Accursed Eternity by Sarah Cawkwell – Novella Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the second eBook installment of the Space Marine Battles anthology coming out next year, The Architect of Fate, a collection of four linked novellas by various authors.
“Mystery, Horror, Thriller, Goosebumps, Action, Accursed Eternity has all of this and more in spades.” ~ The Founding Fields
If you have read my previously blogged reviews of The Gildar Rift and The Battle of the Fang on my blog, then you know that I am a big fan of the Space Marine Battles series for Warhammer 40,000. The smaller 40k brand showcases some of the most bloodily epic and defining battles fought by the Space Marines, whether they be loyalists or traitors. The above mentioned novels are my favourites in the series, of which I have only read 4 so far, the others being The Hunt for Voldorius and The Fall of Damnos, which were rather lukewarm novels.
So with that 50/50 experience, I was still very excited going into Accursed Eternity which has been written into an author whose work I am growing to love very much and who I actually find inspiring when writing my own work because she makes it all seem so simple and easy. It gives an aspiring writer like myself a lot of confidence boost!
Word of warning for you fortunate souls who have already gotten your grubby internet hands on this eBook already: This is not your typical Space Marine Battles installment but is something that I dare say is greater. And so you ask me why is that. My answer is that line in bold italics at the top of the review.
As I said above, the SMB series focuses on some of the most defining, epic and grand battles fought by Space Marines across the length and breadth of the galaxy. So far we have had Damnos, Armageddon, Fenris, Piscina IV, Rynn’s World, Quintus and the Gildar Rift. In my 50/50 experience so far, a good SMB novel is one which transcends the obvious action-packed battle theme of the story and goes beyond that to give us great insights into a chapter and also have a twist to it that can get people really involved. The Gildar Rift and The Battle of the Fang definitely have that. In the other two SMB novels I have read, that wasn’t there much and therefore I didn’t enjoy them so much that I would recommend them.
And just as with The Gildar Rift, Sarah does it again with Accursed Eternity. A novella is a far different beast from a novel, the main difference being that it is so much shorter and yet so much larger than a typical short story. So while that doesn’t leave her with much room to get as in-depth with the Blood Swords and the Star Dragons as she did with the Silver Skulls, Sarah still leaves you with an experience that can rival anything else in the entire series.
In the limited space of just 30,000 words, we are treated to so much tension, intrigue, egos and thrills that it makes you wonder how the author managed it. We see Space Marines from the two aforementioned chapters locking horns with an Inquisitor of the Ordo Malleus. We see them all taking tentative steps aboard a mysterious space hulk with their tensions carried over. We see the beginnings of things going wrong on said space hulk. We go into the minds of the characters as they try to deal with the impossibilities around them. We share their frustrations, their fears, their anxieties, their exultations, their trepidations and more. All in the space of just 30,000 words.
And amazingly it all holds together right until the end.
What the novella benefits a great deal from, compared to The Gildar Rift, is that there so little or even nothing known about the two chapters themselves. The Blood Swords have somewhat of a conflicting background, what little there is of it, while the Star Dragons have none. Sarah treads cautiously in both cases and gives us some intrigue about the background of Containment Fleet Kappa, a joint task force run by Space Marines of both chapters near the Eye of Terror. Particularly with respect to why the fleet is there in the first place. Add in to the mix the egotistical Ordo Malleus Inquisitor and things get even more murky. And that is what drives the entire plot because the Inquisitor can ask both the Blood Swords and the Star Dragons to give him more than would be necessary in ordinary circumstances.
That’s the intrigue part. Then comes the best part of the novella: the horror and the thrills. Accursed Eternity is not just another random space hulk drifting in space but has much darker origins and a cursed history since. Like Steve Lyons managed with The Madness Within, Sarah manages extremely well by turning Accursed Eternity into not just another SMB story with a twist but one that has strong elements of horror. It is just as atmospheric and thrilling as the audio drama which is no small feat considering the differences in the medium for both.
