Mark of Calth edited by Laurie Goulding – Review Part Two [Lord of the Night]

Another great Neil Robert's cover, he really captures the griminess and carrion-field atmosphere of Calth.

Lord of the Night reviews the second half of the Horus Heresy anthology Mark of Calth, edited by Laurie Goulding, containing the short stories A Deeper Darkness by Rob Sanders, The Underworld War by Aaron Dembski-Bowden, Athame by John French and Unmarked by Dan Abnett.

“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

A Deeper Darkness by Rob Sanders

Deep in the caverns of Calth, where no light shines and the darkness is both friend and foe to all who live within it, a war is raging. The Underworld War rages on, and as the Tetrarch Tauro Nicodemus leads the Ultramarines in defence of the Arcologies and denial of the Word Bearer, Sergeant Hylas Pelion is convinced that the enemy is closer than they think. Obsessed with hunting the Word Bearer Ungol Shax, he gets his chance when he descends into the darkness for a last chance at bringing down his enemy. But the enemy he expects to hunt, may not be the one he must battle as the darkness presses in closer and closer.

A Deeper Darkness is without a doubt one of the best short stories i’ve ever read, it’s use of horror elements and the unseen terror to tell the story really set an atmosphere that has you looking over your shoulder and jumping at every stray sound. At first it seems like a simple story, an Ultramarine hunting a Word Bearer, but as Pelion and his men go into the dark it starts to become apparant, slowly, that something far more than just a simple Chaos coven is hidden in the dark, and as the fear and mystery starts to build the story keeps the reader hooked by exploiting the love of horror, the need to know what will happen next and who will survive, and in this case exactly what is happening. And when you finally find out it sinks in what is actually happening in the darkness, and the deeper meaning of the story is a nice look-forward to the future when we see how certain people deal with what they cannot or do not want to understand.

The characters are a good bunch, though only the Sergeant Hylas Pelion was really developed for the story. The return of Nicodemus from Sander’s previous HH shorts was a nice cameo but really only Pelion mattered in the story. His determination to hunt Ungol Shax is the first driving point of the story, and then his determination to find out what is going on in the caves below is what takes the story to it’s close and his answers form the ending. I found Pelion to be a good protagonist for that, and his understanding of human fear explained the deeper meaning behind the story, other then that the only character that really mattered was the Pioneer Ione Dodona who showed the primal fear of the dark in humans, and how it affects us, and how fear can break the mind.

The action is very good and appropriate to the scenery, though it takes a while for it to really occur, once it does the action is definitely memorable because of it’s tension and because it adds to the horror element by forcing Pelion to fight by unconventional means. It may be low in quantity, but the quality of the main fight scene in the story makes up for that by being scary in addition to being well-written and fast-paced. Not often that a fight scene is scary, but also I found that it shows a deeper moral that really fits with the whole story. The darkness is truly terrifying for one key reason, you can’t fight the darkness.

The pacing of the story is very good, it works well by at first presenting the reader with a simple idea of a Space Marine hunting a traitor then adding a few hints that something deeper is going on, and as it quickly becomes clear that things are more complicated than the characters expected it presents another mystery and plays on the horror element to keep the reader interested and wanting to know what will happen next, and what is happening in the first place. And as the story goes further more and more is explained until by the end all of the story is clear and you realise the meaning behind it all. The horror of course was the best element, the encroaching darkness felt like a real presence and enemy, the mystery of Ungol Shax was engaging and the answer was a shocker, and the water bridge that led them there felt like the entrance to another world of dark and madness.

Now for my favourite quote, has to be this one,

“I’m here. When you tire of your cowardice and playing games in the shadows, I am here.”

The ending is definitely a twist, I was surprised by how the enemy was defeated as I did not think something like that was possible until it was done, and I do like that it was never really described, allowing our fear of the dark to paint our picture of the enemy which is usually more terrifying than any carbon cutout monster could be. The idea behind the enemy was an ingenious one, and the effect it had on one character is a glimpse of what is to come when things get darker in the Heresy and humanity is forced to confront things that it cannot or does not want to understand, and how a Space Marine can confront them when we cannot. For all that I give A Deeper Darkness a score of 9.2/10.

The Underworld War by Aaron Dembski-Bowden

As the war under Calth rages on a different war is being fought by one Bearer of the Word. A war of rememberance. Sergeant Jerudai Kaurtal of the Word Bearers is one of the last surviving Sons of Lorgar on or under Calth, and is determined that they will not be forgotten. Lorgar may never return for them, but he will remember those who died for him on this sun-scorched world and it will mean something. But as he travels to gather the remnants and tokens of the fallen, the fallen may have their own opinion on his actions, as does another who is watching him for a purpose that even Kautral cannot fathom.

The story in TUW is a solely Word Bearer story, showing how these warriors deal with the fact that they have been abandoned to die. How after so many years these warriors are dealing with that fact and that they are going to die here, and will be forgotten by their Legion and Primarch and how one warrior in particular decides to make sure they are remembered. But there is a deeper meaning in the plot and it’s quite the twist when you find out what the story means, and the connections to Know No Fear and Betrayer add to the story and reveal something quite important about the Word Bearers in the former, and the reason that they in particular were sent to Calth. ADB made the twist completely unexpected, no hints or guesses were given and when the twist came I was totally surprised by it, without any hints it comes as quite a shock when you realise that things aren’t as they seem.

Another great Neil Robert's cover, he really captures the griminess and carrion-field atmosphere of Calth.

Another great Neil Robert’s cover, he really captures the griminess and carrion-field atmosphere of Calth.

The sole character in the story in Sergeant Jerudai Kaurtal and I found him to be quite an interesting character, a soldier who deals with the fact he has been abandoned by his brothers and commander. It wasn’t fear of dying or the enemy that drove Kaurtal on his actions in the story but rather a desire to make sure that he and all the other warriors of Calth were remembered, as others in the Legion were, and I think ADB captured a good character here showing a warrior who just wants to be remembered even though they lost. And I enjoyed that the story showed how others would view his actions in a different light, and that it’s up to you on who is in the right.

The action is sparse, this is primarily a story about memorial and a quest across hell, but the one fight scene is described quite nicely and it is perhaps the first and only sign that something is deeply wrong though since we are dealing with Chaos, it’s perfectly understandable that you take it as par for the course, which I did. But as with most of the anthology this is a character-driven story and relies more on the mission that Kaurtal assigns himself to tell the story, the background behind his ascension to the Gal Vorbak, and whether or not he is in the right about his actions.

The pacing is quite good, though this is a story mostly about travelling I was never bored as ADB really makes Calth’s hellish surface come alive and the quest that Kaurtal takes upon himself is an interesting one, whether or not he is right about the meaning of his actions or whether his brothers are right and that his actions are much simpler and detestable. The twist of course comes out of nowhere and though sometimes that is a bad thing, here I think it’s a good thing as it adds a new level to the story and to the Word Bearers as a Legion, and shows how far Lorgar is willing to go in his own quest.

My favourite quote, definitely this one because it was so much creepier than it sounds in the story,

“Kaurtal. You abandoned the Legion.”

The ending is a good one, a surprising twist to the story and a connection to the events in KNF and Betrayer that explains something very interesting about the Word Bearers that went to Calth, specifically why they were chosen for the duty rather than others in the Legion. Mainly the ending is about showing how far the Word Bearers have fallen and how far Lorgar is prepared to go, and how far he expects his sons to be willing to go as well. ADB wraps up the story nicely and connects it to the main series, perhaps more so than any other story in the anthology bar Calth That Was. For all that I give The Underworld War a score of 8.2/10.

Athame by John French

A simple weapon? A weapon made for nothing more than to kill randomly and for the whims of whomever holds it’s handle? Perhaps at first, but there is a weapon that is so much more. A weapon with a purpose, a purpose that is so great that even the universe itself will take note when that cut is made, but what is the purpose of that weapon? It’s purpose cannot yet be know, but it’s origin is ancient as the stars and this is it’s story. This is the story of the birth of the Athame, and the unwitting steps that it will take across time and space towards it’s ultimate destiny.

Athame is a very different type of story. This is not a character story, an action story but rather it is pure lore. This is a story about a weapon, a weapon’s birth and life and future. Because of that this is definitely not a story for any but those who want to know more about 40k lore, those who are looking for a compelling stand-alone story then Athame is definitely not for you because this story also relies on the main series to connect to it, the Athame has a purpose that only the main series will reveal, and this story is meant to inform the readers of that fact. It’s a good story, but it wouldn’t really mean anything without the weight of the main series behind it.

Since there isn’t much else to discuss I will say that the pacing of the story was quite good, and though it’s an unusual story I was never bored or annoyed with it, in fact it was actually quite interesting though admittedly I am a huge fan of 40k lore and that might be the key reason that I was engrossed by it. But I can say the story reads well and that it’s not too long so it doesn’t drag on, though I felt it could have used a bit of a longer backstory for the Athame before it reached Warhammer times, some more history in our time would have made the story better.

My favourite quote has to be this one because it sums up the underlying theme behind the story,

“Objects have power.”

The ending wraps the story up well and confirms that there is so much more to this not-so-simple weapon than meets the eye, it has a destiny and that destiny will definitely play into the main series in a big way if the narrative’s expectations are to be believed. Athame is a good story for loyal fans of 30k/40k but nobody outside that fandom will enjoy this story, because understanding it relies entirely on knowledge of the setting that you’d have to have more than a casual interest in to comprehend. For all that I give Athame a score of 6.7/10. A good story, but an odd one that could have been a bit better if more time had been spent in our history rather than skipping quickly to Warhammer history.

Unmarked by Dan Abnett

Across time and space, an unlikely group is making their way towards an unknowable destination. Even their leader, the Perpetual Ollanius Persson, does not truly know where he is going, why he is going there, or what his old friend John Grammaticus expects him to do. All of it, centered around a small ritual dagger with the power to open tears in reality. Oll only knows one thing, he must keep the dagger safe until it reaches the where and when that it must be at, even from the hunter sent to claim the dagger back before it can upset the plans of beings vaster and older than even Oll himself. But that will be no easy task, not even for one who has lived as long as God and whose road may soon be coming to an end.

