“Just my type of scum!”
The story that introduced us to the 13th Penal Legion, Gav Thorpe’s Last Chance was first published in 1998, two years before Kage, Colonel Schaeffer and the rest of the Last Chancers were fleshed out in the novel 13th Legion. We first meet Kage sprinting through sniper-threatened no man’s land and stumbling across a platoon of Mordian Iron Guard, clearly keen to be anywhere other than where he is. After arousing the suspicion of the platoon’s Commissar, he regales the soldiers detailed to guard him with the story of how he ended up under Schaeffer’s dangerous command.
Kage is irredeemably awful but instantly engaging, an anti-hero who knows exactly how bad he is and doesn’t care. We see the action mostly from his foul mouthed (for Black Library) and brutally self serving viewpoint, and the first person perspective really helps to bring out his personality and set the tone for the story. As the shells fly and Kage is forced to fight alongside the inexperienced Mordians, it becomes clear that this is the story of a born survivor, and we can kick back and enjoy the spectacle. It’s a brilliant introduction to a classic character, with a unique identity in 40k.
While the Last Chancers series ended (pretty conclusively) back in 2004 with the final novel, Annihilation Squad, these characters are immortalised in Imperial Guard lore within the 40k game…you can’t get much more classic than that. As the very first instalment of the series, this is a fascinating story to come back to and see where it all began, and like a lot of these early stories it’s heavy with nostalgia for readers of a certain vintage.
As usual, the big question is whether this feels appropriate to 40k as it is today, some nineteen years after it was first published.
I would in fact argue that of all of the early short stories I’ve covered so far in Forgotten Texts, this is the one that’s closest to the current-day setting! There’s nothing here that would feel out of place in a gritty, trench warfare-style Imperial Guard story, from the descriptions of Guard weapons and regimental organisation to the sense of nerve-shredding carnage just from being in the trenches.
Okay, the tone is a bit different, and that’s what sets this (and the Last Chancers as a whole) apart from pretty much every other Imperial Guard story. It’s not detailing the actions of noble, honourable guardsmen; this and all the Last Chancers stories are about the lowest, scummiest fighters, the soldiers who are only allowed to fight so that they can be hurled into the thick of the fiercest fighting without their commanders having to worry about wasting decent Imperial lives.
It’s totally different to your normal Guard stories in that respect, but put the first person perspective and Kage’s potty mouth aside and you’ve got something that feels visceral, brutal and ABSOLUTELY in keeping with the overall tone of 40k. It’s dark, it’s relentless, the violence is vivid without being gratuitous, and it feels like part of the 40k universe. It also does an impressive job of feeling like part of the Last Chancers series already (bearing in mind they were still a way off being fully fleshed out), with just enough hints about the Colonel and life in a penal legion to make it abundantly clear what’s going on.
Beyond that, it’s deeply enjoyable; when written well, anti-heroes can be endlessly entertaining, and Kage is a great example of this. If you haven’t read any of the Last Chancers stories, this is a great place to start and to get a taste of what to expect.
How to get hold of this story is a little different, this time around. Unlike the previous stories I’ve covered for Forgotten Texts, this hasn’t been collected in anthologies or anything like that. If you want to find it as a standalone short story, as far as I can tell the only way to do it would be to get hold of a copy of Inferno! issue 5. However, your other option is to pick up the novel 13th Legion, as this story was actually reworked and used as part of one of the chapters in the novel. It’s not exactly the same, but the core of it is there. Happily, you can pick up 13th Legion in ebook for a bargain £6.99 either via the Black Library website, the Kindle store or iBooks.
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. Next week it’s back to the Underhive with another Necromunda story from way back in the old archives.