Carcharadons: Red Tithe is Robbie MacNiven’s second Black Library novel (after the serialised Legacy of Russ) and the first novel to really focus in on the Carcharadons as a Space Marine chapter. On the penal world of Zartak, deep within the dwindling adamantium mines, thousands of convicts toil under their arbitrator overseers’ supervision. Only young Skell, gifted with the mixed blessing of foresight, understands that darkness is approaching Zartak. Two fleets of predators, each intent on the same objectives – slaves, materiel and Skell himself. Caught between the Carcharadons and the Night Lords, the Imperial defenders see little to choose between the two.
With a full name – Carcharadon Astra – that translates as Space Sharks, it would be easy to assume that this chapter is a bit…silly. Not so. MacNiven takes the classic 40k grimdark and ramps it up to eleven, portraying the Carcharadons and Night Lords as two sides of the same brutal, hyper-violent coin. It’s not a case of contrast, but rather rivalry – which side can prove itself the most ferocious, the masters of darkness and terror – with the mortal Imperial defenders little more than tools, or distractions. Both live by their own codes and values, none of which are anything approaching ok in real-world terms, but in 40k terms really aren’t that different. For Skell and the handful of other surviving prisoners or arbitrators both sides are appalling, equally horrific with little to tell them apart…and that’s without knowing what either side truly hopes to achieve.
In amongst the darkness and brutality, MacNiven does a good job of providing a balanced range of characters. Skell is young but savvy, terrified of what’s coming but stronger than he realises, while arbitrator Rannik is fragile despite her training, and proves susceptible to manipulation by both sides – between them the mortals do the usual job of grounding the story, but also hammer home the horror of both sets of Marines. MacNiven’s Night Lords are a young (for Marines) warband, full of bitter arrogance and plagued by disloyalty, who initially see the Carcharadons as easy prey, with their two leaders – Amon Cull, the Prince of Thorns, and the sorcerer Shadraith – constantly vying for power and testing each other’s limits. Meanwhile the Carcharadons, led by Reaper Prime Bail Sharr – newly promoted to the rank and tasked with enacting the titular red tithe – and the venerable Chief Librarian Te Kahurangi, are a more cohesive force, not exactly codex-compliant and with an interesting, original way of waging war that nicely sets them apart from your standard chapter.
As a novel tasked with not just providing an entertaining story but also detailing what will be a brand new chapter to a lot of readers, there’s a lot to cover here – but MacNiven pulls it off with aplomb. He carefully rations the hints and teasers about the Carcharadons’ past and background in order to add interest without revealing too much, and likewise doesn’t overplay the polynesian influences or shark references in order to add depth and character without straying into caricature. Going with Night Lords as antagonists proves a fantastic choice, allowing for opportunities to really emphasise the core darkness of 40k, and both tonally and structurally it feels like an old-school dark 40k novel updated for the more modern tastes of Black Library readers. Expect plenty of action but also plenty of intrigue and mystery – it’s not an in-depth analysis of the Carcharadons (although that may come as follow-ups are written) but it is a highly enjoyable, very satisfying story.