Things the Battle of Winterfell got wrong… and a few things it got RIGHT

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The 3rd episode of the final season of Game of Thrones aired last weekend amidst, it seems, equal parts acclaim and opprobrium. Armchair generals the world over saw an opportunity to tear into what is, quite honestly, a classic example of unrealistic, Hollywood-esq fantasy medieval fighting. The battle of Winterfell saw our plucky ensemble of living characters successfully resist a horde of zombies commanded by the undead revenant known as the Night King. A flurry of articles have since appeared listing the common-sense faults involved in the defence of the seat of House Stark. While the majority of the criticisms are very valid indeed, I thought I’d perhaps play devil’s advocate with a few. While I rarely need an excuse to get pedantic when it comes to depictions of warfare in sci-fi and fantasy settings (hello battle of Hoth), I thought reiterating the episode’s big faults while offering up a few things they actually got (sorta, kinda) right might give everyone a bit of perspective.

Without further ado, let’s look once again at the biggest failings in the defence of Winterfell, as well as a few of the things its garrison got right.

  • How to get rid of your wife and kids

Sick of having mouths to feed in the impoverished, frozen North? Unable to handle another bout of squalling and nagging from your poxed relatives? Just seal your wife and kids in the depths of a crypt in the presence of an all-powerful necromancer!

Seriously, regardless of the military SNAFUs committed by our heroes throughout the rest of the episode, the decision to relegate the civilians to the “safety” of the crypts in Winterfell was honestly the most annoying mistake. We have here a gathering of the most worldly and intelligent people in the whole of Westeros, including multiple royal advisers, battle-hardened knights and members of the Night’s Watch. The Night King’s ability to effortlessly reanimate the dead is well-known to all of them, and yet not one of them thought “maybe the crypts full of dead people aren’t the safest place to be?”

Riposte: I’ve not read the books (fake fan, I know), but someone has previously told me that the Starks are interred beneath heavy northern-made longswords that are supposed to stop necromantic resurrection. Also, given they’re the premier Northern family, you’d think there’d be at least some tradition of cremating the dead. Lastly, it did appear that most of the tombs in the crypt were made of stone. The ability of the undead to burrow through stone using just their desiccated fingertips never ceases to amaze me, regardless of the film of genre. But hey, maybe it was “magic.” Given all these factors, none of which appear to have come into play, perhaps we can relegate the decision to seal the helpless families (without a single guard!) beneath Winterfell from the status of “really stupid” as to just “ stupid.”

  • “What’s he doing, what’s Ney doing?”

My girlfriend was the slightly nonplussed recipient of this quote the moment we saw the Dothraki open the battle with a headlong unsupported charge into the undead horde. Anyone who knows of the battle of Waterloo or who has seen the 1970s epic screen adaptation will understand that you don’t send the cavalry forward without infantry support. That becomes even truer when you’re fighting zombies. It’s even more astonishing to think that, prior to the surprise arrival of the Red Priestess, the Dothraki were apparently totally fine with charging the undead without even the benefit of flaming weapons. Seriously, just which Dothraki chieftain was at the council of war when the others said “let’s kick things off by sending all of the Dothraki in on their own.” And he was just like, “sounds like a plan to me!” Seriously?

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Riposte: I’ve seen a lot of comments about using the cavalry to flank the undead, some citing the Rohirrim in Return of the King. Interestingly, while glorious-looking, Theoden’s charge in that film isn’t necessarily much more accurate (they do so into a fairly well-formed, and incredibly dense, wall of orcish spears, which should really spell their doom. At least in The Two Towers Gandalf pulls a light trick to invalidate the Uruk Hai pikes). There’s also the fact that flanking, while a far more valid use of cavalry, isn’t really an effective option when the enemy is so numerous that the concept of “flanks” barely even exists. A flank attack is most effective because it brings great force to bear against a small portion of the enemy army, and can incite a great deal of panic, but these aren’t a factor when the enemy are near-numberless zombies. I can also understand a reluctance to send the Dothraki off into the dark when nobody at Winterfell could really be sure of the full extent of the horrors at the Night King’s disposal – who knows what gristly fate may have befallen detachments sent out into that icy, impenetrable night? Honestly while it may have been a bit wasteful, on the ground I think the best use of the Dothraki besides some scouting would have simply been to dismount them and augment the castle garrison.

