Thursday, September 23, 2010

“Sabbat Worlds Anthology”, edited by Dan Abnett (Black Library)


Short Stories set in and around the Gaunt’s Ghosts systems

Across the Sabbat Worlds, a bitter conflict is fought, a conflict that can only end in victory or annihilation. The innumerable forces of the Arch enemy attack without mercy, and planet after planet burns with the flames of war.

Yet even amidst this nightmare, the Imperial Guard stand stoic against their foes. The Phantine Air Corps battle the enemies of mankind across burning skies, while the Gereon resistance tries to break the foothold of Chaos on their beleaguered world and the legendary Gaunt’s Ghosts fight in the most violent and bloody of warzones.

Edited by Gaunt’s Ghosts creator (and frequent Horus Heresy author) Dan Abnett, this anthology “opens the gateway to the Sabbat Worlds”, featuring eight brand new stories from some of the Black Library’s best-known authors including Abnett himself, New York Times best-selling author Graham McNeill, Aaron Dembski-Bowden, Sandy Mitchell, Nik Vincent, Matt Farrer and Nick Kyme. Each short story is preceded by a short intro by Abnett, which locates the stories in both the worlds he’s created and also the timeline of the military campaigns set in the Sabbat Worlds (a handy addition for anyone who, like myself, sometimes forgets salient details of novels released in the mid-1990s).

As with previous anthology reviews, I’ll deal with each story individually, then sum-up at the end. I’ll try to avoid as many spoilers as possible.

“Apostle’s Creed”, by Graham McNeill

Life with the Apostles – hard flying aces, they are tough, detached and extremely aloof. The distance they create between themselves and other fliers is not only arrogance, it is also through necessity, as Larice discovers in this tale.

Larice is still getting to know the ways of her new unit, trying to fit into the squadron’s habits and ways, despite it being a squadron that doesn’t want people to fit in with it.

Great writing, as can be expected from McNeill, but I’m still not sold on long aerial dogfight scenes (which were a serious weakness in the Star Wars: New Jedi Order series). I did, however, really liked this, which made me wonder why I didn’t love Double Eagle when I read it all those years ago...

It’s a story about the effect war has on the idealistic, how loss can manifest itself in many forms. And, of course, dogfights.

Mr McNeill has a surprising fondness for the word “viffing”…

“The Headstone and the Hammerstone Kings”, by Matthew Farrer

A story set in the aftermath of an invasion, on a planet that is no longer on the frontlines. Delicate and controversial clean-up operations concerning the enemy’s “woe machines” (nasty contraptions with innumerable ways of killing and maiming the unwary and enemy) are underway, and the economic forces of the region want a piece of the action and are suspicious and jealous of the Mechanicum forces who have a monopoly on the salvaged tech. Meanwhile, an insurgency has its own plans for the machines.

Farrer’s latest work seems to be characterised by ambiguity – “Faces” in Fear The Alien and now this one. It’s a good style, and makes a difference from straightforward short stories, but because of the length, I sometimes wonder if being less ambiguous might be a better thing. It’s a good read, nonetheless.

“Regicide”, by Aaron Dembski-Bowden

After the glowing introduction from Abnett (in which Bowden’s work is described as “pant-damaging pieces of writing awesomeness”), what follows is a truly superb story, and possibly the best in the collection.

Set twenty-five years before the Gaunt’s Ghosts timeline, Bowden takes us back to the beginning of the crusade, to first contact with the Blood Pact. The perspective is that of the Warmaster’s Argentum, his personal bodyguards. Also, it’s Warmaster Slaydo, not Macaroth as it is in Gaunt’s novels. Slaydo is brilliantly rendered, and it’s not hard at all to believe that such a general would instil such loyalty in his men.

His prose drag you on through the story, and you go willingly. Bowden’s description of events and characters is enough to paint a vivid picture without distracting from the tale being told. He also has a bit of a dark sense of humour, which is entirely welcome.

Utterly brilliant and satisfying, if this story doesn’t make you buy the author’s other work… well, I just wouldn’t believe you have good taste.

“The Iron Star”, by Dan Abnett

This is the first Gaunt’s Ghosts novella in the anthology, and it’s quite a different type of story than you might expect. Like a drug-fuelled dream sequence (if filmed, it might be in the style of The Sopranos or Max Payne), this is set in the aftermath of Only In Death, which preceded Blood Pact.

It’s a strange read, but it became clear relatively early on what was going on, and it’s well constructed and written. An original story, from an unusual perspective, it adds something very different to other Gaunt’s Ghosts stories.

“Cell”, by Nik Vincent

Resistance fighters are staging an insurgency on an Archenemy-occupied world, Reredos. Vincent gives us a glimpse into the brutal, short lives of guerrilla resistance fighters and their struggles against the occupying enemy (presented as truly repellent animals), and clandestine forces within. The insurgents are not only trying to keep their life and creed alive, but do anything to hinder the operations of the occupying forces.

It’s a great story, and the author has a gift for portraying the hostile and tense atmosphere. (Don’t want to give anything else away, so I won’t go into any more detail.)

The story has a lot in common with Traitor General, which covers a lot of the same insurgency-themes and an ill-equipped force’s struggles against an occupying force.

