Book Review: Anathemas

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Short story anthologies have been a firm feature of the Warhammer Horror imprint since its implementation (and judging by the recent open submissions call, we’re due another at least one more). The imprint launched with Maledictions, followed by Invocations, and, in one of the last releases before the initial Covid-19 lockdown, Anathemas. Black Library seems to like these as a way to get shorter pieces out from their established authors while also using them as a platform to get new writers into the mix, with several individuals making their BL debut this way. As a horror fan who loves short story collections these are aimed pretty squarely at me; I’d read Maledictions already and was halfway through Invocations when GW kindly sent over a copy of Anathemas to review.

There’s 14 stories in this collection, as below:

Hab Fever Lockdown by Justin D Hill (40k)
Suffer the Vision by Jake Ozga (AoS)
A Threnody for Kolchev by Darius Hinks (40k)
These Hands, These Wings by Lora Gray (AoS)
Vox Daemonicus by James Forster (40k)
Skin Man by Tim Waggoner (40k)
A Deep and Steady Tread by David Annandale (AoS)
The Thing in the Woods by Paul Kearney (40k)
Mud and Mist by John Goodrich (40k)
The Shadow Crown by C L Werner (AoS)
Runner by Alan Bao (40k)
Miracles by Nicholas Wolf (40k)
Voices in the Glass by Richard Strachan (AoS)
The Funeral by Darius Hinks (40k)

Given the format, I’m going to look at these individually, in the order they’re presented in the book, and then assess the collection as a whole at the end. Like the other collections, this contains a mix of stories set in the 40k and Age of Sigmar universes, which I’ve helpfully labelled above. There’s a heavier weight on 40k here, with 9/14 being set in that universe, so if that matters to you then take that into consideration.

Hab Fever Lockdown

Our opening story takes place in the hive of Panxir, an instantly familiar setting for 40k fans. The hive is in a bad way, with rumours of a plague arriving from off-world – the authorities have already pre-emptively quarantined the infected suborbital station and then vented it into space, but have they gotten there in time? Readers will be unsurprised to find the answer is ‘no.’ It’s a decent enough story and an ok opener, but Hill makes the slightly odd choice to tell it in second person – a tough ask for for any writer and one not executed that well here, though it does make for a very effective ending.

Suffer the Vision

Jake Ozga is better known to many Warhammer fans as one of the driving forces behind Ex Profundis, and after making his first Black Library appearance in the previous collection Invocations his sophomore effort appears here. Suffer the Vision takes us to the realm of Ghur, following a witch hunter and his retinue of Ghurite warriors who have left behind their tribal worship of the Ruinous Powers to serve Sigmar. Its scope is ambitious, and Ozga packs in a ton of excellent character detail in just 30 or so pages. Warhammer stories about grim, resolute witch hunters are a little stale, but this is a particularly well-executed spin on the archetype and well worth your time.

A Threnody for Kolchev

Back to the Imperium and indeed to Holy Terra itself, with Hinks delivering a Lovecraft-esque tale of a musician whose jealousy and greedy ambition damns him to  powers unknown (the power can probably be guessed from the context – who do you think would tempt an artist in pursuit of perfection with a magical instrument?) Things that aren’t war stories are always a fun change of pace for the 40k universe, and while the ending here is predictable for fans of the genre, it’s well set up – sometimes you just need to end with the thing that makes sense.

These Hands, These Wings

Lora Gray returns to Warhammer Horror, having featured in Maledictions and then missed Invocations. They take us to the realm of Shyish, where mortals try to hang on in the face of death, and where orphan Myles is stuck living with his drunk, violent uncle after the untimely deaths of his parents. Uncle Ourii is the kind of loveless, abusive brute you instantly come to hate, and Myles’ terror of him is palpable. Thankfully, there are friends at hands, in the form of a flock of crows that he’s meant to be scaring off his uncle’s fields, but who provide a route to salvation. This is a grim one, but very good.

Vox Daemonicus

As Josun and his son Marcus walk through their hive, there is a sudden sound – the wet slicing and cutting of meat booming out from the laud hailers. Soon they hear the fateful words Ave dominus nox, and then, more comprehensibly for those citizens who don’t speak High Gothic – We are coming for you. What follows is a struggle to survive, as the hive descends into anarchy and Josun and Marcus try to reach some kind of safety. The idea here is a good one, but the prose felt a little YA – I can’t precisely put my finger on it, but it had that specific quality that comes with something written for a teen audience, which despite what BL is is not usually the tone it has. It was a bit of a shame because it put a bit of a dampener on an interesting core concept.

