Forgotten Texts: Orphans of the Kraken by Richard Williams

“For now, any action where no brother is lost must be victory enough…”

The first, and for a long time only, Black Library story focused on the Scythes of the Emperor, Orphans of the Kraken by Richard Williams takes place many years after the loss of Sotha and the Scythes’ near destruction at the hands of the Tyranids. Sergeant Tiresias, commanding the 21st Salvation Team, leads a handful of inexperienced, mismatched neophytes into the depths of a dead hive ship in search of long-lost brothers, or failing that, salvage. Unsurprisingly, things are not all they seem, and their mission takes an unexpected, dangerous turn.

Stories involving Space Marines in hive ships aren’t exactly rare, but this one is a cut above, given additional depth by its depiction of a Chapter surviving on scraps. Tiresias is deeply embittered, seeing little but shame in his mission and despair at his Chapter’s future. His recollection of what led him to this point sheds fascinating light on what happened to the Scythes post-Sotha, and that sense of despair imbues the whole story with a rare feeling of melancholy. Even when something from the Chapter’s past is introduced, the hope that’s engendered is fragile and tinged with inevitability. Neatly structured and full of clever touches, it’s a fine example of this type of story.

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Usually in Forgotten Texts I look at stories from the late 90s and early 00s, but this one isn’t quite that old. It’s such an interesting story though, and one that’s so crucial to the story of the Scythes, that I thought it would be fun to include it in this series despite its relatively young age. And so, as well as the usual look at how well this stands up today, I’m going to dig a little into the elements of this story that are particularly interesting in context of the wider Scythes arc.

Since Laurie Goulding started on his multi-story Scythes of the Emperor project, these guys have been seeing a lot more of the light…but back when Orphans of the Kraken was first published it felt very fresh and new to see a Chapter whose spirit had been dampened so much. These are Marines who have seen everything that defines them taken away, and who have been reduced to scrabbling in the dirt, metaphorically speaking, just to survive. Not only that, but they’ve seen the Ultramarines succeed where they failed…and that’s got to sting!

This sense of identity loss is really interesting and, ironically, lends the story a feel that’s reminiscent of some of the much earlier stories, from way back when 40k was less developed and Space Marines weren’t quite what they are today. By delving into the mind of a Marine who’s lost a lot of his drive, arguably even his faith, Williams tapped into that spirit of sort of undiscovered country. That might not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s certainly different to your standard Ultramarine/Space Wolf/Dark Angel type of story.

This is also a story that’s full of characterful little touches which make it feel as though the Scythes are a lot more developed and familiar than they really are. Reading this and seeing how Tiresias treats and thinks about his charges, there’s a hint of unexpected inequality that feels very relevant these days – he clearly looks down on those neophytes who he considers to be from a lower social order, dismissing one of them as a ‘trog savage’ while lambasting another for not living up to his pure, Sotharan heritage. This is all part of Tiresias’ character and outlook, so perhaps it was only intended to reflect his own views, but it helps the Scythes to stand out and not just feel like another Ultramarines successor chapter.

What’s also interesting is the way this feels like part of a bigger whole, despite (at the time of writing) being very much a standalone story. Tiresias’ discussions of the Chapter’s state, and his recollections of events preceding the main body of the story, cleverly build up a picture of where the Scythes are without going into too much detail. We infer a lot from our knowledge of Space Marines, and perhaps for those with long memories our knowledge of the Scythes’ history, but there’s enough here to make it feel like we’re picking up a story having already seen what happened first.

That’s then extended outward by the narrative circle that the story forms, but also by a few lovely little references scattered throughout that hint at what might happen next. Characters appear with clever little flourishes like the Marine who’s mentioned in a throwaway comment as having lost an arm, only to reappear at the end as a Sergeant, or the slightly sinister Brother Hadrios whose sudden appearance during one of Tiresias’ recollections is ever so brief, but strangely intriguing. Clearly intriguing enough for a certain Laurie Goulding to introduce him as a key part of the mystery in Slaughter at Giant’s Coffin.

So it’s an unexpectedly complex and compelling story, and one that has spawned (forgive the pun) an equally compelling body of work from Goulding who has built his various stories by keeping this at its heart. There’s the occasional strange touch, like a couple of characters with ranks that don’t fit into the usual Space Marine command structure, but they don’t cause any problems with the story, and in fact Goulding has taken them and used them to add another layer of detail separating the Scythes from other chapters. Other than that, there’s little to say other than to recommend this wholeheartedly – it’s fascinating stuff, brilliantly told. Go find a copy and enjoy!

Speaking of which, as a newer story than most I’ve covered in Forgotten Texts, this one is unsurprisingly still available to buy. It was first published in the Legends of the Space Marines anthology from 2010, before being included in 2014’s massive There Is Only War anthology, both of which are available to buy as ebooks from Black Library or Amazon (£6.99 and £14.99 respectively). It’s also available as a standalone e-short, from the same sources, for £2.49.

If you want to check it out on Amazon, click here.

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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 – and click here to see the full list of reviews and author interviews in this series.

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