“Blueblood”, by Nick Kyme

This story takes the Imperial Guard Volpone 50th “Bluebloods” and brings them front and centre. A long-standing, bitter rivalry has existed between the Bluebloods and Ghosts since their first appearance in Ghostmaker.

Regara, the regimental leader of the Bluebloods at the centre of this story, is an arrogant, quite obnoxious bastard. It makes for a refreshing change in perspective to be rooting for a regiment that are arrogant in the extreme.

His distaste for his assignment, his non-Volpone colleagues, his location, everything (shared by his subordinates) is palpable. This is a man with high standards and a very high opinion of himself. Nonetheless, the garrison is slowly going crazy: guardsmen suddenly turning on their comrades, and the Bluebloods take it upon themselves to solve the mystery and put a stop to the madness. They are led to discover a cunning and unexpected plot, one that could hold dire consequences for the Sabbat Crusades as a whole.

Kyme realises the world and characters deftly on the page, and his prose draw you on through the story. The Volpone are aristocratic, but anything but foppish. They have a cold, viscious streak that breeds results but also resentment.

It’s a very good story, with a great ending and a great sense of the characters he’s created – one thinks the events of the story might in some way change the regiment’s outlook, but if it does it is only minutely.

“A Good Man”, by Sandy Mitchell

Sandy Mitchell writes a WH40k series – the Ciaphas Cain novels – that many perhaps think would not appeal, let alone belong in the universe. Mitchell’s novels are written with a subversive humour at its core, and I eagerly wanted to see what he would do in this setting. While “A Good Man” is not as overtly funny as the Cain novels, it has a charm all its own.

The story is set on Verghast, in the aftermath of events chronicled in Necropolis, the third Ghosts novel. A munitorum scribe, Linder, has been sent to Verghast to help restore the place to working order. He is set the task of sifting through and organising and repairing reams of paperwork that have been backed up, damaged, lost, misfiled, and so on. It takes a special mind to do this without going nuts, and Linder is exactly the right person – he is fussy, slightly prissy, and fastidious in his work. A friend has gone missing, however, and he is drawn into the Arbites investigation, complete with some surprising and – for a scribe – unconscionable accusations.

All the great elements of a classic noir crime thriller are here – a dame, a hard-working cop, a betrayal, and a tricky case to crack. Mitchell’s done a great job of writing a story with a different feel for the WH40k universe, and has once again shown us the broad scope of his considerable writing talent.

“Of Their Lives in the Ruins of their Cities”, by Dan Abnett

This is the entirely new Gaunt’s Ghosts novella. As Abnett’s introduction suggests, this is a pretty special story, and one that can easily be spoiled by too much description.

Needless to say, Abnett keeps getting better with each new Ghosts story. Blood Pact is one of my favourite books from 2009, and this story – set early on the Tanith First & Only’s history, is written to the same, very high standard. I can’t wait for the next Ghosts novel, and this has only made me more eager to find out what happens next. Equally, the story’s made me want to re-start the series over again (it’s over a decade, after all, since I last read the first few novels).

This is an excellent sci-fi short, with expertly portrayed action, excellent characters (admittedly benefiting from familiarity), and a great premise. Abnett’s writing is brilliant, of course, with a real eye for detail, pacing, characterisation, and atmosphere.


*     *     *

Overall, this is a great collection of short stories, in a setting that many fans of Warhammer 40,000 fiction will be familiar with. To see how some of the Black Library’s best authors have approached the worlds, units and characters created by Abnett is both interesting and entertaining, adding another layer to an already intricate and well-realised universe. Dan should be both proud of his overall creation, and also pleased that he’s influenced so many writers.

I’m not as keen on short stories as I used to be. I’ve become far more enamoured by full-length novels – the chance to sink into a narrative, get to know the characters… it appeals to me (something I’ve exactly not kept hidden, considering this blog…). Short stories always seem insufficient and sometimes incomplete. Black Library shorts, however, still hold considerable interest for me. Not only are they of top quality, but they remind me of the Inferno! years, when I would eagerly await the latest bimonthly collection of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000-related fiction (indeed, I think I may still have my favourite issue lying about, somewhere). This was before the first Gaunt’s Ghosts or Gotrek & Felix novel was published, but it fired my interest in fantasy and science fiction at the time, and I’ve retained a strong fondness for the settings ever since. It was in Inferno! that I first stumbled across Gaunt’s Ghosts, and I’ve been an ardent follower of Abnett’s ever since. To get two more shorts in this anthology was great, and also nostalgic.

The other work in here is also excellent, and should certainly appeal to all fans of the series. I think we know that many people will get this for Abnett’s two contributions, but there is so much in here to interest fans of the WH40k universe. If you give these authors and their stories a chance, you will not be disappointed and, if it makes you seek out other novels by the authors herein, then it will have fulfilled a great purpose.

Not perfect, but still highly recommended, The Sabbat Worlds anthology will help tide you over until the next Gaunt’s Ghosts novel is released, as well as expand your image and understanding of the setting Abnett has created – a setting that has been hugely influential to all authors currently writing fiction set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Long may he continue to inspire others, and long may some of his comrades in this collection continue to entertain humble sci-fi fans the world over.

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