  • Stone Rain

If Napoleon would have been pissed at our heroes’ use of cavalry, as an artillery officer he’d have been even more incensed at the use of the siege equipment. In another utterly incomprehensible decision, the Good Guys decide to deploy their indirect fire weapons – trebuchets and catapults – right in front of their infantry battle line. Thanks to this they are literally able to launch just one salvo in support of the doomed Dothraki charge, before being abandoned and overrun. I’m genuinely confident that a ten-year-old child would have suggested the more obvious, superior tactic – site them inside Winterfell’s walls and have them launch their rocks over the parapets.

Riposte: There’s not much that can be said in defence of this, besides the fact that I don’t think they’d have been able to fit all of the siege weapons and equipment inside Winterfell’s courtyard. They’d still have been better placed behind the fire trench though. Speaking of…

  • Chevaux de Fries

The fire trench was pretty cool. It could’ve been wider and deeper though, and they could’ve set up more spike/fire pits further out, as well as bonfires to illuminate the approach of the undead. Even more egregiously though, I can’t comprehend why they didn’t deploy their battle line behind it instead of in front of it. At a stroke they’d have made the assault more perilous and removed the fact that it’s almost impossible for any of them to retreat to the castle (except the heroes though, conveniently).

Repost: A lot of the criticisms of the defence of Winterfell assume an ideal situation where the garrison has all the time and resources in the world at their disposal. In reality, from what we can glean in the two preceding episodes they were pretty strapped for supplies and working flat out on a number of fronts, especially the construction of the trench and dragonglass weaponry. I think it’s unrealistic to expect them to have all of the potential defences they could have utilised set up. That doesn’t excuse their deployment though. Also well done to the Unsullied for fighting like actual soldiers and not one v. one fantasy herowarriorchampions.

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Heroes, and don’t they just know it?

  • Archer Glitches

The undead are literally at the gates, but they’ve inexplicably paused. What do you do? Stop shooting them, apparently? Until they decide to swarm the fire trench, Soviet-style, of course. On the face of it this looks like another act of base stupidity from the garrison.

Riposte: Have you ever fought a horde of zombies with nothing but a bow and arrows? No, you haven’t. Beyond “undead” nobody at Winterfell really has a good grasp on what motivates the Night King or how the specifics of his necromantic army works. If they all suddenly freeze up, an adrenaline-addled mind in the midst of a battle may be as inclined to think “oh hey maybe that’s them all about to collapse” as it would “keep shooting!” Perhaps shooting them if they’ve abruptly stopped would trigger another attack? It’s all a bit illogical, but there’s nowhere quite as illogical as a combat situation. Not shooting was dumb in retrospect, but I can see why it might have happened.

  • Closed Gates and Unmanned Parapets

As long as a sizable portion of the garrison was still outside the castle walls, it actually made military sense to keep the main gate (as the only means of communication), open. Not having the walls manned until the trench was on fire, however, didn’t.

  • A Spearwall, or a Young Child?

The Good Guys knew the Night King had at least one Zombie Giant at his disposal. How is it going to get into the castle? Through the gate, obviously! And how do you kill giants? With spears or pikes, as demonstrated by one R. Bolton. The defenders of Winterfell certainly have spears, but why form a reserve behind the gates when you can rely on a young child to die while saving the day?

Riposte: I can’t think of one for this. Keep a spear reserve, people.

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I love that they felt the need to represent the undead horde with an actual tonne of blocks. Like they couldn’t just say “they’re an unorganised mass occupying half the battlefield.” Nope, hundreds of blocks so we know how many blocks Winterfell has in its strategy closet!

  • Air Support

This is yet another obvious one. Johnny Snowgaryen and the former Mrs Drogo have a two-to-one dragon air superiority advantage. If the Night King tries to counter that personally, they can gang up and quite possibly take him out, if he doesn’t they have a free napalm bombing run on a very, very target-rich environment. Instead they decide to either get lost in the snowstorm, separate and/or fly so close to the ground that dead people can perform mid-flight boarding actions.

