Stearns then skilfully pulls the carpet out from under our (metaphorical) feet with a plot that not only strikes at the heart of drukhari culture and society, but also culminates in an ending that has a huge amount of exciting potential for the future of drukhari and aeldari alike. There’s a real energy to this story, especially in the latter part, and I really want to see what Stearns could do with the characters and lore if he were given a novel to act as a sequel or follow-on.

No-one does the Skaven better than C.L. Werner, and I can be quite confident in stating that I can’t see how anyone ever will regardless of how long Black Library publishes stories; over the years, there have been times when I’ve idly wondered whether Werner actually is a Skaven, cunningly-disguised andtherefore  able to compose such wonderfully written and darkly humorous stories featuring the treacherous and cowardly ratmen. This is exactly the case with the final story in the anthology, No Honour Among Vermin which acts as a masterclass in Werner’s ability to get beneath the mangy, flea-ridden skin of the Skaven and demonstrate exactly what makes them tick. Treachery, back-stabbing and betrayal with a side order of double-dealing, shockingly enough. Coerced into joining in with a plot to disrupt a band of Chaos cultists and steal their prized possession – a huge bell that can summon a daemon – Fylch Tattertail finds himself caught between murderous, vengeful cultists, a daemon intent on murdering anything that summons it, and his alleged comrades who are just looking for a moment of weakness to shove a dagger into his back – or front. The heist itself is enjoyable enough, especially the manner in which Werner demonstrates the sly cunning and technological mastery of the Skaven, but the real treat comes in the aftermath as the Skaven begin turning on each other; there’s a real air of anarchy as each betrayal occurs, and I was put in mind of the opening sequence of The Dark Knight in the fluid, fasrt-paced manner in which corpses begin to pile up. It’s a masterful story, and the perfect way to close the collection.

Inferno! Volume 2 once again demonstrates the great strides that Black Library have taken to get to where they are currently as a publisher, with the vast increase in quality that can be seen in the stories published in the anthology firm evidence that the publisher has moved on from the dark days in the mid-2010s. A deft mixture of veteran authors and new talent – including such up and coming greats as Thomas Parrott, Jamie Crisalli and J.C. Stearns – bring to life a number of fantastic, action-packed and highly atmospheric stories that take place in the Warhammer 40,000 and Age of Sigmar settings. It’s a fantastic anthology, and well worth the price for any discerning Warhammer fan, or someone who’s interested in high-quality scifi and fantasy stories in general.

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