Mark of Calth edited by Laurie Goulding – Review Part One [Lord of the Night]
Lord of the Night reviews the first half of the Horus Heresy anthology Mark of Calth, edited by Laurie Goulding, containing the short stories The Shards of Erebus by Guy Haley, Dark Heart by Anthony Reynolds, The Traveller by David Annandale and the novella Calth That Was by Graham McNeill.
““An anthology with some of the finest short stories in the Horus Heresy, and with plenty of new and exciting lore speculation for the fans.”” – The Founding Fields
Shards of Erebus by Guy Haley
A plot is developing, deep within the ranks of the Word Bearers Legion as their fleets make for Calth and prepare to strike at their most hated brothers and exact revenge for the humiliation of Monarchia and to educate the heathens in the existance of the Primordial Truth. But as the fleets travel onwards one amongst the Legion is preparing in a secret way, a way that will require one of the greatest relics of the age to be destroyed that it might be reborn, to serve another greater purpose. But what does Erebus plan for the shards that bear his name? And from where did he learn the tricks that will see him through his greatest challenge yet?
The story in TSoE is mostly filler, specifically it explains where a certain weapon in Know No Fear came from and exactly how Erebus learned some of the tricks he shows in the book. While that is interesting to someone who has read Know No Fear and finds that addition/explanation to the lore to be something worth reading, other then that the story serves no real purpose. It’s sole plot is the creation of these weapons and showing where and how Erebus learned the tricks that helped him survive KNF, though admittedly it does set something up that may bear fruit later if my suspicion is correct. So while this isn’t a bad story, it isn’t really a good one either. The best way I can describe it is as filler, an addition to KNF that only lore-interested fans will appreciate.
The only real character in the story is Erebus, and he is as conniving and smug as ever. We get to see a little bit more inside his head, and learn he’s a bit more petty than we thought, but other then that there are no characters beyond the bit players in the Word Bearers Commanders that receive Erebus’s “gifts” and wonder at their meaning. Guy Haley did a good job at portraying Erebus but he didn’t really break any new ground with him, or show any other characters that were as good, and without a meaty plot a manipulative character like Erebus feels wasted in such a straight-forward story.
The action is non-existant. Literally, there are no fighting scenes in the story which I think quite detracts from it. This is a 30k short story, there should at least be some bolters blasting but this is the very first Warhammer-based story i’ve read where nobody got into a fight, that isn’t to say nobody dies but that scene definitely was not a fight, it was murder plain and simple and though that was not really a surprising twist, not because of Haley’s writing but because as a Chaos fan it was obvious to me what Erebus would do at that point, it was not depicted as a fight or even really described much. So no fights.
The pacing is ok, TSoE is a pretty short story and I can’t decide if being longer would have made it better or made it drag. With a more complex plot perhaps more pages would have made it better, but with more pages as it was now it could have meant more scenes to add in more plot and make the story better than it was. Ultimately this short story suffered from a lack of any real meaning beyond the lore explanation and addition that it made, though that one moment near the end could mean something if it is expanded upon.
My favourite quote, because even with nobody fighting Warhammer oozes badass quotes,
“I am not Lorgar’s son. I am his father. You would do well not to forget it.”
The ending is as the rest of the story is, it doesn’t add anything beyond a reaffirmation of what Erebus gained during the story and the purpose behind his creation of a new weapon. A decent enough note to end the story on but really it didn’t surprise me, nor did it do anything for me beyond the feeling that the story is done and that that was it. As a big 40k fan the lore additions were nice but to anyone who isn’t a fan of 40k lore, this is definitely not a story that I would suggest you read as you won’t enjoy it. This isn’t a bad story, it’s just not a good one. So with that in mind I give The Shards of Erebus a 5.0/10.
Calth That Was by Graham McNeill
The Ultramarines have won the Battle of Calth, but at the greatest cost. Calth, once a world destinted to become one of the five ruling worlds of the 500 Worlds of Ultramar, is now a sun-scorched ruin that will never again be the planet that it was. But while the War on Calth is over, the Underworld War rages on. Deep in the caves of Calth, the Ultramarines continue to battle against the remnants of the Word Bearers host. Remus Ventanus, the Saviour of Calth, leads the defence and plans to annihilate the forces of Commander Foedrall Fell, a chance to deal a blow to the treacherous Legion that it won’t forget. But another of that dark brotherhood is plotting to ensure something much deadlier than any sole victory, and if Ventanus cannot stop Maloq Kartho’s plan, then Calth will burn for a second and final time.
A definite step-up from the previous story, the novella-length Calth That Was is a continuation to KNF and a good one at that. The story delves into the Underworld War and the fates of the various Word Bearer commanders that appeared in the novel yet did not receive a death or escape on-screen.The story also contains several links to McNeill’s Ultramarines series and explains several of the events that occured in the 6th novel The Chapter’s Due, mainly how those events came about and the origin of one character in particular. McNeill does write a good story and though this one felt a bit longer than it needed to be, it was enjoyable particularly the knowledge that Calth is still ongoing, that the Ultramarines are still fighting even though their world has been turned into hell.
