BOOK REVIEW: Steel Tread, by Andy Clark

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  • A Standalone Novel
  • An Astra Militarum Novel
  • Published by Black Library in 2021
  • Military SF
  • 343 pages
  • ⭐⭐⭐

The war on Croatoas is a bloody one, as the forces of the Astra Miltarum clash with former colleagues who have sworn themselves to Chaos. Across this endless battlefield roll the masters of warfare: the tanks . . .

If listening to Sabaton has taught me anything, it’s that nothing can change the tide of battle like the arrival of a tank. It was true in the year 1916, and it is true in the grim darkness of the year 40,000. Tanks in Warhammer’s bleak future are more than a gun on tracks. They are mobile fortresses, capable of levelling whole encampments with a few well-placed rounds. On the tabletop, the scale of something like a Baneblade is undeniable, towering over infantry as it does. These heavy metal behemoths are the Imperium in a nutshell. Violent, dirty, and hard to bring down. But while the Astra Militarum have been a dominant force of Black Library literature for a long while, second only to the might Adeptus Astartes, tanks have rarely been the focus. Guy Haley has written a pair of books about a tank crew, and CS Dows has given us one of the very best audio dramas in the form of Titan’s Bane, but that’s all that springs to mind. Just three stories about this key piece of military technology. Well, now that number stands at four.

Steel Tread takes a classic formula – grab a bunch of people who don’t like each other very much, and shove them into a tense and claustrophobic situation – and runs with it. The overall arc of the narrative is a little predictable, but surprisingly upbeat for a Warhammer novel, and there are perhaps more characters than the story quite knows what to do with. All the archetypes are there, from the religious one through to the hard as nails type, and you could be forgiven for expecting the usual tropes to play out. Indeed, a lot of them do, but even the oldest stories are good when well told, and as a standalone novel Steel Tread is an interesting glimpse at life on the battlefield. It’s when the shrapnel is flying that Clark is at his best, and the debris piles up throughout the book.

Of course, the unspoken rule of stories featuring people in a vehicle is that the vehicle in question becomes a character in itself, and Steel Tread is no different. The tank from which this book derives its title has just as much personality as any of its crew. And this isn’t some tropey mess about an engineer growing too close to their tank, because in the world of Warhammer 40,000, tanks do have personalities. All vehicles are powered by a machine spirit that must be coaxed and cajoled in action. It’s not truly an artificial intelligence, nor is it a full-blown science fantasy sprit, but somewhere in between. A little touch of mysticism that sets this future apart from many others. Crunch, hard SF fan though I may be, there’s certainly something appealing about the vagueness of the machine spirit. It doesn’t need to be explained. It simply is.

If you’re looking for a piece of military action, Steel Tread will leave you satisfied. It’s far from the deepest, most philosophical book out there. But beneath the blood an thunder of guns there are hints of the divisions at the heart of the Imperium. The rivalry between different regiments. The ease with which loyal soldiers can fall to the depths of betrayal and failure. Yes, there is sound and fury, but maybe it is, just this once, signifying something. It might not be my favourite Black Library book, but it’s still good stuff.

Did you enjoy this book? If so, you may also like:
Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus, by Isaac Asimov
Mars, by Ben Bova
Cold Welcome, by Elizabeth Moon

Published by Alex Hormann

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

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