Mephiston: Lord of Death by David Annandale – Novella Review [Bellarius]
Getting his hands on a copy at long last, Bellarius delivers his personal verdict on David Annandale’s Mephiston: Lord of Death.
“Blending disturbing horror with questions of the self, Mephiston is tale for those disappointed in current Blood Angels’ lore.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
Even among the countless scribes of Black Library, David Annandale is one of those writers you instantly recognise even before checking the cover for his name. Famously pushing the level of gratuity within Warhammer’s already loudly bombastic universes, he can be best recognised for his influences. The man’s respect for monochrome horror movies, kaiju films and the great cult classics of science fiction all tend to make their way into his works somehow. This, perhaps above all else, is why along with Ben Counter he tends to be one of the best authors when it comes to the more oddly obscure elements of Chaos, and why he was a perfect match for Chief Librarian Mephiston.
Leading his battle-brothers to war once again, the astartes once known as Calistarius is haunted by his past. An enigma among those haunted and cursed by the Red Thirst and Black Rage, he is treated with equal levels of respect and distrust, an unknown element which has emerged after ten thousand years of crusades. This soon comes to the fore when combating a traitor warband far from Emperor’s light and stumbling upon a long lost vessel carrying a ghost Calistarius’ past. Questions soon begin to arise among their ranks, centred around this new arrival, peaking as they discover something far more terrifying and wondrous hidden on a long lost world…
Mephiston has long been one of those major unique characters who has otherwise been kept largely to the background. Beyond showing up in a supporting role in James Swallow’s books, the Chief Librarian has for the most part been left as a source of fan speculation on his powers, abilities and how he is regarded among the chapter. While the book does play towards a few specific ideas when it comes to the warrior, it does so in just the right way. Rather than beating the reader over the head with the idea of his damnation (as seen in the last two Codex: Blood Angels) or having a personality which only goes so far as to have him occasionally turn Super Saiyan, we’re given a conflicted figure here. Only half there even in his own mind, Mephiston is written as riddle as much to himself. He is seen questioning his nature despite his certainty of Chaos’ effects yet is shown to be fully aware of the darkness within him. While this could easily become overdone, Annandale’s almost poetic descriptions of his environment and the fittingly disjointed shift between third and first person play towards these strengths. While the book is shown through Mephiston’s eyes, at the same time it shows just how unnatural his state is. So much so that he even considers his previous self, Calistarius, to be an entirely different man.
The actual descriptions of combat, fighting and the environments have an oddly minimalist quality to them, citing enough points to create hints of images in the reader’s mind while at the same time never going into full detail. It’s one of the many qualities which would otherwise be frustrating in almost any other book, but given the horror-esque theme present and viewpoint character it plays towards the story’s best strengths. With so much of the book set on heavily corrupted planets, decaying lost warships and places touched by Chaos, it gives the sense of something so horrific it’s kept just out of sight. Either because it cannot be fully comprehended by those witnessing it, or it can’t be truly put onto paper. A good parallel to this would be the famous non-descriptive purple prose used by Lovecraft when it came to the Elder Things’ cities or R’lyeh. When it does becomes more solid and structured, that’s when the book enters combat and plays towards far more familiar elements. Kept to very pithy and brief statements, the blows of battle are one of the few points which are shown to have some truly solid grounding, contrasting to what we see elsewhere. Again, it’s a quality which works best here thanks to the subject matter at hand.
If there is a problem, it’s that Annandale tends to overplay certain elements and sometimes require a universal degree of stupidity among the astartes to let certain elements follow through. This was a major flaw which ran through Death of Antagonis, and in many respects Mephiston is a far more refined version of that story’s events, taking those ideas but vastly improving upon them. We have the same confrontations over faith, but the fracture between brothers is far better established. We have the same instigator driving things forward, but this is far more easily excused given his time in the Warp. Even counting this however, it can be hard not to raise an eyebrow as the Blood Angels hesitate upon purging a visibly corrupted world, or just how easily they forgo putting the world to flame. Atop of this, certain astartes tend to die a little too easily, which while helping to emphasise the issues of mortality surrounding the legion, has become a tediously overplayed issue over the years. Even beyond the Imperial Fists themselves in recent years, Sanguinius’ chapters have this irritating habit of being murdered in a manner you would normally expect of a guardsman, and it’s enough to throw you out of the moment.
Atop of all this, the story reaches a point where it begins to drag after only a short time. After reaching the world, the actions of the company in pondering their find feel far too inactive, lacking the proactivity one would expect for them to try and understand the mysteries of their environment, or just what such apparent beauty was doing on a corrupted world. Lulls in combat and the like are fine, but in a novella length story, this sudden slowdown after a strong opening is felt all the more keenly. This might have helped with stronger characterisation, but many Blood Angels are quite obviously filling in for certain ideas over being defined characters unto themselves to help further explore Mephiston’s nature.
Still, for all this, Mephiston: Lord of Death is a good examination of the Librarian himself and manages to put a new spin on a few all too often overused ideas to make them seem fresh. For all the times we’ve had the Blood Angels moaning about their impending doom, Annandale’s take gives it new life. Here’s just hoping someone can some day convince him to do something similar with the Craftworld Eldar. If you’re a fan of Sanguinius’ scions, this one is a definite purchase worth your time with some interesting themes, but otherwise don’t expect to get too much out of it.