Riposte: I don’t think it’s ever been explained just how dragon fire works in the show, but presumably they don’t have an unlimited amount – I imagine spewing fire is draining, and the drakes are required to rest and/or eat after a prolonged bout of immolating. In that sense no, the dragons couldn’t just have burned up the whole zombie horde on their own. Jon and Danny’s relative incompetence during the battle can also probably be quite safely ascribed to the snowstorm/night conditions, desperation, the split desire to support the castle but also take out the Night King and, in Jon’s case, his lack of familiarity with dragons. I don’t think either of them behaved hugely out of character.

That last point really sums up my general thinking. Yes, the tactics and general battle scenes didn’t really make much sense. Often, however, some benighted armchair generals (myself included) don’t pause to consider the reality of the situation on the ground, where less-than-ideal conditions, nerves, basic human error and a total lack of hindsight can change things profoundly.

Episode 3 was, for me, neither the worst battle we’ve seen in Game of Throne, or the best (my personal least-favourite was the battle of the Bastards, with its stupid pike envelopment thingy and literal Here Come the Cavalry. Conversely I think the Dothraki ambush of Jaime’s Lannister convoy got almost everything right). Speaking personally, I was able to suspend enough belief to actually really enjoy it (and yes, I could make out the characters most of the time). The biggest shame for me was the abrupt death of the Night King and, with him, the Big Bad they’d literally been building up for the entire series.

The night is dark, but apparently no longer full of terrors.

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New Slaves to Old Darkness, or, What if King Arthur was Evil?

Other Thoughts on Writing Scourge of Fate

Back in December I wrote about the Chaos-tainted inspiration behind my latest novel, Scourge of Fate (out today here!). In brief, I have always been enthralled by the decades-old literary tradition that makes the forces of Chaos in Warhammer Fantasy so unique. I love the idea of “normalising” the mortal servants and warriors of Chaos, establishing just how their societies and cultures work, and how they philosophise about the all-powerful, nebulous beings they worship. It’s not enough to just be a spiky, black-armoured warrior after all, because unless you’re truly far gone down the Path to Glory, even the spikiest have to eat, drink, talk and sleep. What is it like to deal with the more mundane aspects of life in the Realm of Chaos? In short, does the Varanspire have a bakery?

That article can be found here. I’m following up with a sequel today though, not just because Scourge of Fate is getting its hardback release, but because there’s still more to be said about the inspiration behind it.

When I was a child my mother bought me Tales of King Arthur, illustrated by Rodney Matthews. It remains to this day a wonderful book, full of lavish artwork depicting a host of stories from Arthurian legend – the Sword in the Stone, the Lady in the Lake, the Knights of the Round Table, the Green Knight, and many more. I read it from cover to cover over and over, so much so that my mother maintains to this day that I am Arthur reborn. The tales it told had a strong impact on me growing up, and segued very effectively into my love of 5th edition Warhammer Fantasy, which hit not long after.

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There are many fascinating aspects to the tradition of Arthurian tales, unsurprising given many of them are eight centuries in the making. I was especially intrigued by the powerful, baleful presence of the ‘Black Knight’ trope in a lot of those legends, the dark-armoured warrior who arrived unannounced and with sinister intent. Such a character probably holds responsibility for my early infatuation with the Warriors of Chaos. When it came to writing my own first fantasy novel, I really wanted to not only emulate that in the Warhammer setting, but to get behind the great helm, if you will – find out who this brooding warrior was, where he came from, why he did what he did.

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The similarities between Rodney Matthews’ style and that of early Games Workshop artists like Wayne England made it easy to get into both.

The initial pitch for Scourge of Fate was therefore quite simple – what if King Arthur was a Chaos Knight? Luckily my editor loved the idea, and much of the rest of the plot rolled from there. I deliberate aped aspects of classic Arthurian legend, from a jousting tournament (in this case between the Nurgle knights of the Order of the Fly and the Silver Knights of Tzeentch, both classics from the setting of the World That Was), and the escalating quest style that sees the antihero, Vanik, setting out to prove himself and getting caught up in a lot more than he bargains for. On a less subtle note, there are also lots of name drops relating back to Arthurian stories. Caradoc, a Knight of the Round Table, for example, becomes Sir Caradoc, Varanguard of the Seventh Circle, the Bane Sons. Caelia, the Faerie Queen and mother of the Faerie Knight, becomes the leading daemonette to the Court of the Seven Virtues, etc. Oh, and there’s a talking sword, of course. And Merlin is a Gaunt Summoner.

