Games Workshop’s Space Hulk, a Warhammer 40,000 tabletop classic has recently seen a new lease on life. The game is being brought back for a new generation of players, and to accompany the release of the game itself, Black Library recently put out a quartet of short stories and even a novella focusing on the core concept of the game: Space Marine Terminators fighting off against a Tyranid infestation in space. From what I can tell, the re-release has been received very positively, as well as it should, given the place that Space Hulk has in Warhammer 40,000 tabletop gaming history.
Two of the stories released (so far) are The Black Pilgrims by Guy Haley and Sanguis Irae by Gav Thorpe. The former focuses on a small force of Black Templars led by Castellan Adelard, while the latter focuses on an equally small force of Blood Angels led by Brother-Librarian Calistarius. I didn’t quite like The Black Pilgrims as much as I did Sanguis Irae and I didn’t even really know about the whole shared theme thing until I read through them, but I will say that both stories are fun nonetheless, and they serve to highlight an aspect of Warhammer 40,000 that seems to not get as much narrative attention as it should, truly.
Beyond the obvious, one of the main differences between the two stories is their location. Where Sanguis Irae is a story told in the vein of Space Hulk itself, with Blood Angels Terminators facing off against a genestealer infestation on a space hulk, The Black Pilgrims replaces the space hulk with a drifting cathedral ship lost in the void for far too long. Past that, the format for both stories is dissimilar, and that really is not a point against either one.
Guy Haley is one of the newest writers to be working for Black Library while Gav Thorpe is a veteran with long years of experience working for both Games Workshop as a games designer and lore writer, and also for Black Library as a novelist. The Blood Angels have always been one of my favourite Space Marine Chapters, thanks largely in part to James Swallow’s opening duology of his Blood Angels quadrilogy, while my fascination and appreciation of the Black Templars is much more recent, owing to both Guy’s The Eternal Crusader novella and Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s Blood & Fire novella. And going in, I was expecting something on a similar level from both.
Sanguis Irae certainly does not disappoint, in part because it features Calistarius as the protagonist. Brother-Librarian Calistarius is the warrior who would later go on to fight at Armageddon and would come out of it transformed into Lord Mephiston, one of the greatest Blood Angels Librarians to have ever lived and also one of the most powerful Space Marines alive currently. Sanguis Irae drops some hints of his eventual transformation, but it is also a tale firmly rooted in the here and now as per the timeline of the story. Calistarius leads his brothers to purge a space hulk, and the story unfolds in a brisk manner, with lots of great twists along the way.
Gav also works in the Blood Angels’ genetic curse, the Black Rage in the story and the execution is flawless. The Black Rage is a flaw which causes the warriors of the Chapter to turn into rage-filled berserkers and makes them relive the final moments of their dead Primarch Sanguinius, just before he was killed by the traitor Primarch Horus, some ten thousand years ago as per the Warhammer 40,000 lore. It is the Blood Angels’ greatest weakness, and also one of their strengths, and that’s how Gav portrays it.
There isn’t much of a twist to the story as there is with The Black Pilgrims and it is quite a straightforward story actually, but it is no less awesome for that. In fact, it is characterized with all of Gav’s strengths as a writer and is some of the best short-fiction that I’ve read from him to date.
The Black Pilgrims isn’t quite on the same level as The Eternal Crusader but it is still a solid story. The tension and anticipation in the story are great, just as I expected, but in the second half, the story became a bit too much by the numbers, and that’s something that I liked. The format of the stories for this themed release is indeed straightforward, and the twist at the end is good, but I wasn’t wholly satisfied by the story, and I wanted more out of it. 4-5 more pages at least, I’d say. Reading through, I felt as if I was reading something heavily edited-down, and it confused me a great deal.
But still, The Black Pilgrims is a solid action story of the kind that are really only possible with the given general premise of the themed release, tying in with Space Hulk. Guy Haley, same as with Gav, really gets the claustrophobic nature of the setting of the story, and he just runs with it. The fact that the story takes place on a lost Imperial cathedral ship and not a space hulk is, in itself, quite notable since writers generally go for the easy route, so to speak. But in The Black Pilgrims things are different and we get to something that is usually skimped over. Guy highlights a difference from the norm, and I loved that difference here.
Castellan Adelard is a great character also, and I would love to see more stories featuring him and his brothers. The Black Templars are very different from the other (prominent) Space Marine Chapters and their Chapter-specific identity is something that Guy delves into with The Black Pilgrims, though he doesn’t overdo it, and that in itself is a recommendation. Guy stays focused on the end-game, closing out the story in a decisive way.
Personally, I’d say, that the tie-in releases are off to a great start, and that I’d love to read more!
Rating for Sanguis Irae: 9.5/10
Rating for The Black Pilgrims: 8.5/10
More Black Templars: The Eternal Crusader.