Though I do read my fair share of books and in my time I’ve consumed enough fiction from Black Library to break even the sturdiest of book shelves, it is very much 40k fiction rather than ‘literature’. Yet reading Fire Caste, written by Peter Fehervari, I got the sense of something I rarely get from Games Workshop’s publishing arm. Fire Caste is a book that works just as well as literature separate from the 40k universe as a part of it. This book is the one of the few fully adult science fiction novels I’ve read in the Black Library line.
Fire Caste reminds me of something I had forgotten about after years of reading bolter porn. Which is that the 40k universe has so much potential as a legitimate science fiction universe that’s so often squandered on just recreating the tabletop game in novel form. Whilst Fire Caste isn’t a perfect novel by any means, it manages to juggle the larger nature of 40k metaphysics and the battle scenes that the less mature players turn up for.
Let me be up front. If you were assuming that Fire Caste is about the Tau, then you are in for a shock. The Tau are used more as secondary antagonists and as a way to drive the plot, though they do play an important part early on and in the final act of the book.
Instead, the novel follows the stories of an Imperial Guard regiment, The Arkan Confederates, and a lone half mad Commissar called Holt Iverson. Together they fight to discover just what is really happening on the planet of Phaedra, all the while running from the deamons of their past which in 40k, joyously, means both figuratively and literally.
Now whilst that may seem like a typical story for the Black Library, what makes it stand out is Fehervari’s writing style. More than most other books in the BL catalogue, the author seems to grasp that the Warhammer 40K universe is much better when it leaves things to the imagination and has many half-truths floating around. The books setting, a sort of chaosified Vietnam, is massively condemnatory of war in general, the horrors it allows and its overall futility.
These themes, along with a rather different take on the Tau will probably put off a lot of readers who are used to the Black Library’s standard diet of bombs and bullets sautéed in blood, served up on a platter of Ork guts. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. And I’ve certainly seen a lot of complaints about how open-ended the book leaves certain threads.
It’s worth persevering though. Fire Caste gives us the great character of Holt Iverson who I’m sure will be in other novels (though perhaps not in the traditional sense) and gives us a very interesting portrayal of the Greater Good, after it’s been subject to a 50 year unwinnable war and all the while steeped in the nature of the corrosive touch of chaos.
Along with Atlas Infernal, I have a feeling that the second wave of Black Library writers will be allowed to dig into the weirdness of 40k to give that crazy fucked up universe its proper dues. I can’t wait.