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Shadowhawk reviews the first ever Space Marine Battles anthology, a collection of four novellas by different authors focused on a key character of the Warhammer 40,000 setting, the Greater Daemon of Tzeentch known as Kairos Fateweaver.
“One of the best anthologies that Black Library has ever published, Architect of Fate has definitely set a great precedent for future works that are similarly themed. I certainly want more such anthologies!” ~The Founding Fields
The Space Marine Battles series is one of the best ideas to come from the Black Library editorial staff as it has produced some of the best novels from some of its best authors. Sarah Cawkwell’s The Gildar Rift, Chris Wraight’s The Battle of the Fang and Rob Sanders’ Legion of the Damned are some of my favourite novels, especially the latter which I believe has set the bar really high for a really dark, gritty and stubborn yet heroic portrayal of Space Marines.
After eight novels in a little over two years and a limited edition novella, an anthology was inevitable and quite welcome even. Novels are all fine and good but there is a certain inherent attractiveness for anthologies because they allow the reader to gain some good widespread exposure to a setting. The fact that the first SMB anthology is a collection of four linked novellas is pretty much what I would have expected: the clue is really in the name of the series, a theme that can be explored to satisfaction in novels and novellas, not short stories.
Or audio dramas as I’m told by a few reliable sources, so stay tuned for that in the coming months! Some great surprises are in store.
So, back to the anthology. Each novella in this collection is a story that focuses in one way or another on one of the most manipulative, deceptive, and dangerous characters in the Warhammer 40,000 setting: Chaos Lord Tzeentch’s foremost servant, the Lord of Change known as Kairos Fateweaver. As someone who has knowledge of the future that even his master is unaware of at times and yet is stuck irrevocably in his master’s schemes, Kairos Fateweaver is a strangely compelling and interesting character. As such, he makes for a great focus and connecting strand between the four novellas in the anthology. Let’s begin.
The first novella here is Accursed Eternity by Sarah Cawkwell, one of the newest writers on the block and one of my favourites. I’ve already reviewed the novella separately back in December, so I won’t rehash that 1800-word review. Suffice to say that this novella is how a lot of Warhammer 40,000 fiction should be like. It has that dark, sinister edge that completely fits the setting and it also has a strong horror element. She is also great at taking previously unused Space Marine chapters and really breathing life into them, as her work with the Silver Skulls previously has shown and which she continues here with the Star Dragons and the Blood Swords. I would really like her to to write more about either of them as she has balanced the mysteries and revelations about the chapters quite nicely and they both have a distinctive personality and chapter culture. The novella itself is pretty much fantastic in all regards. A sequel to this would be very, very welcome.
Having read the other novellas in the collection since then, Accursed Eternity works very well as part of a larger whole, particularly with John French’s contribution, Fateweaver. In that respect, and liking the horror aspects of the anthology, I’m now inclined to rate the novella higher than I did before, which it richly deserves.
Next we have Sanctus by Darius Hinks, which features a strike force of the Space Marines of the Relictors chapter, a chapter that is damned in the eyes of the Imperium and excommunicated on top of that. I’ve never read any Darius Hinks, except for his eShort Cankerworm that was released a few weeks ago as part of the Black Library’s 15th Birthday celebrations. It is a story about the Skaven and I really liked it. Sanctus is an interesting narrative that deals with the Relictors’ obsession with discovering and retrieving Chaos-tainted artefacts and using them for the benefit of the Imperium against the forces of Chaos themselves. It is a tale that is very much about that old saying: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It is certainly true for the Relictors and their mad quest about turning the weapons of the Great Enemy against it.
The novella itself is not as enjoyable as I thought it’d be however. I never really connected with the Relictors characters and the scenes involving them were quite tedious to read. There just wasn’t any appreciable excitement in their scenes and they seemed to just drag on and on. The scenes involving Inquisitor Mortmain and the navigators attending him aboard the warship Domitus were far more enjoyable however. They had some great mystery and were fairly action-packed, whether it was actual physical combat or a war of words. Mortmain was certainly a character I enjoyed reading about, and he reminded me quite a bit of Graham McNeill’s Inquisitor-Lord Kryptmann from Warriors of Ultramar. Sanctus is a story that I think would have been better as a lengthier piece, perhaps even a full-length novel. It seems very compact and not a little rushed in its execution. Once again, the premise was sound but the novella just didn’t deliver. Still, I’m quite interested in reading more Darius Hinks and once my reading load drops somewhat, I’ll be picking up some of his Warhammer Fantasy novels.
