Black Library Advent Calendar 2017 – Recap

As we close in on the last few days of 2017, we’ve reached the end of the Black Library Advent Calendar for another year. In case you’ve been living under a rock (or, you know…busy) let’s just recap – for the last few years, Black Library have released a digital short story or short audio drama every day from the 1st to the 24th December. Over the course of the Advent period we – Black Library fans – get to check out a range of content from different authors, with each day revealing a new surprise.

This year the Advent Calendar was made up of ten short audio dramas and fourteen short stories (or Quick Reads as Black Library like to call them), from seventeen different authors. The stories were split across a range of settings, so we got tales set in Warhammer 40,000, the Horus Heresy, and Warhammer Age of Sigmar, including the first audio dramas in the Primarchs series and even the first three Shadespire stories ever…which were also audio dramas.

For as long as Track of Words has been running I’ve covered the Advent Calendar series by posting reviews every day over Advent, and then roundups of each collection overall…so let’s not change that tradition! If you haven’t been following my reviews, you can find them all on the main 2017 Advent Calendar page, so I’m not going to talk too much about each story in this article. Instead I thought it might be interesting to do the usual Advent in numbers, but then to have a think about what’s stood out about this year’s set of stories, and what they can tell us about 2018.

Everyone loves statistics, right?

Let’s start with Advent in numbers, beginning with the authors and who contributed to which settings:

  • David Annandale (2 – Age of Sigmar and Shadespire)
  • John French (2 – 40k and Heresy)
  • David Guymer (2 – Age of Sigmar and Shadespire)
  • Guy Haley (2 – Heresy and Shadespire)
  • Robbie Macniven (2 – Primarchs and 40k)
  • Gav Thorpe (2 – 40k and Heresy)
  • Chris Wraight (2 – 40k and Heresy)
  • Ben Counter (1 – 40k)
  • CZ Dunn (1 – 40k)
  • LJ Goulding (1 – Primarchs)
  • Justin D. Hill (1 – 40k)
  • Nick Horth (1 – Age of Sigmar)
  • Nick Kyme (1 – Heresy)
  • Josh Reynolds (1 – Age of Sigmar)
  • Andy Smillie (1 – 40k)
  • Ian St. Martin (1 – Primarchs)
  • CL Werner (1 – Age of Sigmar)

And now the splits for the different settings, and how they break down by medium:

  • 40k (8 – 4 audio dramas, 4 short stories)
  • Heresy (5 short stories)
  • The Primarchs (3 audio dramas)
  • Age of Sigmar (5 short stories)
  • Shadespire (3 audio dramas)

And, very quickly, the cost breakdown of buying these stories individually rather than picking up the subscription (or, as it’s referred to now Advent is over, the collection):

  • 10 audio dramas at £3.99 each = £39.90
  • 14 short stories at £1.99 each = £27.86
  • Total individual cost = £67.76
  • Cost of collection = £49.85

Therefore you save £17.91 by buying the collection instead of getting them individually, which (as always) is a pretty damn good deal. Of course if you’re only interested in reading certain stories, it might well make sense to buy them individually. If, however, you enjoy reading across all settings…it’s definitely worth the up-front cost in order to make a decent saving.

Audio dramas

Sure, not everyone is keen on audio content, but (apologies for sounding like a broken record) the standard of audio dramas is just getting better and better (particular credit should go to audio producer Matt Renshaw for this), and the audio medium allows authors to tell different types of stories to what they might do in prose. If you still need convincing, I’d urge you to have a read of my Warhammer Community article about BL audios.

With ten audio dramas, this year’s Advent Calendar contained the highest proportion of audio stories of any of them so far. In 2014 there were seven audios, then 2015 was entirely short stories while 2016 included six audios…so ten out of twenty-four is a pretty high ratio! Those ten audio dramas were split across three settings – 40k, The Primarchs and Shadespire, and that in itself feels noteworthy. Let’s take a look at each of the settings in turn…

The Primarchs
Until recently (August, to be precise) The Primarchs as a series was focused entirely on (short) novels, although that changed with the release of the short story Grandfather’s Gift by Guy Haley. Now, however, we’ve got three short (notice a trend, here?) audio dramas in the series as well – Stone and Iron by Robbie MacNiven, First Lord of the Imperium by LJ Goulding and A Lesson in Darkness by Ian St. Martin.

