Saturday, July 13, 2013

Fire Caste

Fire Caste by Peter Fehervari. A Warhammer 40,000 Imperial Guard/Tau novel. Originally published by The Black Library in March 2013. Approx. 305 pages.

A mad commissar. A doomed company of Guardsmen. An invisible enemy led by a legendary ghost. Visitations of Warp horrors. And a hellish planet, alive and hateful. The debut novel from Peter Fehervari (author of a few Black Library shorts) throws a lot of tasty ingredients into the pot, so how enticing was the finished dish?

Actually it was a pretty succulent meal, although the description on the menu did it no justice. Let's start with the official blurb, and expand from there:

"In the jungles of the Dolorosa Coil, a coalition of alien tau and human deserters have waged war upon the Imperium for countless years. Fresh Imperial Guard forces from the Arkhan Confederates are sent in to break the stalemate and annihilate the xenos. But greater forces are at work, and the Confederates soon find themselves broken and scattered. As they fight a desperate guerrilla war, their only hope may lie in the hands of a disgraced commissar, hell-bent on revenge."

Commissar Holt Iverson has been mired in the nightmarish jungle world of Phaedra for longer than he can remember. His tenure has obviously exceeded his sanity. The Guard unit he is attached to turns traitor, opting to subscribe to the "Greater Good" of the Tau Collective, headed up on Phaedra by the phantom (yet extremely influential) Commander Wintertide. After a battle with his blue-skinned enemies leaves him battered and broken, he is shipped back to high command, presumably to be put to the bolter for his transgressions and drug use. However, he has one thing on his mind: revenge. To kill Wintertide. And it is his hope that he will be allowed a chance to commit to this undertaking.

More bodies are heading to the meat-grinder on Phaedra. The 19th Arkan Confederates have been dispatched from their home planet of Providence. But it is not so simple as that; the Confederates are plagued by creatures from the Warp; not just random horrors, but ones that are trailing them, ones that remember the events of the small town known as Trinity.

On Phaedra, the Arkans find problems at every turn. Imperial logistics are a joke; as a madman rules affairs planetside, and all is 'overseen' by a commander known only as the "Sky Marshall", who has spent the last few decades holed up in a dead ship in orbit.

After an altercation with the tainted Imperium command forces, the Arkans find themselves a rogue unit. Condemned as traitors, they still have to contend with the Tau and the workings of Phaedra herself.

Commissar Iverson is granted his reprieve, but not for his desired mission to kill Wintertide. His mission is to find and 'dispense the Emperor's Justice upon Ensor Cutler, the Colonel of the 'traitor' Confederates. Will Iverson be the doom of this proud group, or their last chance at redemption?

What we have is a very interesting framework. Yet this book goes beyond a simple bolter-porn war story. What makes this work astounding is the manner in which Fehervari conjures an experience that is so atmospheric and haunting. He utilizes literary, cinematic, and historical references to achieve this. It may come off as odd to some, or off-putting to others, but it is unarguably unique.

The main inspiration for Fire Caste is obviously Joseph Conrad's magnum opus "Heart of Darkness", as well as Darkness' cinematic adaptation "Apocalypse Now". There are some direct comparisons in narrative, as Iverson, in the Marlowe/Willard role, travels labyrinthine rivers in search of a traitorous colonel (Cutler/Brando's Kurtz), and also in pursuit of a mythical genius that holds the natives in a rapturous devotion (Wintertide/Conrad's Mr. Kurtz). Going deeper than that, though, is that they both share the same philosphy; that the jungle is a living, breathing, wild, unforgiving. thing. In Fire Caste, Phaedra has more ways to kill Guardsmen than either tainted brethren or the Tau (one of her more vicious weapons is a disease that allows a fungus to overtake a victim, a la the zombie ant).

To drive this point home, Fehervari carefully chooses his descriptive words when writing about the planet, from "arterial passages" to a "blue-veined sky". These terms perfectly reinforce the 'living planet' motif. In fact, all in all, I would rate Phaedra herself the greatest antagonist of the novel.