Skin Man

The mortal enemy of Skeleton ManSkin Man takes place on a world which is technically an Imperial one, but which the Imperium has long forgotten about. Those Before claimed the world and Those Who Remained are stuck there, grubbing out a meagre existence of scavenging in the ruins of what was left behind. One day, they hope, the Emperor will turn his gaze to their world again, but in the meantime they have to survive. The story follows Marceline, searching for her husband Cole, missing for six days. The story has a folk tale quality to it, especially in the nature of its antagonist, the titular Skin Man, and the give and take of deals with the devil that ensue. I think this one suffers a little from the short story format – there’s clearly a world here that the author could do more with, and the quasi-mythological Skin Man loses a little lustre when he’s so easily stumbled across as is basically required by the page count available, but that’s a minor criticism of a particularly creepy story in the collection.

A Deep and Steady Tread

Two households, both alike in dignity – except that one has finally seized the initiative and managed to destroy the author. The patriarch of the Navaan has been murdered by the scion of the Holforns, and now the Navaan are having their revenge as said scion is dragged to the executioner’s block. This is a particularly short one, but effectively told from the point of view of Velaya, whose ruthlessness does not exactly match that of the rest of her family, and whose innocence ends up being no protection from the judgment of fate. A neatly packaged little ghost story.

The Thing in the Woods

The Thing in the Woods makes for an interesting counterpoint to Skin Man – in the earlier story the Imperium has more or less abandoned the world after conquering it, whereas in this one the world has abandoned the Imperium. The story is told from the point of view of aged Imperial missionary, who came with the original mission to Carcanis, a world of forests inhabited by countless barely-civilised tribes. When the Imperium arrived here, they found a people in the thrall of a dark god of the deep woods, and expended huge energy to convert them to the Imperial Creed – a conversion which now looks fleeting at best, with most of the missionaries dead and the tribes restless and ready to return to their old ways. Feral worlds are often mentioned in the 40k lore, but seeing one that goes a different way – where the Emperor is not a revered but distant deity but instead a foreign invader-god who the locals are more than ready to displace with an older, darker worship – is interesting. The characters here are particularly good, being simple but clearly drawn – the aging missionary who knows her mission has failed, the naive servant who truly believes in the new way she’s been raised with, and the older tribal chieftain who chafes at the new restrictions on his traditional powers.

Mud and Mist

Constantine is exhausted. He is on his eighth deployment in the Astra Militarum, to yet another world where his days alternate between tense, pointless boredom and screaming terror, waging war against an army of tyranids. There is almost nothing here to be fighting for – a small population he has never met and a muddy battlefield which seems ready to suck men down and drown them at the slightest opportunity – and he is paired with Dimitri, a fresh recruit who has yet to properly internalise the horror of his situation. It’s fair to say that Constantine is a man on the edge, and his mental balance is not helped by Commissar Heston, who is itching for any excuse to execute a man he views as mere moments away from a breakdown. When the tyranids unleash yet another new form of attack – this time in the form of a Carnifex armed not with teeth and claws (though it has plenty of those) but with a choking cloud of spores – the Commissar is vindicated, though it doesn’t help him much at all. I liked this one a lot, and it has one of the best endings in the collection, which captures the alien horror of the tyranids perfectly as an entire human drama plays out on an open battlefield, only to be thoughtlessly cut off by a creature which cannot even comprehend the interplay of emotions it is bearing witness to.

The Shadow Crown

Pre-contact America provided a key source of inspiration for the Lizardmen back in the old Warhammer Fantasy universe, but otherwise had little impact on the Warhammer worlds. Here the setting is revived, as we visit a city in the Mortal Realms with a heavy Aztec theme. The story is split approximately in half between two different viewpoints, a pair of siblings – Cualli, a devotee of powerful new holy man called Ekurzakir who has appeared in the city of Maktlan and cured the king’s son of a plague which was sickening him and thereby won his favour, and her brother Tochtli, captain of the king’s royal guard and very much not a devotee of Ekurzakir. Tochtli is in on a plot to murder the priest, and Cualli is left conflicted as she tries to decide whether to reveal said plot to Ekurzakir? The story unrolls from there, and is full of twists and turns. Maktlan, I can only assume, is a play on the name of the Aztec underworld of Mictlan; the underworld makes a very definite appearance here as Tochtli uncovers a skaven plot to invade the city. For me the main failing of this story is simply that it’s kind of absent much horror, which isn’t really its fault – skaven invading from the subterranean world is just kind of what they do and as such they’re not very scary, which makes it feel a bit misplaced here. If you’re prepared to take it on its own terms though, this is a well-written story with a setting that is a little off the beaten track for Warhammer.

