“I see ravens wheeling, but beyond the shadows there is only darkness.”
The Raven’s Claw is the first of Jonathan Curran’s two Black Library stories, a tale of betrayal and absolution. On a war-torn Imperial world, the planetary Governor watches from the relative safety of his palace while the city around him burns in the fire of rebellion. His personal psyker, a telepath tasked with identifying threats before they take place, finds his vision clouded and uncertain, his gift strangely dampened. Meanwhile a man wakes in the darkness of a penal legion dropship, with no memory of his name or who he is, and is thrown into the grind of war.
The bulk of the story is told from the viewpoint of the unknown man, who takes his name from a tattoo on his arm, the only clue to his identity. As he fights to survive he tries desperately to hold onto occasional flashes of his memory which offer tantalising hints to his history, while the real story behind the Governor and his telepath slowly comes to light. Both action-packed and characterful, there’s an elegant simplicity here that’s gradually revealed as the plot unfolds, until by the time it finishes you’re left with a great sense of (slightly grim) satisfaction. Great fun.
If you haven’t read any of these Forgotten Texts reviews before, here’s a quick recap – the idea is to look at a short story from the earlier days of Black Library’s publishing output, and to not just offer a review of the story, but also take a look at how it stands up today. This particular story is a 40k tale, and there’s no question that 40k has changed rather a lot since 1998 when this was first published. As such, it’s interesting to take a look at how this feels when held up against modern 40k stories.
From a narrative perspective, it feels very 40k-appropriate. A lot of these early stories were relatively straightforward in terms of their plotting, but while this boils down to a pretty simple concept, it’s delivered in a clever way that serves to reinforce the message – that the Imperium might feel distant when you’re the Governor of a planet…but if you step out of line, you’re going to regret it. This isn’t a happy story at all; it’s about a brutal regime doling out punishment, and being prepared to use some pretty unorthodox tools to do so. That’s pretty 40k, and the way it’s structured feels pretty much in keeping with some of the less battle-centric stories that you might see today.
That bleak subject matter translates into a tone that’s suitably dark and heavy, especially once you realise just what the Governor is up to and what’s going on with the protagonist. Unlike a couple of the really early Black Library stories, however, things don’t go too far down into the darkness – there’s a nice sense of camaraderie between the soldiers of the penal legion, which helps ground the story but also keep things relatively upbeat. Once everything’s been revealed and you reach the final climax of the story, it’s pretty bleak but somehow feels satisfying – bloody and violent for sure, but not depressingly dark.
Where it feels a little different to today’s 40k stories is in the world building – the little details that come together to build up a sense of where the story is taking place. Since these early stories, a lot of the small details have become embedded into a common 40k vocabulary, details which set a 40k story apart from other sci-fi settings. The bare essentials of these details are present here, the sort of things that were in the setting right from the outset, but a lot of the more characterful things are absent. Little things like a plastic lasgun stock or concrete walls, they’re minor details that might seem inconsequential but do make a difference. Don’t get me wrong, this is obviously a 40k story and couldn’t be confused for anything else…but it’s not quite full-on ‘modern’ 40k.
Of course, this is hardly surprising given the story’s age. Sure, some of these early stories feel pretty much as accurate as anything released today, but a lot of them don’t…because the little details weren’t all formalised at this point. So much has happened since then to really develop the identity of 40k, but one of the great things about stories like this one is that even without the little details, it demonstrates that the core of what we think of as the 40k setting hasn’t really changed that much. It was, give or take a few details, mostly there from the beginning. This might not quite fit in with the modern setting in terms of those details, but it certainly does work in terms of tone and content.
How to get hold of this story, then – that’s the final question. Like a fair few of these early short stories, it’s sadly no longer in print, but you should be able to find it in an anthology with a little bit of luck. It was first published in Inferno! magazine issue eight back in 1998, and while you might be able to pick up a copy of that on ebay it’s probably not the most cost-effective solution. Instead you’re better looking for one of the anthologies that it was included in – either 1999’s Into the Maelstrom or 2006’s Let the Galaxy Burn. A quick look at Amazon suggest that your best bet looks like Into the Maelstrom, used copies of which are available from a bargain £2.24 (at time of writing).
Or – and I know I’ve said this before – you could try emailing Black Library directly to ask them about reissuing this story, along with all the other great Inferno! stories that are no longer available. If enough people ask…
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.