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 supersoldiers of the “Dark Angels” chapter 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 Medieval fantasy setting and dropped them in front of a science-fiction backdrop, ranging from Dune (1965) and the Tragic Millennium of The Jewel in the Skull (1967) to then-recent 2000 AD schlock like Nemesis the Warlock (1980). 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.

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“Devil’s Marauders” (1990Text)

William King (writer).

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“Lacrymata” (1990Text)

Storm Constantine (writer).

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

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“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).

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“Seed of Doubt” (1990Text)

Neil McIntosh (writer).

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“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.

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“Warped Stars” (1990Text)

Ian Watson (writer).

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“Blood for the Blood God” (1996Moving picture, 2 minutes)

Seen in 2023.

Space Marines have captured an Ork Boss, but something’s amiss.

Released on the same half-hour promo reel, this one has neither the plotting of “Inquisitor” (1996) nor the cool visuals of “Hive Infestation” (1996). The Orks are in their 1st/2nd edition designs, but although these designs are deliberately goofy, the Orks are correctly heard speaking an unintelligible conlang, with their comic slang English appearing only in subtitles and barely that.

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“Hive Infestation” (1996Moving picture, 2 minutes)

Seen in 2023.

Space Wolves Terminators fight a Genestealer cult in the alleys of a hive city.

Released on the same promo reel as “Inquisitor” (1996), this one is visually superior but has no real plot or dramatic structure, just a sequence of marketable imagery. The actual movie was never greenlit.

References here: “Blood for the Blood God” (1996).

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“Inquisitor” (1996Moving picture, 25 minutes)

Seen in 2023.

Inquisitor Krieger goes on a questionable mission with Captain Darius of the Dark Angels Chapter.

A proof of concept for a promo reel, but an officially licensed production nonetheless, with the goofier designs of second-edition Warhammer 40,000.

References here: “Blood for the Blood God” (1996), “Hive Infestation” (1996).

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“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.

You don’t need any background for this story, but as a quick note, the Warhammer settings got their idea of “Chaos” from two loosely interconnected works by Michael Moorcock. The name itself and the eight-pointed star that symbolizes Chaos are from Moorcock’s fantasy stories about Elric of Melniboné. Moorcock’s opposing force, Order, didn’t quite make it into 40K. As far as I can tell, having four gods of Chaos is based on Moorcock’s four “ancient gods of Granbretan” in the science fantasy of the Tragic Millennium: Jhone (John), Jhorg (George), Phowl (Paul) and Rhunga (Richard, better known in the Beatles as Ringo). The Warhammer version is silly, but not that silly. It crystalized in “Realm of Chaos”, a 1990 series of sourcebooks that was the capstone of Bryan Ansell’s time as managing director at Games Workshop.

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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.

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“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.

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Horus Rising (2006Text)

Dan Abnett (writer).

Read in 2023.

Garviel Loken, a transhuman senior officer of the Luna Wolves Legion, is promoted to a position near Horus Lupercal. The same Horus is one year into his own promotion to Warmaster, hand-picked by the Emperor to subjugate and integrate all human settlements, no matter how proud and beautiful.

This is the first of a series of 60+ novels detailing an event—the Horus Heresy—that did not exist in Rogue Trader (1987), the original version of 40K as a setting. The event ended 10 000 years before the current setting’s “present” time, so even by the standards of 40K, this is a spin-off into a retcon in a remote time of legend.

I’m not going to be reading the whole series, and I don’t think this novel is a very good intro to 40K, but there is still plenty in it that I find rewarding as a long-time fan. The veteran writer Abnett does a good job of it, except for one ugly cliffhanger:

What happened next didn’t make either of them laugh at all.

Abnett emphasizes the dignity and intelligence of the Astartes alongside their ugly zeal and brutality. The problem is that the series revolves around the Primarchs, 20 or 21 men who are not interesting: All implausibly abducted as infants, all surviving alone, all seeding oddly tiny legions of large little brothers, all socialized into stylized societies and developing stylized personalities and superpowers that remind me of 1950s US comic books. It’s an extreme, operatic caricature of familial male-to-male relationships and it is not a good premise. Abnett’s Astartes, however carefully rendered, are really there as witnesses to the boring Freudian conflict between the Primarchs and their emotionally distant dad.

40K the game was better when the loyalist Primarchs were all lost or dead in the 41st millennium, because it was then possible to interpret the legends of the Primarchs as myths, irrelevant and likely false. However, Games Workshop writers started bringing them back into the “present” of the early 42nd millennium in the seventh edition of the game, confirming that each legend was accurate all along. Horus Rising is one of the early efforts in that direction, casting light on a premise that could only work in shadow.

The animosity that would grow into civil war, including Horus’s own doubts about the Emperor, is realistic. In that way it is disconnected from the obviousness of supernatural evil. It’s an interesting detail that the novel tries to be so morally grey, even after Loken fights a demon who is morally black. Only the Interex, in this novel, call Chaos/Kaos “evil”, while at other times, the creatures of the Warp are contextualized as a form of natural life, virtually unknown.

I think the pretense to grey morality is an inappropriate artifact of Games Workshop’s goal to keep every faction in the game able to fight every other. This is something the studio has traditionally achieved by making them all bad boys with some vaguely sympathetic streak. That works on the tabletop, where each player can see the other through the lens of their own faction’s biases, but it does not work in such a long series as this one, where the factions start out as friends. I don’t buy Erebus; he’s supposed to be a cool rebel and simultaneously a pawn of colourful horror baddies, but he doesn’t make sense either way. Loken the indoctrinated quasi-late-Roman officer on the frontier, with his “Bohemian” Remembrancer buddies, is much more fun.

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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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