2003’s classic Black Library novel Daemon World, by Ben Counter, is something of an iconic 40k novel despite being about as un-40k as you can imagine…but in a good way. On the titular daemon planet Torvendis, deep within the Maelstrom, Lady Charybdia rules in the name of Slaanesh, her great city built upon deep-running strata of battle and death. When the mountain tribes begin to stir, and Word Bearers arrive hunting one of their own, the balance of power on Torvendis begins to change.
There’s a strange mix of genres here, blending together classic 40k with strong fantasy (small F) elements to produce something that’s clearly recognisable as a Black Library book, but one unlike any other. It’s a mixture that perhaps shouldn’t work…but does, largely down to the range of characters on offer. All except the Space Marines feel rooted in the fantasy genre, from the entertainingly arrogant and dismissive Charybdia to the mysterious sorcerer Kron, but especially the ambitious warlord Golgoth. While at times his progression feels a touch clichéd (his convenient, rapidly-developing powers, especially), his motivations and experiences provide both humanity and drive to the story.
Golgoth’s arc could almost be an old-school Warhammer Fantasy story in itself, if taken in isolation, especially as his interactions remain almost entirely with the natives of Torvendis. The Word Bearers, in contrast, bring the clearest 40k elements to the table. Counter’s depiction of them is clearly a child of its time, with little of the depth you might expect from post-Heresy stories, and while they’re entertaining enough – and entirely necessary in context of the narrative – they’re perhaps the weakest link in the cast of characters. Indeed Charybdia’s own force of Marines – the Violators – get very little page time but impress despite that, not least their dreadnought-interred commander.
With several interlocking plot strands pacing is key, and things begin well as we follow Golgoth on the beginning of his journey, and Counter lets the story breathe nicely. As events progress and the strands begin to combine a little more, the pace drops off a bit and the middle third starts to drag a little, but things nicely ramp up for the final third and what turns into a thrilling finale. The highlight, though, is really the scale of worldbuilding on offer. This is a world literally built on the bones of its history, bound up in an epic creation myth and fought over by the gods – anything goes on a daemon world, and Counter makes good use of that throughout. It’s hard to see this being commissioned these days, but it’s valuable to have as a vivid depiction of one particular (if unusual) corner of the 40k universe.