BLACK LIBRARY REVIEW - Cult of the Warmason by C.L. Werner
Lord of the Night reviews the visceral Genestealer Cults novel, Cult of the Warmason by C.L. Werner.
“An action-packed story filled with everything that Werner does best; wicked and quotable characters that you’ll be rooting for very quickly, powerful battle scenes that really capture the spirit of 40k through war, and more than one subtle reference that will bring a grin to your face. Werner gives us yet another great entry into Black Library.” – Lord of the Night @ Heresy Online
Cult of the Warmason was a novel I knew I would be getting the very instant I saw who was writing it. Werner is one of two authors in Black Library (Aaron DB being the other) who I believe has never written a single bad story, or even a single mediocre one. I’ve loved everything that he’s written from his well-known Thanquol and Boneripper trilogy to his a touch more obscure Chaos Wastes duology, and he’s no less skilled at penning the dark millennium of 40k than he is/was at the lost world of Warhammer Fantasy. Add in the horrifying and almost Gigerian Genestealer Cults and the underappreciated Sisters of Battle and it only sweetens the deal for me.
The Shrine World of Lubentina is unrivalled amongst its peers, for on its surface are housed the relics of Vadok Singh, Warmason of the Imperium and Saint of the Emperor. Guarding these sacred relics are the Sisters of the Sombre Vow, fanatical protectors of the divine, these women will stop at nothing to safeguard their charges and thus far nothing has challenged them, until now. When rumours of four-armed monsters abroad in the tunnels reach them, it becomes clear that monsters are free on Lubentina, and the Cult of the Cataclysm will not rest until they have cleansed this world and readied it for ascension into the stars. With both sides readying for war, neither realizes that perhaps they are not the only ones with an interest in Lubentina, and that there is more than one kind of monster out there in the dark.
The plot in CotW is a little tough to talk about in detail due to the story quite early on taking some twists that mean spoilers abound, but not so early that reading the first few pages will give it away. Thus I must tread lightly here. Now I greatly enjoyed the plot of CotW right from the start, Werner captures the reader’s attention promptly by starting things off quick, starting things off with lots of bangs and not letting up until the very end. Though there are some character stories, belonging to the leading Sister and Genestealer Magus and one other character, the novel is a story about battle and the majority of the novel’s story revolves around the battle itself, which is fine because it’s an entertaining fight, and because Werner doesn’t let on which side will win, which was very good because both sides kept making gains and taking losses throughout that kept me guessing who would finally come out on top. That and other aspects of the plot revolving around the war that I can’t write about (spoilers) are what make CotW’s story very readable. The only part of the story that I found disappointing really was the length, I felt the novel deserved another hundred and so pages easily, which led into the aspect of the story that I felt was lacking. The horror. Werner is a master of horror as a lot of his previous works demonstrate, even called “the master of the macabre” on Black Library’s website, and yet very little horror was used here. The other key Genestealer Cults novel, the self-referentially titled Legends of the Dark Millennium: Genestealer Cults by Peter Fehevari, took a great look at the more terrifying aspects of the Cults; their indoctrination of humans, their methods of propagation that make even Ridley Scott’s Alien look tame, and their inherent creepiness in both appearance and action. Sadly Werner doesn’t cover any of these except for the first in short snippets that don’t feel like enough.
One of the things I like the best about Werner as a writer is his ability to write utterly irredeemable characters, not like the harsh but sympathetic Talos from Aaron DB or the charming bastard Honsou from Graham McNeill, but characters who are just completely evil with nothing to make them people we could like, and yet we still do even as they commit atrocities and feel absolutely nothing at doing so. The Genestealer Magus Bakasur is definitely one of these, a being caught between two worlds and birthrights, the inhumanity of the Tyranids distilled through the Genestealer DNA that comprises half of his helix while the foibles and emotions of humanity thread their way through his psyche, despising his human half with the emotions he wouldn’t have without said half. The other key character that matters is one I can’t talk about, but I can say that he was my favourite of the novel and in my opinion one of the best depictions of his group in Black Library. Werner doesn’t just do bad guys well though, his depiction of the Sisters of Battle being the very first where each and every one of them was likeable and not a one of them came off as the stereotypical fanatical bitch convinced of their own superiority. Sister-Superior Trishala was a tough lady and her actions through the book were surprisingly harsh but fair, I credit actually being able to see what she was thinking as part of this, while counterbalanced with the kinder and humanitarian Sister Kashibai who might well be one of the nicest characters in a 40k novel I have ever read. The fact that I liked the Sisters, when normally I don’t, was another factor in why I enjoyed the novel so much, being able to genuinely like and root for both sides simultaneously is something that makes every story better.
