Cold Open Stories
[Note: I had written the majority of this review prior to the devastating news about Cold Open Stories and Colyn, the absolute legend who runs it. He and his family have hit upon very hard times at the moment due to loss of work, and his situation is completely up in the air, including the existence of the Cold Open Stories website.
Cold Open Stories has obviously been a labour of love for Colyn, and I hope this review is able to showcase that in some way. I haven’t done this before – but if you have enjoyed the work of Cold Open Stories and are able to pitch in to show your appreciation: this is a link to a GoFundMe run by several of Colyn’s close friends to raise funds for him in these difficult times.]
As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, Cold Open Stories has single-handedly changed my opinion of the concept of fan fiction, not just in terms of Warhammer 40,000 but also in general. Their website is one of the slickest, most engaging of its type that I’ve ever encountered – always being updated and re-developed to make it more appealing to the reader – and it makes reading all of the Warhammer 40,000 short stories they curate and publish an absolute joy to read. The website recently released their second tranche of short stories that were submitted to the website after Cold Open Stories announced their second open submission period; and while my time for reviewing has been curtailed significantly these days, I was absolutely determined to read and review these stories. Though the fiction side of Cold Open Stories has only been around for a relatively short while, they have curated and published an absolutely amazing selection of fan fiction from some seriously talented authors, and I was eager to see what this latest tranche would contain.
[Note: Due to the far more limited time I have available to write reviews at the moment, this review won’t be covering all of the short stories released by Cold Open Stories in their most recent tranche – simply those that particularly stood out for me as particularly engaging, well-written or enjoyable]
When I consider Cold Open Stories, I am more convinced than ever that its greatest success has been in enabling a cadre of incredibly talented authors to publish their stories and hone their art as writers in the Warhammer 40,000 setting. Several of these authors are to be found in this collection of short stories, but for me the most impressive by far is Daniel Summerbell. Summerbell’s first short story New Moon was released as part of the Winter 2020 anthology, and it was an amazing story that blew me away with its quality. An emotive, and atmospheric tale focusing on a squad of citizen militia reacting to the titular new moon appearing in the sky above their planet, Summerbell gave us a masterfully-written story with one of the best endings I’ve seen in Warhammer 40,000 fiction – including that published by Black Library. I admit that New Moon set a very high bar in my mind for Summerbell, and I was curious as to whether he could meet those standards again, or whether he had been a one-shot wonder. Yesterday’s News provided ample proof that I was utterly wrong to have any doubts – Summerbell delivers a story that could not be more different to New Moon yet again demonstrates his innate understanding of the setting. If his first story was about how an average citizen of the Imperium of Man might react to a complete lack of information, then Yesterday’s News is about the complete opposite: how can anyone possibly hope to discern the truth when presented with a barrage of constantly-adapting propaganda. Katya Tsalparov is a manufactorum worker lucky enough to get an audition as a newsreader on the news channel Vox Populi, delivering the latest news to the citizens of her planet. But her initial excitement turns to confusion and then fear as a series of ‘errors’, supposedly on her part, lead to newscasts being re-recorded; while the first few seem simply to be routine errors, as they continue a far more nefarious truth is revealed, and an impossible choice given to her. With an incredibly engaging story that has some uncomfortable parallels to contemporary culture and the concept of ‘Fake News’, Yesterday’s News is an incisive and thought-provoking look at the very heart of the Imperium of Man that demonstrates just how immensely talented an author Summerbell is
Another of those talented authors who have been given a voice by Cold Open Stories publishing their stories is Delio Pera, who has written several short stories and flash fiction pieces focusing on the Adepta Sororitas. The Sororitas, or Sisters of Battle, are becoming more common in Warhammer fiction thanks to the likes of Danie Ware and her fantastic Sister Superior Augusta stories, but as a faction I feel there’s still a huge amount of potential to be uncovered. Pera’s stories do a great deal of that uncovering, taking a very different angle to the Sororitas than any I’ve seen before. Pera has a real knack for characterisation and challenging pre-conceptions about the Sisters, looking at exactly why a young woman might want to join one of the Orders and devote themselves to the God-Emperor and smite his foes. That’s one of the focuses of his latest story, A Clash of Wills, which follows Sisters of Battle Dovella and Marianna as they’re tasked with investigating a series of thefts and murders in a small town. Those incidents are one part of the story – and Pera gives us some fascinating insights into a fairly obscure part of the 40,000 setting – but the bulk of the story is contrasting the two Sisters and examining their backgrounds and motivations. It’s a well-judged story with a great sense of pace and a nice sense of introspection, and once again demonstrates that a Warhammer 40,000 story doesn’t always have to be endless action-orientated to be engaging.
The Fisherman’s Tale by Lukasz Furmaniak is one of the most unusual, and original, Warhammer 40,000 stories I’ve read in a very long time – and in many ways reminds me of those very early stories published by the likes of Ian Watson and Dan Abnett in the 1990s, when canon was less established and authors could be more flexible and – dare I say it – have fun with the setting. Furmaniak’s tale has that sort of energy, spending more than half the story building up the backstory and character of simple fisherman Thaben Catcher, just one anonymous member of the Imperium of Man amongst endless trillions, on a backwater planet that we never even know the name of throughout the story. Catcher’s sole focus in life is to fish as efficiently and effectively as possible, setting sail in his boat and then seeking the best fishing grounds he can before returning to his home village of Angler’s End. It isn’t a complex or interesting life, but it’s Catcher’s and he does the best he can with it – until the day he has the poor luck to come into contact with one of the mighty wyrms that lurks under the waters near Angler’s End. The beast appears, suddenly and utterly terrifying, and appears to be about to snuff Catcher’s life out without a thought – until a very timely intervention that leads to a titanic battle that Catcher witnesses from a very literal grounds-eye (or waters-eye) view. Furmaniak writes some very fluid and well-choreographed fight scenes between these two weighty combatants, and gives the story a wonderful ending that I genuinely didn’t see coming.
