On the twenty-fifth day of Christmas, Black Library gave to us…a World Eaters novel from Anthony Reynolds. Released on Christmas Day as the final part of the 2014 advent calendar, Khârn : Eater of Worlds is set post-Heresy, looking at the fractured and damaged remnants of the World Eaters legion in the aftermath of the Siege of Terra. Their primarch is gone, the chain of command ravaged, and rival factions are forming and threatening to rip the legion apart; the only one who might be able unify the legion is Khârn, but he lies unresponsive in a coma after being pulled from the battlefield on Terra.
Despite the title, this is very much a book about the World Eaters as a whole, and not just Khârn himself. It’s told mostly through the eyes of another captain, Dreagher of the Ninth, and of a human woman, Skoral, a medicae thrall and the closest thing the Ninth company has to an apothecary. While some readers might prefer Khârn to be front and centre for the whole story, by telling it this way Reynolds is able to really show just how bad a state the World Eaters are in, and what Khârn means to them at this point. By looking at characters from Skoral and her fellow humans through to a range of World Eaters at various points on the madness scale, not to mention a couple of Emperor’s Children as polar opposites to the World Eaters, he’s able to show the legion in an interesting light, conflicted, rudderless, slaves to their nature but just possibly, at this point still salvageable.
The narrative DNA of the Heresy series, not least Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s Betrayer, is clearly visible throughout this book; it’s in stark contrast to the way the World Eaters used to be portrayed as nothing more than frothing berserkers (although clearly that does apply to some of them at this point), once again demonstrating how even monsters as damaged as the World Eaters can be portrayed as layered, complex, relatable characters. It’s also a step up in quality from Reynolds’ previous Chaos Space Marine novels, the entertaining but nowhere near as clever or well-written Word Bearers series.
The main criticism to be levelled is that the book is simply too short. Coming in at perhaps 80k words or so, it’s maybe a third shorter than most Black Library novels; while it’s a thoroughly entertaining story, plotted and paced well, there is inevitably the issue of value when placed up against other novels. This also ties into a question around how much ground it covers – without offering spoilers, there is clearly need for another book to cover the remaining parts of Khârn’s story, so the question has to be asked (given this book’s length) whether the whole thing couldn’t have been covered in a single volume. That notwithstanding (we’ll have to wait to answer that question until the next one is released) this is an impressive, satisfying novel, despite its brevity, and is well worth reading for any 40k fan, but especially those with a penchant for the World Eaters and their particular brand of brutality.