Some of the best Warhammer 40,000 fiction that I’ve read to date has been rather unique in that it hasn’t focused on the “war” aspect of the setting so much. Dan Abnett’s Eisenhorn and Ravenor books for instance, have shown us how Imperial society works at a remove from all the wars in which the Imperial Guard and the Space Marines fight, and it has been really good. The same goes for some recent novels like Chris Wraight’s The Carrion Throne. However, as it turns out, one of the early pioneers of such was Matt Farrer with his Shira Calpurnia series which focused on an Imperial law-officer, Arbiter-Senioris Shira Calpurnia as she transfers over to a bustling Imperial world and has to navigate its politics and other less obvious dangers. The first novel, Crossfire, does a lot to set the stage for Shira’s new adventures and it is a fantastic read that really takes us across many levels of Imperial civilian life through a very unique perspective.
In the wider context of all Warhammer 40,000 fiction, Crossfire is unique in more ways than one. For starters, Matt begins each episode with some background info on the festival that is about to be celebrated on the world of Hydraphur. We get some really deep info-dumps here that enhance the overall experience of reading the novel and though by the end I was often skipping by these chapter prologues, they nevertheless are a wonderful example of world-building. And that fits in with the rest of the novel since the material that Matt overall is covering here is rarely seen in other novels. From all my reading in the last sixteen years, I think only Chris’ The Carrion Throne even touches on any Imperial festival. And, coincidentally enough, the Sanguinala is mentioned strongly in both with The Carrion Throne‘s events being centered on that festival itself. For lovers of world-building, I’d definitely suggest reading these prologues for all the incredible detail they contain, details not just on how the festival is carried out but also what forms and traditions and behaviours are observed in the lead-up to and the festival itself.
Then, we have the story itself. We’ve seen some Arbites characters before, such as in Graham McNeill’s first Ultramarines novel, Nightbringer, and if I’m not mistaken then either Eisenhorn or Ravenor also had an Arbites officer in their retinue too. But, Crossfire is where we focus exclusively on one such character and follow her adventures as she takes up her duties at her new posting on the Hydraphur hive-world, which is also the administrative and fleet capital of Segmentum Pacificus, making it basically a Top-10 important world in the Imperium.
Reading through, I really enjoyed how Shira was written. From her backstory, we find out that she is actually from the Ultramar worlds, which is pretty neat in and of itself. It is a nice little tie-in to the rest of the setting, and that was definitely something I liked. However, we also have the Arbiter Senioris herself, who is presented as a no-nonsense law officer unafraid to get her hands dirty and who is wary of all the Imperial nobles that she finds herself in the midst of and with whom she has to interact with on a regular basis. In a meta-sense, her character is no different to that of any “good cop” you watch on television or in movies, but of course the context of the setting is important here. As such, I found myself connecting with Shira quite a bit, and it only made me much more interested in figuring out what conspiracies and mysteries she was finding herself in the middle of.
As the chapter prologues would suggest, Matt’s world-building as respects Hydraphur was really excellent. Shira’s position gives her access to most levels of Hydraphur’s social life, as well as bringing her into contact with both the Inquisition and the Ecclesiarchy, not to mention interacting with the Imperial Navy as well. There are some really excellent scenes here and it was rather intriguing to see how Shira reacted to all these people, and how her experience in her posting contrasts with her previous posting in Ultramar. The culture-shock is covered well and it forms an essential introduction to Shira’s character as to what motivates her, what she believes in, her ideals and so forth. Really, really fascinating stuff.
The central mystery at the heart of the novel is also a good one. Matt kicks off Crossfire with an assassination attempt on Shira as she arrives on Hydraphur and is sent to the local Mechanics temple to get herself vaccinated of all things. It was so banal, and yet also so damn interesting. Such a fresh scene in all of Warhammer 40,000 fiction. Kudos to Matt for picking out something like this to kick off with. And then, as Shira proceeds with her investigation into who wanted her killed, especially since she’s newly-arrived and has no ties of any sort to Hydraphur society besides her job as an Arbiter, I was absolutely hooked. Chapter-after-chapter Matt presents another angle on the mystery, which begins to tie into a vast conspiracy that stretches across the Hydraphur system and involves many highly-placed individuals that call it home.
Matt’s action scenes are also fantastic. We have not just the Arbites themselves but also the Adepta Sororitas, the chamber-militant of the Imperial Ecclesiarchy, involved in some of the most brutal and exciting action. Just getting to see the Arbites doing their thing, whether that be organized raids on unlawful installations or during riots and civil disturbances was a treat in itself. But, as happens towards the end, seeing Shira in action alongside the Sororitas was just mind-blowing. I love reading about the Sororitas and Matt gives them a great cameo here. I certainly don’t have any criticism of that.
The pacing of the novel can be off at times. As I mentioned above, the chapter prologues can be somewhat dense as well, and that doesn’t contribute to a good flow, though they can make for some great background reading. I’m just amazed at how detailed Matt gets in those pages. But yes, the build-up to the suspense is a little slow with Shira having to cross way too many hurdles to get to the end of it all and solve the whole damn thing. At least Crossfire isn’t that big a novel, so everything does end sooner than you’d expect regardless.
All in all, I really enjoyed reading Crossfire, and would recommend it highly. Will definitely be looking to finish the trilogy, collected together as an omnibus titled Enforcer, before the year is out. There’s something integral to the novel that really draws you in and that cannot be underestimated.