Next up we have Ben Counter’s Endeavour of Will, a story of the Imperial Fists chapter and the star fortress known as the Endeavour of Will. This is downright the most enjoyable novella in the anthology. I have a really soft spot for the Imperial Fists, as they and several of their successors have always taken quite a beating over the years in various BL publications and they got a really lamentably bad outing in their last full-feature novel, Sons of Dorn. Ben has written Imperial Fists before, in his Soul Drinkers novels and his take on them, an outlook that is quite simplistic in its approach and makes no pretensions at subtlety or deeper meanings, is something I like. Not to mention that this novella also features the Iron Warriors, enemies of the Imperial Fists since the days of the Great Crusade and the Horus Heresy.
I really like what Ben has done in Endeavour of Will. His depiction of Captain Lysander, commanding officer of the Imperial Fists’ First Company, is pretty spot-on. Lysander does what it takes to win victory and no sacrifice is above him. Victory is everything to him and the ends justify the means. This may sound like somewhat of a cliche and maybe even unappealing, but trust me, it is anything but. Lysander is one of those flawed good-guy characters that a lot of people, me among them, really love to read about. His cameo in Ben’s Phalanx was also immensely enjoyable. There is also a certain doom-and-gloom feel to the novel, which really adds to the authenticity of the narrative: anything can go wrong and there is a damn good chance that the bad guys may just lose terribly. There is a very realistic sense of danger for the Imperial Fists and that is consistent throughout the novella.
Ben’s depiction of the Iron Warriors and Chaos Daemons is pretty true to form: he has this really quirky, mind-messing handle on the followers of Chaos and it really shines through in Endeavour of Will. I won’t spoiler the novella but suffice to say that his depiction of daemons in this story is one of the most interesting and enjoyable depictions in the vast majority of Black Library fiction. He really gets what makes Chaos so unreal and other-worldly.
Another thing I’d like to commend Ben on is how he portrays the machine-spirits for the star-forts Endeavour of Will and the Bastion Inviolate. They have a real personality, one that is stubborn, loyal to a fault, chilling, unnerving, and punch-the-air, all at the same time. If there is an author writing for Black Library who I would love to see a true unreal and other-worldly story about the Adeptus Mechanicus and machine-spirits, it is Ben Counter. He is that good.
As part of a larger whole, re: the anthology itself, Endeavour of Will works really well I found. It has some overtures to Accursed Eternity that become apparent towards the end of the narrative and they offer quite an endless amount of possibilities as to what Kairos Fateweaver duplicitous and circular manipulations are going to play out in the future.
Closing off the anthology is John French’s Fateweaver, a story closely tied to Sarah’s own contribution, featuring the Space Marines of the White Consuls this time around. This one is a beauty, a gem of a story. As with Darius Hinks, the only John French I’ve read other than Fateweaver, is his short story The Last Remembrancer in the Age of Darkness anthology for the Horus Heresy series, and his BLis15 eShort about the Thousand Sons: All is Dust. As I remarked to a friend a few days ago, John’s prose reminds me quite a bit of Gav Thorpe’s own style. They both write very insightful and nuanced stories, something that is very welcome and enjoyable. Their stories are often bleak in their outlook but still quite heroic all the same. John, in all of his works I’ve read, really captures the theme of sacrifice for the greater good, not to be confused with the Tau philosophy “The Greater Good”. That one theme unites all of John’s stories and he delivers on it quite well.
Fateweaver made me really connect with the various characters, especially the White Consuls themselves. John portrays them as heroic and noble individuals who are ever ready to sacrifice themselves if need be. By the climax, I was really feeling sorry for the White Consuls and the ending was almost emotional because of how distressing it all gets for them. That John ties the climax to Sarah’s own novella was even more poignant for that fact. The connections between the two are laid bare at the end and it is almost as if Kairos’ schemes are coming a full circle. Yet, as omniscient readers, we know that where Tzeentch is concerned nothing is ever the same, certainly not when Kairos himself is involved. There is bolter-action, mystery, thrills, deception, manipulation, cryptic secrets and all aplenty in the novella and the author keeps it all steady and consistent right till the very last pages.
John French really should get a chance to do a full novel for Black Library, and I’d be very interested to see how he handles that medium. He has another novella coming out later this year, the Horus Heresy novella called Crimson Fist that will be a part of the Shadows of Treachery anthology. Looking forward to that certainly.
In closing, this is a stronger anthology than many others Black Library has put out in recent years and the novella-collection format is definitely one I want to see more of. I’ve already read The Primarchs anthology for the Horus Heresy series which follows the same format and I really like it. It gives the authors involved a chance to really delve into their respective settings and themes and deliver on it accordingly.
I highly recommend Architect of Fate because it really showcases the varied talented authors who are writing for Black Library and because it really has an appreciable narrative diversity to it.
Overall rating: 9/10