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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Announcing the May Book Cover of the Month!

M.L.S. Weech

The May Book Cover of the Month bracket has just wrapped up. It was truly an amazing bracket with a record-breaking 6,133 votes total. That crushes the last record, and I have you all to thank for that.  But enough about me and my beaming pride. You all picked a winner, so let’s see it!

The May Book Cover of the Month is…

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Dawn of War by Robbie MacNiven! If you’re curious about how I felt about the book, check out the Facebook post that I posted when this book first landed on the bracket, here.

Let’s look at the stats!

Dawn of War took the lead about a week into the bracket and never looked back.  He won a total of 81 total…

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Carcharadons: Red Tithe by Robbie MacNiven (Book Review)

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