RAPID FIRE: Aaron Dembski-Bowden Talks Spear of the Emperor

Welcome to this instalment of Rapid Fire, my ongoing series of quick interviews with Black Library authors talking about their new releases. These are short and sweet interviews, with the idea being that each author will answer (more or less) the same questions – by the end of each interview I hope you will have a good idea of what the new book (or audio drama) is about, what inspired it and why you might want to read or listen to it.

In this instalment I spoke to Aaron Dembski-Bowden about his latest 40k novel Spear of the Emperor, which is available to order right now from the Black Library website as a stunning (albeit pricey) limited edition.

As usual, let’s get straight to the questions and Aaron’s answers.

Track of Words: What’s the elevator pitch summary for Spear of the Emperor?

Aaron Dembski-Bowden: The Imperium is broken. Half of Mankind’s empire is endlessly beset by the forces of the Archenemy. The Mentor Legion sends one of their ships to cross the Great Rift into Imperium Nihilus, to see if the Emperor’s Spears Chapter and their allies are still holding the line against the encroaching night.

ToW: Without spoiling anything, who are the main characters and what do we need to know about them?

AD-B: The main character is Amadeus Kaias Incarius, an officer of the Mentor Legion Chapter, sent by the Imperium into the Nihilus side of the Rift with no guarantee he’ll ever return. He’s a level-headed, decorated officer tasked with assessing the state of the endless war in the ‘Dark’ Imperium.

The novel’s narrator is Anuradha Daaz, one of his Chapter serfs, who has access to bunch of cool Mentors tech that most Chapter serfs wouldn’t get to touch. She chronicles the story of Amadeus fighting alongside the Emperor’s Spears.

The main Spear character is Brêac of the Vargantes tribe, Lord of the Third Warhost. He embodies the Chapter’s defiance and their barbarian values.

ToW: Where and when is it set?

AD-B: It’s set over a century after the Great Rift tears the Imperium in half, and it’s set in Elara’s Veil, a region of space where – like most of the Dark Imperium – everything has gone to Hell. Literally.

Elara’s Veil is torn between the Adeptus Vaelarii, the Sentinels of the Veil: the three Space Marine Chapters oathsworn to defend it, and the Exilarchy: the forces of Chaos swarming out of the Great Rift in an unending tide, desperate to take and hold territory.

ToW: Is there anything that you’d recommend fans check out before reading this?

AD-B: For once, no. I wrote it specifically to need nothing else beforehand. If you follow 40K’s metaplot, you’ll be able to draw straight lines between what’s going on and why, but it should also work pretty smoothly if it’s someone’s first 40K novel.

ToW: Why this story? What made you want to write this in particular?

AD-B: We don’t see much about the less-famous Space Marine Chapters and how they operate, and while the famous ones get all the column inches and shelf space, there’s a huge amount of freedom in focusing elsewhere. And, joking aside, there’s a lot to be said about focusing on the sheer scale of the Imperium. It’s easy to get lost in the same few Big Name characters, diminishing the galaxy by making it all about them and their actions.

In this case, it was about exploring a region of the galaxy that’s typical of the so-called Dark Imperium, which is something not many novels have focused on. Imperium Nihilus is a staggeringly different place to the Imperium we’re all familiar with. To quote a smarter man than myself, it’s “Picking up the pieces of the Imperium after all the bombs have gone off.”

I also really wanted to write from a human perspective, albeit one with a Chapter serf’s training and experiences. Writing Space Marines is one thing, but I think what’s more interesting is writing from the perspective of someone who lives amidst that insane, transhuman culture, adapting to its demands and expectations.

ToW: What were your main influences when writing it? Did you do a lot of research to help you plan or write it?

AD-B: All my stuff is, I hope, essentially historical fiction in the 40K setting. My go-to influences are any historical podcasts I can get hold of; a bajillion documentaries about various Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Dark Ages cultures; and any historical fiction you can name; if it’s been published, I’ve probably made some effort to get hold of it.

I mentioned in the introduction, too – I did a lot of additional context/flavour research for this one, which involved talking to a lot of people with specific, extreme experiences to share. Firefighters who’ve been blind in burning buildings. WWII veterans, including a survivor of a Japanese POW camp and a deck gunner on the HMS Belfast. Cops, surgeons, nurses – the list goes on and on. Anuradha, the narrator, had to have a specific way of seeing the world, which I really wanted to come across. She’s not a Space Marine, but she perceives and processes things most of us will never really deal with. I wanted her to be credible, and that meant grounding her in as much context as I could collect.

ToW: What’s changed, if anything, in the way you approach writing Space Marines now compared to when you wrote, say, Helsreach?

AD-B: Not much, honestly. There are exceptions (Sevatar is, quite specifically, a near-emotionless sociopath, for example – there’s a lot of research gone into that fellow) but my Space Marines tend to be the same child-soldiers fast-evolved through barbaric or monastic societies into demigods, who can appear angelic or almost autistic from the outside. They’re everything great and awful in the twin notions of war and weaponising human beings.

That’s what I try to get across, anyway. I hope I’ve refined it since Helsreach, but that novel’s longest and loudest praise was for how the Space Marine characters came across in relation to the humans they served alongside. So if anything, I think it’s important to nail that theme. It feels believable to me, and I hope it does to the reader, too.

Everyone sees 40K in a slightly different way. All you can do is put your perspective out there and hope it resonates with people.

ToW: How does the final product compare to your original concept?

AD-B: They never do. Never, ever. In this case – beyond the usual character changes and lore shifts and narrative fluxes that happen to every novel – the biggest change was the tone. I originally envisioned a stomping, heroic victory arc of heroes doing X, beating up Y, and winning the day at Battle Z.

In the end, I found myself much more drawn to a darker, realer tone: something very much from all the Dark Ages historical fiction I read. That tone ended up being the thing I was most pleased with, so I’m not complaining…

ToW: How does this story compare to the rest of your work? Is it a familiar style, or a departure?

AD-B: I think it’s probably most honest to say it’s a distillation or a refinement, which is likely what any author would say, right? It’s always your work, but a slightly different you doing the writing.

It’s definitely darker in tone. Anyone writing 40K has done dark/grim elements, but I tried to make this a concerted, careful theme of defiance in the face of annihilation, and the various emotions and melancholy that come with surviving a long, bitter war while those around you don’t.

I feel a little like Spear of the Emperor is the first novel I wrote without really worrying about its reception. It wasn’t any easier or harder, and it took just as freaking long as they all do, but I felt like I was writing the kind of thing I like to read. It felt a lot more personal, for whatever reason.

ToW: What can you tell us about the next steps for this series?

AD-B: I was due to write the next Black Legion Series book after Spear of the Emperor, but after the reactions of my test readers and editors, and riding on my own unexpected enthusiasm, I started the sequel already. It’s a weird feeling, since by the time Spear of the Emperor releases, the sequel will be almost finished.

It’s called The Ashes of [Spoilers]. If you’ve read Spear of the Emperor, trust me, you can guess what ashes that title refers to.


I’d like to say a big thank you to Aaron for taking the time to answer these questions – much appreciated! If you enjoyed this interview, you might also want to check out my review of Spear of the Emperor.

Click here if you fancy taking a look at some other Rapid Fire interviews. If you’ve got any questions, comments or other thoughts please do let me know in the comments below, on Facebook or Twitter, or by emailing me at michael@trackofwords.com.


  1. Can’t wait to read it! Aaron is the best author currently writing for Black Library. Thank you for posting the interview.

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