Reviews of “Deathwing” (1990) and related work

“Deathwing” (1990Text)

Bryan Ansell (writer), William King (writer).

Read in the eponymous short fiction anthology.

Quasi-Native American Dark Angels return to the world from whence they were recruited and find their childhood tribal culture destroyed.

I bought the book at Helges håla, the local game shop in Växjö, in 2001. The shop existed from 1995 to 2014. Noting my thoughts on the contents to get rid of the book in 2018, the store sticker on the back brought back fond memories of my early contact with Warhammer 40,000 (40K), mediated by Janne and Pia Helge.

This particular story is not a fond memory, but it is the oldest conventional piece of fiction in the 40K franchise that I can review under this site’s editorial policy. The setting is an interesting patchwork. Its foundation is second-edition Warhammer, a uchronian pseudo-medieval wargame that was itself a patchwork, made to let 1970s nerds compete with miniatures from different companies. The creator of 40K, Rick Priestley, took Tolkien’s species out of the fantasy setting and dropped them in front of a science-fiction backdrop, ranging from Dune (1965) to Nemesis the Warlock (1980) and other 2000 AD schlock. Gradually, good writers polished up the product to the point where the company that produced it, Games Workshop, could spend decades synergistically designing beautiful artwork, miniatures, lore and more conventional fiction like this story.

text fiction

“Devil’s Marauders” (1990Text)

William King (writer).

text same source material fiction

“Lacrymata” (1990Text)

Storm Constantine (writer).

Gothic-Romantic horror. The two elite psychics seem insufficiently marked by their necessarily extreme life experiences.

text same source material fiction

“Monastery of Death” (1990Text)

Charles Stross (writer).

In the 16 years that passed between my first and second readings of this story I had forgotten that Charlie Stross once wrote for 40K. He tries to bring his usual unsentimental hard-SF acumen to the setting here, but stops at the suggestion, in the very last lines, that an order of monks on a feudal backwater world maintains a relatively intact “STC source”. There is none of the dizzying quality of uncontrolled development that made Stross’s later work famous.

References here: Singularity Sky (2003).

text same source material fiction

“Seed of Doubt” (1990Text)

Neil McIntosh (writer).

text same source material fiction

“The Alien Beast Within” (1990Text)

Ian Watson (writer).

Through surgery, a Callidus assassin is disguised as a Genestealer hybrid.

It’s got some interesting asides but the premise is stupid and the protagonist’s body is more sexualized than what is good for the story.

text same source material fiction

“Warped Stars” (1990Text)

Ian Watson (writer).

text same source material fiction

“Pestilence” (2001Text)

Dan Abnett (writer).

An Imperial recollector interviews the survivor of a Chaos incursion for clues when the same threat returns.

Despite not appearing in the relatively early first edition of the Deathwing anthology, this is the finest illustration of Games Workshop’s early vision of 40K that I have seen in a short story. It hits all the right notes: full of colour and character like the contemporary fantasy version of Warhammer, yet suitably grimdark, deftly combining personal and impersonal scales. I do not know when it first appeared in Inferno! before being published in the second edition of Deathwing.

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“Suffer Not the Unclean to Live” (2001Text)

Gav Thorpe (writer).

Thankfully, this particular story contradicts the general pattern of space opera by taking an interest in the downtrodden masses. I do not know when it first appeared in Inferno! before being published in the second edition of Deathwing.

text same source material fiction

“Unforgiven” (2001Text)

Graham McNeill (writer).

Space opera with a lot of action. I do not know when it first appeared in Inferno! before being published in the second edition of Deathwing.

text same source material fiction

Damnatus: The Enemy Within (2008Moving picture, 108 minutes)

Seen in 2014.

40K fan film. Terribly dull and largely unnecessary action sequences, but a more intelligent script than I had feared, and better special effects.

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Astartes (2018Moving picture, 10 minutes)

Seen in 2020.

This review refers to the first run, 2018–2020.

A one-man fan film project, made with exacting care, sincerity and ingenuity.

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The Wicked and the Damned (2019Text)

Read in 2021.

Three people tell their stories in a cemetery watched over by creeping servitors.

An anthology patterned after old portmanteau horror films. The three novelettes in it are effectively independent, but they are held together by more than just the interludes of the framing device. The twist ending of that framing device (all three main people are dead) is easily predicted, but it is not what ties the stories together. In fact, in all three, the main characters force servitors, the setting’s near-undead cyborg automatons, to do their dirty work, so where they end up is supposed to be poetic justice. That’s not really clever, and it comes without any meaningful worldbuilding as to how servitors work—compare the habermans of “Scanners Live in Vain” (1950)—but it’s better than most portmanteau horror films.


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“Perdition’s Flame” (2019Text)

Alec Worley (writer).

Read in 2021.

I read the audiobook, and there is nothing else. Despite being listed on Goodreads etc., this narrative as read would not work in text form. It is marketed, appropriately, as an audio drama, where the actors perform a scripted play.

A solitary Vostroyan Guardsman tells the story of his brief involvement with the Ordo Chronos of the Inquisition.

Derivative writing and indifferent acting by the Black Library’s regulars.

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The House of Night and Chain (2019Text)

David Annandale (writer).

Read in 2022.

A colonel in the Astra Militarum, traumatized by an expensive victory-of-sorts against the Tyranids, is sent to clean up his own home planet, a minor agricultural colony, which the colonel’s clan has long governed.

A Gothic novel for 40K. The prose and the premises are OK, but the novel provides neither a good look at the setting, nor an exciting plot. In particular, the author relies on Maeson Strock as a narrator made unreliable by epistemically slippery hallucinations, which eventually voids the so-called contract with the reader.

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