That is saying a lot, especially since there is quite a diverse Rogue's Gallery in Fire Caste. Firstly, of course, are the Tau. I've seen some complaints that there isn't enough of the Tau in this book, but I have to disagree (then again, they may be basing this on the fact that it was billed as a "Tau" novel, but more on that later). The presence of actual blue-skinned Tau is at a somewhat low level, but the myriad alien races utilized by the Tau get some love, and Fehervari writes for them very well. We get thrilling scenes with vespid, loxatl, and a very tense scene with some kroot. There are also the human charges that have gone to the blue team. Add to this mix the tainted Imperial forces under Captain Karjalan (suffering from the previously mentioned fungal plague) of the nightmarish ship, Puissance (more wordplay, as puissance means not only power, but it is also an equestrian event involving jumping over multiple obstacles). At his disposal are a brutal force of Lethean zealots led by mad Confessor Gordjief, an imposing and quite deadly figure. The Letheans are a truly frightening lot; there religious tendencies lean towards purification and penance through the rapture of pain and flagellation. Even their blessing is a warped take on a tradition: "The Emperor condemns." Finally, there are the indigenous natives of Phaedra, the Saathlaa, also known as the 'fish', due to their odd appearance. Fehervari makes an audacious move here; Conrad had penned the natives of Africa as "noble savages"; human yes, but undeniably different. Very capable in their own ways, but so strikingly apart from the ways of the Imperium (or Tau, and many have also joined Wintertide). There is no condescension either, as a Saathlaan scout attached to the Confederates becomes one of the more likable characters in the book. Also, the punchline is obviously that on Phaedra, the new guests are usually more impotent to adapt than the 'primitive' natives.

Now that we've talked about the villains, let's get into the treatment Fehervari gave to our Imperial friends. The Arkan Confederates are based on, well, the Civil War Confederate States of America soldiers. They have grey uniforms, they wear kepi caps, they have las-carbines with fixed bayonets. They have a saber-rattling, rawhide jacket wearing colonel. They despise their planet's Nordlanders (Northeners). The affluent ones own slaves. They speak in a manner that most of us associate with the Old West (be it accurate or not). Some people might think it's silly to have soldiers in Civil War uniforms in the 40th millenium; to them I say please remember that the Warhammer 40,000 world features units that resemble Cossacks, turban-wearing Middle Easterns, Zulu Conflict-era British uniforms, and the Ikari Warriors. The Confederates also have some unique units as well; Sentinels modified for para-jumps (these represent Confederate "Cavalry", while at the same time make a nod to the 1st Cavalry helicopter unit in Apocalypse Now), paratroopers with eagle-head helmets, and of course, the Thundersuits. The Thundersuits are steam-powered personal suits of armor, decked out with an array of heavy weaponry. Another vanity of the affluent, they are ungainly in the jungle climate, but make for superior heavy infantry units. They were a very cool addition.

So far we have Civil War soldiers, and suits of armor (representing knights). Add to the mix another unit that has been hit hard on Phaedra (and lost many to Wintertide's army), based upon Spanish conquistadors. It's a nice, diverse mix of soldiers who obviously have no place in the jungle.

Fehervari also utilizes names of troops with colorful uniforms; for example, the Thundersuit units are referred to as "Zouaves", and there are groups of new soldiers termed "Janissaries". This might be a reference to how these bright troops stand out like a sore thumb, or it might even be a reference to the young Russian harlequin in "Darkness". Either way, it's just more fun with words.

Further examples? The ship Iverson rides to Commissar High Command? The Sisyphus. Iverson's name? Well, one of the three ghosts that plague him throughout the book is a young lady that serves as a reminder of his poor shot selection. Her nickname is Number 27, coincidentally the same as Allen Iverson's career PPG average.

I may be haunted by my shot selection, but I regret nothing.

Don't get me wrong. Fire Caste is not just a book of tributes and references, there is a very deep story here. It's a story of two races at a crossroads, and the quest to find the best way to "take the fork in the road", as Yogi Berra would say. Constant motifs reinforce these notions. Duality, bisecting, bifurcation, mirror images, etc. Also, there is the symbolism of the 'shattered mirror'. One tech-priest mentioned briefly has the visage of a shattered mirror, the Tau pathfinder who features heavily is named Jhi'kaara, Tau for 'broken mirror', and, most notably, Commissar Iverson's face is a lattice-work of scars, resembling a shattered mirror. This all supports the theme of shattered lives, broken souls, just the heart-crushing quandary most of the dramatis personae find themselves in.

