“You will set your eyes on the heart of Varantha, and all will come to an end”
Matthew Farrer’s second story for Black Library, and his first Warhammer 40,000 tale, Snares and Delusions sees Chaplain De Haan of the Word Bearers corrupting an Eldar Exodite world in his search for the craftworld Varantha and his foretold destiny. Possessed of boundless reserves of hatred and convinced he’s on the path to glory, De Haan is utterly focused on bringing the loathed craftworld to heel in spite of the Eldar’s reputation for trickery. Even when his words of fire and hate fail him before a sermon to his flock, his self belief remains absolute…
Everyone loves a villain, and Word Bearers make excellent villains. De Haan is a classic 40k bad guy, ambitious to a fault but backed up by thousands of years of success – until (relatively) recently. We see flashbacks of the events that led to his overwhelming obsession with Varantha, and while Farrer somehow imparts just a touch of empathy for De Haan, there’s an enjoyable sense of anticipation for what form his inevitable comeuppance will take. The action when it finally appears is vicious and suitably chaotic, but this is all about the buildup, and the payoff at the end is satisfyingly final. Excellent stuff.
Considering how well-respected he is among Black Library fans, Matthew Farrer has written a surprisingly small number of books and stories so far – but as his first 40k story, this is as good a place as any to start if you’re not yet familiar with his writing. It’s not exactly representative in terms of subject matter (he hasn’t since written a huge amount of Chaos-related stories) but it’s a good introduction to his imaginative, clever storytelling.
That’s all well and good of course, but the purpose of Forgotten Texts is to consider how these old stories compare when held up against the setting (in this case 40k) as it currently is, and the type of stories being released by Black Library these days. As such, let’s take a look at a few key areas of this story, beginning with…
…the protagonist, Chaplain De Haan. Unlike some of the other stories I’ve covered in Forgotten Texts, while De Haan isn’t a familiar character per se he’s certainly a familiar type of character. Word Bearers have long been the moustache-twirling go-to guys for 40k, and while De Haan is a touch one-dimensional he’s both sufficiently engaging and surprisingly familiar. There have been plenty of Word Bearer bad guys in 40k and Heresy stories recently, not least Varakh’Lorr in Andy Clark’s Kingsblade, and De Haan is cunning, manipulative and arrogant enough to fit in nicely with his more modern companions.
What’s perhaps less familiar these days is the style of story, which takes the form of a single character’s tragedy – by which I mean rise and then fall – but where the we’re (ultimately, at least) meant to WANT to see him fail and fall. There are plenty of tragic stories still being told in 40k, and also plenty of stories which follow characters who are nominally ‘bad guys’, but not so many told from the perspective of a character who is ultimately both unsympathetic and doomed. That was much more of a theme back in the earlier days of Black Library, and seems to have fallen by the wayside a little recently. It’s certainly not a bad thing, to tell a story like this – just uncommon, these days.
Ultimately I think the main criteria by which we judge a story as feeling like a 40k story is its tone – does it feel suitably dark, gothic and dystopian? This story is certainly dark, full as it is with broken and beaten slaves and prisoners, armour and weaponry creepily infused with the stuff of chaos, and a protagonist who’s driven exclusively by blinkered hatred. There’s a heavy focus on the twisted and warped chaotic nature of De Haan and his cohorts, which works well and feels appropriate to the subject matter, although as with many of these earlier stories it’s perhaps a little less gothic and quasi-mythic feeling in places. Modern 40k stories featuring Space Marines, loyal or otherwise, are often characterised by rather formal-sounding dialogue that helps characterise Marines as different from standard humans. This doesn’t really have that – on the one hand that does set it apart a little from modern day 40k, but on the other hand it nicely avoids the stiff, over-formal dialogue that sometimes plagues stories these days.
So overall I’d say this one is a touch removed from current 40k stylings in a few places, but for the most part still feels very familiar and appropriate. It might not quite fit if you put it up against an Ahriman or Abaddon short story for example, but it’s no less enjoyable or worth reading for that fact. It’s certainly a long way off the Ian Watson-esque madness of yesteryear that you really would struggle to reconcile against modern 40k stories.
Which leads us to the usual question of how to get hold of this. Happily, this is one of the rare older 40k stories that’s still available direct from Black Library – or at least, as part of an anthology it is. Like most of the stories I’ve covered in Forgotten Texts so far it was first published in Inferno! Magazine – issue 16 – and was then reprinted in two anthologies – first in 2001’s Dark Imperium and again in 2006’s Let the Galaxy Burn. Unlike most of the others, it was then reprinted AGAIN in 2014 as part of the There Is Only War anthology. This is no longer available in paperback (so get trawling those charity shops if you’re after a physical copy) but you can still pick it up as an ebook for £14.99. With no less than forty short stories included, I’d say that’s a bit of a bargain.
I hope you enjoyed this instalment of Forgotten Texts. If there are any classic Black Library stories that you would like to put forward for a review, please do let me know, and likewise if you’ve got any comments or feedback. Check back next week for the next instalment where I’ll be taking a look at another story from the Black Library archives.