Summer Anthology 2020 Unofficial Warhammer 40,000 Short Fiction Anthology
Cold Open Stories
The dedication of the Cold Open Stories editorial team, and in particular editor-in-chief Colyn, is nothing short of incredible, and one of the most impressive feats of endurance in the face of disaster that I’ve seen in a very long time in the publishing world; entire publishers have collapsed under the same – or less – pressures that Colyn has found himself under, and yet still he ensures that Cold Open Stories not only remains online, but also continues to publish high-quality fan fiction. It is a genuinely amazing feat, and demonstrates just how important Cold Open Stories and Colyn are to the Warhammer community at large. The latest release from Cold Open Stories is one I’ve been looking forward to – the latest tranche of full-length short stories, rather than the previous fast fiction contest. This time we have ten short stories to read and review, covering a variety of factions; and while there are a couple of familiar author names from previous contests, Cold Open Stories continues to show its dedication to bringing in fresh voices by ensuring the majority of these stories are from new authors.
[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 this most recent tranche – simply those that particularly stood out for me as particularly engaging, well-written or enjoyable]
We begin with Awoken by Tim Ulbrich which delves into a subject and faction which has long been cloaked in mystery, mythology and obscurity: the Star Gods and the Necrontyr. Starting from what might well be the beginning of the universe itself, Ulbrich deftly charts the course of these two factions and how they intertwine and conflict over countless millennia, always focused on one particular Star God – Isha Kaddra; Him, the Endless Hunger. We get some endlessly fascinating insights into the interactions between the Star Gods, the Necrontyr, and the process that led to the creation of the dread Necrons, filling in or finessing gaps in the canon that have long been questioned by fans of the setting. The tale is quite long, covering the epic, apocalyptic battles between the Star-Gods and their galactic-sized foes, and yet it never drags or bores even for an instance, such is Ulbrich’s skill as a writer; instead, the tale has a timeless, poetic quality to it like a Homeric epic – making it a deeply impressive accomplishment. Awoken is by far the stand-out story of the collection, and indeed one of the most accomplished and important stories published by Cold Open Stories, rivaled only by New Moon by Daniel Summerbell
From one set of servants to an immortal god-being to another, A Matter of Time by Chris Buxey focuses on His Majesty’s Imperial Inquisition, and uses the interrogation of a suspected heretic to develop one of the more unusual and imaginative narratives that I’ve seen in a piece of Warhammer fiction. Inquisitor Syman Kant is that rare beast – not only a fully-fledged Inquisitor, but also one who has recently founded a Minor Ordos that is his to direct; not only does he have a retinue to command as he wishes, the Hero of Coripaest has even had an Astartes from the Blood Drinkers Chapter assigned to him in recognition of his service. All of this should see Kant satisfied beyond measure, and yet uncertainty lingers at the back of his thoughts, as past glories slip away and his retinue diminishes and fails to live up to the standards he set when forming the Ordos Digna. As fans of the Warhammer 40,000 setting we’re used to seeing Inquisitors as towering forms of justice and power, His will made flesh and capable of exterminating entire populations; so it’s rather humbling and deeply intriguing to see one laid low in this manner. When a strange statue of the God-Emperor catches Kant’s eye in a shop window – too perfect and too flawless – his investigation leads to events unraveling, certainties becoming uncertainties, and ultimately coming into conflict with a terrifying foe. Excellent characterization and an intriguing plot make for a thoroughly enjoyable tale one that’s easily the equal of most published Warhammer 40,000 fiction.
Afanc by Darren Davies takes us to the depths of space and the warship Blade of Hetekon, which belongs to the Astartes of the Shade Reivers Chapter. Onboard the warship, Chapter Captain Goronwis broods on the defeat he has just suffered, and the damage done to his vessel. He can do little but wait for updates from his brother-in-arms Captain Vex, who leads warriors of the Chapter’s Seventh Company to the world of Almizan, a frontier world suddenly wracked by devastating geological faults – earthquakes and tsunamis. The news he brings is the direst sort for the authorities and citizens of the planet: their world has mere weeks left before it is destroyed by a foul xenos fleet. Davies then gives us glimpses of a world burning, its population rioting even as its key personnel and supplies are frantically evacuated. There are some intriguing discussions about loss and inevitability, and the nature of the Imperium’s relentless and often doomed struggle against this particular xenos race, that makes Davies’ tale stand out in the collection; although it has it’s fair share of action, particularly towards the end, it’s a thoughtful and often introspective piece.
