“A harsh mistress indeed, and given to treachery at the last.”
Tenebrae, by Mark Brendan, is a rare 40k story in that it’s almost entirely free of blade- or gun-wielding action. A grim, hopeless tale of a world crushed by the hand of Chaos, it follows Imperial Governor Dane Cortez as he watches the final moments of the world he should have protected – Tenebrae, a world on the fringes of the Eye of Terra, perpetually shrouded in darkness. As the forces of Chaos run riot Cortez resigns himself to his failure, only to find that in the depths of his despair there lurks more than just fear and shame.
This is very much a character piece, peering into the mind of Cortez as he rapidly breaks down while his planet burns. He begins the story maintaining a facade of control, but that soon falls away as he forces himself to confront what’s happening and relive his failures, and we learn more of both his character and his world. It’s unremittingly bleak, but powerfully gripping, and the lack of action doesn’t diminish the impact of the story. It’s a tale where the antagonists are distant but menacing by their very presence, and the threat is as much to Cortez’s soul as his body.
It’s not often that a 40k story, or indeed a Black Library story of any sort, leaves the action as far behind as this one does. It makes for an interesting instalment of Forgotten Texts as there’s an opportunity here to take a look at the wider 40k world but without the familiar comforts of in-your-face fighting and the usual cast of protagonists. Without the visible war, what’s left is the psychological impact of living in the hellish Imperium, played out for a single character.
What that means is that it’s quite hard to assess how this fits in with the state of 40k right now, as it’s such an unfamiliar style of story. Let’s give it a go anyway, though…
Tonally, there’s no question – this is as bleak and dark a story as you could hope to find, without even a hint of hope to brighten things up. The weight of that darkness presses down all the way through, from a grim moment of panicked suicide early on to Cortez’s increasingly frenzied thought processes as he dwells on what’s happening. In fact it’s perhaps a little too dark compared to contemporary 40k stories, but it certainly feels like Brendan had a good handle on what life is like in the Imperium – even for a character pretty much at the top.
Where the story’s age starts to show is in Cortez’s reactions to seeing the forces of Chaos – even for an Imperial Governor, his knowledge of what these creatures are doesn’t quite fit with how it would be depicted these days. Knowledge of the Chaos pantheon was probably something that was taken for granted in stories written twenty years ago, but now it jars a little to see anyone outside of the Space Marines or the Inquisition being able to name even the gods, never mind individual types of daemon. It’s not a problem, just highlights the way in which Chaos and its representation has developed over time.
As for the style of story, with action relegated in favour of a psychological character study of a single character and essentially no other characters…I would perhaps be surprised to see another quite like this any time soon. It would be a pleasant surprise, as I think there’s definitely room in Black Library fiction for stories where the war in Warhammer is shown more as the backdrop than the main purpose – and we do occasionally see stories of a quieter, more thoughtful variety. But these tend to be small scale and full of dialogue – a story like this with such a big subject but only a single character? It’s rare – it would be fun to see one of the current crop of authors give it a go, though!
If you’ve been following these Forgotten Texts articles you’ll be familiar with the process of how to get hold of this story, if you fancy checking it out yourself. Like several of the earlier instalments, after being published in Inferno! magazine (issue 2, in 1997) this was subsequently reprinted in the Into the Maelstrom anthology, which you can pick up on Amazon second hand for as little as 1p plus P&P. Alternatively you could go for the hefty Let the Galaxy Burn omnibus, which contains vastly more stories but is a little rarer and likely to go for more money if you can find a copy.
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 a look at another story from the depths of the Black Library archive.