The real question this novel asks is which race will inherit universal supremacy. Will it be the dogmatic dictatorship of the Imperium, or the benevolent communism of the Tau (remember, the Greater Good is not concerned with individual benefit)? Or, as Ensor Cutler succinctly puts it, "Our evil empire versus yours."

Fehervari writes with a passion and skill that makes it hard to believe that this is a freshman novel. He keeps you invested and engaged throughout the work, even when he completely juxtaposes narrative styles to fit the mood of the story arc. He has a flair for writing action, and the detail of violence rendered matches the tool utilized. Remember, he is writing for a variety of weapons from bows and arrows up to advanced Tau railgun weaponry. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from Iverson's personal journal, and it is intriguing to watch the progression (or deterioration) of his mental state from event to event.

If I were to list any complaint, it would be with the role of Jhi'kaara. She is initially introduced as a formidable counterpart to Iverson, his "mirror image" so to speak. However, she is given less and less page time as the book progresses, and her ultimate point in the narrative ends up in question. She is an interesting character and it would have been nice to see her explored more.

I have been seeing some complaining in reviews of this work saying that it is being falsely advertised, it is not a Tau novel. I didn't get it at first. If you go to the link for the book on the Black Library site: it even says "the Imperial Guard face off with the Tau". Well hey, that's accurate, so what's the prob?
Oh wait. There are two listings for Fire Caste on the BL site. Here's the other one: And there we go: "A brand new Tau novel". Now I understand how the Tau-heads could be pissed. Black Library, please fix the description. This is an excellent work, but it is not a "Tau" book.

Here's what it is:
An excellent debut work, that is atmospheric, brutal, and filled with fun puzzles to solve. A gripping tale of a man lost in his own "heart of darkness", and just trying to find his way home.

Final Score:


Cover Score:
Tough call here. This is an ok cover, but it is not very representative of the work. The man is obviously supposed to be Commissar Iverson, but Iverson should be emaciated, and a lot older, with long, gray hair, and much worse for wear. Also, that glowing eye; I don't know if that is how an antiquated augmetic should look. But it's a decent pic, with a nice, graphic novel feel. The composition is off; the forearm is way too elongated and his thighs are way too big. You get the feeling that the artist completed a face pic, and then was asked to do a full body shot.

The arrangement on the cover is nice too; the title splits the two sides (keep that motif going!), placing Imperial Guard on the left, Tau on the right. Nice work on the Tau suits.

Cover Final Score:



  1. Hi Anthony,

    thanks so much for taking the time and effort to write such an in-depth review of my first novel. I particularly enjoyed your detective work on the connections, obscure references (some more occult than others...) and genre easter eggs seeded throughout the story. I wrote the book with the ambition of creating a 'puzzlebox' narrative, with many interwoven strands and sub-strands, all intended to bring out the central theme of madness. I am very aware that the end result is... unusual... so I've been tremendously grateful to those readers who've stuck with it and been open to a different, but I think valid, angle on 40k.

    Good luck with the blog!

    Peter Fehervari

    PS - I cannot take the credit for your Allen Iverson find, but bloody hell, I LOVE IT!

  2. Hi Peter,
    I hope I can properly convey how much of an honor it is to get a direct response from you on this. This has got to be one of more enjoyable books that I have read this year. Dark subject matter, but so much fun to pick through the riddles. There are a few more very good ones that I didn't want to note, since it would tread into spoiler territory, and that would compromise some really good surprises that the book delivers.
    And as for the Iverson reference, are you positive it wasn't intentional? I mean, he is plagued by his three ghosts, and Iverson always wore #3 on his jersey. Or was it that your hand was guided from beyond the Warp?
    Anyway, cheers and many happy returns! Thank you again for your response!

  3. Hi Anthony,

    it would have been remiss of me not to post a thank you. Reviews can be either an infusion of lifeblood or a bitter poison to new writers, so the good ones really do count. Also, never forget that most genre writers are just fans who've worked hard and had a lucky break. The real honour is ours for having people interested enough to read our words. When someone really clicks with those words it vindicates the whole endeavour.

    And I agree, it certainly isn't beyond the realms of possibility that the warp guided my hand with regard to Iverson's name. That damned novel certainly seemed to have a life of it's own sometimes. Often. Mostly!

    Thanks again,