Billed as ‘a novel from the Dark Imperium’, Shroud of Night is only the second Black Library novel to be released post #new40k, and coincidentally Andy Clark’s second novel. Within Imperium Nihilus, away from the light of the Astronomicon, the world of Tsadrekha is a point of light amidst the darkness, its miraculous beacon holding the armies of Chaos at bay. Sent by one of the competing Chaos warlords to find and and corrupt the beacon, the Unsung – an elite Alpha Legion unit – are soon caught between the Imperium’s defences and a brutal assault led by Khârn the Betrayer himself.
Unlike Guy Haley’s grand-scale Dark Imperium there’s a tight focus here – it’s less about the meta-narrative of 40k than about telling a single standalone story. The backdrop is the same and there are some big names involved – Khârn isn’t the only named character to show up – but this is a smaller-scale story. It’s still 40k, so there’s starships and daemons and sorcery (oh my!) aplenty, not to mention a big question around what the Tsadrekhan beacon actually is, but ultimately this is the story of a small group of highly skilled Marines plying their exceptional wares while a war rages around them. Various supporting characters get a few scenes to themselves, the highlight being an Imperial Fists captain with some strong opinions on his Primaris brothers, while Khârn, thankfully, is more of a force of nature than a viewpoint character. Mostly, though, it follows Kassar and the Unsung – a sort of dark, 40k-esque A-Team.
If that sounds a bit daft…it is. These are Marines with not so much a particular set of skills but all the skills, each with his own archetypal niche – the sniper, the tech guy, the heavy, the spymaster…BUT while on paper that sounds cheesy, in reality it’s just great fun. Clark’s choice of Alpha Legion proves well-founded, largely avoiding the ‘intrigue and mystery’ stereotype in favour of their precision and pragmatism, and – crucially – neutrality when it comes to the Chaos gods. Kassar’s determination to keep his men untainted by Chaos is a key theme, although a third-act twist is perhaps a little under-developed, while a neat backstory in which they’ve been isolated from the galaxy at large allows us to see the new elements of the galaxy through their unaware eyes. The dry, comradely banter between them, sometimes slipping into antagonism but just as often laced with surprising humour, nicely grounds the narrative, while little bits of Alpha Legion methodology should satisfy those hoping for legion-specific character.
Let’s be clear – if you’re after a serious, lore-heavy story or a complex and tightly-plotted mystery then this isn’t the book for you. Likewise if you want the classic Alpha Legion cross-plotting and artful machinations. If, however, you fancy a book filled with great inter-unit dialogue, inventive and hugely entertaining set pieces, badass Space Marines pulling crazy stunts while trying to figure out what a Primaris Marine is, and generally just over the top escapism…this should do the trick. Like Kingsblade, Clark’s first novel, it’s just fun – a little like how the Ciaphas Cain books are a bit of a 40k guilty pleasure amongst the brooding darkness. There are moments where it falls back into generic Space Marine dialogue or wibbly Chaos grossness, which are fine if nothing new, but for the most part it’s something different that stands out from the 40k crowd.