Warhammer Crime has been doing some interesting things recently, and we’re clear fans of the concept over at Goonhammer towers. Moving away from space battles and wizards and the ever-lengthening clash of superhuman v different superhuman seemed like a bit of a risky move at first, but it’s spawned some great stories. Joining those ranks this month is King of the Spoil by Jonathan D Beer, a debut novel carving out a different part of the genre than we’ve seen so far in the 40k crime imprint.
Before diving into the review, we’d like to thank the Black Library – and Jonathan! – for sending out a copy for review. This will not be spoiler free, but it’s at least spoiler-lite.
Kings and Spoils
Joining the previous Warhammer Crime novels on the world of Alecto and the continent-spanning city of Varangantua, the King of the Spoil is a clear, strong plot thrusting us into the world of (extremely) organised crime and the much less organised gangers following in it’s wake. It’s a classic plot of the crime/mafia genre – Andreti Sorokin, the titular king, is brutally and horrifically murdered, and it’s up to hacker/junkie Melita Voronova to find out whodunit and whydunit before the Spoil crumbles into outright anarchy and the stability of Varangantua is threatened by the chaos.
I love a good “kingpin is dead” storyline, the idea that a stabilising influence that’s been preventing outright bloody war has been knocked off and now, chaos reigns until someone strong and bastardly enough to take over emerges, and that’s what we get here, given the 40k twist and embedded firmly in the city of Varangantua and the crumbling Spoil district. It’s a really fun way to set up a world and then kick it to pieces and see what happens, and that’s where the author clearly both excels and enjoyed themselves, with much of the book dedicated to carefully building up the world of the Spoil and the lives and experiences of those living in it.
The chaos after the death of Sorokin is explored via two narratives – of our heroine Melita Voronova, drug-addled information broker with far too much on the line with both blue collar organised crime rings and the (incidentally just as in our world) much worse and more evil white collar trading cartels – and of Haska, wannabe ganger trying desperately to escape from her mother’s fate in a life of crushing poverty and industrial drudgery. As Melita searches for Sorokin’s killers with her grumbling father figure Edi and pet servo skull Oriel in tow, Haska is trying to win a better life in the chaotic aftermath of the murder, by blade, gun or cargo-8 hauler. It’s not a massive story – as in other warhammer crime books, no space marines here – but even compared to Bloodlines or Phoenix, the stakes are surprisingly low (until they suddenly, horribly, aren’t) and that’s a good thing!
Melita has to find the murderer. Haska has to find some hope. They’re both trapped in a fucked up hellhole, enmeshed in difficult and dangerous relationships and obligations and trying to do something about it. Both characters are well done and have twists and elements to them that we don’t see often in the Black Library and all to the good. Melita and Edi have a quasi father-daughter relationship that’s explored well, and Haska goes through love and loss in a queer story that at times reminded me pleasantly of Jack Womack’s Random Acts of Ceaseless Violence which is more than enough in my book to describe it as “good”, let alone that it corrects the fact that lesbians are preposterously infrequent, it seems, in 40k.
There’s groundwork done to make the characters feel important, but it’s there in the world as well. Beer does well to fill in the Spoil by doing the groundwork in making it all feel real and important, even though it’s got to be a fairly limited story. Sticking Warhammer Crime on one planet, in one (albeit enormous) city ends up making some of these feel a little like the Star Wars extended universe – lots and lots of planets, but everyone’s always on Tatooine. More local stories, like this one, run into a core problem because we understand the 40k universe so well. We know that if something “matters”, there are authorities who will get involved. There’s the Arbites, the Guard, a wandering Commissar and his smelly friend, then all the way up the ladder to Inquisitors and Space Marines. If the Inquisitors aren’t getting involved, when sometimes from the Black Library it feels like they’re just hanging around constantly, why does it matter?
All of the Warhammer Crime novels do this in a different way – Wraithbone Phoenix, for example, makes it a fun macguffin hunt while Bloodlines makes it all intensely personal. King of the Spoil does it by immersing us in a complex world with very real-feeling, lived in, relationships, politics and power structures. Nearly everything that happens in the book you could predict if you’d had the information you receive about the people, places and forces at play – and that’s the mark of a good crime novel. People act naturally – there’s no space wizard warping minds here, just people acting like people. So the story matters because the book takes pains to write up the world and make it real – kicking the ants nest matters, when you understand that it’s where the ants live. That’s a real skill and it makes all the set up a pleasure to read. The world works – it makes sense. Sorokin’s empire is a real one, and the involvement of the cartels is based on rational economic considerations that we can see operating today, like doing business with a gangboss is more profitable than no business at all. The vested interest everyone has in the status quo sells the whole novel, and it’s a credit to Beer that he pulls that off in a setting where your neighbour might be able to turn you inside out with the power of their dreams.
