I’ve mentioned before, repeatedly so, that Sarah Cawkwell is one of my favourite authors right now, and has been since about late 2010 or so, ever since I started reading her short stories in Black Library’s monthly magazine, Hammer & Bolter, which is sadly discontinued now. She’s one of the best examples of fans of Black Library to have come up through the ranks to become a bona fide author for the publisher and pretty much everything that she has written to date has been spectacular or close it, even her original stuff such as The Ballad of Gilrain or Uprising.
Sarah is most noted for her Silver Skulls fiction for Warhammer 40,000 where she has taken the so-named Space Marine Chapter under her umbrella and told some really fascinating stories about characters from across the Chapter’s many and varied ranks. The most recent Silver Skulls fiction is the (currently) digital-only novel Portents, released just a few weeks ago. In it, she carries forwards threads she introduced in her previous work, whether short stories or her debut novel The Gildar Rift, and it is a most satisfying read indeed. It was great to have Sergeant Gileas Ur’ten back again for another outing, a sizable one this time, and the exploration of the Chapter culture in itself was most fascinating.
The primary plotline of the novel is that in recent years the Silver Skulls have come to the attention of the Inquisition. Specifically, Ordo Hereticus, the Ordo Majoris tasked with rooting out heresy and deviancy across all branches of the Imperium. Reports of over-reliance on the Chapter’s Librarius brotherhood, the Prognosticatum, have given the Inquisitor-Lords of Hereticus pause, as have some abnormalities in the Silver Skulls’ tithed gene-seed to the Adeptus Mechanicus. As such, an Inquisitor is sent to the Chapter’s homeworld Varsavia to gather evidence of these claims and gain confirmation. It is certainly an interesting twist to things and though such concepts have been dealt with before in various stories, nothing so extensive as what we see here in Portents has been shown.
With this entire premise in the background, Sarah brings back the (dare I say it) fan-favourite Sergeant Gileas Ur’ten of the Eighth Company and his Assault Squad for another rousing adventure along with First Captain Kerelan and some of his brothers of the Chapter’s First Company, the Talriktug. It is a great assemblage of characters from across Sarah’s many previous works with the Silver Skulls and it is basically a dream come true for a Silver Skulls fan like me.
There has been a long glut of Silver Skulls works from Black Library, and though we got an occasional story some two years back, Portents is the first novel-length feature to be published since The Gildar Rift, and that was a fairly excellent story by itself. With Portents, Sarah carries forward several plotlines she introduced in the previous works, such as the growing (subtle) schism within the Chapter with regards to how closely the Chapter follows the advice of its Prognosticatum, advice that is mercurial and fleeting and roundabout by its very nature. It is a very important of distinction and that’s what Sarah explores in the novel.
For myself, I was far too invested in Gileas’ personal story rather than anything else. I love the character, have ever since I read of him in Sarah’s first credit for Black Library, Primary Instinct in the Victories of the Space Marines anthology. He is a fascinating character, in part because he is an Assault Marine and I love Assault Marines, whether in BL fiction or in Warhammer 40,000 tabletop. Assault Marines were ever the core of any strike force I fielded during my games and much of my armies used to be centered around getting them up close and personal as soon as I could. In Portents, Sarah give Gileas and his squad a great outing, showing off the Eighth’s preferred method of warfare to spectacular effect, and as always, her action scenes are intricate and engaging unlike those of some of the other newer authors.
But that’s not all that the novel is about of course, and the debate of the schism is reflected in microcosm through the animosity between Gileas and one of Kerelan’s stickler-for-rules-conservative battle-brother Djul, who hates Gileas with a passion and for more than his views about the Prognosticatum. It is a racial animosity, with roots in the specific tribal culture Gileas was born in when compared to Djul who was much more well-off and came from high station, relatively. That Space Marines often have dissent between them is no surprise certainly, even when their differences are theological or tactical or whatever else you fancy. Rob Sanders and David Annandale used the same to great effect in Legion of the Damned and The Death of Antagonis respectively. The animosity between Djul and Gileas is quite interesting and so is the resolution of it post-climax, though it is by no means fully resolved, merely put on hold you can say.
One of the most interesting elements of the novel however have to do with the Inquisitor sent to Varsavia. Liandra Callis is a manipulative figure of authority, and her first meeting with the Silver Skulls, specifically Chapter Master Argentius, pretty much lays down the rules of how she is going to behave later on in the novel. Inquisitors in Warhammer 40,00 are typically brusque individuals who are used to their authority and the fear and apprehension it generates. And they are also very used to antagonizing Space Marines most of all, leading there to be little love lost between them and the Adeptus Astartes. And given the nature of what the Ordo Hereticus does, the relationship is tense and format at best. That’s what Sarah plays up in here and she gives a lot of attention o Liandra and her goals, most importantly in how she manipulates the Space Marines to assist her on Valoris, an Imperial world suffering from civil war and worse, the taint of Chaos.
As always with any of Sarah’s work, or most of it at any rate, the pacing of Portents is pretty good. She gives an easy introduction to all her characters early on and then builds upon that bit by bit with each chapter. Getting to know many of them is no hard task since I’m already familiar with them, and that certainly helped with Portents because the case is indeed quite huge. In the guise of the mission to liberate Valoris, Sarah puts forward lots of neat mysteries and subplots and more, though she doesn’t try and experiment as she did with certain elements in The Gildar Rift. Regrettable in a way, but the ensemble Silver Skulls cast more than makes up for that. Of that you can be assured.
And in general, just learning more and more about the Silver Skulls was a blessing. We find out some of the details of how the Prognosticatum works, we learn significant details about the Chapter culture and how it has nurtured the warriors of the Silver Skulls, and we even get into a bit of philosophizing where Gileas is concerned. Passed up for an opportunity at Captainship of the Eighth due to the portents read by the Prognosticatum, the character struggles with a lot of things in this novel and it is most fascinating indeed.
The ending is a bit rushed and inconclusive, but it also sets up some great potential stories, and so I can forgive some of the negatives, not that there are many to begin with. Nothing major at least.
I’ve said before that Sarah has improved in recent years, and Portents is a great example of that. It is a significantly better novel than The Gildar Rift and even her recent original novel from Abaddon Books, Heirs of The Demon King #1: Uprising. Certainly among the best from Black Library that I’ve read this year, and that’s quite the company in itself.