|The coming storm (copyright Games Workshop)|
It is difficult for us, uncommonly bald apes that we are, to fully grasp the nature of space combat. Forty-three thousand years ago, we charged across open plains at our foes, waving our copper swords. Fighting in two dimensions. Knowing the valleys and the river mouths and the mountain passes through which our enemies might file in order to defeat us.
As the centuries passed, war grew and became more complicated. Sailing ships slid out of sight of land, as the fear of creatures from the depths became outweighed by the tactical advantages of murdering your enemies in places they never expected to be murdered. But the basic truth remained: the enemy could only ever come from over the horizon. Even when our talents for devising new weapons gave us submersible warships and flying machines, we could still comprehend what we faced. Our ancestors once lived their lives amongst the foliage, we understood threats that could come from above or below.
There is no "above" or "below" in space, not once a ship glides from a planet's grasp. Once that planet no longer fills our windows, an attack can come from anywhere. And we simply cannot cope. Full, total three-dimensional war is simply not something we are capable of comprehending. Thousands of automated systems and sensor clusters strain to reduce the infinite sphere of the void into a space we can deal with. We simply cannot deal with the complexity unaided.
Or at least, we cannot cope whilst visualising the process as armed combat. But a far older and far more futile struggle provides a near-perfect analogy for our aggressors: viral infection.
It is not just our star fleets which must face enemies hidden from our gaze by simply being so much smaller than what surrounds us that we cannot realistically hope to see them coming. Planetary defence forces are less soldiers defending fortifications than they are white blood cells waiting to be surrounded without warning.
In short, invading space fleets operate as a disease, a contagion, the vector through which a race spreads itself across a hotly-contested galaxy. Which is a rather apt thought when it comes to the Death Guard, of course, given their eventual fate. As we begin these discussions of the final days of the XIV Legion as loyalists, it's sensible to consider another vector, as Mortarion's sons begin their drift into the arms of Nurgle. With so disgusting a deity, as we have argued before, it can be difficult to understand why anyone might volunteer to become his servant.
Here, though, this isn't really the case, and not just because if anyone might fully appreciate the increased toughness offered by Nurgle it would be dedicated warriors. It took us a great deal of work to understand devotion to Nurgle amongst the cultists hidden within the Imperium, and we only managed that by viewing the idea as a bleak form of insurance against a nightmarish universe. No such convoluted logic is needed with the Death Guard's fall to the Lord of Pestilence. Even if we strip away their obsession with poison and their disinterest in dressing up death as anything more noble or honourable than an ugly inevitability, their entire stated purpose forces them into a parallel path with the phagocyte; those other factors simply made them the most obvious targets. We may never know to what extent the prideful Death Guard allowed themselves to be warped by Nurgle and to what extent it was forced upon them, but if the change was not voluntary, it was only a disagreement of what they had become adn what they were becoming. The general direction of their fall was never in doubt.
Indeed, it may well be that in some respects the outbreak of the Heresy and its consequent shift of the their role from crusading conquerors to ever-pressed defenders was the salvation of those Astartes who remained loyal. Pathogens were spreading. The Imperium was infecting, and it was becoming infected. Everything becomes sick and dies unless the universe conspires to kill it first. In the final analysis, it may be that the Heresy's greatest effect was to stop the galaxy succumbing to our infection rather than someone else's.
As ever, though, we are getting ahead of ourselves. Before the Death Guard can become plague-bearers of a very different type, we have many miles to go and many places to visit.
We shall begin on the bottle-world of the jorgall.
How are you finding the world according to Kaleb? You've mentioned before a lamentable lack of human viewpoint characters. Is Garro's housecarl doing the job you were hoping for? And what about this idea of having servants that failed to become Astartes themselves?
He's definitely fulfilling the role I hoped Petronella was going to, before she turned out to be first awful and then dead. It really drives home the elitist attitude the Astartes have. Is it my imagination, or is he bowing and scraping more around the other Astartes than he is Garro?
Quite possibly. But that's probably not unusual with master-servant relationships. Although what do I know, really. I'm basing this on Jeeves and Wooster. Which might be the best idea for a crossover ever, but it's a shaky foundation for extrapolating working relationships.
So does everyone go through an Astartes test? Well, every man?
No. You've got to be a pretty kick-ass warrior just to get to the point of the trials.
So do many people fail the trials? I can't imagine the Legion needs all that many housecarls.
Indeed not. There's other, less rewarding options available too.
Robots. Well, cyborg servitors, but let's not get picky. I like to think there's a second test where those who've failed the first test find out who gets to be servants and who get to be lobotomised.
No wonder Kaleb loves his job so much.
This is the first book in the series that doesn't directly follow from the previous novel. Are you happy about backtracking like this and seeing things from a new angle? Or are you impatient to get to whatever happens next?
I'm fine with backtracking. All that fantasy reading has primed me for book series that suddenly lurch backwards. And better this than a big jump forwards. That's really annoying.
The title here doesn't exactly hide what this novel is going to be about. Just out of interest, is this the dangling thread from Galaxy in Flames you're most interested in exploring? Or is there something else you'd rather had been covered first?
I did wonder if you were going to ask me that. Let's see... you've got the upcoming shenanigans on Istvaan V, the Word Bearers attacking the Ultramarines at Calth, whatever secret plan Horus has to deal with Sanguinius, and what happened between Fulgrim and Ferrus Manus.
I think this is a fine choice. The Death Guard don't feel as well-explored as the Luna Wolves, or the Emperor's Children. They can have their own book.
You don't want to see more from the Emperor's Children?
Nope. They're dicks.
Try telling that to Tarvitz.
Tarvitz is dead. The survivors are all dicks. And we've just had a tremendously depressing conclusion to the last book. Do we really want to hand the next book over to a gaggle of arseholes?
I see. That doesn't explain why you're not interested in more Blood Angels, though.
I'd rather see them in a multi-book story, though.
Why does that disqualify them here?
You said the next few books are standalone.
Not standalone. There just aren't any more multi-part stories without other books in the middle.
But that's a terrible idea!
So it's no Emperor's Children books, and no multi-book stories with gaps in between. Man, you're going to hate the next two books after this. Especially since one of them is just awful.
It's early days, obviously, but Swallow has a very different prose style to Counter. Are you enjoying the sudden outbreak of literacy? Or does he need to come to the point?
I did think it was going too slowly to begin with, but I'm getting into it now. It's nice. I like finally feeling like there's enough description of what we're seeing. It's nice and eloquent.
In the last book, you - entirely reasonably - complained that we learned almost nothing about Mortarion. Has this opening chapter helped in that regard? And to what extent would it be sensible to keep Mortarion mysterious?
There's still not much there, is there. I mean, obviously he's death. They're not even trying to hide that. But other than that, what do we know? That he likes to hide in the shadows?
That's my point, though. If you want keep someone a mystery, there's a low ceiling on what you can show. Just the occasional detail, like how he keeps sniffing at gases rising from his chest. I like to think it's Vick's VapoRub.
I guess we'll have to see. Not about the VapoRub; that's just silly. But about the mysteriousness. It depends how long they try to spin it out.
Any thoughts on our newest faction, the Sisters of Silence?
It deels a bit like a token. That's about the only thing I'm even partially sure of at this point. They could be warriors, or shamans, or anything. No idea. But they look like tokens. And it's interesting that they're linking women with the forbidden.
Yeah. Yeah, that might go wrong.