Within Black Library’s epic and ever-growing Horus Heresy series there are a few sub-series, collections of stories which fit together to form a story arc in their own right as well as contributing towards the whole series. One such arc is the story of the Battle of Tallarn, as told (primarily) by John French, and with the release of the short story Tallarn: Siren this arc has now come to a close.
EDIT (July 2017): a year after writing this review, the collected Tallarn stories (most of them, anyway) are now available in a single volume – appropriately just named Tallarn – which forms book 45 of the Horus Heresy series.
With that in mind, it seems like a good moment to take a look back at the collection of stories which makes up the Tallarn arc, and who better to do that than the author of all (but one) of the Tallarn stories, John French. John has very kindly agreed to answer a few questions in an interview which you can find a little further down the page. Click here to go straight to the start of the interview.
First though, let’s recap on the stories which make up this arc – I’ve listed them here in their original format, although most are now available in more than one format. You can click on the links below to see my original review for each story.
Tallarn: Executioner (novella)
Tallarn: Ironclad (short novel)
Tallarn: Witness (short story)
Tallarn: Siren (short story)
Black Oculus (short story)
The Eagle’s Talon (audio drama)
Iron Corpses (audio drama, by David Annandale)
Unlike anything else (so far, at least) in the Heresy series, here we have essentially a single storyline told across a range of stories using different mediums – novellas, short stories and audio dramas. The closest comparison would be the Calth arc, beginning with Know No Fear and continuing with the stories in Mark of Calth along with Nick Kyme’s audio dramas featuring Aeonid Thiel, but that feels a little broader and less of a single, consolidated story arc.
The Battle for Tallarn was first introduced in the Imperial Guard background for 2nd Edition 40k in the mid-90s, but as with the Horus Heresy as a whole it was never explored in much detail…until now.
This series charts Tallarn’s fall from a once-prosperous staging post for the Great Crusade, slowly beginning to slide into obscurity, to a poisoned wasteland utterly devoid of life and seemingly of value, yet nonetheless fought over by both sides of the Heresy war. At first the surviving Imperials, those who escaped the obliteration of the surface and found shelter underground, fight purely for survival, against the invading Iron Warriors. As time goes on however, the terms of the conflict change and the scene becomes set for one of the most legendary battles in the 40k background.
On the face of things this is a pretty straightforward scrap between the invading Iron Warriors and the surviving Imperial forces, but what John French has done is taken the basic outline from the 40k background and breathed life into it. Across the range of stories we get to see through the eyes of Tallarn citizens, off-world Imperial Army soldiers, Space Marines from various Legions (on both sides), and even an Imperial Assassin, all of which builds up a detailed picture of the conflict. While the first release – Tallarn: Executioner – takes place immediately prior to the opening salvoes of the invasion, the following stories range across the timeline of the conflict, from Black Oculus’ link to Graham McNeill’s Angel Exterminatus to Tallarn: Witness’ depiction of the planet’s surface once the battle is over.
As you’ll see from my reviews, in my opinion this is a series of high-calibre stories, cleverly thought out and beautifully executed. It’s clear that a huge amount of thought has gone into this – what could have been a quick note in the margins compared to the huge events of Isstvan or Prospero has turned out to be a fascinating story in its own right, which is down to the standard of the writing here. With the wider Heresy series heading rapidly towards the 40 mark without showing too many signs of slowing down, there’s something nice about reading this series and getting a sense of completion – of course it’s still part of the Heresy so there’s plenty of connective tissue to the rest of the series, and the odd thread (including one major thread) left very much open, but this is essentially a complete series in of itself.
Without going into spoiler territory there’s not a huge amount more I can talk about in terms of specifics, so instead I’ll hand over to the architect of this series, Mr John French. John’s generously taken time out of his busy writing schedule to talk about a range of topics, but the focus is the Tallarn series…
ToW: Can you remember a defining moment when you were growing up, or a particular book or author, that steered you towards science fiction?
JF: My dad used to read to me Ray Bradbury short stories, books like R is for Rocket, Golden Apples of the Sun, and The October Country. That had a huge impact on me. The ideas and language were just incredible. Apart from that have to say that I was more of a war story and spy thriller reader until I was about, oh… 14. Then I picked up Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks. I read it in a day, and was just blown away by it; I did not know sci-fi could be like that.
ToW: What was your childhood like; did you grow up surrounded by books and creativity?
JF: I grew up in the Middle East, going around archaeological digs and ancient cities while not appreciating what I was getting to see and experience. There were lots of books, yeah. Lots of books. Books and the smell of oil paint and turps. So, yes.
ToW: Can you remember the first story you ever wrote?
JF: I can; I was 7… I think. It involved a teddy bear who solved crime involving poison darts. It will remain unpublished.
ToW: What was the first story you submitted to Black Library? How did that come about?
JF: I actually submitted my first story to Black Library in 2001. They had an open submission window and I submitted a story about a missionary who became a Chaos demagogue. It didn’t get anywhere. I tried a couple more times, but never got more than a polite ‘no thanks – keep trying’.
About 9 years later, I was coming off the back of four years working on the Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, and Deathwatch rpgs. Armed with a lot more experience, I thought I would give BL another go. I submitted a Warhammer fantasy story about the undead laying siege to a small town in the Empire. It didn’t get anywhere as an idea, but the writing sample was good enough to earn me another try. I came up with an idea that eventually became the short story Hunted, and after a lot of redrafting it was accepted.
ToW: How do you find writing in a shared universe where a character you introduce can get picked up elsewhere by someone else? For instance Jubal Khan in Templar – did you and Chris Wraight plan his arc together, or was it a case of Chris picking the character up and running with him?
JF: I really like seeing characters I have built up getting picked up by the other writers. Often, it’s quite organic. So with Chris and Jubal Khan it was more a case of a character growing because different authors kept the ball rolling. I think his development started with a piece of art in the original Collected Visions art book. Aaron then mentioned him as being one of the premier fighters amongst the legions in his short story Savage Weapons. I picked up on that mention and decided to make him one of Sigismund’s opponents in Templar, and so on. Sometimes it’s very freeform like that, but we also have characters that have an arc, a destiny in the overall story and we talk about what we are doing with them more consciously. Alexis Pollux is an example of exactly that. He had a broad arc planned before I introduced him in The Crimson Fist, and then he passed to Dan, and then Guy.
ToW: The Tallarn arc is a story within a story, and something which didn’t have a huge amount written about it previously (much like the Heresy as a whole). Did you go out of your way to tackle this subject, or was it something you were encouraged to do by Black Library?
JF: A bit of both, they wanted to do it somehow, and I was really, really keen to take it on. So it was one of those lucky moments where the stars align.
ToW: How familiar with the Tallarn background were you when you first started writing this? The only reference I can find to (without giving any spoilers) Perturabo’s ‘reason’ for attacking Tallarn is in Codex: Imperial Guard from circa 1995 – later versions don’t seem to cover it.
JF: I knew it pretty well. That was part of why I was so keen to do it. I loved the original pieces of lore from the ’95 Imperial Guard Codex. It was so evocative, but also left huge room for development. Part of the fun of a project like Tallarn is taking all of the things that have already been established and weaving them into something where they still all are true, but make sense in a new way.
ToW: Was the plan always to tackle this in a range of formats, as opposed to a novel in the numbered series?
JF: It was always the plan to tell it in multiple stories. It was such a big and prolonged campaign that do it in a simple single narrative did not make sense to me. In big conflicts in real history there are multiple sides and perspectives, all of which are radically different from each other: the people on the front line, the commanders who see some of the bigger picture, the spies, the leaders, and the heroes that no one will ever know about or remember. I wanted to reflect those multiple views in how Tallarn was told. What each story was going to feature changed as I worked on them, but the plan of showing the battle through lots of different perspectives was always there.
ToW: Linked to the last question, were the events of the short stories and audios always going to be part of the overall narrative, or did you come back at a later date and figure out what other stories to tell once Executioner and Ironclad were done?
JF: I came up with a timeline for the battle early in the project, and a version of that went into the limited edition of Executioner. So, when it came to doing more audios and short stories we went back to that timeline and drilled down into some of the events on that timeline.
ToW: Black Oculus ties the overall Tallarn arc in (in terms of time-frame) with the end of Angel Exterminatus. Was that important to you, to make sure this whole arc felt like it was closely tied in with the wider series, and not an isolated event? Was that also part of the thinking behind including Argonis in Ironclad?
JF: Sort of… Tallarn is a part of the wider story because once we are out of the very focused events of the early Heresy, everything is interconnected. The presence of a primarch at Tallarn, the quantity of forces involved mean that it would have to cause ripples and reactions from others forces and players in the war. The Warmaster was going to notice, and at the very least was going to have questions about why Perturabo was pursuing this campaign, and at such cost. Argonis came out of thinking about what Horus’ response would be and wanting to make that part of the story.
ToW: How important, in context of the wider Heresy, was the battle of Tallarn? Is its impact going to be directly felt as the Heresy series continues?
JF: It’s pretty important to the war. It represents one of the biggest ‘what ifs’ in the conflict. What if Perturabo had succeeded? How differently might everything else have turned out? It also has a big impact on the forces on both sides because the losses are so high. A lot of things die on Tallarn, and so end up not being there to tip the balance in later battles.
As part of the characters involved, it has a profound impact of Perturabo. His outlook and place within Horus’ forces has changed. How that plays out is something we will see as we move towards the Siege of Terra.
ToW: ‘Ten million tanks’ – that was a tagline referenced at a couple of Black Library events. Were you ever tempted to write a scene with tanks in the millions?
JF: Ha! Not really, to be honest. I tend to prefer to focus closely on a few characters in most of what I do, and doing that and including 10 MILLION TANKS! would be tricky without taking a really different approach.
ToW: What are your thoughts on the found-footage style of The Eagle’s Talon? Can you tell us anything about the decision-making behind choosing that particular style?
JF: It was really simple, actually. I had done quite a few audio dramas by that point, and was comfortable enough with the mechanics that I thought it would be fun to do something different. Around that time I happened to be on a seminar panel with Jim Swallow, and we ended up talking about how audio is best when sound mirrors storytelling. That got me thinking, and when it came time to do The Eagle’s Talon I decided to do it through overheard vox transmissions and narration by a character who was listening to the same transmissions. The idea was to make the experience of the listener and the in-universe listener the same. It was a lot of fun to write, and I was really pleased with how it turned out.
ToW: And what about Iron Corpses, the only story in the arc not written by you? Were you involved in the concept of that one as well?
JF: Both Iron Corpses and The Eagle’s Talon were based on entries on the Tallarn timeline I came up with at the start of the project, and which was included in the limited edition of Executioner. David (who is all round fantastic) and I had several chats about what he wanted to do, and how the two stories locked together. It was fun and I really like how the two play together and as part of the wider story.
ToW: Speaking of which, I also asked David Annandale to say a few words about Iron Corpses and his involvement with the Tallarn series…
DA: Iron Corpses emerged as part of a collaboration with John French. Its initial incarnation, of course, was as the second audio drama on the disc whose first story is John’s The Eagle’s Talon. The relationship between the two stories was sorted out through some brainstorming at a Horus Heresy Weekender, and later over Skype. As I recall, we were rather pleased with the idea of the sound effect of the enormous detonation ending one story and beginning the other. As for where I see Iron Corpses fitting in the Tallarn narrative, it is, of course, in one sense a story of aftermath. The most colossal engagement of the war is over. And yet, this is a violent aftermath. The war grinds on, much as the Iron Warrior Koparnos fights on beyond sense or purpose. He, and by extension the Titan he reactivates, are the walking dead. War in this region of Tallarn continues even though it no longer serves any strategic purpose. All that is left is war, and I see this as anticipating what is to come, on a wider scale, for the galaxy: a horrifying future where, indeed, there is only war.
ToW: Back to John. You’re known as an author who’s not afraid to tackle complex, layered plots, like in the Ahriman series and indeed with the Tallarn stories. Is that something you naturally gravitate to?
JF: It seems to be. I guess I like looking for an angle on any topic I tackle. I tend to want to tell stories that are less than straightforward, and look for those possibilities in any subject I tackle. It causes my editors headaches sometimes, but keeps things fresh. Having said that, it might be fun to do something simple for a change… Hmmm… Have to think about that.
ToW: What did you find the most challenging about writing these stories? Was there anything which really pushed you or taught you something during the writing process?
JF: Time and space. Ironclad was on a tight deadline, and even though we had agreed it needed to be a short novel rather than a novella, there was very little room to breathe. Because I had also picked a complex plot and structure, I had to be very precise in what I was doing, and work fast… which was fun.
ToW: Is there anything that you had planned to include but couldn’t quite fit into these stories? Equally, with the benefit of hindsight is there anything you wish you had included as well?
JF: In the end all of the things I had planned made it onto the page somewhere, and actually a couple I didn’t plan to write got added, like The Eagle’s Talon. I was pleased to get the chance to write Tallarn: Siren, and tell the story of how the loyalists got word out that the Iron Warriors were on Tallarn. It was one of the first ideas I had in the early days of the project, but needed to find a home in the whole narrative of the battle.
ToW: Aside from writing, do you have any hidden talents or unusual hobbies?
JF: Not that I am aware of… though I make a reasonable cup of coffee.
ToW: Lastly, what’s your recommended reading order for the Tallarn arc?
JF: Black Oculus
The Eagles’ Talon
ToW: I’ll let the last words be yours – anything else you want to add?
JF: A shameless plug…Praetorian of Dorn, my first novel in the numbered Horus Heresy series, comes out in August. It’s all about the Imperial Fists, Rogal Dorn, and the Alpha Legion launching an attack on the Solar System in the lead up to the Siege of Terra.
Massive thanks must go to John for taking the time to do this interview – I’m sure you’ll agree it’s fascinating stuff.
If you’d like to seek out John’s first Black Library story – Hunted – you can find it as an e-short on the Black Library website:
It was originally published in Hammer and Bolter issue 4 if you can dig out an original electronic copy or the collected Best of Hammer and Bolter: Volume 1.
Click here for a review of Praetorian of Dorn.