Most of the factions in Warhammer 40,000 have now had stories or novels written from their point of view, even those that were long considered near-impossible to use as protagonists. Nate Crowley’s fantastic Severed showed that Necrons could even become darkly sympathetic in the hands of the right author with the right angle, and of course the esteemed Mike Brooks has just announced that he will be writing the first Ork-PoV novel, to be published later in 2020 or early 2021. The only faction that hasn’t been covered, to my understanding, are the Tyranids – and given the lack of individuality or even consciousness in that race, their absence as a PoV race in Warhammer fiction has been rather understandable. Fortunately, that absence has now been rectified by Justus Ackermann with A Mind Of Their Own, which cleverly takes as its basis the scenario that the Hive Tyrant of a Tyranid swarm has been disabled, leading to the sub-creatures formally under its control to revert to a semi-independent, pack instinct. Ackermann focuses on one of those packs, as the individual creatures begin to assert their own dominance over their fellows, with some delightfully on-the-nose names like Gorger and Ripper being used to make them distinct and more understandable to the reader. Ackermann does a great job of bringing out the personalities of the different creatures, and the complex, ever-changing power plays between the more powerful members of the pack as they become more and more independent of the Hivemind. To ensure it doesn’t become too one-dimensional, the author also includes the viewpoints of the Adeptus Mechanicus forces that the tyranids are fighting, giving another viewpoint that neatly explains why the tyranids are suddenly free tom exert their own personalities. While I don’t think a tyranid PoV could be extended to an entire novel, Ackermann aptly demonstrates that a tyranid-focused short story is not only possible, but can be done to a very high standard.
Given the huge amount of high-quality fiction published by Black Library about Chaos Space Marines these days, especially the phenomenal work by Aaron Dembski-Bowden with the Black Legion and Night Lords series, it takes a lot for me to become engaged with a story involving traitor Astartes. Yet that’s exactly what happened when I read Darren Davies’ contribution, The Man Who Killed Rogal Dorn, an incredibly well-written, vivid and thoughtful piece of fiction that gets to the very heart of the nature of the Astartes who turned away from the Emperor’s Light. Calatar, a Traitor Astartes, trudges through the shattered landscape of the latest world he and his brethren have killed. He is dying, moment by moment, even his superhuman abilities overcome by the injuries he has sustained. But as he walks he is haunted by a gleeful whisper, another Astartes taunting him and probing his psyche with difficult questions. Was he the man who dealt the killing blow to the Primarch all those millennia ago, as he claims? If that is true, the voice demands, why then is Calatar not celebrated amongst the Traitor Legions? Does it matter, Calatar asks in return – does such an act mean anything ten thousand years after it happened? Davies gives us a haunting, melancholic piece of writing that asks many questions about the nature of the Traitor Legion’s existence, and offers no glib or easy answers. Deeply rewarding, and well worth re-reading for a second time to get the most of all the nuances in the story.
There are more than fifty titles in the Horus Heresy series published by Black Library, as well as the numerous Siege of Terra titles currently being released; yet of all of those novels and anthologies, how many look at viewpoints that are not the mighty Adeptus Astartes or the Custodes? A tiny handful at best, even if non-Astartes characters are often part of the supporting cast in many of the novels. There is certainly a huge amount of room in the published canon to consider what it might have been like for non-augmented humans during the Heresy – and even moreso for humans who were caught between the titanic clashes of the Warmaster and the Emperor. One such group of humans – a platoon of Imperialis Militia on the distant world of Skogsund – are the focus of The Next Chapter by Ross Baxter. Baxter does an amazing job of giving us the viewpoints of loyal citizens of the Imperium who, nonetheless, are absolutely no advantage in aiding with either the Loyalists or the Traitors. Neither side has shown even the slightest interest in the planet and its militia, which has had to fend off pirates and ork raids despite the civil war raging at the centre of the Imperium. The anger and feeling of betrayal are palpable, coming though clearly in Baxter’s writing, and he makes it supremely easy to sympathise with the militia in comparison to the overbearing, off-world officer who arrogantly assumes the planet will align with the Loyalist forces. There’s a brilliant ending that just begs for a continuation in some manner, which I very much hope we see in the future.
Finally, We Are Many And Yet We Are One by Matthew Tansini is one of the most unique stories I’ve ever read in the Warhammer 40,000 setting, and is also one of the most unexpected I’ve ever encountered. Ostensibly about the fate of a young psyker captured on a distant world and taken by the Inquisition on a Black Ship to Terra, Tansini has actually written a story that interrogates many of the concepts behind the nature of the God-Emperor, the Golden Throne, and the very nature of the Imperium as a whole. Indeed, to give many details about the story risks comprehensively spoiling it and ruining the fun of reading such an interesting story. But Tansini does a fantastic job of describing the interior of the Imperial Palace and its cavernous rooms, dungeons and barracks, as well as creating intriguing characters out of many of the personalities that would be expected to be found there. With an ending that is strangely hopeful and possibly even upbeat, it’s a great story to finish the collection with.
The fate of Cold Open Stories may be uncertain at the moment, and it may well be possible that the website has to close permanently, or at the very least for quite some time. Yet if that is so, then at least Colyn and the dedicated team of volunteers can take heart in their final publications being some of the best stories that Cold Open Stories have ever published. They have curated some truly original, engaging and deeply captivating stories that have demonstrated an innate understanding of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, and done tremendous work to rehabilitate the reputation of fan fiction – both specifically to the Warhammer 40,000 setting, and in general as well.