Publisher: Black Library
Series: Blackstone Fortress (#2)
Genre: Grimdark SF
Publication Date: 2020
Rogue trader Janus Draik has a problem. Cut off from support, he’s stuck in Precipice without friends or funds. Worse still, there’s a cult that sees him as their saviour, and forces beyond imagining bent on his elimination . . .
One of my earliest exposures to the weirdness of Warhammer 40,000 came in the form of the Rogue Trader RPG. Now, it’s not a great game. Between beggars capable of standing toe-to-toe with Space Marines and a ruleset that allows you to play a tyranid then immediately compels you to attack the nearest living creature, it has a lot of problems that even the best DMs are likely to struggle with. What it does do, however, is shine a light on the stranger parts of the grim, dark future. In a galaxy wracked by war, massive conflict, and the destruction of worlds, Rogue Trader embodies the smaller-scale affairs quite well. Yes, humans are still xenophobic, and xenos are filthy, untrustworthy monsters, but in the world of Rogue Trader, greater political concerns are set aside and unlikely allies work together on scrappy little ships. Beyond Andy Hoare’s trilogy of the same name and a single audio drama from James Swallow, not much has been done with Rogue Traders of late. But in Janus Draik, we see how they fit in with this new age of Warhammer 40,000.
The Blackstone Fortress is an odd little corner of the forty-first millennium. It’s got all the inter-species relations I’d expect from a Rogue Trader Game, but with the tighter plotting that a ragtag group of player characters would never stick with for more than two sessions. Ascension is the second novel set there, following on from Blackstone Fortress itself, the novella Isha‘s Lament, the audio drama The Beast Inside and an anthology entitled Vaults of Obsidian. Janus Draik and his cohorts have been the common thread through these offerings, presenting a scruffier and less militaristic view of the grim, dark future.
The story itself is fairly straightforward. Something bad is happening on the Blackstone Fortress, and Draik’s efforts to investigate lead to disaster and violence. There’s nothing groundbreaking going on here. Yet, isolated as it is from the larger concerns of the galaxy, there’s a lot more forward momentum than you might expect from a Warhammer book. We all know that a book that changes the setting is a rare thing, and this book is not that, but it does carry weight. The fate of the galaxy is never in question, but the fate of Precipice and the Blackstone Fortress? That is very much up in the air.
Where Ascension truly thrives is in the weirdness. Freed from the xenophobic shackles of the larger Imperium, we get to see all manner of xenos living and working side by side. Not always happily, but the streets are not awash with xenos blood just because people look different. The blood comes later, as the inevitable violence comes to this corner of the Warhammer universe. But before that we get humans (of course), a kroot, ratlings (Rein and Raus are perhaps the best characters in the whole book), and a zoat. The zoat in particular reminds me how tied to the Blackstone Fortress game these books are. I can’t help but wonder to what extent the narratives are tied together, and knowing that this story is likely constrained by the need to promote a game can be distracting at times. But that’s a distraction any reader of tie-in fiction faces on a daily basis.
It’s not the strongest Warhammer book out there, but Blackstone Fortress: Ascension is a lot of fun, with blood, guts, and the occasional bit of heroism thrown in for good measure.