McNeill’s characters aren’t as strong as Abnett’s but I think they do well enough, but it was his Word Bearer Maloq Kartho that I particularly enjoyed. I found Kartho to be an interesting flash-forward, perhaps the first true Chaos Space Marine in mentality as well as appearance and his choice of quoting scripture frequently really made him seem like the evil priest he was meant to be. Sadly his Remus Ventanus felt wooden whereas in KNF he felt like a much more confident and commanding warrior, here he felt like the guy who just leads and says little. I liked his second Captain Sydance whose flippant humour was a nice counterbalance to the emotionless Ventanus, plus it helped lighten the grim atmosphere that you felt everytime a character looked at the devastation that was Calth, but unfortunately the remainder of his Ultramarines characters just felt wooden like Ventanus.
The action is very good, McNeill really does write good battles and not just the coreography but in CTW he works in several elements that show the desperation, the weariness and the beaten-up state of both armies. It’s these little things that add to the novella, showing that both sides while still fighting are the equivalent of a wounded fighter, their both still going but not as hard as they were before. McNeill also does spectacle well, the scenes involving orbital guns feel as powerful as they did in KNF and it’s a nice callback to the novel to see the Ultramarines using them once more. And the final scenes depicts Terminators quite well, and shows that despite appearing it they are not invincible and why even Terminator armour isn’t foolproof against mass firepower.
The pacing of the story is good for the most part, though it feels a bit slow at several POVs mainly those who are about to die and one character whose dreams were interesting, but the lack of explanation as to why him was a flaw in the novella. These scenes drag a little, as do the scenes with Ventanus in conversation due to aforementioned woodeness, but the scenes with battle and between Maloq Kartho and Hol Beloth feel exciting and tense as you wonder just what Kartho is planning and how the Ultramarines will fight against the kind of enemies they go up against this time. A quick note, I really enjoyed McNeill’s depiction of the Neverborn and especially how these ones fought, and the general atmosphere of that scene in particular felt really grimdark and another flash-forward to 40k where such scenes will become commonplace.
My favourite quote, definitely this one from Ventanus, he might have lacked any real personality here but he still had some cool things to say,
“Because I want the last sight of every Word Bearer to be an Ultramarine.”
The ending is a good one, though if you pay attention and think it over for a moment you’ll see what is going to happen before it does. That and the epilogue of KNF confirming that Ventanus survives past the end of the Heresy makes it clear that he isn’t going to die and robs the ending of some of the tension, not McNeill’s fault of course but just how it was for me. But it ends the story nicely, and explains quite a few things about The Chapter’s Due which for one who has read that book, like me, is quite a nice part of the story. So for all that I give Calth That Was a score of 7.0/10.
Dark Heart by Anthony Reynolds
The Word Bearers face a problem in their ranks. Commander Bel Ashared has been mudered by his protege, and in a manner that cannot be dealt with by any normal means. The student must be dealt with by the highest authority, and on Calth that is the Master of the Faith Kor Phaeron himself, but as he interrogates Marduk of the XVIIth Legion he finds that not everything is as it appears to be in this murder, and that the student may in fact have had help from an unlikely source.
The story in DH is, to one who has read Reynold’s Dark Word trilogy, very fun as it returns to the protagonist Marduk in his early days and features several callbacks to the trilogy, showing how Marduk met another trilogy character for the first time and how Marduk took his first step on the path to being a Dark Apostle of the Word. And for those who haven’t read the trilogy, Dark Heart is still a good short story. A murder-mystery, but where the method is the mystery rather than the culprit, it’s a good story that shows a pivotal part of KNF from the Word Bearers’ POV and will definitely keep the reader interested as Marduk reveals exactly how he came to murder his teacher. But admittedly, those who’ve read the Dark Word trilogy will enjoy this story far more than those who haven’t.
The characters are nicely written, Marduk here is young and ambitious and ready to take the steps that those around him are denying him. Reynolds does a nice job of showing Marduk before he came to power, and how his ambition combined with real ability make him a character not to be messed with. The cameo by Burias was a nice addition and the name of Marduk’s benefactor will ring a bell with the trilogy readers and will explain how one partnership came about. Kor Phaeron returns and his portrayal here is much superior to his brief appearance in SoE, here he radiates power and really does feel like someone who could inspire faith in others through his own belief. And I really enjoyed Reynolds’ use of one character, never named but obvious to anyone whose read KNF, and the chuckle it gave me to see that character’s actions and how different things would have been if either he or Marduk had succeeded.
The action is very nicely done, though it is a bit standard without any real flare to it until the final scene. It’s written well enough and I have no complaints in that regard, but I wish that what Marduk did to one character could have been expanded a bit more, or perhaps we could have seen some of the Gal Vorbak in action. The final scene however is much better, though it is a POV switch of the final battle in KNF which may make it less appealing to some, but I quite enjoyed seeing it from a Word Bearer perspective and it made me smile when an unnamed character entered the fray and started kicking ass, and when I thought that Marduk was lucky.
