BOOK REVIEW: The Book of Martyrs

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Contributing Authors: Phil Kelly, Danie Ware, Alec Worley

Publisher: Black Library

Genre: Grimdark SF

Pages: 294

Publication Date: 15/05/2021

Verdict: 4/5

There is no greater honour than to die in the name of the God-Emperor, and none are more willing to die in His name than the Sisters of Battle. Here are but three of the brave women to become Martyrs for the glory of mankind . . .

Back in the old days, you got a style of book called a fix-up. This was a bunch of short stories that had been strung together to make a novel. Sometime sit was just the stories, but sometimes there was a framing narrative to hold it together. Two Asimov classics, Foundation and I, Robot are fix-ups, but it’s a style that’s essentially disappeared as the market has changed. The rise of the novella has certainly contributed to this, but I think there’s also been a separation of short story and novel audiences, to the point that few publishers have regular anthologies any more. Black Library have always put out tremendous amounts of short fiction, though, and their anthologies and collections are among their more popular work. they’re also unafraid to experiment. The Warhammer Horror line has had a few portmanteau novels, which are essentially fix-ups, and now with The Book of Martyrs, that design comes to the forty-first millennium.  This book holds three original novellas from some great authors.

Alec Worley kicks things off with a story about a Sister on a remote world more concerned with healing than with killing. Inevitably, things turn violent. The early parts of this novella showcase Worley’s horror leanings, with an unknown predator stalking the faithful. I shan’t spoil the nature of the threat, but it’s one of my favourite xenos. The second half is a little more traditional, in that it’s an all guns blazing battle between humanity and the alien foe.

Phil Kelly is an author I don’t recall reading before, but his story here looks set to change that. It’s a deeply psychological piece featuring a Sister of Battle being tortured by the T’au. I’m not terribly familiar with the T’au, but on the strength of this story, I’ll definitely be checking out Phil Kelly’s Farsight novels. This might be the shortest of the three, but it’s  also the most impactful.

Danie Ware has a strong track record with the Sisters of Battle, and her contribution is no different. It’s probably the most traditional of the three stories, featuring a group of Sisters under siege from the forces of Chaos, but it’s a great example of how to do interesting storytelling with old tools. A simple story, told very well, and with Ware’s typically great characterisation.

On either side of these novellas is a very short framing narrative by an unattributed author, in which a Sister finds an in-universe version of this very book. Not much happens in this part, but it neatly ties the trio together.

Given the title, you probably know what to expect from The Book of Martyrs. Yes, these are all stories about women who have given their lives in the line of duty, but knowing their fate only makes the stories better. The air of tragedy is thick here, and a heavy dose of grimness covers everything most pleasingly. There aren’t too many surprises to be had, but this is a great little collection of a sort I’d very much like to see more of from Black Library in the future. It has action, sorrow, and the odd insight into what it means to have faith in a world as bleak as Warhammer 40,000.

Overall, this collection is sure to please readers looking for Sisters of Battle action, whether that’s as a return to old favourites, or a new reader wanting to know what all the fuss is about.

Published by Alex Hormann

I'm a writer, reader, and farmer, with an interest in all things speculative.

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