Nicholas Gossage provides us with another interesting angle on the Sisters of Battle with A Sister’s Revenge, in which an Inquisitor investigates the mysterious Sororitas group known as The Family of Faith – which not only shies far from orthodoxy by opposing celibacy in its members, but has also recently lost possession of a powerful Daemon Blade. The Sisters belonging to the Family of Faith are clearly far from usual, as the story opens with some stomach-churning descriptions of intense self-flagellation, more akin to what we expect from flagellants than Sisters of Battle; and it is also clear that the one who stole the blade is amongst the holy defenders of Petra-Novus. As the Inquisitor hunts a Sister who ran from her post, a mysterious individual known as The Hand lurks in the shadows, watching and waiting – for something. A single spark is all that’s needed to turn the holy servants against each other, and soon The Hand is fermenting Chaos as Inquisitor and Sister clash amidst the detailed and impressive world-building woven by Gossage. It all culminates in a vengeance-fueled melee amidst a exploding manufactorum, tests of faith and carefully-laid plans tying together a well-written and deftly imagined tale that easily rivals those published by Black Library.
Arena of Blood! By Riodan O’Duffy certainly merits that exclamation mark, being an action-packed and brutally violent affair that brings the story to the blood stained sand of Gutzslinga’s Bludgeon Dome, where Orks wage endless combat against captured foes and each other. Watching the bloodshed is Rogue Trader Captain Hildiwara and her unusual ally, Freeboota Kaptain Wartrakk, who take bets on whether a particularly talented T’au warrior will survive the next battles in the area; the interplay between Rogue Trader and Freeboota is one of the highlights of the story, with some great dialogue and interesting insights into how a Freeboota operates within Ork society. But just as interesting is the fate of the Fire Caste warrior, and how he fights against the Orks in the arena while also manipulating them psychologically to his advantage; O’Duffy gives us a story that is equal parts combat and plotting and machinations, and both are equally as engaging, supplemented by some dry, dark humour derived from the riotous, anarchic actions of the Ork society in and around the arena.
Pax Animi by Andy Clark is another Sisters of Battle tale, and another unique take on the Sororitas as we see the viewpoint of a Sister Hospitaller and her experiences fighting alongside Primaris Astartes as the Sisters and Astartes wage a desperate war to repel a Tyranid invasion of the world of Laevis IV. Sister Hospitaller Aoife finds herself encamped with Apothecary Faris of the Void Trident Chapter, and gradually reveals to the Astartes the history behind her change in vocation to become a Hospitaller, and the two slowly come to appreciate each other in the humid climate and against the insidious and constantly evolving xenos threat. It’s an intriguing tale comradeship in war, with Clark successfully showcasing the more human side of two factions generally stereotyped as fearless and near-emotionless, and there’s a surprising depth of character in both Aoife and Faris which is deeply impressive given the relatively small wordcount. It’s a contemplative and thoughtful story, blended with some brutal, fast-paced action, and is clear evidence that Clark has an innate understanding of the Warhammer 40,000 setting and how to use it to write engaging tales. I look forward to his next story with eagerness.
It’s then followed by A Breath of Fresh Air from Laurence J. Sinclair, in which an Ecclesiarchy preacher in an underhive slum in the depths of Necromunda is forced to confront the ugly realities of ministering to his tiny flock. Nearly gunned down by gangers in front of those he preaches to, Father Donativum is only saved by the intervention of the mysterious and intimidating Spider-Eats-Rat. But the gangers the Father clashed with – from the fearsome and technologically-advanced House Van Saar – still lurk in the background despite his best peacemaking efforts, and a confrontation becomes inevitable in the settlement. Sinclair obviously knows his stuff about the Necromunda setting, because this story feels like it comes straight from a Black Library publication – showcasing an innate, instinctive understanding of how life works in the underhive, and the best way to generate a dramatic and engaging story with a cast of colourful characters from the setting as a whole.
From the darkest depths of space to the darkest depths of Necromunda’s underhive, Colyn and the team at Cold Open Stories have once again curated a collection of absolutely amazing and deeply impressive Warhammer 40,000 stories; tale that are of such high quality and often breathtaking imagination that they are starting to blur the lines between fan-fiction and canon fiction within the setting. I would be very surprised if several of these authors – particularly Sinclair and Clark – did not become published Black Library authors in the not-too-near future, given the imagination and skill demonstrated in their stories. Once again, Cold Open Stories demonstrates just how important it is to the Warhammer Community as a whole, and fan-fiction writers specifically. Long may the website continue to flourish, despite the generally dire conditions we find ourselves in at this moment in time.