- A standalone novel
- Focuses on the Orks
- Published by Black Library in 2021
- A grimdark comedy
- 263 pages
Ghazghkull Thraka is a name feared throughout the galaxy. This ork warlord, the self-proclaimed prophet of his xenos gods, has his mind set only on slaughter. But where did this ork come from? And will the account of his bloody rise to power expose any weakness . . ?
Forget any doubts I had while reading his necron duology, Ghaxghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waaagh! has immediately elevated Nate Crowley to become one of my favourite new Black Library authors. Like most of the Warhammer 40,000 character study novels, this is a fairly short one, but it’s easily the most interesting one I’ve come across so far. And not because it’s about a character I have any particular interest in, but simply because of how brilliantly it is written.
I love framing narratives, and here Crowley exploits my soft spot for the technique with ruthless abandon. We open with vox communications, then shift into third person, then into first, then back and forth, and then we throw in second person perspective for good measure. In true orkish tradition, this is a book that chucks absolutely everything into a pot, and somehow comes out with an act of genius. If there’s one trope I have little time for, it’s stories about storytelling. With almost no exceptions, they come across as smug and self-aggrandising on the part of the author. It’s to Crowley’s credit that he steers firmly away from that particular trope. Nevertheless, it’s hard to read this book and not be taken in by the multiple levels of storytelling at work. And at the end of it all I’m left wondering just how much of what I’ve just read is true.
Obviously, none of it is true. It’s a work of fiction. But within the narrative we have multiple layers to peel away. It can be taken for granted that Inquisitor Falx genuinely has a grot and an ork as her prisoner. But that grot clams to be someone with intimate knowledge of Ghazghkull’s rise to power. So he tells his story. Except he doesn’t speak the same language as Falx. So there’s an ork on hand to act as a translator. Now, if there’s anything reading translated fiction has taught me, it’s that a lot of nuance gets lost in the act or translation. Personally, I think the story we get is pretty close to the truth of Ghazghkull’s life. But there is an element of doubt. And planting the seed of that doubt is the simple fact that there are massive cultural differences between speaker and listener. For example, among themselves the orks default to they/them pronouns, and it’s only the Imperium that labels them as ‘boyz’ – a fact that the orks find hilarious. And why shouldn’t they? After all, they’re basically rampaging mushrooms. But this barely scratches the surface of the cultural rift. As the story’s translator makes clear, there are words in orkish that have no direct translation. Accommodations are made for a human audience, but this is a story that leaves plenty of holes to be poked. And that’s before we get into some of the more madcap events that happen to the narrator, many of which strain credulity.
Even leaving aside all the nifty narrative techniques at play here, this is an absolutely marvellous novel. It makes you think, but also makes your sides split with laughter. It’s not often I laugh out loud at a book, but this one had me going several times. There’s a simple genius to the ork/grot dynamic that Crowley captures better than anyone else. But he also doesn’t gloss over the violence that comes with the Warhammer territory. Yes, it’s presented in a comedic way, but look under the surface, and the full horror of war is quite clear. Nowhere more so than in the war for Armageddon. This is a story I’ve read before in the Yarrick omnibus by David Annandale. Here though we see not only the joy the orks take in destruction, but also dive a little deeper into the psyche of a species on the edge of madness. And seeing it from the other side makes me want to reread that other series. So that’s a big win for the Games Workshop marketing department if nothing else.
If you want a brash and violent story about orks headbutting each other, this is the book for you. No questions about it. But there’s an intelligence at work here too. Much like Ghazghkull himself, the story of his life is tough and clever in equal proportion.