CotW doesn’t just have a good story though, being a story about a battle means that it’s filled with action sequences and Werner depicts these very well, the chaos of a war where one side can appear anywhere and strike at any point makes predicting the battle very difficult, the inhuman motivations of the Genestealers only compounding this. Another strength of Werner’s is being able to capture the nature of what he writes through the battle sequences, the Genestealers are a mob of fighters that pose a threat not through individual skill or even real discipline, but rather the power of numbers and unpredictability as well as their adaptability in using whatever they can get their hands/claws on as a weapon such as mining tools turned into tank-busting cannons and ordinary civilian vehicles retrofitted as transports, although the Purestrain Genestealers invert this and are more than a match individually for the Sisters of Battle with each of their appearances showing exactly why even Space Marines consider these monsters something to be concerned about. In contrast we have the Sisters of Battle who are the opposite, disciplined and individually powerful where the cultists aren’t but lacking the sheer numbers and the power of momentum their enemy has, it’s clear that the Genestealers can only take the Sisters in certain circumstances and that, plus the defensive stance they maintain for most of the novel, is how a force of less than one-hundred and fifty becomes a major impasse to an army that numbers in the millions. But it’s later in the novel where Werner’s action scenes become cinematic, but I can’t say why except that these scenes come the closest to perfectly capturing what they depict in my opinion, the raw power and threat posed is what I have always felt that these particular characters would be like in real life, some may disagree but it’s all down to opinion really.
The book is a bit shorter than most BL novels, clocking in at around 280 pages or so. Reading the book was easy all the way through, it starts off quite quickly with a battle sequence that sets up the conflict nicely and then keeps going at the same speed. I felt that this worked since a war against Genestealers is going to be a fast affair, they rise up unexpectedly and strike like lightning, relying on the enemy’s confusion and inability to react quickly enough to make gains they wouldn’t be able to in a protracted battle, and the book captures that through the pace very well. As for the length my issue is the issue I have with all of the shorter novels Black Library seem to be doing now, it needs to be longer. CotW would only have benefited from being around 400 or so pages, it would have given the book more time to establish the characters and perhaps to set others up, both the Cults and the Sisters could have used more than one POV character, and it would have allowed Werner to maybe take a greater look at the Genestealers and put down some of that macabre writing he does so well.
The world that Werner depicts is quite an interesting one. The Ecclesiarchy is always rife with internal contradictions, and Werner’s Shrine World of Lubentina exemplifies that quite well. A holy site that nonetheless must play the game of politics to remain that way, sacred shrines filled with holy relics that must compete with other worlds to attract pilgrims to sell overpriced worshipping gear and merchandise to, in a sense they feel like the Imperial version of tourist traps. This need to remain pre-eminent is of course a big part of the story as it influences a lot of why the Imperial characters make the choices they make, which is good because it means that the world building supports the story, the little details confirming what the characters inform the reader regarding their world and helps to make their decisions, both good and bad, more understandable in context. One part of the setting I noticed as well is a bit of a running trend in Werner’s 40k works, he sticks to a particular ethnicity when using names for each of his novels, in his short story Iron Inferno it was Japanese, in Siege of Castellax it was Chinese, and here it’s Indian and Arabic with character names like Kashibai, Debdan, Hafiz, Bashir and Reshma. I personally enjoy this as it adds another layer to the world-building, and shows that not everyone in 40k is white with an English or Latin sounding name, through showing the naming conventions of current Earth cultures have survived in 40k. On a quick note, for any long-time fans of the Genestealers there is a nice little reference on pages 131-132, a clear nod that Werner remembers the old days, that I think you will definitely appreciate.
My favourite quote, considering that I must avoid spoilers I will go for this one that combined with a badass entrance was definitely one of the novel’s best, but I will also add a second that I just felt was awesomely quotable;
“Tell me xenos, is your arrogance such that you think we will serve your little father?”
“If their leader goes for you, melt his face off.”
The ending was a good one with some twists that I definitely didn’t expect, Werner kept me guessing who would win through the entire story and when one side finally did it was a surprise, but it was the character stories that had the best endings, although I felt one of them could have used just a touch of foreshadowing to keep it from feeling like it came out of nowhere, but the other was a good one that put a greater sense of context in the actions of one group that I felt put added a new layer to the story, although it would give away too much to say exactly how this changed the story for me. It’s a well-written ending that nicely wraps up the story of Lubentina and most of the cast, though I did notice that one character’s story had a bit of a hook at the end that leads me to hope that this won’t be his last appearance, maybe a new trilogy of novels?? (I’m really really hoping this is the case).
On the whole I would give Cult of the Warmason a score of 8.1/10. If you’re a Genestealer Cults fan or a Sisters of Battle groupie than this novel should find its way to your shelves at some point, both sides are given good and equal treatment and the result is a novel that shows the best parts of both and keeps the reader guessing who will emerge victorious, if anyone does. And, while trying to give away as little as possible, if you have enjoyed Werner’s previous 40k offerings then you should definitely make CoTW a must-read, you’ll be glad you did very soon into the novel. With all of these aspects along with a good story, memorable and enjoyable characters and plenty of great battle sequences, CotW is a nicely readable book that I very much enjoyed all the way. So in summation I give Cult of the Warmason a final score of Very Good.
Well that’s it for this review. Thanks for reading if you’ve made it this far, until next time,
AVE DOMINUS NOX!
Yep, it was pretty good. But as you said, the genestealers did not get their deserved screen time due to the third wheel stealing the place. Genestealer Cults was sublime at depicting the horror of them and giving them many more faces than just the magus.
But i -strongly- reocmmend that you read Vaults of Terra, the Carrion Throne next. It gives a muchly deserved terrifying view of Terra in 40k, and how it deals with the endless legions of pilgrims. That is just......
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