Publisher: Black Library
Genre: Science Fantasy
Publication Date: 2020
Cut off from the Imperium, Ephrael Stern wages war against the forces of Chaos. But an encounter with a member of the Ordo Xenos forces her to reevaluate her crusade, and brings her into a fight that challenges everything she believes to be true . . .
I like science fiction. I like fantasy. But most of the time, I don’t like science fantasy. There are a few exceptions, of course. A science fiction story told in the style of epic fantasy? That sounds fine. And a bit of mysticism around technology can go a long way. But literally adding magic to a science fiction story? That leaves me cold. It’s probably because I associate science fiction with stories set in our own future, and there is no sorcery in the real world. For similar reasons, I generally dislike urban fantasy, but that’s not important right now. What is important is that Warhammer 40,000 is a science fantasy setting, and one that I regularly enjoy. Granted, I prefer the more mundane parts. Astra militarum, Crime, and the like. But the fantasy thread runs through everything. there are undead (necrons), elves (aeldari), and hyperspace in this universe involves literally flying through the domain of demons. For whatever reason (and I genuinely don’t know it myself), I am able to enjoy this setting while all other science fantasies fall by the wayside. And make no mistake, Ephrael Stern: The Heretic Saint is the most fantasy Warhammer 40,000 book I have yet read.
Stern herself is a figure with a lot of history in the franchise, all of which I am blissfully unaware of. But she has her own miniature and ruleset, so she must be a big deal. But with a title like ‘The Heretic Saint,’ that’s a given. The gist is that Stern possesses the knowledge of multiple dead Sisters of Battle, and it’s that knowledge that is considered heretical by the more orthodox Adepta Sororitas. Despite this, Stern is a loyal follower of the God-Emperor, and fights on the side of the Imperium. Why Because she has faith. In a book as short as this one, there isn’t space for explorations of background and motivation. This is a book that is one half frantic battles, and one half rumination on what faith means in a universe where the power of gods is available for all to see. And while the action is good, it’s that analysis of faith that sets this Ephrael Stern: The Heretic Saint apart from its companions.
I haven’t read the full fifty-plus volumes of the Horus Heresy to understand the full origins of the God-Emperor, but while you can dispute his godhood, he exists. Travel to Terra, and you can see the physical embodiment of human religion. The forces of Chaos may label him a corpse, but the God-Emperor is on display for people to see. His divine form is the ultimate holy relic. Proof that his religion is the right one.
But the Gods of Chaos are real too. As I said earlier, humans travel through the Warp to go faster than light, and demons are demonstrably real. Maybe they’re not true deities, but Khorne, Nurgle, and all the others do exist. It might drive you mad, but you can talk to them. Truth be told, they’re a whole lot more involved in the daily affairs of their worshippers than the Emperor is. While the forces of the Imperium use their faith as motivation, the forces of Chaos use faith as a weapon. In Ephrael Stern: The Heretic Saint, we see a Chaos worshipper who can manipulate physical matter by power of faith alone. In contrast, Stern’s faith might keep her going in dark times, but that power is internal.
Where does this leave faith in the grim, dark future? If you can gain unimaginable power by pledging your soul to a demon, why would you continue to serve a body on a throne? Is purity its own reward, or is it simply a reason to maintain the state of conflict that ravages the Imperium? In this book, Annandale provides no hard answers, but he does ask the question. And it’s a question that will leave you thinking.
For an impulse buy, Ephrael Stern: The Heretic Saint took me completely by surprise. Not only is it one of the best science fantasy books I’ve read, it also has me thinking about Warhammer 40,000 in a whole new light.