Publisher: Black Library
Publication Date: 2020
Symeon Dymaxion-Noctis is a lawman hiding from his own noble heritage. Rho-1 Lux is a tech-priest investigating potential heresies. When a murder implicates the tech-priests of Steelmound in a conspiracy, Noctis and Lux become unlikely allies in their search for the truth . . .
Why? Why, why, why did I wait so long to start reading Warhammer Crime? Last year I loved the audio drama Dredge Runners (by Alec Worley), but for some reason I ignored the novels also set in the sprawling urban hellscape of Varangantua. One book in, I can confirm this was a massive mistake on my part. Flesh and Steel is a great novel that solidifies the Warhammer Crime range’s lofty position in my estimation.
As I’ve said countless times before, SF and Crime go hand-in-hand. Flesh and Steel is proof of this. Whereas the Warhammer Horror line faltered early on due to a disconnect between brand and overall franchise, Warhammer Crime blends setting and genre effortlessly. Focusing the Crime range on the events of a single city was a smart choice by Black Library, as it allows Varangantua to develop a personality of its own. In a universe as large as the forty-first millennium, having multiple stories in the same location is a nice change of pace. Varangantua shows the civilian side of life in the grim, dark future. While it still feels like a part of the larger setting, it’s distinctly it’s own thing. You can tell Warhammer Crime is intended to draw in new readers, not only due to the shift in genre, but because of the glossary at the end. Of course, the glossary is of use even to someone more familiar with Warhammer 40,000.
While Flesh and Blood is first and foremost a crime novel, it never forgets its grimdark origins. There is a scene set in a servitor factory that is quite simply one of the most grimdark things I have ever read. For those not in the know, servitors are essentially zombie cyborgs used as slave labour. You can imagine some of what a servitor factory entails, but the depth of Haley’s depiction is as brilliant as it is brutal. Something that really took me by surprise is the involvement of the tech-priests in this book. There’s not a whole lot of Adpetus Mechanicus content in Black Library, and what Haley provides here is one of the best explanations of the Mechanicus that I have ever come across. Having one of the main characters be a tech-priest is a useful window into the world, but though we get a look at their inner workings, there is still an air of mystique about them.
Just as Dregde Runners combined grimdark with buddy comedy, so Flesh and Steel takes the classic Lethal Weapon approach of throwing together an unlikely partnership. For most of the book, our narrator is Symeon Noctis. Nobles who turn their back on family are rarely my favourite characters, but Haley makes it work. Noctis’ background comes up a few times throughout the story, and there are hints scattered through the book about darkness in his past. We get a few answers towards the end, but the framing narrative makes it clear that there is more story here than just this one book provides. We also get few chapters from the perspective of Lux. Not-quite-human viewpoints can be tough to pull off, but again Haley does it with ease. These are both characters I would be more than happy to see get more outings, and the subheading of ‘A Noctis and Lux novel’ suggests that this could well be the case.
Flesh and Steel is a brilliant novel, both as a crime thriller and as a piece of grimdark literature. Highly, highly recommended.