Before we look at the subjects of these stories, they’re notable simply by virtue of being audio dramas – to me, this feels like confirmation that Black Library have ambitions for The Primarchs as a series to be much more than eighteen short novels. Exactly what the series will develop into remains uncertain, but I don’t see why we can’t continue to have interesting, lower-key stories told within it, alongside the main novels. The question for a lot of fans, however, will be around how these additional stories will fit into the series if and when they’re released in physical format. Will we see one or more anthologies released, and if so will they get the beautiful/expensive limited edition treatment? Word is that the three Advent audios will be released as a CD at some point in 2018, but it remains to be seen whether they’ll follow the main Heresy series’ policy of being converted to prose stories…

As for the stories themselves…the big conversation piece is proving to be the inclusion of Malcador the Sigillite in a series about the primarchs. I can see both sides to this one, to be honest. On the one hand Malcador is clearly not a primarch, so if you want to take the series title literally you might suggest that First Lord of the Imperium would have been better-suited in the main Heresy range. On the other hand, with the exception of the Emperor himself, Malcador knows as much about the primarchs as anyone, and while they’re not explicitly named in the story, it’s clear that what he has to say is fundamentally based on the primarchs and the impact that they’ve had.

Personally, however, I’m not really bothered about labels. Does it have a tangible impact on the story, whether it’s included in one series or the other? For me, not really. I’ve also seen a lot of talk online about the content of this particular story, around whether it invalidates other ideas and whether it’s a good narrative tool. I don’t particularly want to get into those arguments, so all I’ll say is this…personally, I love the way that the Heresy offers up multiple viewpoints and largely doesn’t give us any concrete, black and white answers. Long may that continue! Also, if you strip that stuff away and just look at this story in its own right, I really think it’s one of the best written and constructed audio dramas that Black Library have released so far. Good work, Goulding.

The other two stories are less contentious, but no less interesting. Both very much dug into interesting, small-scale stories about their respective primarchs – Perturabo in Stone and Iron and Konrad Curze in A Lesson in Darkness – showing familiar sides to these characters, but exploring them in slightly different ways to usual. I really enjoyed both of them, and to me the audio elements really brought them to life. Hearing Andrew Wincott injecting such sneering condescension into Perturabo was just brilliant, and while Toby Longworth perhaps went for a slightly less subtle Curze than he might have done, I think it still worked great. And that scene in Ian’s A Lesson in Darkness…urgh, that was gross. Brilliant, but gross.

If you haven’t already, check out my interview with Robbie, Laurie and Ian about their respective stories and the audio medium as a whole.

Shadespire
Seeing as the game of Shadespire was only released a few months ago it’s hardly surprising that we hadn’t seen any Black Library fiction set in the Mirrored City before now. As such, for me it’s a particular pleasure to see the first three stories set in Shadespire released as audio dramas – it’s a brave move by Black Library, and one I think they should be applauded for. Hopefully we’re going to get a lot more Shadespire content, but on the basis of these stories I would be delighted to keep seeing more audio dramas!

Of the three, I would say that two of them – Doombound by David Annandale and The Autumn Prince by Guy Haley – were absolutely top-tier, making great use of the audio medium and telling really smart stories. Personally I found David Guymer’s A Place of Reflection to be a bit clumsy, with way too much reliance on narration which made it feel like a short story adapted to audio, rather than a story specifically written for audio. Perhaps in the past I wouldn’t have objected to that, but when held up against some of the other audios in the Advent collection it felt particularly noticeable.

That’s just my opinion, however, and I’ve certainly seen other people talking about how much they enjoyed it. From a purely audio perspective I was still as impressed as ever by the voice acting and the soundscape, so it’s certainly worth listening to from that perspective as well.

As for the other two…I thought Doombound provided a really beautiful sense of Shadespire as a location, with some of Annandale’s description really building up an amazing picture in my mind’s eye. I thought it was testament to the story that as soon as I finished listening to it I was looking online for more information about the setting and the game, and very tempted to go out and pick myself up a copy!

The third and final audio was The Autumn Prince , which was really a radio play as opposed to an audio drama. As with Heart of Decay by Ben Counter (see below), released much earlier in the month, it’s an entirely narration-free piece, told through dialogue and SFX alone. That might sound odd, and I’m sure it’s quite tricky from an authorial perspective, but it really makes for an immersive experience where your imagination fills in the gaps. The voice acting and the overall sound design has to be spot on…and indeed is.

