As usual Black Library closed off 2016 with an Advent Calendar series, which gave us 24 short stories or audio dramas from across the range of settings – 40k, Horus Heresy, Age of Sigmar and even Blood Bowl. As I did for the last couple of years, I read the stories as they came available and posted reviews of each one, but now it’s all over I want to take a moment to look back at the Advent Calendar as a whole.
The most notable thing for me about last year’s Advent Calendar was the lack of a strong theme – entitled Call of Chaos, it was a little disappointing to see no real sense of identity to the collection as a whole, other than the fact that all of the stories were Chaos-related. That felt odd, especially as previous years had tended to be quite strongly themed. Thankfully, 2016 was a major return to form (in my opinion, at least) not just in the standard of stories but also the clear theme running through pretty much the whole thing – of connections.
One of the key attractions (for me at least) of Black Library fiction is the idea that there are all these stories being told by different people, all within the same key settings. While there’s no need for any two stories to be linked specifically, because they’re still connected by virtue of being set in one of these familiar worlds, Black Library are once again doing a great job of creating content that links stories together. Short stories and audio dramas provide great opportunities to tell the sort of tales that link in together, carrying on secondary arcs or introducing new themes and characters, and this time round there was a real sense that these stories were designed to do exactly that.
I’ll take a look at some of those links shortly, but first let’s take a moment to say thanks to Black Library for something…
New Blood Bowl stories!
While it’s not exactly a surprise, given the release of the new version of the game, it’s still an absolute joy to be getting these stories. November saw the release of Manglers Never Lose by Josh Reynolds, so to see a further three stories in December was amazing. The fact that they were all genuinely good stories as well? Icing on the cake. If you haven’t read these yet, and/or fancy checking out a review of each one, you can find the links to my reviews below:
Considering how good Josh’s two stories have been, and the reviews they’ve been getting (Manglers… is rated 5 out of 5 on Goodreads, while Doc Morgrim… is at 4.33) the assumption is that at some point we’ll see a full Blood Bowl novel from Josh. If it isn’t clear already…that is A VERY GOOD THING!
It’s probably not escaped your attention that these days there’s a Coming Soon section on the Black Library website, which lists a load of upcoming titles. We’ve also seen plenty more announced either in the book trade or at events (see here), so we know already that there are lots of interesting new titles coming up over the next year or so. That in itself is remarkable – the fact that Black Library are back to letting us know what’s coming up, and I’ve seen loads of interest already for a lot of these upcoming books. Clearly someone over at Black Library has considered how else they might get people excited about new books – by releasing short stories leading into the novels, that’s how!
A good number of the Advent stories were clearly designed to do just that, to introduce us to characters from some of these new books, so here’s a rundown of the stories and what they suggest we can look forward to. I’ve included the covers of upcoming novels where possible…just because they’re cool!
Carcharadons: The Reaping Time by Robbie MacNiven
When this was released, Robbie’s novel Carcharadons: Red Tithe was still slated for a January release, but it actually received an early digital-only release on Boxing Day so you can already read more about Te Kahurangi and his brothers. It’s a nice introduction to the Carcharadons as a chapter, and should give some clues as to the sort of story Red Tithe is going to be.
The Maiden of the Dream by John French
This introduced us to Mylasa Yeygus, one of Inquisitor Covenant’s band of acolytes. We’ll presumably see more of her in John’s novel The Horusian Wars: Resurrection when that’s released, alongside characters like Covenant, Preacher Josef and Lieutenant Ianthe, who we’ve already seen in The Purity of Ignorance. Expect strangeness aplenty, and a sense of nostalgia for anyone who was into the old Inquisitor game.
The Calculus of Battle by David Guymer
The Kardan Stronos in this audio drama is Warleader of the Iron Hands, but David Guymer’s novel The Heart of Meduson is going to show Stronos as a younger man, before he reached his ‘current’ position in the chapter. Guymer seems to have got a really good handle (sorry) on the Iron Hands, so I’ve got high hopes for the novel.
The Embrace of Pain by Ian St. Martin
We’ve already had one Lucius short story from Ian St. Martin – In Wolves’ Clothing from the 2015 Advent Calendar – but that was more about his victim than Lucius. This one gives more of an introduction to the Emperor’s Children swordsman himself, as he is in the current 40k timeline. It also has some gross SFX as a bonus!
Becoming by Andy Clark
Everyone loves Imperial Knights, right? Andy Clark’s Kingsblade is his debut novel for Black Library, but the blend of chivalry and massive walker action in this short story suggests that it’s going to be a good ‘un!
The Road of Blades by Josh Reynolds
There haven’t been too many details revealed as yet about Josh’s upcoming Age of Sigmar novel The Eight Lamentations (although you can read some here) but it looks from this story like Ahazian Kel is going to be one of several characters doing their damndest to get hold of some exceptionally dangerous weapons. Sounds good!
The Art of Provocation by Josh Reynolds
I’ve included this one even though there’s not been anything announced about further Lukas the Trickster stories. If you’ve not listened to it, why not? Go buy it and listen now! If you have, you’ll understand just how perfect a fit Lukas is for Josh’s style, and just how amazing a full novel, or maybe some more audios, would be!
So those are all stories that are clearly (well…hopefully, in the case of the last one) leading up to other books coming out. These next two are a little different in that there’s been nothing mentioned before or since about what they might link in with…but everything else seems to be pointing towards more stories so who knows? Maybe these will too…
Wraithbound by JC Stearns
The first Black Library story from Stearns, this sees a combined force of craftworld and corsair eldar taking on orks in the skies above a brutalised Imperial world. I’m not sure quite where it would go if there was a novel to follow, but I enjoyed this enough to be happy to find out.
Unearthed by Rob Sanders
A tale of the Inquisition going up against the Alpha Legion, for me this was the one disappointment of the whole Advent Calendar. I really didn’t feel like I had any attachment to the main protagonist or any sense of depth to the antagonist…but perhaps that will come with further stories.
It’s not all introductions – while those nine stories deal with setting the scene for what’s to come in brand new books, and the three Blood Bowl stories plow their own furrow, the remaining twelve are all linked in to previous releases. Some of these also seem to lead into future releases, while others tie off loose plot threads or build on what’s been released so far. Let’s start off with the Horus Heresy stories:
Perpetual by Dan Abnett
The first story of the Advent Calendar, this audio picks up Oll Persson’s arc after Know No Fear and Unmarked. Compared to a lot of Black Library stuff it’s slow and heavy on the dialogue, but in my opinion it nicely carries on Oll’s story while also throwing in a bunch of cool pre-Heresy references. It might not be to everyone’s taste, but I loved it. Whether or not this means Dan is going to be carrying on Oll’s arc…that remains to be seen.
Into Exile by Aaron Dembski-Bowden
This one ties beautifully in with Aaron’s latest novel, The Master of Mankind, as it gives a useful insight into the character of Arkhan Land. He plays a pretty big part in the novel, so it’s cool to see a bit of what he was like beforehand. As to which one you should read first, given that the novel’s only just come out and plenty of people won’t have read it yet…it’s hard to say. I’m quite glad I read the novel first, but if you prefer to read stories chronologically then go for this first.
The Grey Raven by Gav Thorpe
Following on from Gav’s novella Weregeld, this picks up the arc of the Raven Guard’s Chief Librarian Balsar Kurthuri as he returns to Terra. It’s clearly intended as the end (for now, at least) of that particular arc, and rewards (but doesn’t require) you having read Weregeld already.
The Soul, Severed by Chris Wraight
Eidolon played his part in Chris’ The Path of Heaven, and he’s back in this audio drama. On the one hand it’s a good excuse to show off some brilliant SFX with the kakophoni, but on the other hand it’s a clear turning point for Eidolon and the Emperor’s Children. As to what role Fulgrim’s going to play in the rest of the Heresy…that’s still unclear.
The Painted Count by Guy Haley
The first of two stories set after Pharos (although the other one is set quite a bit later), this is one of the more spoilerific Advent stories in that it overtly confirms that one particular Night Lords character survives the events of the novel. It feels like this is a bit like The Soul, Severed in that it’s the turning point for the Night Lords – remember that both Kurze and Sevatar are absent from the rest of the legion, who’ve got to figure out what to do next.
Valerius by Gav Thorpe
Another story following on from Weregeld, this time Gav takes the character of Marcus Valerius and shows us the conclusion (well, sort of) of his arc. This one’s almost as bleak as the preceding novella…almost. It’s a more subtle audio drama than some of the others, and focuses on Marcus’ faith and where that leads him.
Exocytosis by James Swallow
I’ve included this story here on the basis that we have technically seen both Calas Typhon and Luther in previous Heresy stories, although it does feel more than anything like the start of what’s to come for Typhon and the Death Guard. It’s quite a clever story actually, with the two legions taking on slightly different roles to what you might expect.
The Last Son of Prospero by Chris Wraight
The final Advent story of the series and probably the best, although also very spoilerific if you haven’t read The Path of Heaven (although if that’s the case…why not?!). This definitely finishes off one character’s arc, albeit with the assistance of a few other familiar faces, but it does so in a way that’s neat, evocative and above all…genuinely surprising.
That’s the Heresy stories covered, but what about 40k and Age of Sigmar? There are only two of each left to cover, so here we go…
Prodigal by Josh Reynolds
Another story that you could choose to read before or after the main novel – this time the recently released Fabius Bile: Primogenitor. It’s a great little story, much like the other Fabius shorts which are yet to appear in general releases (currently only in the LE hardback of Primogenitor and the Black Library Live 2016 chapbook), and will work regardless of whether you read it first or second. Do read it though…it’s really good!
The Aegidan Oath by LJ Goulding
The second story linked to Pharos, and arguably not an actual 40k story as it’s set about 1,000 years after the Heresy – so around M32. It’s also a precursor to the upcoming Slaughter at Giant’s Coffin, also by LJ Goulding, so we get links back to Pharos and the Heresy, and forward to the Scythes of the Emperor in 40k.
Bear Eater by David Guymer
This one’s an Age of Sigmar story, which follows on from the Knights of Vengeance series of audio dramas. Mannfred von Carstein is still very much the thematic antagonist here, even if he doesn’t actually make an appearance, and it’s another example of the freedom that the Age of Sigmar setting provides authors. Presumably we’re also going to be seeing more of Hamilcar Bear Eater at some point.
Pantheon by Guy Haley
Another Age of Sigmar story, although like The Aegidan Oath it’s sort of not…given that the bulk of the story takes place somewhere after the death of the World That Was, but before the events of AoS. I’ve included it in this section because we see Sigmar and Alarielle, who have both featured in the AoS fiction so far, and because it seems unlikely that we’re going to be seeing much more (yet) from that in-between period. Presumably we’re going to be getting more from both of those gods though, so keep your eyes peeled.
Advent in numbers
As usual I’ll do a quick summary of the Advent Calendar in numbers, breaking down the split of stories and taking a look at the pricing. Here’s how it breaks down:
By setting (out of 24):
- Warhammer 40,000 : 10
- Horus Heresy: 8
- Warhammer Age of Sigmar : 3
- Blood Bowl : 3
- Short story: 18
- Audio drama: 6
Price-wise it’s much more standardised than previous years – short stories (which were all roughly the same length, none were micro-shorts) were all £1.99 while audio dramas were all £2.99. That makes it much easier, and to be honest I’d say those are pretty good prices. Here’s how the cost works out:
Cost of subscription: £39.99
Total cost individually: £53.76
As you can see, the subscription is definitely the most cost-effective way of getting hold of these stories…on the assumption that you want to read all of them.
So I hope it’s clear that with just the one exception (in my opinion), this year’s Advent Calendar has been of a seriously high quality. The only downside however, has been a series of technical difficulties which plagued my access to these stories. As per previous years I picked up the subscription, which in theory should have meant I would be able to download each story from around 10am each morning. In theory.
How it works, if you’ve never bought one of these subscriptions before, is you see three folders against the subscription in the My Downloads section of your account: one for ePub files, one for Mobi files, and one for MP3s. Each day the relevant folder (or folders) for that day’s story is updated to include the additional file, which means when you download that folder you get a zip file with all of the relevant files inside. That does mean that you’re downloading increasingly large files, but that’s a conversation for another day I think. Generally speaking, I understand why Black Library do it that way, and on the assumption that each morning the new file appears…it should work fine.
The problem was, and I’ve had this before with previous subscriptions…quite often the new files just weren’t appearing. I’d be ready to download at 10am but the relevant folder would be still the same size as the day before, and when downloaded/extracted it would only contain the same number of files. To be fair to Black Library’s customer service team they did their best to help me out, but this happened SO many times (and has happened so many times before) that I eventually lost a bit of interest. I’d try to download first thing, then if the new file didn’t appear I’d just not bother, and only try again later that evening.
That’s not what the Advent Calendar should be about! Ultimately…I got hold of all 24 stories. I’ve got nothing to complain about, in that respect. I just don’t think it’s a good system. I really, really hope that Black Library either properly fix this, or better yet just figure out a simpler way of getting the content to the subscribers. If anyone reading this had the same issue – please, please get in touch with Black Library’s customer services to say so. The more people who mention it, the more likely it will be fixed! I know I want to be excited about getting hold of new content, not frustrated.
To sum up…
I basically say this every year, but the Advent Calendar idea is brilliant, and this year it’s been a great selection of stories. Highlights? For me, I’d say The Last Son of Prospero purely as the best, most mind-blowing story; The Art of Provocation as the funniest Black Library audio drama I’ve ever heard; and a collective THANK YOU to Black Library for the Blood Bowl stories. In fact, I’d like to say thanks to all of the authors who contributed, for all the entertainment you’ve provided!
2017 is looking like a very good year for us Black Library fans…bring it on!