When we went to the UK in April we stayed at my boyfriend’s Dad’s house. On the first evening my boyfriend disappeared upstairs and returned with a battered old ex-library paperback. This was 40K tie-in fiction, but unlike any that I had seen before. Long before there was the Horus Heresy series, or even Black Library, there was Deathwing.
Black Library have released an updated version of Deathwing, with three new stories and carefully edited to remove any mention of the “S” word. This review is about the 1993 edition though, so if you want to know about Pestilence, Suffer not the Unclean to Live, or Unforgiven, you’re out of luck this time.
The age of this book really shows itself with the cover, and the picture of the brooding Dark Angel is of its time. The stories inside have generally held up fairly well though, and you could probably slip a few of them into a modern Black Library anthology without much tweaking. There are however several major things that struck me as being different from modern Black Library fiction.
- Space Marines have changed! They’re more like augmented humans than the post-humans that they are portrayed as these days (if that makes sense). They grow old for a start, which is a major plot point in Deathwing the short story.
- There’s more “sensual” stuff. These days Black Library tends to leave it at vague suggestions and people caught in bed. It’s much more obvious in this book, and particularly in Warped Stars, which is uncomfortably squishy.
- Tastes have changed. Again, Warped Stars is the best example of this. There are pea-green and lavender marines and an inquisitor who is dressed in a long silver furred kilt (what?) an iridescent cuirass and a red cloak (eep!) (page 61).
As the stories are all variable in quality and datedness it’s probably fair if I go over them one by one.
The first story in the book is Deathwing by Bryan Ansell and William King. The story is about the foundation of the Dark Angels’ elite Terminators. While the portrayal of the marines is a bit dated, the Dark Angels in question are old guys coming home for one last time, the story itself is a classic 40K based tale. It’s a really enjoyable, rereadable story.
I’m not so keen on the second story, Warped Stars by Ian Watson. I’ve already mentioned two reasons. The characters all have very questionable taste. I know that the 41st Millennium is melodramatic, but some of it is pure pantomime (in the rather bad village pantomime Widow Twankey kind of way). Watson’s descriptions are also a bit… well… different. I’d say unique, but I’m sure that there’s plenty of similarly poorly written erotic fiction out there on the web.
Lacrymata, also involves sex in the story although in a far more subtle and less embarrassing way. The story is by Storm Constantine, who I don’t know much about, although she appears from Wikipedia, to be a fairly prolific science fiction writer. The story is from the perspective of a Navigator and narrates his relationship with a mysterious female astropath. I like this story, my boyfriend doesn’t. It’s a bit different, but I think that it works.
Almost the first thing I noticed when I first picked up this book was the author who wrote the next story, Monastery of Death. In fact, he’s one of my favourite authors and I’d just finished reading one of his books (Rule 34). Charles Stross doesn’t mention this story in his bibliography, but there surely can’t be two authors out there with that name and the style is undoubtedly his. It’s notcomparable (or as dark) as some of his more modern short fiction but it is a good story and if somebody were to put it in a modern 40K anthology it would fit in seamlessly. The story involves a newly rediscovered world, on which sits the titular monastery and the monks within, who are worried about the approaching Imperium and what they bring. Tweak it a bit and it would even fit in a Horus Heresy anthology!
Another story that would only require a little tweaking to be considered a “modern” story is Seed of Doubt by Neil McIntosh. The tweaking in question being the use of Squats in the story. The story involves a shipwrecked Inquisitorial band and a ghost town and is again pretty good.
It’s getting a bit repetitive this, but yes, The Devil’s Marauders is another good story that stands up well. This time The Guard take centre stage. It’s the second William King story in the anthology too.
The final story is the longest and is by Ian Watson again. Fortunately it’s a lot better than Warped Stars. The Alien Beast Within is not my favourite story in this book, and confirms that Watson’s style is just not for me, but it’s not bad and Meh’Lindi is a sympathetic protagonist.
Over all Deathwing is well worth reading if you can find a copy. Sometimes it feels a little bit dated and the quality is a little uneven, but the latter can be said about more modern 40K anthologies. It’s a little piece of Warhammer 40K related history and as a relative newcomer to the hobby it’s nice to get an idea of what the game (or at least the fictional universe) used to be like.