Of the three Shadespire audios, The Autumn Prince offers the most detail in terms of Shadespire’s history and what the fuss is all about. Haley somehow manages to fit a fair amount of exposition into the dialogue without it ever feeling forced, which is (as is often the case) testament to his skill. There are a couple of really great characters who I would love to hear or read more from, and it’s generally just a really interesting story. If you only listen to one of the three, I’d say this is the one to pick. But ideally listen to all three!

Space Marine audio dramas
The remaining four audio dramas were all 40k stories, and all Space Marine-focused, covering the Thousand Sons, Flesh Tearers, Relictors and Dark Angels. They (mostly) weren’t linked other than that, but I’ve just grouped them together here for the sake of ease. Of the four, I can genuinely say that I really loved three of them, while the fourth one – though not quite as good in my opinion – was still entertaining. Black Library really have outdone themselves this year with these audios!

Going in order of release, the first one was Ahriman: Key of Infinity by John French, which got me very excited indeed to see Ahriman return once again. I’ve heard suggestions that it was too short, but for me it worked really well, and was the sort of story that might be a bit tricky to cover in a prose story. Next up was The Assassination of Gabriel Seth, which if nothing else wins the prize for best title in the Advent series! It also happened to be a hugely entertaining story, Andy Smillie channelling some serious rage in a typically enthralling tale of Gabriel Seth who was brought to life unbelievably well by Andrew Wilcott. That’s the same guy who played Perturabo earlier in the series, and who happens to be in the Archers! Who’d have thought it?

Next we had Heart of Decay by Ben Counter, which was one of the real surprises of the Advent series for me personally. Another narrator-free audio, it’s driven along by some really great performances – especially John Banks, whose voice must be seriously strong to have gone as far as he did – and a really entertaining plot. The Relictors are pretty under-represented in BL fiction, so it was cool to see a little detail added onto them, in a pretty smart story overall. Funnily enough, they then popped up in the fourth of these audios, CZ Dunn’s The Rage of Asmodai, which obviously features Asmodai himself but also the same Captain as Counter’s story. While not as interesting a tale as Heart of Decay, it was still perfectly entertaining, especially the quieter moments where it made better use of the audio medium.

The Horus Heresy – prelude to the storm

Okay, so my ‘prelude to the storm’ heading is a bit cheesy, but that’s exactly what the five Horus Heresy stories were – they each took a wildly differing approach, but they all deal with the last few moments of relative calm before the Siege of Terra begins. I don’t know about you, but I read each of these with a slight sense of nervousness and tension, as though it was me living on Terra and waiting for the traitors to arrive, and not these characters!

I’m really impressed with the way that these stories were themed like this. They’re not directly connected, but rather they’re opportunities for five different authors to look at the same basic concept – what’s happening on Terra just before the Siege begins, and what’s it like for these characters just watching and waiting…or in some cases trying to just get on with their lives? All five were fascinating for different reasons, and while I don’t suppose any of them are going to be absolutely essential to read before the Siege begins, they really set the tone beautifully.

Horus Heresy stories are often a little less action-packed than 40k stories, but here that’s taken even further. Readers who prefer their Black Library fiction to be action all the way might be a little disappointed with these, but the rest of us can just sit back and enjoy the tension, and the insights into these characters. In my interview about the Primarchs audios, Laurie gave a great illustration of the Heresy: “Christian Dunn and Lindsey Priestley had an amazing saying when I first came to Black Library, that a lot of good Warhammer shorts can be boiled down to “two fights and a conversation”, but fans often respond much more positively to Horus Heresy stories that are “two conversations and a fight”.

These stories are definitely closer to two conversations and a fight, or in some cases lots of conversations and no fighting at all. I don’t suppose many of us would want a full novel with not action whatsoever, but short stories (and audio dramas, for that matter) feel like the right medium to explore stories that work much better focusing on dialogue and character, than fighting.

Isn’t it amazing to think that, eleven years after Horus Rising was first published, we’re closing in on book 50 of the series, and the Siege is almost within touching distance?! I don’t know about you, but I’m filled with equal parts excitement and nervousness about what on earth is going to happen next, and can’t wait to get hold of 2018’s Horus Heresy releases! Job done for Black Library, I’d say…

What can we learn from Advent this year?

