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Bellarius looks back to 2003 with the novel Fire Warrior, written by Simon Spurrier and published by Black Library.
“A strongly written and entertaining novel enriched by grim details and fun characters.” – The Founding Fields
We’ve reached the point these days where it’s almost expected for a video game franchise to have at least one novelisation of its plot. Halo, Alpha Centauri and Gears of War, these are just three franchises which come to mind but it’s rare to see a novel outstripping the game it was adapting in almost every area. It’s rarer still to find a novel which not only exceeds the game but is a genuinely great piece of science fiction literature. Simon Spurrier’s Fire Warrior is one of those few which manages this.
Based upon the disappointingly average FPS shooter of the same name, Fire Warrior expands upon what little we knew of the Tau Empire through the eyes of one of its grunts; Shas’la Ta’u Kais. Already having a strained psyche from some fairly serious daddy issues, Kais sees the horrors of war for the first time when his cadre is deployed to rescue an abducted Aun’El from an Imperial fortress. As the body count rises Kais begins to question the driving ideology of his people and realises just how unforgiving the universe truly is. Yet with reinforcements from both sides arriving en mass, it becomes clear that someone is pulling strings…
Despite having only written a handful of books for Black Library Spurrier shows distinct skill when writing about the Warhammer universe. His narrative style manages to near perfectly balance out the rapid pacing of the conflict with surprising depth and makes the Tau feel alien without it causing you a headache trying to read it. The book frequently switches between human and xenos viewpoints to contrast the cultures and flesh out events, often using them as a chance to comment upon one another. One brief but memorable moment is when a Tau Kor’El comes to understand that human ships are operated through sheer manpower and numbers rather than AI assistance. He considers how this reflects upon human dominance in the galaxy and realises with each ship that is destroyed the Tau fleet is effectively committing a form of genocide.
Spurrier seems to have understood this mix of contrasting characters and viewpoints was a major strength because he takes every opportunity to show someone else’s perspective. These are not used in the same way authors like Graham McNeill would, to give events greater scope, but are instead utilised to give the book more flavour.
Perhaps the best example of this is Tikoloshe, an insane dreadnought Kais encounters while fleeing a stricken vessel. Half of the fight is shown from the dreadnought’s schizophrenic perspective where the reader glimpses its past. This makes it feel like a genuinely interesting villain despite appearing for only a few pages and helps to add some variety to Kais’ everyman thoughts. The way these shifts in perspective are included however means that very few ever feel like they’re an unnecessary addition to events.
None of this is to say that the central characters are badly written or overlooked. While the book sticks mostly to the video game’s storyline it adapts the characters to make their actions more believable and introduces new scenes to flesh them out. Governor Severus, the main antagonist of the novel, greatly benefits from this and while visibly moustache twirling he’s constantly presented as a skilled manipulator. Effectively bringing about the presence of every faction he needs to carry out his plans and having them play their role exactly when he needs them to. As such what he lacks in terms of a well rounded personality he makes up for being Governor Von Doom. The Ultramarines Captain Ardias is given a similar personality upgrade and has far more believable motivations for his disappearance during the initial battle with the Tau and actions during the second half of the novel.
If there are any flaws to be found in this novel it’s that Spurrier never seems to get into the feel of how old some things should be. While some descriptions to focus upon the age of the environments, particularly the corroded labyrinths of imperial battleships, others visibly lack this quality.
This is a visible problem with Chaos. It is talked about as being a serious threat, a corrupting power in its own right. However, its servants never manage to express how they have been fighting the Imperium for ten thousand years in any believable fashion. They frequently act juvenile rather than simply insane, make too many obvious errors even for fanatics; and lack the descriptions of mutations and equipment which might have helped express their prolonged lives. Even when the novel gets into the thoughts of Tarkh’ax, a powerful daemon locked away by Eldar warlocks for centuries, the way it is described feels like it has only been trapped for a few decades at most. It just seems to lack that storytelling spark authors like Ben Counter have when writing about ancient Chaotic aspects of the Warhammer universe.
At the end of the day if you can forgive one or two minor discrepancies in the canon and the book skimming over aspects of Chaos usually emphasised in other novels, Fire Warrior is a solid read. It’s easily one of the best looks into how alien the Tau really are on a personal and cultural level while having enough explosions to call itself a Black Library story. Though by no means some great groundbreaking work like First Heretic it’s an underrated classic and easily matches the grim dark qualities found in novels like Execution Hour and Storm of Iron. Well worth your money and a must buy for any devoted Tau fan.