The Walker in Fire (Deathwatch 9) by Peter Fehervari. A Warhammer 40K short story, originally published by The Black Library, January 2016. Approx. 31 pages.
I have been wanting to get the Deathwatch shorts and review them as they came out, but there was always a reason for me not to. The first story, One Bullet, was a very good yarn, but it only bore a tenuous connection to the Deathwatch. The subsequent entries all looked interesting enough (never mind the covers), but some of the authors are kind of hit-or-miss for me personally.
But, there is always the case for exceptions. And having one of these entries being written by your favorite BL author is definitely one of those exceptions.
In The Walker in Fire, we follow Garran Branatar, a Salamander Firedrake attached to a Deathwatch Terminator kill-team (designated Sabatine), as they embark on a mission to "locate" a rogue Adeptus Mechanicus magos who has absconded with some xenos samples.
I was very intrigued to see what Fehervari's take on the Salamanders would be; I know precious little of their lore as is. When you reduce them to their simplest terms; their gimmick is their fire motif, and in terms of philosophy, they are more concerned with the protection of man than other Chapters. I've never read any of the books, since the Salamanders usually fall under Nick Kyme's purview. Plus, I don't like green as a Chapter color (I know, you can't refute that logic, right?).
Fehervari has truly made Branatar one of his own trademark characters. While keeping the basic tenets of the Salamander code of conduct, as well as the strong senses of pride and duty that are integral to an Astartes, Branatar wrestles with bottomless valleys of shame and loss. Primarily, the cross he bears relates to the loss of a battle brother during an ugly campaign against the Dark Eldar. Forever encumbered by loss and shame, Branatar sees and hears this fallen brother, Athondar, wherever he goes. As a perennial revenant, Athondar follows Branatar down his ultimate path, towards either "absolution or oblivion".
As far as the narrative itself goes, The Walker in Fire leans more towards an accessible, straightforward actioner, much in the way other Fehervari works like Nightfall and Vanguard were. This is not to insinuate in any manner whatsoever that the work is constrained to anything so simplistic as a completely linear narrative. Fehervari weaves masterful twists, turns, and interconnections to all of his other works here. So, even though this is an action-heavy piece, it is still a strand in the spiderweb-like, labyrinthine, Warp-twisted Cat's Cradle of a story arc which he has been working on since Fire Caste.
I need to make a thankful shout-out here: usually I am serviceable at deducing some of Fehervari's riddles and Easter Eggs, but this time, a lot of clarification was provided by frequent blog visitor/poster Lucius Eternal. Thanks as always, my friend!
I say this because Fehervari has outdone himself here, answering many lingering questions, and, of course, positing so many more.
Just a few of the interconnecting elements include:
- The action takes place on the fallen hive world of Sarastus, the backdrop of Fehervari's debut story Nightfall.
- There is mention of the secretive work being outsourced to a "backwater world", which, of course, is Phaedra, setting of Fire Caste, Vanguard, and, A Sanctuary of Wyrms (more on that in a bit). In fact, the clever placement of the very word 'sanctuary' nails this as a direct prequel to that story.
- There is mention of Inquisitor Escher, the mysterious centerpiece in the game being played in Fire And Ice.
- And, last of all, we have Malvoisin, one of the dreadful Chaplains of the twisted Angels Penitent (from The Crown of Thorns), In The Walker in Fire, we meet him when he still bore the symbol and exquisitely crafted weaponry of the Angels Resplendent.
I'm sure that is just the tip of the iceberg as well. I'm also sure that there are secrets to be revealed in some of the naming schemes as well. I haven't finished researching all of them yet, and I have the sneaking suspicion that there might be some anagrams in there as well. Perhaps the name Thandios has a loose translation of "Immortal God", which reflects the White Consul reverence of the Emperor of Mankind. Immortal also means 'endless', much like a certain fall... I will say naming the Deathwatch Black Shield (who I am assuming was a Carcharadon) "Hauko" was extremely clever. I am also trying to figure out the significance of the numerical designation of the Techmarine: M636 (originally from the Brotherhood of A Thousand). There is nothing coincidental in any of these stories....
In case you were wondering, the original Chapters of the Kill Team members are: White Consuls, Salamanders, Angels Resplendent, the Brotherhood of A Thousand (the character here fulfilling the familiar Fehervari motif of a secretive, character whose face and motives are veiled behind a visor), and the Black Wings. A sublime arrangement of some lesser known Chapters, especially representation by the Angels Resplendent (later Penitent), who Fehervari did so much to give a rich backstory to in the span of a few pages in The Crown of Thorns.
I mentioned before that there is a lot of action in this story. Fehervari, along with crafting twisting, mind-bending storylines, has always been a master of choreographing dynamic action sequences. Near the opening, there is an open battle with some of the ghoulish residents of Sarastus that is reminiscent in tone of Matheson's I Am Legend. We also get some very solid Skitarii skirmishing (which Fehervari did masterfully in Vanguard as well). Also, we get a real sense of the potency of the weaponry in all of their destructive grandeur. Lastly, and very importantly, attention is paid to the details distinguishing the armor of the Kill Team as Terminator armor; for example, specific considerations and compensations.
But, as with all of Fehervari's works, what really stands out here and grabs you by the throat are the emotional and psychological underpinnings. When you read that classic preamble at the opening of most 40K works, that whole "grim darkness" spiel, Fehervari is one of the only authors who so effectively brings that nightmarish hell into tangible being. And he is also peerless when it comes to penning the absolutely bottomless fathoms of true loss, and sorrow.
Little side note: Regarding A Sanctuary of Wyrms, when I first saw that Fehervari had written a Deathwatch story, I was kind of hoping that it would chronicle the actual events that befell the Deathwatch team that Jhi'kaara's party found the remains of. That this wasn't the case is not a disappointment; Branatar's story is extremely compelling. The reader just desperately wants to know what happens next; and, hopefully we will find out in a future story.
Here's hoping that story comes soon. In the meantime, enjoy The Walker in Fire. One of Fehervari's more direct and accessible stories; it is filled with plenty of action, rich characters, mysteries solved and presented, and a deep, dark, emotional undercurrent.
Ah, these Deathwatch covers. Where to begin? Some have been atrocious, some not so bad, and one or two I actually like.
It's been a bold artistic endeavor, to say the least.
I don't dislike this cover; I actually think it is pretty cool in many ways. My only complaints are that the tip of the nose is too dark compared to the rest of the face, making it appear almost canine. I know it's hard to capture the overall ebony Salamander tone, and still highlight all the curves and contours, but the animal nose makes it look more like a classic Universal monster man-beast hybrid. Also, what I am guessing are scars running along the side of the face look more like rivulets of sweat.
All in all, not as bad as some of the others.
Cover Final Score: