Thursday, 26 January 2017

The Howling Ship by Josh Reynolds (Warhammer 40,000 Short Story Review)

Fabius Bile is a character infamous in Warhammer 40,000 for being written in every way possible. While the setting is truly malleable and almost any figure can be shown in a different light, this is often taken to extremes with Bile. Graham McNeill took his mad scientist ways to an absolute extreme in the Horus Heresy, James Swallow turned him into a brilliantly scheming maniac on par with Victor Von Doom himself, and Nick Kyme created a monstrous but tortured man driven to the brink of insanity. This is hardly a bad thing as it allows for more freedom on the author's part and some true gems of creativity to emerge just as the setting seems to have settled on a single idea. With this said, The Howling Ship follows an unusual take on the character, and one few would expect.

The story here follows the events on board an Inquisitorial Black Ship as it transports a cargo hold full of rogue telepaths back to Terra among them are two unique passengers, in the form of Inquisitor Borja and his captive psyker Suhl Osman, also known as the Howling Man. However, Osman is no simple heretic or untrained psyker, but one crafted by another mind. Specifically by someone who desires the return of their creation long before the vessel reaches Terra...

Due to its brief length and focus, it shouldn't surprise you that this is very much a character piece. While there are sparks of action and bursts of gunfire, it doesn't delve into the usual high calibre bolter porn fans usually expect from these books. This definitely serves the story better as a result though, working through its ominous atmosphere and characters to deliver a brief but memorable tale. Much of this is conveyed through the descriptions of the environments or the people involved, hinging upon certain aspects which emphasise a darker, grimier and far more archaic depiction of the Imperium than most are used to. While the book doesn't spend paragraphs at a time to emphasise this, fleeting mentions of the state of the ship's equipment or the features of certain secondary characters are enough to keep the reader on edge. Well, that and Borja's impending death.

Rather than trying to hide the fact the Imperium will fail, the story makes this clear from the start. Sticking to a non-linear format, it switches back and forth between the initial stages of boarding the vessel, slowly seeing things going wrong, and then being confronted by Bile himself. When Borja is introduced, he is face down against the deck plates, all but crippled and with his pistol out of his reach. This works to keep the reader hooked because almost anyone could guess that Bile would proceed to meeting the Inquisitor face to face and overpower him in their confrontation. By removing this false suspense and focusing instead upon how the story reached that point, it become more intriguing to watch how things went to hell and how it reflects upon the figures involved. Even a few minor comments upon the world the ship is leaving have greater meaning by the story's end, and serve to further enhance the power behind Bile's ambition.

It should be no surprise to know that Borja is something of a typical Inquisitor with a slight twist to him. While a red blooded heretic-head-shooting man of the Emperor's faith, he's more stoically resolved and personally driven than screaming fire and brimstone. What little we get expresses the fact he's a veteran who has dealt with heretics throughout his life, to the point where he's familiar with most of their usual expressions. In effect, he's jaded and experienced enough to know what to expect from them, and be certain of his place in the universe, but hasn't gone Redemptionist on everyone. This certainly makes him an interesting enough of a character to follow, but also a perfect one for this take on Bile.

You see, the Bile we have here isn't so much the cackling madman we know as he is Jack Lint. The man is clearly a monster, but as he speaks with Borja he is openly civil - practically cordial - with the man. In fact, despite poisoning him he is quite complimentary to the Inquisitor and makes it evident that he just wants his personal lab rat and that's it. The way the entire sequence is written is unnerving as it perfectly balances a man who will flay a man alive in the name of science with a surprising level of reason. In fact, if anything, Bile here manages to be more direct and reasonable than the heroes in a lot of Black Library's books, and his politeness is disarming. 

The fact that each individual is far from a typical example of their kind makes the short story all the more engaging, as the meeting of a hunter of heretics and arch fiend is what makes this so truly engaging. It doesn't merely sidestep or subvert the usual tropes of "Blargh! Imperium wrong! Blargh" and "Burn heretic!" It instead opts to maintain a completely different starting point and subverts them entirely, until it's hard to fully tell just what to think of either individual by the end. 

Now, sadly no story is without its faults and that does remain true here. The biggest among these stems from the characters involved, as while Bile and Borja stand out well, many of the additional figures thrown in for good measure don't hold up. The Howling Man himself offers little beyond spite and terror in his words, and a segment with the vessel's commander, Captain Helgic, is largely unnecessary beyond offering a fleeting glimpse of the void battle. Offering either more characterisation than a fairly baseline concept would be difficult admittedly, at least given the story's short length, but this limitation is allthe more obvious when compared with the far more fleshed out central figures.

In addition to this, the setting is oddly lacking. We get some nice atmospheric descriptions to be sure, and a few references to their service, but the Black Ship could almost be any vessel here. Despite being one of the few (perhaps the only) look into one of these vessels in the modern age of the Imperium, little is really done to make it truly stand out as a distinct setting. Even considering this was a short story, it just seemed that so much more could have been done at various points to help the ship seem all the more ominous, alien or even just to reflect upon its nature as a ship of the damned.

Still, those are minor issues for what is otherwise an absolutely excellent tale. Is it the best one of these to feature Bile? Perhaps, as it's certainly at least on par with Nick Kyme's Chirurgeon in terms of shedding light upon this enigmatic figure. It's certainly one of the most outstanding examples of a fantastic short story at any rate, and a great introduction to this author's take upon the character.

Still, a few of you might be wondering why it's not on the Black Library website. Well, there's a reason for that - This was exclusive to the special edition of Fabius Bile: Primogenitor. From that you can guess what we'll be looking into next. Join us then when we delve into a deeper tale woven about this dark remnant of the Legio III.

Veridict: 8.5/10

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