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Shadowhawk reviews the first five Angels of Death short stories.
“As always with such things, this is a right mix of all sorts of stories and for the most part they were all enjoyable. Great little experiment that I’d like to see repeated at some point.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
Black Library has been putting out digital eShorts for about a year and a half now. These particular eShorts are usually about a 1000-words long, sometimes more. They are a great way to provide some extra little content, either to provide more stories about existing characters and series or to springboard altogether new ones, especially when there’s no discernible “market” for novel-length stories about the same. For the most part, I’ve enjoyed all of these, although there have been a few duds here and there.
The latest in this format is a series of eShorts that are being put out as tie-ins to the upcoming release of the new Codex: Space Marines, which is rumoured to be coming out very soon. I’ve recently started to get back into reading Black Library’s short content and I have to say that reading all these short stories has been really great. They give great snapshots of the universe at large, often fleshing out some new areas.
The first story here is by Graham McNeill, best known for his Ultramarines novels featuring Captain Uriel Ventris. Codex gives us a snapshot of the Captain’s life post the events of The Chapter’s Due, the sixth novel in the series. Here, we see a fairly routine mission involving Ventris and some of the chosen warriors of the Fourth Company as they liberate Sycorax, a Mechanicus-dominated planet, from the grip of Orks.
One of the things that has defined McNeil’s series is that Uriel Ventris has been a very non-Codex Ultramarines, thanks to the teachings of his former mentor and the former Captain of the Fourth Company, Captain Idaeus. His views are something that got Uriel exiled from the Chapter, and only accepted back after he completed a solemn death oath. Now, ever since Courage and Honour (the fifth book), we’ve been seeing Uriel acting very much as the model Ultramarine. There’ve been a few bumps along the way, but Uriel is a through and through warrior of his chapter now. And that is exactly what we see here.
He does everything by the book, wins over a new ally of the chapter, and establishes his reputation further among the warriors of the Fourth Company. It really was great to see Uriel back in action, to see this snapshot of his life. It was a straightforward story, point A to point B to end, and I’m fine with that really. Just the sort of story to fit into the required format. Hopefully we can get to see more Uriel soon, such as that rumoured 7th novel that McNeill has had in mind for a while. I’d love that.
The second story here is by Andy Smillie, who started writing for Black Library last year with several short stories and even a novella about the Flesh Tearers Space Marines. Now, Smillie is stepping out of that comfort zone and experimenting a little bit, starting with the Executioners here. The Executioners are a fantastic chapter, covered in depth in Forge World’s Badab War books. I’ve experimented with writing some Executioners fiction myself, set during the Badab War itself, and they are a great chapter to write about. Of course, they are an even better chapter to read about as well.
This was a very odd sort of story for several reasons. One, since this is the first time we are seeing the chapter covered in fiction, as far as I can tell, this is very much a world-building story, unlike Codex, which didn’t need to do any of those things since Uriel Ventris has been covered in extreme detail in six novels and various short stories. We get a really good sense of the chapter’s ethics and moralities here, as well as their beliefs. Second, this is a rather dark tale, one that exemplifies the futile nature of the setting. Heroes can be great heroes, especially when they are sacrifices to halt the inevitable. What that means is that this was the perfect kind of story to go with that theme.
The pacing of this 1000-worder is a bit on the fast side, due to the slightly fractured nature of the narrative, and that put me off a bit. All the same, I wouldn’t mind reading something longer about Smillie’s Executioners. Perhaps a Space Marine Battles novella like Flesh of Cretacia. That’d be nice.
This is another Silver Skulls short story, much shorter than I’d like it to be. Sarah’s previous installments featuring this somewhat reclusive chapter have all been among the best I’ve read, and this one is no different. It steps away from all the action, and goes for a very whimsical tone, one that shows off the life behind the war that Space Marines are constantly fighting. The look behind the scenes was really interesting. Up until now, we’ve always seen the Silver Skulls at war, and this story makes for a great change in the pace. There’s such an emotional tone to it, one that I’d never expected to see really.
Additionally, we get to see the Silver Skulls’ Chapter Master, Argentius. One of the things that I love about 40k fiction is reading about all the big heroes, such as the Chapter Masters and the Captains and the Chaplains and others who define the heroism of the setting. The same goes for Argentius. We’ve seen only brief flashes of him here and there in Sarah’s other work, so I loved that aspect of the story.
And just generally, its a great look at the traditions of the chapter, one of their most sacred traditions in fact, their tattooing. It adds some great character to the chapter, especially when expanded upon like this. So in short, this one was a definite winner for me.
Guy Haley got started writing for Black Libary last year with some short stories and even a short audio drama for the Horus Heresy. He’s followed it up this year with some more great fiction. I haven’t had a chance to read all of it as yet, such as his Heresy short story, his Warhammer Fantasy novel, or his latest Space Marine Battles novel, but I’m definitely amped up for all of it.
Final Journey here focuses on the Novamarines chapter, who are prominently featured in Haley’s new novel, The Death of Integrity. The short story gives us a great look at the traditions of the Novamarines, one of their most sacred traditions: a funeral for a fallen warrior. Where Death Speakers focused on the war traditions of the Executioners and Skin Deep focused on the day-to-day cultural traditions of the Silver Skulls, with this story Haley goes for something much more sombre and solemn. A duty tradition of the Novamarines, not the sort that is usually covered in BL’s fiction.
And that’s what makes this so great. Haley captures the mood of the situation perfectly. Its formal nature, its solemnity, everything. As with Baneblade before, Haley shows exactly why he’s such a great writer for the setting. He knows exactly the kind of story he wants to write, and he writes it exactly the way I expected it to be written. Great pacing as well, he never misses a beat.
The final story here is by Mark Latham, another recent author to join BL’s ranks. I haven’t read any of his stories before, I don’t think, and in that respect, this little piece makes for a good first experience, for the most part. Its a shorter piece than the others I’ve read so far, and I think the length hurts the story a little. Its too condensed, too short to convey everything all it needs to do.
Focusing on the Doom Legion this time, the story shows what happens when there’s a… break in the brotherhood of a Space Marine chapter. The consequences are harsh, most assuredly so, and that’s what Latham focuses on. The story also includes a rather stereotypical characterisation of the Inquisition, something that has become a bit of a trope in the 40k fiction. Its not something that I like, because it essentially waters down the complexity of the Inquisition and is a lazy, easy way to handle Inquisitors.
Apart from that however, I thought the twist at the end was really interesting. I didn’t really learn much about the Doom Legion here, which is a bit disappointing, but that twist was definitely a good one. Unexpected, and sudden. I wouldn’t be averse to reading more of Latham’s Doom Legion in the future.