As you may or may not know, the limited edition of my new novel Spear of the Emperor is out for pre-order very soon. Like, imminently.
I’ve posted the blurb before, but in case all of this is news to you, here’s what the story is about:
After beseeching the pantheon of marketing demigods, they said it was cool for me to post this. So here, for your skull-nourishment and to appease the capering goblins of curiosity, is the Preface from the novel.
I hope you find it interesting.
This isn’t the book I planned to write. It’s probably not the book you’re expecting to read, either.
If you don’t usually care for an author’s awkward ramblings, feel free to skip ahead to the story. I won’t hold it against you. (Hey, I’ll probably never even know!) But if you’re interested in the context that helped this novel come into existence, then stay a while and I’ll get you up to speed.
I went into the synopsis phase of Spear of the Emperor with the intention of writing a traditional look at a Space Marine Chapter, with a Space Marine protagonist typical of his Chapter’s culture. I like to read those kinds of novels, with those kinds of protagonists, and I enjoy writing them from time to time, too. It’s a tradition for a good reason: those character tropes make a good foundation for exploring the various complexities within Space Marine existence. In the same vein, I also intended to explore an essentially unknown corner of the Warhammer 40,000 setting, rather than focus on the big-name, big-selling Chapters that everyone’s already familiar with.
The Emperor’s Spears were nothing but a striking, slightly unusual colour scheme, so they were safe ground no matter which direction I took them in.
On a more personal note, I was also coming off a run of novels focusing on extremely well-known characters and vastly important historical events (The Talon of Horus; The Master of Mankind; Black Legion…) so I wanted something more personal and grounded. Something on a much smaller scale than any of those other novels, each of which was a deep look into the guts of the setting, through the eyes of very well-informed characters.
So far, so good.
Several weeks into the first draft, Alan Bligh, one of my closest friends, died after a short confrontation with cancer. For a while I could barely write anything at all, for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who has ever lost a close friend or loved one. When I managed to start getting words onto a screen again, I was disillusioned with what I’d planned. I started straying far and wide from my synopsis, feeling the pull of a new direction.
Through several rewrites, the narrator went from a generic Spear officer in the middle of his culture to a human thrall, utterly on the outside of it. Finally, it clicked. Finally, I had the voice that felt right for the new story being told.
Crucially, it also finally matched more with the tone of Imperium Nihilus, which Alan himself once described as ‘Picking up the pieces of the Imperium after all the bombs have gone off.’
Using human supporting characters to highlight the differences between humanity and the indoctrinated, transhuman inhumanity of Space Marines is nothing new; I’ve even done it myself several times and I really enjoy both reading and writing about the contrasts it brings. With Spear of the Emperor, I went all-in with it. Anuradha went from a supporting character to the narrator: the ultimate outsider-looking-in. And with that shift, the story turned a little darker again. Everything became just that little bit more vulnerable.
Explaining the Spears in detail was the last thing on my mind. I didn’t want to quantify them, I wanted to show how it might look and feel to see a transhuman existence through a human lens. Focusing on the impossible weariness forced on them by the burdens that they alone can carry. Their refusal to back down, and their curious mix of civilisation and barbarism. They don’t fight for glory but for survival. They stand against the unending tide of night because someone has to do it; because they’re the last ones left who can still fight. Their brother-Chapters in the Adeptus Vaelarii are either dead or punishingly diminished. The duty and burden of defiance is theirs until the last Spear falls.
The largest appeal was the idea of a character who wasn’t always sure what they were looking at when they were confronted with the mysteries and horrors of a story. Someone who wasn’t immune to fear or distant from human emotion.
What is it like to live among Space Marines? What does it feel like to serve them, and live on the edge of a culture you will never be truly part of? How would serving such masters change you and your perceptions? What do their customs and rituals look like from the outside? How does it feel, to see them move and fight and so utterly annihilate their enemies with inhuman brutality? And what is required of you, to live up to their expectations?
The flip side of that coin is the heretical half of the equation. What would it mean, to meet the Adeptus Astartes’ dark reflections, the Traitor Marines? What would it be like, when you’re not clad in ceramite and holding a bolter—you’re just a man or a woman standing in front of a monstrous creature that has lived in the warp / a mythological underworld for uncounted years?
Anuradha offered a great chance at seeing all of this from an entirely human perspective, and a less formal voice for the text. She hasn’t been through hypno-indoctrination like a loyalist Space Marine; she isn’t an angelic weapon that struggles to understand the people of the empire she was born to defend. Similarly, she isn’t motivated by bitterness and hatred; burdened by the magnified emotional array of Traitor Marines, either.
Anuradha is at the mercy of her masters, drawn into the wars they make her fight. Like all slaves (or indentured servants, if you will…) she has very little agency over the direction of her life, but she can choose how she reacts to the twists and turns of circumstance. Narratively, that was a challenge, but one that defined the tone of the story. She has agency, but it’s personal and grounded. She doesn’t decide the fate of wars. She chronicles them.
She’s just a human—albeit valuable to her masters and highly trained—in a difficult situation. The story isn’t about her, not really, as you’ll see. But she’s perfectly placed to tell it.
Like many high-status Chapter thralls, Anuradha is extremely knowledgeable in several specific areas. Unlike most of my previous protagonists, she’s also not equipped with a Space Marine’s angelic, psycho-indoctrinated detachment to process it. She’s just a human like you, me, and everyone else.
For those story elements, I ended up being fortunate enough to get a huge range of first-hand accounts from soldiers, firefighters, police officers, doctors… And more than once I thought back to conversations I’d had years ago, when I was lucky enough to talk to a man that had served in WWII as a deck gunner on HMS Belfast; and to another that had been in a Japanese POW camp and who’d undergone privation and torture. I wanted to jump as deeply as I could into the psychology and headspaces of people who’d done these things.
On several occasions I kept backing out of writing the book, considering redoing it in a more traditional way; playing it more to type with a Space Marine protagonist doing Space Marine things, totally informed about the setting and his surroundings. In the end it was my friend, the author John French, who stopped me redrafting it all from scratch yet again:
‘Are you trying to be popular or are you trying to realise a vision? To quote the man you dedicated it to, “You need to have the courage of your convictions and not be infirm of purpose”.’
All of this is a long-winded and self-indulgent way of saying that I loved and hated writing this book. It wasn’t harder than any of the others, but it certainly felt different. I can’t even imagine what you’ll think of it.
I don’t use Alan’s death as a banner or an excuse for any changes I made. If you like the novel, that’s great, and if you don’t, that’s on me—not on the circumstances surrounding the book. Whatever the truth, I hope you enjoy this look at the benighted half of Mankind’s empire.
Welcome to Elara’s Veil, domain of the Emperor’s Spears.
Skovakarah uhl zarûn.