Publisher: Black Library
Series: The Twice-Dead King (#1)
Genre: Grimdark SF
Publication Date: 2021
For ages untold the necrons have slumbered in their tombs, waking only to find the Galaxy a changed place. On one remote world, an exiled noble foresees an invasion by the upstart Imperium. But the nascent human race is far from the greatest danger to his rule . . .
If there’s one thing Warhammer 40,000 does well, it’s tragedy. That’s the point, after all. Take the Imperium of Man. Sure, it looks impressive, and is a dominant power in a Galaxy filled with countless horrors and warmongering species. But look deeper. Peel away that golden gleam of the Imperial Creed, and it’s darkness all the way down. This a civilisation that has long since stagnated. Where lives are spent toiling for no purpose, and total collapse is avoided only by the liberal application of propaganda. Blaming the problems of a failing state on outside forces and pushing violence to the frontiers rather than letting it consume the core. The Imperium is a civilisation on the brink of either brilliance or total collapse, depending on who you ask. But impressive though it is, it is not the first to find itself at such a crossroads.
A long, long time ago, the necrons found themselves in a similar position. Wars against the gods and internecine squabbling posed a great threat to a civilisation that dominated the Galaxy. But this oldest of civilisations did something remarkable. They embraced stagnation. Eschewing the ways of flesh, they became mechanical beings. immortal, unending, unchanging. After tens of thousands of years, the necrons are still around, much diminished, but with delusions of grandeur. And those long centuries have taken their toll on even the greatest of dynasties.
It is with all of this as background that Nate Crowley brings his unique penmanship to the sinister xenos species for the second time, having previously written the novella Severed. In spite of that weight of history pressing down on the characters, Ruin is a short and accessible novel. Maybe too short if I’m being honest, but happily there is a sequel on the way. What we get in this slender volume is the story of Oltyx, a noble exiled from his dynasty, and left to defend his holdings as first orks, and then humans arrive in force to take it from him. Admittedly, the Imprium is a threat from a distance for this first book, but we do see some ork-on-necron action. This is a battle we’ve seen a bit of in The Infinite and the Divine, but here we get a deeper look at the two species. On the face of it, they seem like they shouldn’t exist in the same setting. here are the necrons, with their gothic tragedy, and over there are the orks, building brightly coloured machines and blowing themselves up. But that juxtaposition hides a greater depth. Here are the two extremes of the grim, dark future. One civilisation that had the universe in their grip, only to see it fall through their metal fingers, and a second that has never created anything of merit, and exists only to tear down the works of others in as destructive a manner as possible.
This contrast in worldbuilding plays to Crowley’s strengths as a writer. The tragedy of the necrons looms large over their every interaction, and Crowley does superlative work bringing home the effects on the mind of an unending life. Necron lore is deep indeed, and there are some bits that I’m still not wholly sure I understand, but Crowley’s prose shines in spite of all the terminology and jargon he has to introduce to properly depict this staggeringly ancient civilisation. As we tour the ruins of the Galaxy’s first empire, there is a lot of sorrow on display. But the pathos is alleviated by some very funny lines. The bickering of Oltyx’s subminds, or the ineffectual council who serves him. It’s often gallows humour, but that’s just what the grim, dark future calls for. It’s just the right level of humour to stop things becoming too depressing, neatly breaking up the darker segments.
I haven’t read many xenos novels yet, but Ruin sets the bar high. It’s an insight into a little-explored corner of the grim, dark future, and puts Crowley on my list of authors to keep an eye on.