Monday, 4 January 2016

The True Meaning of Slaughter - What M32 Means To Black Library

While we've yet to cover it in full on this blog, Black Library has recently followed through on an exceptional idea. After spending the last twenty or so years focusing almost exclusively upon either the very beginning or very end of the Imperium's timeline, we're now starting to see novels fleshing out everything in between. In this particular case we're seeing a detailed account of the war against The Beast, where a massive Ork WAAAGH! almost brought the Imperium to its knees. While we have, of course, had a few other novels performing similar roles, this series is a real opportunity to see something new and very different. Perhaps even correcting a few mistakes made while the Horus Heresy was being penned.

As rightfully loved and lauded as the Horus Heresy novels are, there's a few notable problems which arose as the story developed. Some were down largely to the source material, working off of the backbone of the Index Astartes, while others came about thanks to the authors themselves. Starting with the former first, it's hardly a lie to say that the series is very internally focused. Almost the entirety of the Heresy itself is built upon the Imperium's civil war, focusing upon the battle between the legions themselves and the conflicting ideologies. Now, this is hardly a bad thing in of itself. The Heresy was best known as a time where brother turned against brother, an era where the hope of humanity was all but extinguished and the Emperor's white lies were gradually snuffed out. Events were shown through human (or, more often, transhuman) eyes, as the concepts of Chaos were revealed to them. 

The Heresy worked because the Heresy was an inwardly told story, built upon articles where  Warhammer was told from an exclusively human perspective. This said, its greatest strength was also its Achilles' heel, as it meant many other factions missed out on the action. While we saw how humanity gradually developed into the techno-feudal fascist nightmare of the far future, we saw nothing of the other races. For all anyone knew, the Craftworld Eldar, Dark Eldar, Ork WAAAGHs! and minor races like the hrud or others were unchanging. We saw little of how they were back in these eras, and the few fleeting times when the story did allow for a xenos' perspective, there was no difference between the aliens now and then. The Beast Arises saga meanwhile, is set to correct this. Along with one of the big players being the orks, future novels have already established the involvement of several alien races, in particular the eldar of an unknown craftworld.

Having more xenos perspectives will help in two regards. The first, and most obvious, is that this allows for more inclusive stories. Rather than being largely astartes dominated, we'll be seeing a wider variety of factions getting in on the action, with better representation of the setting as a whole. The other, however, is that we will get an alien response to the Heresy itself. In galactic terms, humanity sprung up effectively overnight, drove multiple races into extinction in a massed crusade, crippled countless alien empires, then abruptly jackknifed into one of the most violent internal wars in galactic history. Something so massive, so sudden and dramatic as those two events should have left a lasting impression if not a direct impact upon many races. Perhaps the eldar now see humanity as a loose cannon, and the orks see the Imperium as a foe truly worthy of their time. Perhaps this could have even changed their societies, with the eldar becoming even more guarded and isolated following the event. Hell, perhaps the very reason the titular Beast is waging his war is thanks to the Horus Heresy inspiring him to wage a bigger war. We never did learn just how old that particular ork was, after all.

The above is also just considering the direct impact, driven by humanity itself. There might also have been cultural shifts among certain eldar craftworlds, the hrud might have undergone a ideological or religious revolution, and the orks might have been pushed further into tribalism thanks to their wars. Due to its era, there's a real opportunity here to truly emphasize the age and history of the galaxy, and give real signs of internal change among various societies. The lack of such change is, after all, one of several problems which led to the setting often appearing stagnant, with stories offering little in the way of real change to species over ten thousand years. This is actually just as true of the Imperium as it is many xenos races, and a failing which seems to have gradually set into the Horus Heresy books.

When you actually stop to compare certain Heresy books with others, you might notice an unfortunate issue. While certain authors can pick up on certain changes and shifts in attitudes, others seem to stick to what they know. If you stop to compare the Luna Wolves of Horus Rising with the Blood Angels of Fear To Tread, they seem as if they're worlds apart from one another. The less disciplined nature, tactics and mentality of the Luna Wolves reflected a time before the Codex Astartes or a darker age, but compare the Blood Angels with their M41 selves and there's no difference. They're just as driven, just as disciplined, hell, they're even trying to hide the same curses. This same problem arose across several books, where multiple legions seemed identical to their chapters ten thousand years later, with the Space Wolves of Battle for the Abyss often cited as a key example of this problem. The result of writing factions like this is that it can be hard to believe centuries have passed since the Heresy, let alone thousands of years. Even if the writing reflects events such as the breaking up of the legions or the deaths of the primarchs, if a military force's thoughts, beliefs and attitudes remain the same, it's hard to register any long-term changes. The opening of I Am Slaughter already shows that the series will be going some way to address this, and even show a transitional phase between older and newer styles of astartes.

The title of I Am Slaughter refers to a tradition within the Imperial Fists chapter. During battle, during conflicts, the warriors have this almost ritualistic habit of naming themselves after defining abilities or traits. This leads to Tactical Squads with nicknames such as Kill-Shot or Ironside, and even a few general attitudes which seem oddly out of character for space marines. Such elements can at first seem too human, too much like a traditional military force, until you consider the era. As this is a mere few hundred years since the Codex was implemented, these aren't quite the astartes who will be facing down Hive Fleet Behemoth or confronting Trazyn the Infinite. No, instead these are chapters who still retain traces of an era where they were more human, and odd traditions such as this reflect this transitional phase. 

Think of it for a moment - Something like defining nicknames are a trait more at home within the Imperial Guard or more conventionally human military. It makes sense that the older legions would retain this given their laxer nature and more human mental state. Seeing it here, used among the almost machine-like templars and treated as a venerated tradition reflects the warriors they have become. They are already glorifying older days, taking such aspects previously freely given as a sign of affection or trust, and turning it into an almost sacrosanct ritual. While not taken to the extremes we'll later see with the Black Templars or others, it's nevertheless a starting point where you can see the chapter changing over time.

Other internal traditions and aspects within the Imperial Fists also arise within the book, often completely unlike anything seen in M41 or the Great Crusade. For example, the naming conventions of their units after fortifications is something wholly new, but nevertheless quite understandable. This is set in an era where the Imperial Fists are the eternal guardians of Terra, and have been manning its walls of centuries. After that time, it's understandable that their internal structure would change to reflect this service or perhaps even what they saw as their finest hour. With the growing threats which would follow, and the chapter departing Terra to fight on other worlds, it then becomes understandable how this might diminish again over time, replaced by something more relevant. It's change within the chapter itself, its very identity and society, and one which shows them evolving to suit their era. 

There's certainly more to this, but we'll be saving that for the review of I Am Slaughter itself. For the moment though, what this book and The Beast Arises means to Black Library is change. Like the books itself, it's a gateway for authors to try something different, something unseen since Gav Thrope penned Codex: Sisters of Battle, and experiment with how well established factions could be altered over time. It's a chance to be freed up from some past depictions and present the thought processes of a different era, and present developing events on a truly galactic scale. Ultimately, more than anything else, it's a chance for Black Library to give something fans have always wanted: A new era to explore, but without the problems of pushing past M41. 


  1. I'm going to be honest, while I'm really happy that Black Library is going somewhere other than M42 and M31, I'm more curious what the other races were doing at that time. This is a time when the Eldar are still trying to find a way to recover from the birth of Slaanesh, the Dark Eldar are still in the process of being made into what they are later, and some of the first Necron Tombs might have woken up (specifically Trazyn the Infinite might be awake).

    At least as far as the Imperium goes, you still have a lot of interesting stories to explore, for example I'd really be interested in even a short story about the trial of Inquisitor Xanthus, and the birth of radical Inquisitors.

    Hopefully in future novels we'll be able so see some of those, however if The Beast Arises series as a whole turns out to be pretty good I'll check it out too.

    1. In all honesty, i'm personally glad they're actually pushing towards it more now. They have been experimenting with looking into M42 with Battle of the Fang and the Talon of Horus, but this is the first serious push to look right into the big events. The previous stuff, while extremely well written, focused more upon individual important events rather than something at the heart of the Imperium itself. Fair point about the Necron Tombs though, i'd forgotten a few were already up and about at this time.

      The only concern I seriously have, personally, is that the series has started off playing very fast and loose with the canon. I Am Slaughter had its interesting points, but it contradicted a lot of stuff and seemed extremely rushed. Really do hope that Rob Sanders and Ben Counter can make up for it.

    2. I can forgive them forgetting things depending on how they're done. If it's just somebody somewhere, even some random Space Marines somewhere, then it's understandable that they might not even know about things like the Black Crusades, however if it's just the narrative saying "The galaxy is at peace" or somebody important like one of the High Lords then that's a lot less excusable.