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Fun Chaostifications of Arthurian tales aside, Scourge of Fate also owes inspiration to my more overarching passion for military history. Although I’m an Early Modern historian (roughly, 1500s to early 1800s) first and foremost, I’ve done a fair bit of work on medieval warfare throughout my University studies, and have always enjoyed medieval historical fiction like Bernard Cornwell’s Grail Quest series. Pitching into my first Fantasy novel provided a valuable pace-changed from the six previous Warhammer 40,000 books I’d writen – there were no more bolters or vox transmissions, no hololithics or battle barges in high orbit. I got write about something I’ve always wanted to cover, a straight-up medieval-style pitched battle. I had a chance to weigh in in with the axes and the swords and the maces, the blood and the mud and the rain, the rotting-egg stink of gunpowder and the thunder of a full, knightly cavalry charge. I loved every second of it.

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I hope you’ve enjoyed this little behind-the-curtains peek at the thought processes that went into writing Scourge of Fate and, if you buy the book itself, I hope you enjoy that as well. It was certainly the sort of story I’ve had on my mind for a while, and getting to realise it was a privilege.

Glory to Archaon, the Knights of Ruin and the Eightstar!

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New Slaves to Old Darkness, or, Does the Varanspire have a Bakery?

Thoughts on Writing Scourge of Fate

Anyone involved in either Warhammer or Warhammer 40,000 can point to a personal favourite faction in the lore, the side that gives them the greatest enjoyment whether on the tabletop, via the background, or both. I’ve been asked who my own favourite faction is a fair few times. When it comes to Warhammer Fantasy and its heir and inheritor, Warhammer: Age of Sigmar, my answer is always the same – Chaos.

That wasn’t always the case. I first laid eyes on the servants of the Dark Gods in a pamphlet I was given by a relative, aged 7. There they were, the first ever plastic Chaos Warriors, listed alongside the other core units of the varies armies that inhabited the rulebooks of Warhammer Fantasy’s 5th edition. I wish I could say they immediately gripped me, but brazenly lying about the patronage of daemons is rarely wise. My first two White Dwarfs, issues 233 and 234, coincided with the release of the first ever Vampire Counts Warhammer Armies book (before it they’d been homogenised with the forces of Khemri as the “Undead”). It was the Aristocracy of the Night, particularly the noble order of the Blood Dragon, which first hooked me on that sweet hobby goodness.

But the Chaos gods are both cunning and patient, and many are the paths to damnation. The Eightstar’s alignment with my own life would come about just four years later, in 2002, with the release of the Hordes of Chaos Army Book. This now-legendary tome was penned by some of the greatest games designers and background writers to have ever worked for Games Workshop, namely Gav Thorpe, Rick Priestly, Anthony Reynolds and Alessio Cavatore. It brought together, for the first time, the myriad forces of Chaos – mortal, beasts and daemons – under a single banner. Even more importantly, it put flesh on the bones of what it meant to be a Chaos worshipper in the Warhammer Fantasy setting, and provided reams of fantastic background material to go with what was a hugely enjoyable set of tabletop rules.

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How could anyone see cover art like this and not fall immediately into the service of the Dark Gods?

Chaos is more than deeply integral to the Warhammer setting, it is utterly engrained. It was there almost from the beginning. Any hobby veteran will tell you with authority that the genesis of a lot of what is great and good about both the Warhammer and 40k settings today began in the Realm of Chaos books, Slaves to Darkness and The Lost and the Damned, published in 1988 and 1990 respectively. Sadly they were before my own time, but I was fortunate enough to be around for the great Chaotic Renaissance of the mid-2000s. The evocative work of Hordes of Chaos, built on the Realms books, was followed by the Liber series. Starting in 2003 with Liber Chaotica: Khorne and ending in 2006 with the combined volume known simply as Liber Chaotica, it remains to this day my favourite piece of work produce by Games Workshop, bar none. The background is more than engrossing. It isn’t just a worldbuilding tome, but a living, breathing story that drags you in and gives you a little taste of the intoxicating madness that, we are told, lies at the heart of every Chaos worshipper’s devotion. Deciphering it from cover to cover will certainly change anyone’s opinions about the setting and the nature of the reality it assumes.

