Gav Thorpe’s 70-minute audio drama Asurmen: The Darker Road comes nearly two years after its predecessor in the fledgling Phoenix Lords series, the short novel Asurmen: Hand of Asuryan. This time we see the first of the Phoenix Lords arriving at Craftworld Ulthwé in time to join Eldrad Ulthran on an expedition to the Crone Worlds, to claim an artefact that could guarantee the safety of Ulthwé and its people. Accompanied by the head of Ulthwé’s Seer Council, Asurmen guides his fellows through their perilous journey, but his presence doesn’t necessarily denote success for the mission.
Where Hand of Asuryan spanned two time periods – contemporary 40k as well as before/during the Fall – here we stick to a single timeline, and a more linear plot. A big draw for the novel was seeing the sort of proto-Eldar, and that’s carried on here by setting the story not long (relatively speaking) after the Fall and into the development of the Craftworld Eldar. We’re seeing the Eldar in a different position to how they are ‘now’; Eldrad is young, the concept of Exarchs being irrevocably tied to their paths is still new…but they’re still the arrogant, aloof race that we know and love.
The title might just be a clue as to the tone of this story; the plot sees some of Ulthwé’s brightest on a mission of hope…but we know what’s in the future for the Eldar race, and it’s not exactly bright. The concept of the ‘path’ is hugely important for the Eldar, and this looks at how the sacrifice of the few can be for the benefit of the many; like an Exarch dedicating himself to Khaine so that he can pass on his skills, or a farseer sacrificing much for the future of a craftworld. Along the way there’s fighting aplenty, but the main draw here is the narrative and not the action – it progresses at a measured pace, as opposed to jumping straight into the midst of battle.
As the second instalment of this loose series it seems to extend what the first novel did, by expanding upon the character of the Eldar at this point in time and highlighting some of their early development. Hopefully that will continue as the series goes on, and we’ll see further audio dramas alongside the novels. The production values on Black Library audio dramas just keep getting better, and this is no exception; the six-strong voice cast all do excellent work as usual, while a range of atmospheric sound effects (not least the distorting effect of the Eldar’s helms) and music combine to create a genuinely immersive experience. All told this is an impressive, thought-provoking package that combines careful storytelling with the sense of experience that you can only get with an audio product.