The Advent Calendars are often great opportunities to look ahead to future releases, as they regularly link in with new or existing characters and series. So having read or listened to all of this year’s stories, what do they tell us about what’s coming in 2018? Let’s take a quick look at what we can try to figure out…

The Lords of Silence
Chris Wraight’s short story Endurance saw the Death Guard front and centre. Whether or not Dragan will feature in Chris’ upcoming novel The Lords of Silence remains to be seen, but it’s going to be interesting to read the start of this new series. On this form, and based on the fact that Chris’ work is always fantastic, I’ve got high hopes.

Hamilcar
You remember Lord Castellant Hamilcar Bear-Eater from the Knights of Vengeance Age of Sigmar audio dramas? David Guymer’s short story Gods’ Gift was his third short to feature Hamilcar, preparing us for an as-yet-untitled (as far as I’m aware) novel focusing on the man himself. Cue much boasting, flexing of muscles and – hopefully – another highly entertaining Age of Sigmar novel…albeit probably not a subtle one.

The Order of Azyr
We got two Advent short stories – CL Werner’s The Witch Takers and Nick Horth’s Callis and Toll: The Old Ways – featuring agents of the Order of Azyr. While The Old Ways features characters from Nick’s novel City of Secrets, Werner’s The Witch Takers introduces brand new characters, as far as I’m aware. At the BL Weekender in November it was confirmed that 2018 will be seeing a new novel called Callis and Toll: Silvershard, and while I didn’t hear this myself during the event, I’ve since heard that Werner is also writing an Order of Azyr novel (don’t know what it’s called), presumably featuring Esselt and Talorcan.

You wait ages for a Witch Hunters novel to turn up and two come at once, eh? I’m looking forward to both of these, even though I’d argue that the two short stories were perhaps not the best of the bunch. There’s lots of promise in them, however, so I’m feeling positive.

Cadians
After this year’s Cadia Stands, and several earlier Ursarkar E. Creed short stories, Justin has confirmed that he’s already writing the next Cadians novel – excellent news! The Battle for Markgraaf Hive picks up some time after Cadia Stands, featuring ex-Whiteshield Minka, so I think it’s safe to say that she’s going to feature in the next novel. She’s a great character, and while …Markgraaf Hive felt a little like it didn’t properly end (hopefully there’ll be a follow-up), it will definitely be good to see another Cadian novel. This time it won’t be tied into a pre-existing event (I assume) so it’ll be cool to see what happens.

Blood of Iax
Robbie MacNiven’s novel Blood of Iax was confirmed at the Weekender, and A Brother’s Confession features the two main protagonists of the novel, nicely introducing us to these characters before the book itself appears. Interestingly, the cover we were shown (clearly marked as not final) used exactly the same (really, really nice) artwork that the short story ended up using, which clearly suggests we’ve still got a proper cover to be revealed! There was some fun stuff in the short story about Primaris Ultramarines, and I gather the novel is going to be pretty much exclusively Primaris-focused, so that should be interesting.

The Eight Lamentations
We’ve already had one novel (Spear of Shadows) and one short story (Auction of Blood) – technically two, if you include The Road of Blades – but Josh Reynolds’ Age of Sigmar series The Eight Lamentations grew by another story in the shape of The Tainted Axe. I’m not sure when the next novel is going to arrive, but this series is turning into something fascinating so far. I remember Josh talking about pitching the first novel as a sort of travelogue for the Mortal Realms – let’s hope that continues! Certainly in The Tainted Axe there was a sense that Josh was enjoying fleshing out characters and locations in a way that maybe he wouldn’t have been able to do in the old Warhammer World.

Rise of the Ynnari
Another series that we’ve had the first instalment of – in the shape of Ghost Warrior – Gav’s Rise of the Ynnari series seems to be a perfect vehicle for him to explore the updated 40k lore for the eldar…aeldari…whichever you prefer. He’s previously confirmed that the next novel is called Wild Rider, which suggests that Fireheart – with it’s focus on Saim Hann – might well tie in quite closely. I’m not sure that it’s likely to tie in much narratively, but it ended up as quite a cool character study of Nuadhu Fireheart, so perhaps he’ll show up again in the novel.

Neferata
Also announced at the Weekender was a new Age of Sigmar novel by David Annandale called Neferata: Mortarch of Blood, which is apparently the start of a new series. The Dance of the Skulls introduced us to Neferata – old school Warhammer fans will obviously remember her from the World That Was – and in my opinion any Warhammer books about vampires are very welcome! It was great fun to see Neferata taking to an appropriate battlefield, and I’m hoping we’ll see more of that in the novel.