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Artwork has also played a huge part in enriching the lore right from the start, especially early artists such as Ian Miller and Wayne England, to name just two. The above iconic image by Miller was solely responsible for inspiring the Slaaneshi manorhouse featured in Scourge.

After partaking in this gold standard of background material, teen Robbie most assuredly had his boots planted on the Path to Glory. A hefty Chaos miniatures collection was assembled (about 7,000 points in 6th edition currency), dwarfing my own rival Vampire Counts and Skaven armies. Hundreds of battles were fought the length and breadth of the Old World over a period of a decade, as I formulated the background of my host and charted the adventures of its Chaos Lord – Vargen, champion of the Norscan tribe known as the Vargs. He fought alongside the Everchosen during the Storm of Chaos and competed in tournaments across the UK. When I got into the Unversity of Edinburgh, I celebrated by raising him up – as I’d ascended to the next stage of education, so Vargen ascended to daemonhood, and became the Prince of the Apocalypse.

And that is where the story of my relationship with Chaos might have ended. An ongoing fan with a deep appreciation to the fantastical lore that has helped build up the very core of Warhammer over the years.

Then I got chatting with Josh Reynolds.

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The Liber Chaotica’s artwork is also “insanely” gorgeous.

Josh, as maby of you will know, is Black Library’s most prolific Age of Sigmar author. I think he’s quite possibly written every faction to date, and always seems to be brewing up fresh plots. It just so happened that I’d reached a brief lull in my novel schedule when I got talking to him about, well, the usual stuff – the myriad glories of Chaos, the Eightfold Path, the essence of ageless daemonhood, that sort of thing. We talked about how badass the Varanguard, Archaon’s new bodyguard in the Mortal (and Chaotic) Realms, were. Gee, they sure deserved a novel, right?

Turns out Josh had already had some preliminary thoughts. Also turns out that, gentleman that he is, he was more than happy to let me take the lead and cook up my own Varanguard novel. And thus, with the blessings of that little-known fifth (or is-is it sixth?) Chaos God, Joshmar, Scourge of Fate was born.

I had two objectives while writing Scourge. The first was to try and distil as much of that old timey Chaos goodness from books like Realms, Hordes and Liber and give a little bit back to the Warhammer universe – less a homage and more some sort of daemonic spawn offspring. The second was to worldbuild. Specifically, I wanted to give the experiences of a Slave to Darkness a grounding in reality, one that made the reader empathise (however reluctantly) with a character who could otherwise have been dismissed as just a bad guy in spikes and fur.

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That was what I enjoyed most about the older lore, especially as laid down in books like Hordes. Only a fraction of the forces of Chaos are wholly removed from mortal concerns. The vast majority of those not yet blessed with daemonhood are tribesfolk who could have hailed from any number of real-world, historical cultures. My favourite depictions of the forces of Chaos played that aspect up, providing believable antagonists and anti-heroes in great novels such as Dan Abnett’s Riders of the Dead.

In fact I think it was Dan who described it the most succinctly. Chaos worshippers are the ultimate bad guys, but what does it mean to be a bad guy in the Warhammer universe? How does a bad guy actually live his life? Is it just about killing babies every day? No. How would the logistics of that even work? More prosaically, I wanted to know what a Champion of Chaos did when he wasn’t slaughtering in his patron’s name. What did he eat, where did he sleep, what did he wear when he wasn’t going into battle, how did he think about the Chaos Pantheon and his place as a worshipper within it – the very philosophy of Chaos itself, a subject wonderfully enriched over the past few years (especially in 30k) by authors like Aaron Dembski-Bowden.

I distilled those thoughts down to a single, easy question that I set myself as I wrote. Does the Varanspire have a bakery? I mean, most mortals still need to eat, right, hence the “mortal” part? And it didn’t seem likely that they all consumed nothing but the raw flesh of their butchered enemies every day. Certainly for the countless marauders not yet blessed with the Gifts of the Gods, there had to be a more “mundane” aspect to their diet? Some had to eat… bread, right?