Runner

There is a runner. He is on a world which he cannot even recall the name of, fighting a war against who knows what. He doesn’t even remember his own birth name, or where he came from, because he has been ground down by war and toil into simply his function – a soldier. When a fortress is overwhelmed, he is chosen by his squad sergeant to run to the command post hundreds of miles away and tell them what they need to know about the enemy they are fighting, and off he goes. This is an introspective one, with a single isolated figure for the majority of its length, and Bao does a great job of getting into his character’s head and slowly drawing out his memories and his broken character even as he slowly falls into the clutches of the Ruinous Powers. Something that’s always interesting to explore with Chaos is how ordinary people might allow the insidious seed of heresy into their hearts? It’s a theme that’s explored here and executed well.

Miracles

The next story deals with a similar theme, and unfortunately does not tackle it nearly as competently. In Praxis Hive, Jacen is a supervisor in a lasgun power pack manufactorum, with a wife and three children he loves deeply and a quota he is never going to manage to meet. Strange things have been happening in the hive, with people disappearing – sometimes for good, sometimes turning up brutally murdered – and, eventually, a gigantic explosion tearing Jacen’s manufactorum to pieces and yet miraculously leaving him alive and unwounded. While in the medicae bay Jacen has a vision of his mother, a suspected witch who disappeared years ago, who tells him that she is now an angel of the Emperor and, by the way, the Emperor needs you to tear out your daughter’s heart as a sacrifice to save your world from blood and death. There’s nothing really wrong with the story except that it’s boring; everything about it is immediately predictable and ‘evil figure poses as someone trustworthy to trick someone with a vision into doing something awful’ is a trope that’s been done to death in horror, and nothing about this version of it inspires great interest.

Voices in the Glass

Voices in the Glass takes us to Shadespire, where warrior-priest Gilvar has arrived, partly to take over the ministry of the temple of Sigmar there but also to search for his predecessor Yollin, who disappeared recently. Gilvar finds his temple barely inhabited and his congregation far from faithful. He lives in a manse where he hears whispers and voices when he knows he is alone. This one is better than Miracles, but still just kind of boring – if you know what Shadespire is, you know what the gimmick is here, and there’s nothing else going on to elevate it. Barely-described characters move from plot beat to plot beat and then the story resolves. The ending sequence has some cool imagery, but that’s about the best there is to say about this one.

The Funeral

Hinks makes an encore appearance here with the closing story of the collection, The Funeral. Crusader Voconis is an Inquisitorial henchman who awaits the other members of his former master’s retinue as they arrive for the Inquisitor’s funeral; the Inquisitor in question, Rabbath, was booted out of the order for having murdered the governor’s son on suspicion of heresy without real evidence. Despite Voconis’ expectation that none of his old retinue would arrive for the funeral they all do, and Voconis reminisces with them about his old master’s career – and slowly lets slip the dark secret that guiltily tugs at him. This one is a bit of a shame, because I think the underlying idea here is good, but it’s a bit clumsily executed and almost rushed feeling – a bit more work in building up to the conclusion would have done wonders for it, but as it is it’s just a bit flat, as events happen and then we get an ending which is more or less it was all a dream.

Overall

So how would I rate this anthology overall? Looking back over it, I’d split these into stories I’d fully recommend, stories that are fine, and stories I disliked overall, as follows:

Fully Recommend

  • Suffer the Vision
  • A Threnody for Kolchev
  • These Hands, These Wings
  • Skin Man
  • The Thing in the Woods
  • Mud and Mist
  • The Shadow Crown
  • Runner

Fine

  • A Deep and Steady Tread
  • Hab Fever Lockdown

Disliked

  • Vox Daemonicus
  • Miracles
  • Voices in the Glass
  • The Funeral

50%+ is a reasonable hit rate for an anthology, and other people might like the two stories in the ‘fine’ category more than I did. If you’re into the Warhammer Horror imprint, this is a decent collection of stories that you’ll enjoy most of, and I think on balance the good ones are worth the price of admission.

 

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