So those are the stories from this year’s Advent Calendar which I’m aware of having connections to either very recent releases or upcoming releases. Excluding the Shadespire and Heresy releases, however, there were four more which I haven’t mentioned – the four 40k audio dramas. Let’s take a quick look at these:

Ahriman
John French’s third Ahriman novel, Ahriman: Unchanged, was released a little over two years ago, and nicely tied off that series. Since then John has been working on his Horusian Wars series, along with various other things, so it seems unlikely that he would be starting off another Ahriman series. However…THAT WOULD BE AWESOME! Time will tell…which feels appropriate, given the subject matter of Key of Infinity. I’m probably a bit biased because I absolutely adore John’s Ahriman stories, but I loved seeing Ahriman match wits with a necron Cryptek, and there’s so much scope for that sort of story…so I’ll remain hopeful of seeing something more at some point!

Flesh Tearers
Andy Smillie has been gradually building up an impressive body of work about Gabriel Seth and his Flesh Tearers, although it had been a while since we’d last seen one of these stories. As such The Assassination of Gabriel Seth took me by surprise a little – but it was a very welcome surprise. It’s a great little story, with some of the best voice acting I’ve heard in a long time (including Andrew Wincott again), and has got me hoping that Andy will write some more Flesh Tearers audio dramas. I’m not sure if we’ll ever see a full Flesh Tearers novel from Andy, but on the form of this I’d be happy for anything more – short stories, audio dramas, whatever!

Relictors and Dark Angels
I’m looping two audio dramas in together here – Heart of Decay by Ben Counter and The Rage of Asmodai by CZ Dunn, simply because they both featured the same character – Captain Vidarna of the Relictors. I can’t decide if I think this was just because the two authors realised they were each writing about Relictors (along with Dunn’s Dark Angels) or if there was a deliberate attempt to tie the two stories together…

Either way, it’s not clear whether either or both of these stories are precursors to further tales, or whether they’re standalone stories. Dunn has written a fair bit for the Dark Angels so I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him turn his attention to Asmodai in a longer-form tale, but for me the bigger draw would be the Relictors. If I’m honest I’m not always the biggest fan of Counter’s writing, but I would really enjoy listening to more Relictors audios if they maintained that standard!

***

So there you have it, a typically long-winded (well done if you’ve made it this far – thanks!) look back at the 2017 Advent Calendar. If you haven’t already checked out my reviews, and fancy a read, click here to have a look at the main Advent Calendar page.

Overall I’m very pleased with this year’s Advent collection, in terms of both variety and quality. There have only been a couple of the stories that I’ve not particularly enjoyed, indeed most of them have been genuinely impressive, so I’d like to say a big thank you to all of the Black Library authors and editorial staff who have worked on these stories – excellent work, folks!

You may have noticed that I haven’t really made mention yet of the fact that these stories are all digital-only. To be honest I feel like the digital vs physical debate has had plenty of words dedicated to it before, so I don’t want to say too much here. I did see someone on Facebook (I think) make what feels like quite a valid suggestion, that Black Library could bundle these (the prose stories, at least) up into a physical collection so that the fans who haven’t embraced ebooks can enjoy them as well. I’m not sure how it would work in terms of ordering and delivery (might have to be something that gets delivered in the new year, which is still sooner than waiting for normal anthologies), but maybe it’s something BL could think about for the future.

Anyway, back to the stories themselves. It’s hard to pick favourites from so many interesting stories, but if I had to pick a few highlights I would say…the Shadespire audios for really piquing my interest in that setting; The Assassination of Gabriel Seth and Heart of Decay for some of the best voice acting I’ve heard in a LONG time; the Horus Heresy stories for having me on the edge of my seat and tense as anything…and First Lord of the Imperium for being just such a well-constructed and beautiful story. I’ve probably missed loads out, but there you go.

I should also quickly mention the two ‘ebook premieres’ that arrived on Christmas Day and Boxing Day – Nagash: The Undying King by Josh Reynolds and Sons of the Hydra by Rob Sanders, respectively. It’s become something of a tradition for BL to release early digital-only versions of books around this time, and it’s cool to see one each from Age of Sigmar and 40k. Thanks Black Library, you’re spoiling us!

If you’ve got any comments, questions or feedback, please do leave a comment below or get in touch via Facebook or Twitter. I’d love to hear what your favourite Advent stories were, so please do let me know!

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