“Though we live for battle, a war is fought with wits as well as weapons.”
An eighteen-year-old Black Library story finally given the ebook treatment, Gav Thorpe’s Know Thine Enemy is a rare foray into the Salamanders for an author much better known for his Dark Angels stories. On the Imperial world of Slato, an Eldar artefact has been uncovered by the newly-arrived colonists. Sent to defend the colony while the artefact is studied, Chaplain Ramesis and his battle brothers must fight through Eldar ambushes to reach the embattled Imperial defenders. Guided by their hatred of the xenos, the Salamanders zealously discharge their duty…but are the Eldar the real enemy?
At its heart this is a story about trust…or rather, the lack of it. The Salamanders, the Imperial Guard, the Adeptus Mechanicus, the Eldar…none of them really trust the others, which is an apt representation of the Imperium as a whole. Plot-wise it’s quite straightforward, focusing on Ramesis as he leads his brothers in prayers and in battle, and proceeds with a fairly measured pace with the action coming in bursts and exposition coming in the form of dialogue amongst the Salamanders. It’s pretty standard (but enjoyable) stuff, albeit with a bleak ending in keeping with a lot of these early stories.
It’s unusual for me to cover a new release for Forgotten Texts, but as this is the first release in digital of a story first published in 1999 (despite what the e-short’s publication details say – see later for more…), it seems like a good opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. And so, as usual, let’s have a look at how this story, and Gav’s interpretation of the Salamanders as a chapter, holds up against 40k as it stands today.
Back in 1999 I don’t think there had been a huge amount written about the Salamanders – they certainly hadn’t had entire books dedicated to describing the chapter’s traits and idiosyncrasies, with the first of Nick Kyme’s Salamanders books (aptly named…Salamander), for example, not published until 2009. It’s interesting, then, to note where Gav’s depiction of the Salamanders matches up with what we know today, and where it deviates.
In terms of the former, there are some vivid descriptions of various warriors’ facial branding and ritual scarring, which tie in nicely with modern stories, their dark skin is mentioned, and there’s a single mention of the Promethean Cult. On the flip side, there’s none of the pyromania normally (these days) associated with Salamanders, no mention of glowing red eyes (not necessarily a bad thing…) and these are definitely not the champions of innocent humanity that we tend to think of the Salamanders as.
It’s actually really interesting to look at this, as it’s a great example of how some of the foundations were there at this point, but a lot of the other details have clearly been added over time. These are proto-Salamanders, already clearly set apart from other chapters but not yet fully fleshed out. Enough about the nature of the Salamanders, though…how about the rest of the story?
Well, as you might expect from Gav – someone who’s played an integral part of the development of 40k over the years – the overall sense of this being a 40k story is entirely present and correct. Pretty much all of the little details are there, albeit occasionally a touch outdated like the ‘comm-speaker’ in a Marine’s helmet or a dial on a Marine’s cuff to adjust the comm (it wasn’t vox, yet) frequency, and there’s even a brief discussion of the benefits of using an older pattern of helmet. The sense of distrust between the different factions, though, and the way they interact – it’s classic 40k, super dark and dystopian.
Which brings us nicely onto tone. A 40k story should be action-packed, for sure, with plenty of casual heroism when Space Marine characters are involved, but it should also be bleak and uncompromising. That’s exactly what this is, full of brilliantly grim touches like the Marine whose exploding plasma gun barely troubles him but prompts his captain to grumble about the reliability of his force’s weapons, or the mind-impulse cable ‘glistening with a thin sheen of blood’ after being withdrawn from a Mechanicus adept’s forehead. It definitely feels like an earlier, simpler and less well-developed 40k universe…but 40k nonetheless.
Overall it’s an entertaining story which benefits from a typically dark ending that lifts it past what might otherwise have been a touch over-simple, narratively. On the surface it’s a touch outdated and perhaps a slightly less complex story than the sort of thing you might see written today, but as Gav mentioned on Twitter it features themes which are still relevant, and still used. If you fancy a look at what the Salamanders were like before Nick picked up the baton, and before we saw what happened to them in the Heresy, this is worth a look.
While the first time this story was published in an anthology was 2001, in Dark Imperium (not to be confused with Guy Haley’s newly-announced novel of the same name), it was actually first published in issue fourteen of Inferno! magazine, two years previously. I normally look at the different ways to get your hands on these old stories, but obviously this one is now available as an ebook for a mere £2.49…but if you would prefer a physical copy, you should still be able to get hold of Dark Imperium second hand. A quick scan of Amazon (UK) shows a good few used copies available from upwards of £3. Either way, you shouldn’t have any difficulty getting hold of this story.
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.