Slaughter at Giant’s Coffin is LJ Goulding’s first full Black Library novel, and it’s also the first ever novel focusing on the Scythes of the Emperor. As the title suggests, and its nature as a Space Marine Battles book, this focuses on a single action…the Scythes’ defence of the Giant’s Coffin bastion, on Miral Prime. Having lost their homeworld of Sotha to Hive Fleet Kraken, the battered remnants of the Scythes regroup in the Miral system, where the returning Chapter Master Thorcyra plans to rebuild the chapter. The shadow of the Kraken looms large however, and things look very bleak.
The Scythes are defined in 40k by their losses to the Tyranids, and that idea is developed here with the depiction of Space Marines who are beaten and broken, physically and psychologically. The damage they’ve suffered has been catastrophic, and left so much of their identity irrevocably lost that they can’t really operate as a chapter any more. They can still fight, but they’ve been diminished by the loss of their belief, their drive and motivation. This leads to a dark, melancholic story but also to a strangely humanised set of characters. Unexpectedly, when you strip so much away from a Space Marine he apparently becomes much more human – conflicted, weakened, and emotional.
This is only a short novel, longer than a Beast Arises book for example but shorter than a lot of others, so there’s maybe not enough room to fully develop all of the characters or tie off all of the plot threads. Strangely enough that doesn’t detract too much though; there’s still a powerful sense of the aforementioned psychological damage, even if some individual characters don’t get quite as much development as you might like, and plot-wise it benefits from both a tight core focus and a strong body of supporting short fiction. It’s a rare Space Marine Battles book that doesn’t tell an entire story, but setting this within the context of the Scythes’ (almost) total destruction means that it can’t hope to cover everything…so Goulding doesn’t try to.
As a result, this absolutely benefits from reading the rest of Goulding’s Scythes short stories, and crucially Richard Williams’ excellent Orphans of the Kraken, which hints at answers to at least some of the questions Slaughter… leaves unanswered. There’s a strong sense of mystery underpinning this story, which might leave some readers feeling unsatisfied, but helps give it a sense of scale as befits the wider tragedy. Some might take umbrage at the perceived incompletion of the story, but this does in fact do what it sets out to – it tells the story of the battle in question. It also poses a lot of questions that prompt the reader to think carefully about what they’ve read, which is becoming something of a trademark in Goulding’s work. Presumably (and hopefully) we’ll get more answers in future works…