The Fifth Fleet – the Cursed Fifth – pushes deeper into the Imperium Nihilus than any other. Following in the footsteps of the martyred Saint Katherine, the holy warriors of the Adepta Sororitas find their faith put to the test . . .
For such a sprawling universe, Warhammer 40,000 is surprisingly thin on the ground when it comes to multi-author series. There’s the behemothic Horus Heresy, of course, and more recently the Dawn of Fire series, but otherwise Black Library seems content to have each author carve out their own corner of the grim dark future. Recently there’s been a few books labelled as ‘The Astra Militarum series’ by some, but these have all been standalones that happen to focus on the same faction. Pilgrims of Fire is likewise being marketed as the first in a six-part series, each chronicling one Order of the Sisters of Battle. I expect it will be similarly disconnected, but there’s enough meat on the bones here to sustain a single overarching narrative. But all these hypotheticals are yet to come. For now, we’ve got just the one book. So let’s have a chat about Pilgrims of Fire.
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Justin D Hill’s writing. Traitor Rock stands as one of my all-time favourite books, and I’m eagerly awaiting the next outing for Minka Lesk. One of the things I am particularly fond of in his work is the pseudo-historical feel to it all. There are moments when the camera is pulled away from the main characters, panning out to show the broader campaign. One such moment occurs in this book, as we are casually informed of the destruction of multiple sacred worlds in the space of a single paragraph. It’s a chilling glimpse at the scale of the Chaos threat, and a stark reminder of the results of failure. The rapid, calmly described spread of a deadly plague also shows Hill’s skill at showing the larger picture.
Sometimes, however, the larger scale works against the book. As well as a group of Adepta Sororitas, we also spend time with a penal legion, the Savlar Chem Dogs. There is great thematic overlap between the two groups, but it’s also a lot of characters. A lot of names to be remembered. And maybe some of them don’t get the focus they deserve. There are also two acts (of nine total) that take place in the past. Extended flashbacks rarely work for me, and they didn’t here. Branwen’s arc is among the strongest parts of the book, but by being divorced from the main narrative thrust for so long, I feel they suffer from a lack of attention.
When Pilgrims of Fire is firing on all cylinders, however, it is a brilliant piece of grimdark fiction. The blood and guts, the failure of heroism, and the overall futility of it all. It works on multiple levels. Hill knows how to write an action sequence, and the death toll is appropriately high. The apocalyptic levels of violence are nicely balanced with some quieter, introspective moments too. As well as seeking the lost shrine world of Holy Cion, the Sisters do a whole lot of internal soul-searching too. A special mention must also go to the scene depicting the opening of the Great Rift, which is among the more nightmarish visuals modern Warhammer has given us.
Whatever shape the Adepta Sororitas series ends up taking, it gets off to a good start with Pilgrims of Fire. A good story and some real thematic depth lend a lot to its success. If you’re interested in the Sisters of Battle, then this one should not be missed.
Deeper Dive: The Faith of Death
Broadly speaking, a common theme among real world religions is the idea that there is a reward after death for those who live a good life. For Christianity, this can be seen in the belief in Heaven. Live a life without sin, and you get to live in paradise for ever once you die. Christianity is hardly alone in this belief, but even a religion as different as Buddhism has a similar state of being. Live a life of good karma, and you achieve everlasting peace with the universe. I’m not a theologian, so I’ll leave it at those vague interpretations, but I’m sure you get the idea.
Faith in the God-Emperor of Mankind is different. Life in the Imperium is a life of duty. Following the orders of the clergy from cradle to grave is the minimum that is expected of a citizen. One of the few certainties in life is that we will all die. therefore, life in service to the Emperor is not enough. You must also die for him. For the truly devout, a death that advances the Imperial agenda is its own reward.
In the Adepta Sororitas, we see those who willingly dedicate their lives to the search for a good death in His divine service. We see the veneration of martyrdom on an industrial scale, and the continued worship of their mortal remains. Relics of the Saints are donned in the hope of continuing the battles they fought in life, but the defining trait of a great Battle Sister is that she dies in battle. Some are chosen to serve, but they are also choosing to serve. In the Sisters Repentia, we see the darker side of this faith. Fail to live a good life – fail to achieve a good death – and you will be condemned, with death your only release.
In contrast, we have penal legions like the Savlar Chem Dogs. These are prisoners of the Imperium, pushed into battles they are underequipped and ill-prepared for. There is no release for these soldiers except death. They are expected to die in the Emperor’s name, and should they fail, then execution is their punishment. The Chem Dogs in particular are forbidden from owning any personal possessions, and are kept addicted to chemical stimulants in the place of regular nutrition. It is a life of ascetism that mirrors the devout practices of the Sororitas, who spend holy days in fast even as others feast.
Chem Dog or Sister of Battle, it is a sworn duty to die for the God-Emperor. The only difference is that one has chosen that life, and the other has been pressed into it.
- Book One of the Adepta Sororitas Series
- Focuses on the Sisters of Battle
- Published in 2023
- Published by Black Library
- Grimdark SF
- 324 Pages
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