The final three stories that I have left for this review of Mark of Calth are Calth That Was, by Graham McNeill, The Underworld War by Aaron Dembski-Bowden, and Unmarked, by Dan Abnett. I have certainly saved the best stories for last.
Calth That Was is the longest story in the anthology. It is in fact a novella, far longer than a short story, and is about three hours in audio length. It follows the defense of Calth after the Ultramarines were compelled to leave the planet in the wake of the star’s the massive radiation output triggered by the Word Bearers. Left behind were thousands of Ultramarines trapped on the planet, along with numerous Word Bearer enemies who were similarly stranded by the sickening of Calth’s star.
This brought on the phase known as the Underworld war, so-named because the combatants were forced to retreat into below-ground arcologies for protection from the lethal radiation. Leading the Ultramarines and other surviving soldiers is the stalwart Captain Remus Ventanus, notable already for his heroism in defending Calth during the initial surprise attack launched by the traitorous Word Bearers.
Calth That Was has an elegiac quality to it, being a mournful hymn to what the once-fertile planet was, and what it will never be again. The Chaos-worshiping Word Bearers are unsurprisingly awful, and engage in vile atrocities without remorse. Ventanus’ defense of the population centers of Calth forms the narrative core of the story, which is thoughtful and action-packed in equal measure.
The Underworld War by Aaron Dembski-Bowden takes a look at the war from the other side of the hill. The story focuses upon a Word Bearer officer of the elite Gal Vorbak who, among other things, plays the host for a demon in his own flesh. If you have not already figured this out, the Word Bearers are nasty! He has, in fact, lost faith in the war on Calth that he is fighting, feeling that he has been left behind and forgotten by the rest of his brethren when they fled the Calth system to escape the star’s radiation. Years have past with no rescue or relief, and he wants out. Of course, one doesn’t just ditch an unholy war fought on behalf of the dark gods of Chaos, and the resolution to this story was worth every moment leading to it, and it surprised me very much.
The final story of the anthology, Unmarked, and my favorite, tracks the movements of Oll Persson, a strange but goodhearted man of an otherwise previously undescribed group known as “perpetuals.” The perpetuals, who have only been seen in a handful of places during the course of the two dozen or so Horus Heresy novels so far, are humans of immense age, being, it would seem, younger only than the Emperor himself, who is a virtually immortal being who has lived among men since about 8,000 B.C. To put Oll Persson in perspective, he is at least forty thousand years old, a span of time that is incomprehensible to ordinary mortal minds.
Persson finds himself leading a small group of survivors of the Calth attack via the application of an extraordinary weapon, an athame, which allows him to cut the fabric of reality in twain and step through the breach. That is remarkable enough, but even more remarkable is that this also allows him to step back in time as well as move across vast distance instantaneously, and he finds himself back on Earth in the deep distant past, with his unhappy band in tow. Dan Abnett’s Persson is a fantastic character. He is at once beyond any measure that a reader could apply to him. How can one fathom the mindset of a man who has lived for more than four hundred centuries? But he is also sympathetic as a man who can’t, it seems, die, but is fated to live forever, as the interminable years role by.
I have been greatly impressed by Black Library’s efforts in bringing the story of the Horus Heresy to print, and they have done a wonderful job with their audio anthology Mark of Calth. The universe of Warhammer 40,000 has slowly evolved over a quarter-century of development, with many, many hands involved in shaping this extraordinary milieu. The galaxy envisioned is not at all pleasant, and you would not want to visit it if you could avoid doing so. It is science fantasy of the grimmest, darkest kind, and that is how Black Library’s authors intend it. But the story is so deep, and so filled with elemental strife, that the novels, and now Mark of Calth, provide some of the best SF reading available today.