The Girl Who Kicked the Cyber-Hornet’s Nest
Let’s talk about Melita, the erstwhile heroine of the story and, I would expect (and hope) a series-worthy character. She’s very much a cyberpunk character dropped wholesale into 40k – spiky, drug-using, splitting-headache-having, information broker, connected via ocular and cerebral implants into the data network of the spoil. She’s a dancer on a fine line – become too important and you have to be controlled, but too insignificant and you’ll never make your money. There’s a lot there that’s hinted at, but in what ends up being a misstep, she doesn’t really manage to do much. As an information broker and as someone hired to find a murderer, she tends to piece things together long after the fact, carried from information source to information source. It would have been nice to see her do some full on hacking, but most of the time it’s a linkup to Oriel the servo skull and a physical or mental support from ex-Enforcer Edi. She’s also not really much of a junkie – we meet her in a full on Edi-administered withdrawal panic as she’s roused from a topaz-induced haze, but after that she’s off the skag, as it were, receiving a severe lecture or two from Edi and occasionally wishing for some drugs. It doesn’t really sell her as struggling or particularly gritty, and she seems pretty cheery most of the time.
Melita also suffers from some weird pacing choices for the main plot and the unravelling of the conspiracy around the Sorokin murder. Scenes are often divided pretty harshly into action and discussion, with a set piece allowing for an unlock of the next exposition, which leads into another set piece. There are benefits here – leaving the action heavy sections without distractions and letting us take in the details of the conspiracy, but it doesn’t do Melita any favours, because more or less everything she finds out comes in the exposition sections while Edi and Oriel tend to shepherd her through the action. It’s a bit like a lengthy WoW quest where you return to the vendor and get an exposition dump. Melita survives an action scene, and as a reward someone tells her something – usually more or less unprompted. None of this is bad to read – the plot is interesting and the writing is choppy, clear and occasionally nicely touching/funny/gritty where appropriate – but it gives Melita a strange weightlessness and she’s carried from fact to fact as a result. It left me wanting to see more from Melita but a different kind of more. I liked this book and the characters enough to read another one, but I want Melita the strung-out junkie hacker, Melita through the lens of Case in Neuromancer. Melita doing some hacking through ice and breaking codes and jacking in to whatever the fucked-up nightmarish equivalent of the matrix the 40k world has to offer in order to steal something important and get the hell out.
For all that Melita isn’t particularly active in it, the two main character stories intersect and structurally play off each other well, leading up to the big bait-and-switch inflection point in the novel. You’re shown Kingpin Sorokin’s death immediately, and the ganger story seems to show the chaotic violence and bloody murder that Melita’s story is supposed to be working to prevent, giving you a sense that the world Melita is attempting to shore up still has time. She’s been dealt a bad hand, but you haven’t been shown all the cards, and, more importantly, other characters aren’t playing cards at all. The sudden escalation of both narratives that occurs just after the mid point of the book plays with this well, switching the action up several gears in a crashing, adrenaline injection of a shift in pace and tone that turns King of the Spoil into a very different novel.
The tone shift into a much more breathless, panicked and dangerous world contains my favourite (and least favourite) elements of the novel. My favourite is by far the cleverest thing that you could do with an underhive/underclass crime story, and that’s threaten to get the Authorities involved. When the shit hits the fan, the Adeptus Arbites show up, and the arrival of the real bosses – not the enforcers and Bastion officers seen in other Warhammer crime books – is a threat to everyone and it feels it. Beer writes this really well – everyone shits their pants with the Emperor’s Own Judge Dredd knockoffs arrive. Even their appearance is an out of context problem for Melita and with the world outside increasingly going to shit, a countdown clock is set until “The Arbites fucking kill everyone” and you spend the rest of the book with one eye on it, keeping up the pressure that would otherwise be released by the big turn. That’s a really fun deadline to have, and it’s clear that it was a fun space to play in – there’s a moment when I said out loud “yeah, well played Jon”, you’ll know it when you get there.
My least favourite bit – and ok, personal rant time here – is a big ol’ spoiler, so will go below. It’s a very personal thing that other people will not see as a bad thing at all, so don’t let it affect your enjoyment of the book.
The Haska storyline explores social collapse, upheaval and rebellion in 40k that is a result of understandable (and all too familiar) social processes. That your life is intolerable, that inequality is grinding your face, day-in day-out into the structural unfairness of your society. People rise up and take arms not because magic evil supermen or mind controlled alien horrors tell them to, but because life is utterly shit and it’s either worth dying for a chance at a better life or that death in the service of a better life is preferable to what you’ve been handed. That’s not only real, it’s grimdark as hell.
There was a point in the novel when I’m fairly sure we had one of our first “Imperial life for the majority is intolerable and people won’t stand for it anymore” stories, and that’s a rebellion I could really get behind. The reveal that it wasn’t just a seditious conspiracy to secure a better life for millions of people but, of course, a chaos-tainted cult one is just a little disappointing. Hope for a better life being crushed under the tracks of a Leman Russ, sent at the behest of your social “betters” is infinitely crueller. In the end, “who organised the killing” becomes your local chaos helot, and, well, that’s their job, isn’t it? You have to respect the hard graft they put in down at the old sedition mine.
Ok, rant over. I feel like I needed to get that off my chest.
Overall, I enjoyed King of the Spoil and I look forward to another Melita story. The plot and world building are well constructed, which I think is vitally important in a crime novel, particularly one sharing a world with so many other authors. Beer never rests on assumed knowledge, and makes sure that we have a reason to care about the actions of his characters and their impact on his constructed world. It’s a conspiracy caper that’s an enjoyable read and, one or two structural issues aside, a really strong debut novel from Jonathan Beer. Bring us more (and weirder) Melita, Jon!
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