Throughout the novel I find myself empathizing quite a bit with Chaplain Iakodos and Sergeants Korydon and Evander of the Star Dragons, as well as Sergeant Ardashir of the Blood Swords. Like the three main characters in Steve’s audio drama, these four go through a lot of hardships to succeed in their mission aboard the dreaded space hulk and they all come out of it with losses. They are not the grand untouchable heroes of myths but much more realistic. You can’t help but root for the good guys, even more so than normal. Sarah definitely does not pull any punches and uppercuts where her characters are concerned. Its just a natural instinct for the reader to feel a strong connection with the characters because she pulls you right down into the story itself.
The twist of the story, given what it is about and which anthology it is a part of, is something unexpected. It is one of those “whoa, what just happened?” moments but in a good way because you are not left hanging in the climax of the reveal. This is, I think, Chaos at its best and most insidious. Chaos is chaos and to predict what someone with ties to Chaos will do is ultimately self-defeating. That point is made plain to the reader and you are made aware of it early on so the heavy, pneumatic blow of the reveal is softened.
You can’t help but admire the way the story unfolds.
Of course, as seems to be becoming the norm in a lot of 40k novels, whether they are set in the contemporary setting or in the Horus Heresy, there are a fair few plot threads left unfinished on purpose by the end of the novella. None of them have a major impact on the ending of the novella however, they are merely set up to give enough room for follow-up stories and plots to develop. As a fan of Sarah’s previous work with the Silver Skulls and particularly The Gildar Rift, I hope that there is a sequel to Accursed Eternity somewhere down the line. I want to find out what happens to my characters with the fallout of the events mentioned here!
That all said, I do have a complaint about the novella: the story by itself is not complete. You need to read its companion stories: Fateweaver by John French, Sanctus by Darius Hinks and Endeavour of Will by Ben Counter to make some sense of the story. I am told that Fateweaver is like the second part of duology of sorts with Accursed Eternity. The ending of Accursed Eternity definitely warrants a reading of the other novellas because it raises a few concerns and questions are ultimately not answered within its own confines.
This is rather a big thing for me but as always, the matter does warrant a re-thinking of the issue at hand. Accursed Eternity is meant to be part of an anthology where the novellas are all linked by certain themes and certain characters and certain events. So there will be some overlap. With this novella the feeling I get is that those connectors are a little too strong which is why I did struggle to understand the reading. In the previous BL anthologies I have read, that has not been the case since these connectors were sufficiently broad in scope. Then again, they were all anthologies of short stories while Architect of Fate is meant to be an anthology of novellas.
When The Primarchs anthology rolls around, I would love to compare that with Architect of Fate and see the results, since it is also a collection of novellas. It should prove to be an interesting comparison with regards to themes, setting, characters, and format, among other things.
Overall, I highly recommend the novella because all of its different elements work very well together to create a bigger piece and because the story itself is so much more enjoyable. One thing that the SMB series has done well is to showcase many of the lesser known or plain unknown chapters such as the Silver Skulls, White Consuls, Relictors and others. I am all for that trend continuing in the future. Accursed Eternity gives us not one but two of those chapters and a locational setting that is fairly unique in the larger body of published 40k work.
I rate the novella 8.5/10 for a three different reasons. One is that, at least within what we have seen so far for her, this is Sarah’s first attempt at mixing in strong elements of horror and thriller into a story primarily meant to be about action-packed scenes all over. As I mentioned in my The Madness Within review, good and strong horror stories in 40k is what I would like to see more of in the future because there is so much great potential for them in the context of the larger setting. It is a natural fit and Sarah delivers on that potential naturally as well. The second reason is that the story is clearly meant to be a part of a larger narrative and therefore it doesn’t work as well as a stand-alone as it would in its proper anthology form, which is why I docked the points. Finally, horror is not a strong preference so I don’t enjoy horror stories as much as I could. The Madness Within and Accursed Eternity are slowly changing my perception but still, they are very specific examples in a very niche setting that I already enjoy immensely so that could be a bias.
But yes, go and get this novella! Besides how can you not like that awesome cover art courtesy of Jon Sullivan?