The story in Unmarked is a damn good one, and contains Abnett’s fondness for injecting hints of our time and world into Warhammer. In 40k it’s a bit too much, but when time-travelling is involved, then it’s perfectly acceptable and even very fun. It’s interesting to see the places that Oll Pious has been to, especially if you recognize them which I only did once or twice in the story, and as we learn more and more about Oll and the Perpetuals and the mission that he is undertaking, and why he is the only one of them who can, it becomes much clearer that Oll has a big role to play in things to come, as do the rest of his kind. I think this story was more of a teaser, a promise that the Perpetual storyline and Ollanius Pious will feature largely in the future of the Horus Heresy, something I am very pleased with.

The characters are a okay group, to use Oll’s oudated phrasings, (seriously I cannot actually remember now if anyone in 40k ever says Okay) but it’s Oll Persson who is the real attraction to the story. He is without a doubt one of the most mysterious characters in the entire setting, what little we know of his past is tantalizing enough that we want to know much much more, and that is the draw to his character. We want to know more, anything more about him. The other character that I found interesting was the girl Katt, I think she has her own role to play as well as she seems to have more behind her than the rest of the group who I think are really just tag-alongs in that sense, they were lucky enough that they were near Oll and that he could save them. Also I like Graft, just because he calls Oll “Trooper Persson.”

There isn’t a great deal of action in the story, mainly because like with the rest of the anthology this is primarily a character-piece, though Unmarked is also a lore-heavy story like Athame and relies a lot on people having read Know No Fear and understanding the basis of who/what Oll Persson is and trying to understand what he is doing. But there is some action in the story and it is good, though the only real battle scene owes more to the enemy they faced rather than anything spectacular happening in the battle, but once you understand who the enemy are it’s actually quite unsettling. The other scene is only a fight for a few sentences then it becomes more about lore, but it featured an element of Oll’s character that appeared in KNF and was quite a surprising thing then, and it’s still cool now.

The pacing of the story moves quite nicely, though the use of the Mark of Calth from KNF to show that time has become irrelevent in this adventure was something that I feel was unnecessary beyond the first time. But the story reads well and I was never bored during it, mainly due to the many historical references that if you understand them it’s quite fun, unfortunately I only understood one or two and can only look up another two of them, so still lots of things mentioned in  this story that I don’t quite understand, but i’ll figure it out eventually.

My favourite quote, definitely this one because it’s just so damn good,

“Just believe. Believe in whatever you like. Believe in the Emperor, or in yourself, or in whatever light you see in your dreams, or in the solidity of the ground beneath your feet. Believe in me, for all I care. Just believe.”

The ending is a good one and finishes the story on an interesting note. The connection to another story in the anthology was a good one, and the antagonist of the story was a great choice by Abnett as the identity of the hunter is one whose name most 40k fans know, and because of that identity it is abundantly clear that everything that happens here is of consequence, this is something that even the Gods are taking seriously and if they are taking it seriously, then it really is something that will be hugely important down the line. Oll wasn’t wrong when he said that something more important than lives may be at risk, and perhaps his mission will affect things far more than we can guess at for the moment. For all that I give Unmarked a score of 8.5/10.

Well that’s all the short stories reviewed. As a whole I quite enjoyed the Mark of Calth anthology, it had one or two stories that didn’t quite come up to the grade of the others, but I don’t think it had a single bad story just rather some stories that could have been done better, and of course it had some excellent stories, so good that I would encourage any fan of the Heresy to make a priority of reading them. And some very interesting new facts have come to light that I think will play a big role in the Heresy series to come, but we can only guess at what they are right now. But that’s fun too.

Now for the rankings;

Best Story: A Deeper Darkness

Worst Story: The Shards of Erebus

Favourite Story: A Deeper Darkness and The Traveller (Tie)

And with all that we come to the final score. In the end I give Mark of Calth a score of 8.0/10, I think that this is either the best anthology of the Horus Heresy so far or it is on par with The Primarchs but either way I would definitely recommend this anthology to any Horus Heresy fan, especially fans of Calth and the Ultramarines and the Word Bearers. It wouldn’t be a good introductory point to the series though, relying heavily on the events of KNF and other novels and much of the series lore, but I think MoC will be a good and enjoyable read for long-term fans of the series who want more Calth, and as Laurie Goulding says in his afterword, who knows how many more Calth-based stories are out there, waiting to be told? I hope many more.

That’s it for this review. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it. I am unsure of what will be next, likely it will be Gilead’s Curse by Nik Vincent and Dan Abnett. So until next time,


Lord of the Night

Lord of the Night is one of TFF’s original reviewers. He’s done quite a few for TFF and that number keeps expanding. You’ll enjoy his diverse mix of book reviews. Always a treat.