Setting out the bakery in the Varanspire was my goal in writing Scourge of Fate (and do bear in mind that this is a metaphor… I’m not sure I actually discuss a literal bakery in the novel). What is Chaos, not as a cosmic evil, not as a horde of spikey bad guys, but as a complex and dangerously tangible belief system that both lifted up and damned characters often irregardless of whether they chose to embrace it or sought to resist it? Of course there is no single answer to that question, it’s everyone’s personal quest, but I hope that readers at least enjoy my very own attempt to tread it out on the Path to Glory.

Oh, and I also got to give Vargen a place in Black Library fiction, so that’s pretty neat too. Way to go, little guy.

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If any of this rambling remotely takes your fancy, you can find Scourge of Fate as an ebook here. It’ll be released in physical formats in 2019.

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Nine Years a Fresher

Cityscape

Summer starts to turn its gaze towards autumn once more, and I find myself looking forward to my ninth successive year at University. The first couple of weeks in September are always some of the most memorable of the year. Edinburgh begins to fill once more with its student cohort – almost 40,000 at the University of Edinburgh alone, not counting the other 31,000-odd spread over the higher education establishments of Napier, Heriot Watt and Queen Margaret. Among them are those fresh-faced first years who are about to become intimately acquainted with all of the horror and stress, the fun and adventure that goes with daily university life. Sleepless nights, both good and bad, are par the course, and not all will find their new home-from-home to their liking. Most, however, will probably come to love Edinburgh as much as I have done in my time here. For a history student especially, it’s difficult to imagine a more fascinating setting to complete any education in. From the craggy castle rock to the gleaming dome of Old College, from New Town’s neatly regimented streets and expensive clubs to the muddy fields of the Meadows and the 70s sprawl of Pollock Halls, through late summer sun, autumnal mists and winter snows, I’ve no doubt the Uni Family are set to enjoy another memorable year together. I’m delighted to still be a part of it and all its crazy escapades, even if this is almost definitely going to be my last one. Roll on Fresher’s Week.

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The Adidas Cieros I first wore in September 2010, and my new pair.

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2017 – A Writing Year in Review

It’s certainly been a long time since this blog was last updated. I’ve got a few excuses on hand however, most of them relating to it having been a busy 2017. Work-wise (and, indeed, generally) my past twelve months have been pretty great. I’ve written three novels, had three published (all for Games Workshop’s publishing arm, Black Library), and managed to press on with my PhD in-between.

2017 started with a bang – or, more accurately, a rend-and-tear, as my sort-of-but-not-really-first-novel Carcharodons: Red Tithe hit the shelves. People seemed to enjoyed reading it almost as much as I enjoyed writing it, so that bodes well for Carcharodons: Outer Dark!

April rolled round with the release of both Dawn of War III and its accompanying novelisation. Getting to write that book having grown up playing the games was a huge honour, and it was also the first time I ever saw my name on the cover of a book in Waterstones, a childhood dream come true.

The summer was filled up mostly with writing Outer Dark, though I did also find time to write a Carcharodons appetiser, Death Warrant, which acts as a sort-of prequel to Outer Dark.

In November I not only had my fourth novel, The Last Hunt, released, but I also got to attend the Black Library Weekender and meet (and be on a quiz team with) Dan Abnett. Needless to say this was probably the highlight of the year.

It all ended nice and busy too, with two advent calendar stories released in December – my first foray into 30k with a Primarchs audio (which was also a great honour to get to write, especially since Perturabo is one of my favourites) and a prequel short story to my forthcoming Ultramarines Primaris novel Blood of Iax, which I wrote between August and November.

In all it’s been a hugely rewarding and enjoyable year, and if next year is anything like it I’m looking forward to it immensely. I hope everyone has a happy New Year, and would like to thank you all for the immense support that has quite literally made it all possible. I’ll finish off with a promise to keep this blog updated more regularly (my tumblr, Facebook and twitter are all far more prolific), and add a pic of one of my favourite authors, Dan Abnett, who I was lucky enough to meet at the Black Library Weekender.

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