Fire Caste by Peter Fehervari – Review [Lord of the Night]
Lord of the Night reviews the deep and thought-provoking Fire Caste by Peter Fehervari.
“A gritty and dark novel that will take you on a rollercoaster ride of madness, both the madness of war and of the mind. Fehervari’s writing makes this book a very insightful and complex affair, and it is all the stronger for it.” – The Founding Fields
Now first off I do not, I repeat do not, read Imperial Guard novels. Ciaphas Cain is really the only exception to that rule, and I always dismissed the Imperial Guard standalone novels as dull. Fire Caste was not something I planned to read, until I read some rather glowing comments on Warseer from MiyamatoMusashi. They intrigued me enough that I decided to go out on a limb and try the book, and I am extremely glad that I did because Fire Caste is without a doubt the best Imperial Guard novel that I have ever read.
There are many kinds of hell, and all of them can be found on Phaedra. A desolate mudhole of a planet where everything is trying to kill you slowly, the planet has become a meat-grinder where Guardsmen go to die fighting the guerilla forces of Commander Wintertide, the Tau elite who is everywhere and nowhere at the same time, and where a strange new branch of the Imperial Creed has taken root amongst the loyal soldiers of the God-Emperor. When the Arkan 19th Confederates are sent to Phaedra for their first real campaign they have no idea of the horrors awaiting them in the swamps and rivers of the Dolorosa Coil, and that their only hope to escape the madness that infests Phaedra lies with a disgraced and broken Commissar obsessed with the truth and willing to do anything to get his revenge on the mysterious Wintertide and bring those who have brought him low to justice.
The story in Fire Caste is deep to say the very least. It resembles Heart of Darkness in a lot of ways, a dark tale about the madness in warfare and the different kinds of madness that can take root in the minds of men and what men will do when left to their own devices. It’s a very character driven story, one that explores many named characters and how each of them reaches their own Thunderground, a very interesting concept in the novel, and how Phaedra changes each one of them, and how the ghosts of the past have affected each one differently. One thing that the story also does is rely on a journal format, exerts from Commissar Iverson’s personal journal that tell you more about his journey on Phaedra and deal with some important plot elements faster than the regular narrative could have. I very much liked the mystery element to the story, the mysteries of Trinity and Wintertide slowly playing out over the course of the story until the answers were finally revealed and then more questions quickly leapt up to take their place. It’s a really good sign when a novel’s plot has you thinking deeply about it, trying to work out the answers, and Fire Caste definitely achieved that for me. But one of the best things was that not every single thing was answered, with some answers being left up to us readers to work out for ourselves and wonder if we are right.
The characters are another great point of the book. Fehervari uses quite a large human cast for a standalone novel which I think it works out quite nicely, and of course no character is truly safe and quite a few characters that I thought would last longer did not and characters that I expected to die quickly surprised me. But the best part was seeing how each of the human characters were changed by Phaedra, either seeing it build up over the course of the book or seeing the end result and having to wonder how they got to that point, how the stress of the war and the nature of the enemy affected them and what became of them as the novel drove on towards the conclusion. The Tau characters were also very interesting, because they were not what you’d expect of the Tau but rather I think what the Tau could become, and their individual beliefs on the Greater Good really fascinated me as it gave a much more cynical look at the seemingly clean-cut Tau Empire and really added to the themes of the novel, despair and madness.
The action was really great, the inability to tell who was going to die and when always makes a novel better but combine that with what I felt was a very realistic portrayal of combat, the confusion and chaos of it made each battle feel very epic. That and the style of the battles went nicely with the environments of the book, the swampy and muddy lands of Phaedra making the battles even tougher for the characters. I also liked the Arkan’s unique forces, the Zouave Knights and the Silverstorm Sentinels, these forces gave the Arkan’s their own flavour in battle and made them more interesting than a normal Imperial Guard regiment. But it was the depiction of the enemy forces and the natural dangers of Phaedra that I felt really made the battle scenes special, Fehervari showed just how dangerous each ally of the Tau is, one in particular was a very creepy moment, and each enemy force felt distinct from the others.
The pacing of the book is I think something that some may find disorienting. The book at times switches without warning into dreams and flashbacks, and the journal segments are sometimes interspersed with the normal narrative and could be jarring to some. I personally enjoyed them quite a lot, they made the book feel different from the usual Imperial Guard fare and gave it a much more personal aspect as it delved into Iverson’s head and the past of the 19th Confederates which was a crucial part to the story. Plus the sudden switches without narrative gaps added to the idea of madness in the book, that things are unravelling for both the characters and the entire war and that only once everything is unravelled will anything make any sense, if there is any. I felt that was one of the key themes of the novel, about how insanity in 40k might actually help you understand the real nature of things better, and that if you are sane you can never truly grasp the truth of this dark future.
My favourite quote is definitely this, and once you read the novel you’ll understand why or you might not,
“That is just the beginning of the road, Holt Iverson.”
The ending is a rather different kind than you’d expect and if you like clear-cut endings, you will not be pleased, but if you like endings where you aren’t sure exactly what just happened and you need to work things out for yourself, you will be very pleased. I think this is a story where there is no ultimate answer and we must decide on our own exactly what certain things in the story meant and what fate awaits some of the characters, and if I am correct in that then this is a very strong ending to a novel that stands out from it’s company as a very esoteric and stylized piece of literature. The inspirations from a famous fictional work are clear though this story diverges in ways that you’ll never see coming and by the end you’ll, or at least I did, have as many questions as answers and you’ll spend quite a bit of time thinking about this book, it’s story and characters and themes and the ideas that it poses about the Imperium of Man and the Tau Empire, and each faction’s respective creeds.
For a great story that went places I did not expect and am still thinking about, characters that really stuck with me despite my distaste for the common soldiers of 40k and a narrative style that will definitely set Peter Fehervari apart from his fellow Black Library writers and create a very sharply divided fanbase I give Fire Caste a 9.1/10. This is not a novel for everyone, it’s very esoteric and relies a lot on themes to tell it’s story and that of the characters and it’s not a novel that just hands you the answers, many of them it leaves open to interpretation or for you to just figure out your own answer to it and be satisfied with that, because there could be no real answer to it and you will have to decide what happened. And I know that not everyone likes that, I didn’t think I would at first but I really got into the book and I eagerly await Peter Fehervari’s next work, which I hope will be just as insightful and mysterious as Fire Caste was. I would definitely recommend this novel but in the end I think you’d have to read it to determine whether or not you like or dislike it.
That’s it for this review, I have no idea what will be next so until next time,
AVE DOMINUS NOX!