Fire and Ice by Peter Fehervari. A Warhammer 40,000 Tau novella, originally appearing in the Legends of the Dark Millenium Shas'o anthology. Originally published October, 2015. Approx. 79 pages.
I've been champing at the bit for the chance to tear into this novella since it popped up in last month's (Oc-Tau-ber) Shas'o anthology (which has received a hardback release as well, allowing readers to finally get the exceptional shorts Out Caste and A Sanctuary of Wyrms in print format). The promise of a new story by personal Black Library favorite Peter Fehervari generated a lot of excitement, to say the least. As I'm sure I've mentioned many times before, in my opinion no other author in the Black Library stable puts forward stories with the kind of twisted potential and depth that this created universe allows for. They are brutal, honest, puzzling, twisting, and unapologetically raw.
Fire and Ice takes that standard to a new high.
As a forewarning, I can only say so much regarding the structure and storyline of this tale, since that would compromise some of the wonderful and mind-boggling twists. Let me just say that it is no coincidence that the name of one of the central figures of the story, an assassinated Inquisitor, happens to be Escher. This will give you a good idea of how the narrative of Fire and Ice unfolds.
Set amidst the turmoil of the Damocles Gulf Crusade, Fire and Ice focuses on a meek Inquisitorial Interrogator named Haniel Mordaine. Mordaine is a man that truly finds himself wedged between a rock and a hard place; he is being pursued by the Inquisition's Grand Conclave for his part in allowing Escher to be assassinated, and he is still trying to do his duty by attempting to uproot the Tau influence in the sector. Along this precarious path, he is ushered and guarded by a shadowy man named Kreeger, who, along with providing safety, is preparing Mordaine for a rendezvous with his "contact", a shadowy figure known as the Calavera, who will hopefully provide some insight on quelling the blueskin menace.
His efforts reach a climax on the frozen world of Oblazt, where the Tau-engineered "Unity" revolution is born. As the hive of Vyshodd falls to the newly-minted human subscribers to the Greater Good, Mordaine beats a hasty egress aboard a maglev train (superb technological concept here) on a journey to.....well, let's just say fate.
That summary really does no justice to the the story; and, mind you, the real story begins once all the players are on that fateful train. Here, while convalescing from wounds suffered during the riot, Mordaine will work with the mysterious Calavera (obviously an Adeptus Astartes, but also obviously so much more), and he will attempt to fill the void of the fallen Escher's shoes by interviewing "the prisoner"; a Tau warrior who may or may not be the legendary Commander Farsight.
If you need a straight-forward, linear Tau story, with clearly defined actions and arcs, please refer to my last review, for Phil Kelly's Farsight (no insult there, it is a really good novella). Also, if you are looking for seeing cadres of Fire Warriors lined up, with Crisis Suits soaring overhead, go with Farsight. But if you want a representation of what it would mostly be like to deal with the confluence of Tau socialism, Inquisition dogmatic totalitarianism, and Warp-infused Chaos, then read this novella. If you want a psychological power play, and the formation of grand-scale chess match (both figuratively and literally), then read Fire and Ice. Everything is offered in carefully calculated contradiction. Everything is everything and nothing at once.
There are no easy reveals here. Like all of Fehervari's other works, the reader finds themselves sorting through tangled webs in a house of smoke and mirrors. You will be asking yourself throughout, what is the ultimate point? Why is this character being chosen for these grand trials and responsibilities? And when an answer, of sorts, posits itself, revealing its truly ugly face, it is a true shock (and a nice little nod to one of my favorite movies of all time. But like I said, no spoilers from me).
Assessing the individual parts that make the whole, Fire and Ice is, like all of Fehervari's other works, very strong. If you were to strip away each outer layer, its core fundamentals are still strong. Take away the 40K universe, and it is still strong sci-fi. Take those concepts away, and it is still a strong character piece. Peel that back, and see the dark recesses of the mind. Claw through that, and fall into the blackest valleys of the soul.
There is real strength in the words employed. Every line has structural and philosophical importance. And, like in Fehervari's other stories, there are puzzles and riddles abound. Names are a central motif here; the meanings of them, the importance of them, and the grave missteps of addressing someone by the wrong name.
World building and scenery is excellent too. The technology of the anchor hive pulses with legitimacy, as does the maglev train which serves as the vessel for a trip to Hell. The partisan politics of those who would embrace the Tau'va over Holy Terra is especially poignant given the socio-political overtones so prevalent in today's society. Indeed, there is nothing so tragically comedic as low-information consumers rebelling and fighting for the opportunity to be another regime's disposable assets.
Of course, the most important aspect of such a story as this is characters. We have a fantastic dramatis personae here. Mordaine is an well-portrayed in his role; frayed, emotionally crumbling, and yet capable of an inner strength (bolstered, perhaps, by the inner voices which plague him). His guardian, Kreeger, is also a standout character. He embodies the physical characteristics and nihilism of Fire Caste's Holt Iverson, and yet, I find it hard to believe that they are one and the same....
The real puzzles, of course, are the shadowy pupeeters: the Calavera and the traveler. Their true motives are as well-hidden as their true identities, and even when there are some reveals, their ultimate goals are still out of sight.
Fehervari also shows that he can still craft well-conceived, if somewhat unconventional Imperial Guard regiments. Here we have the Iwujii Sharks, brutal, efficient, and unabashedly more gang-like than regimental. They give us some truly memorable personalities, especially the priestess La Mal Kalfu.
There is also a very nicely done minor arc involving an outcast kroot shaper. Here, as in some of his previous stories, Fehervari has shown a real flair for portraying this alien race. He truly gets their physiology, their bearing, and their base warrior instincts.
The dialogue here is beyond amazing. Sometimes I list a favorite quote from a story, one that resonates with something deep within with its poignancy. Here, almost every line fits that bill. So, for my favorite quote, I will choose these three simple words, which come from the most welcome character in the novella:
"It's a lie."
Fans of Fire Caste will be happy to know that there are some references in Fire and Ice to that classic piece. They are not as obvious, or as directly connected as the ones in stories like The Crown of Thorns or Vanguard (which acts more of an epilogue to Fire Caste than a separate work). It is just another cold reminder of the great story cycle that might have been if the Black Library had given Fehervari another book or two to tell a story that really deserved to be heard.
I'll put forward Fire and Ice as what I believe to be required reading for Warhammer 40,000 fans. This story shows the true potential for a created universe. These stories don't need to be constrained to the depictions of the battles acted out by tabletop miniatures. What makes those stories possible are the schemes and machinations of greater forces, and that is what you get in Fire & Ice. Like Fire Caste, this story might polarize some fans, and isolate those who prefer more clear cut tales. But it is the kind of story that a legend like Farsight deserves - complex, full of deception and obfuscation, calculated and calculating, brutal, and merciless.
Here's what it is:
Alas, how terrible is wisdom when it beings no profit to the wise.
Another Crisis Suit Codex grab, I presume. You won't be seeing it in this story. But this isn't the only story in the anthology. Not a bad pic.
Cover Final Score: