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  • A standalone novel
  • A Warhammer Horror novel
  • Published by Black Library in 2022
  • SF Horror
  • 200 pages
  • ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

It’s Rudgard Howe’s first day on the job. As an enforcer, it’s his duty to ensure all Imperial tithe’s are gathered on time. But this year’s harvest is not going to plan. Something malevolent stalks the farmsteads. Something as inhuman as it is horrifying . . .

The countryside. For most people, it’s probably not what springs to mind first when the hear the name Warhammer 40,000. After all, the grim dark future is ruthlessly industrialised. Thick with urban sprawl and pollution. No room for green fields in that. But what most people forget is that agriculture, even in the real world, is one of the most heavily industrialised sectors there is. Farm machinery was at the heart of the industrial revolution, after all. People who spend their whole lives in the city might think of farming as nothing more than endless pastures and peaceful livestock. But those of us who live and work in agriculture know better. It’s a dirty and dangerous living. In the United Kingdom, farming is second only to fishing in terms of the annual death toll from work-related accidents. I’m the third generation to work on my farm, and I’ve known people who have been injured and killed doing things I do all year long. So when I read a horror novel set on a remote farmstead, a lot of what happens is not only visceral, it’s sickeningly plausible.

The Bookkeeper’s Skull understands this, and even leaving aside my pleasant surprise at well-written farming in a science fiction novel, it’s the strongest horror book Black Library have put out to date. It’s a short book, but it packs in a lot. For one thing, it’s got some of the best depictions of mundane life in Warhammer 40,000 that I’ve come across so far. The world of Potence isn’t on the frontlines of the Imperium’s many endless wars. Nevertheless, it’s paying the price for those wars. There’s no ‘Dig for Victory!’ spirit here. Just a relentless grind to produce as much food as possible in order to meet the Emperor’s tithes. This book has two great things going for it from a worldbuilding perspective. First of all, it’s the first real examination I can think of, of how an agri-world actually functions. The answer is serf labour teams, kept in line with the constant threat of execution if they fail or fall short of expectations. These people aren’t farmers by choice. They’re trying to work of the debts incurred by previous generations. Whether Hill knows it or not, he’s tragically close to how the British agricultural system works. The second point is a much more positive one. The Bookkkeeper’s Skull is something close to the sixtieth Warhammer 40,000 novel I’ve read. And it’s the first one to actually tell me what a grox is. So that’s nice.

I’m not particularly well-versed in horror. I’ve read collections by HP Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe, and a handful of early twentieth century pieces, but the modern field does little to interest me. So while veteran horror readers may not blink twice at some of the elements Hill includes, a lot of them were new to me. And a lot of them feel uniquely Warhammer. We get off to a suitably creepy start with the realisation that Gambol, our protagonists childhood toy, is not a doll or a stuffed animal, but a servitor. A human convicted of crime and subsequently lobotomised and turned into a plaything for the wealthy. if that doesn’t make your skin crawl, you’re probably reading the wrong genre. From that, we move onto the quiet evil of the enforcers’ work routine. The calm execution of those who fail humanity. Then we meet the self-mutilating sanguinary cults, scarring themselves in the Emperor’s name. Agriculture and injuries go hand in hand, after all. Even when the deaths start occurring, it’s not the culprit you might expect. There’s no convenient daemon or xenos to blame for it all. What we get is something closer to folk horror, with imagery that borders on the darker sides of paganism. It’s a gentle sort of horror at times, that creeps up on you and gets bloody when you least expect it. It’s the slow build-up of questions, with answers that will only disturb us further. But by the end, when the survivors are thin on the ground, and the blood is thick in the air, we never quite get an an answer that will make us feel safe. And that is exactly what horror should do.

Did you enjoy this book? If so, you might also enjoy:
Flesh and Steel, by Guy Haley
The Way Out, by Rachel Harrison (Audio Drama)
Cadian Honour, by Justin D Hill

6 responses to “BOOK REVIEW: The Bookkeeper’s Skull, by Justin D Hill”

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  6. AT BOUNDARY’S EDGE ESSENTIALS: Warhammer 40,000 – At Boundary's Edge Avatar

    […] The Bookkeeper’s Skullby Justin D HillWhy it’s Essential: The Bookkeeper’s Skull serves two functions on this list. First, it is a perfect example of Warhammer Horror done right. The Horror range has struggled with a lack of overall identity, but The Bookkeeper’s Skull is a testament to how disturbing the Warhammer universe can get. In addition, it’s a fascinating glimpse of life away from the frontline. For obvious reasons, much is made of the war in Warhammer, but even on farming worlds, there is still danger. A stark reminder that nowhere in the grim dark universe can truly be considered safe. […]


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