The pacing of the story is well done, I was never bored by the story at any point and I felt it was just the right length. The POV switch of KNF’s final scene was a welcome addition as i’ve said and I liked the idea that Marduk was telling the story to Kor Phaeron, and the flashback at the end explaining how he managed to do it was a great way to finish. This is a story that is mainly about a return to a character from another series, yet Reynolds does make it a good part of the anthology and makes it feel like a part of the wider Calth battle.
My favourite quote, definitely this one because it was surprising to hear such coarse words from a Word Bearer, and as soon as I read it I knew who was saying it without reading the name,
“Did you see that blue bastard’s head go up?”
The ending is a good one and pulls a surprising twist on an earlier scene, revealing the entirety of what happened in that scene and making one last connection to the Dark Word trilogy. On the whole I found Dark Heart to be an enjoyable short story, though truthfully it is more enjoyable if you have read the trilogy before hand, but even if you haven’t it’s still good and I think that this is one of the better stories of the anthology. I give Dark Heart a score of 7.2/10, at first I thought to rank it a bit higher but I decided that a higher rank would only come from having read the Dark Word trilogy and I don’t think a short story should coast on it’s connecting trilogy.
The Traveller by David Annandale
Deep in the arcologies of Calth treachery is afoot. A young docking comptroller, Jassiq Blanchot, now the only survivor of Veridius Maxim after it’s destruction by the Sons of Lorgar, begins to hear whispers in the dark, whispers that point to a traitor hidden among the loyal and faithful in a sealed off cave. Time is running out for these desperate souls as their food runs out and disease runs rampant through the refugees, only Blanchot’s whispers can guide the defenders of the arcology to root out the traitors among them before they are lost forever. But something else is wrong, and it may have something to do with what Blanchot was doing just before he escaped the doomed station, something that even he cannot remember anymore.
The Traveller is a stand-out story, I loved every moment of it and the twists in the plot were stupendous. I particularly enjoyed the format of the story, choosing to insert the whispers as breaks in the text really added to the feeling of paranoia and confusion that the character is feeling by giving the reader a taste of what it’s like for him. Annandale does a good job keeping the reader guessing as to what might be going on, and when you find out at the end it’s shocking and a great callback to a single line in KNF that this short story gives so much more meaning and horror to an otherwise bland and meaningless quote, and the idea that such a thing could occur is a great twist and was something that I did not think could happen, and now that it has it is definitely an idea that should be pursued further.
The characters in the short are for the most part just background, the protagonist is the only real character of note and I found him to be an interesting study of what happens when a man gains not just power, but devotion. How his words and actions can influence others, how that power can affect his own actions and thoughts and why believing a mortal man to be infallible is never a good idea. The only other character of note, the protagonist’s aide and chief follower Narya Mellisen, was another good example of followers of power and how they can believe anything and do anything for those they follow, until their time comes and they see through it all. And the final twist, the whisperer in the dark, now he was a character that I was surprised could even exist and the pun on the title was grimly amusing.
The action in the book is a simple affair and not really worth mentioning. This is a character driven plot and it’s more about paranoia, confusion and power than people killing each other, which does happen but it’s not described to any real degree and there’s only one actual fight scene. It was written well enough but by that point I was more interested in what the hell was going on rather than the fight, so while this story lacks action it more than makes up for it with a superb story that sucks you in and only lets you go once it’s delivered it’s twist ending.
The pacing of the story is quite good, at first it seems like a confusing story but once you get further in that confusion works to it’s advantage, you want to know what is going on and what the whispers mean, and why Blanchot is the only one that can hear them. The injection of the whispers into the text was a bold move and one that I think paid off, it felt like listening to a record interspersed with static and curses that make you want to keep going, to find out why it’s happening and what they mean. Plus it added to the tension of the story as the whispers grew in strength and frequency until finally their origin was revealed, and the entire story makes perfect sense.
My favourite quote, i’m torn between one of the whispers and this actual line so i’ll go with the line but only because in context it is absolutely spine-chilling,
“So pleased to finally speak with you, my lord.”
The ending was a twist that I did not see coming, a great callback to KNF and it adds a whole new level of horror to a scene in that book that is already pretty horrific when you realise that the horror isn’t over yet. I also enjoyed, though this may just be my own viewing of it, that in the end the whispers weren’t responsible for what happened in the story, they just were there at the time, what happened was mankind and what it does when it’s afraid. It lashes out. The ending makes the entire point of the story clear and really makes it a story worth reading. For all that I give The Traveller a score of 8.6/10, this is definitely one of Annandale’s better work and I hope to see more along the lines of The Traveller from him in the future.
That’s it for this half of the review. The next half will contain the remaining four stories of the anthology and the final ranking for the anthology as a whole, and my favourite/best/worst listings of the stories. Until next time,
AVE DOMINUS NOX!