Pwned by Chaos

by Arthur B

Brian Craig's Pawns of Chaos shows surprising depth for a Warhammer 40,000 novel.
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Although he wrote four novels for the Warhammer fantasy setting (one of which, The Wine of Dreams, I previously reviewed here), Brian Stapleford - using his pseudonym of Brian Craig - only wrote one Warhammer 40,000 novel, Pawns of Chaos. This is rather a shame, because it's easily the most deep and thoughtful Black Library book I've ever read. In his Warhammer novels Craig had proved himself an adept and subtle writer with a flair for writing about Chaos, the great threat to both the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 settings; this was presumaby why he was entrusted with writing a novel which mostly unfolds from the point of view of Chaos worshippers. But, to an even greater extent than in The Wine of Dreams, Craig waxes philosophical more than the average Black Library author, and uses the theme of Chaos as a springboard for an existentialist exploration of how man is supposed to face the vastness of eternity and the ultimate insignificance of human endeavour on a cosmic scale and the inevitabilty of death... stop sniggering, it's true!

The action of the novel unfolds on the world of Sigmatus, a backwater planet whose proximity to the Eye of Terror - a vast cosmic storm - renders warpspace travel difficult if not impossible in the vicinity. Seven generations ago the warpstorms eased, and in that window of opportunity the Imperium of mankind invaded. The locals, who mainly live in small rural villages and live a non-technological lifestyle were by and large unable to withstand the terrifying firepower of the Imperium - however, before the Imperium could conquer the planet outright, the warpstorm flared up again, stranding them there and rendering them incapable of communicating with their forces elsewhere.

Thus, at the beginning of the novel, only the continent of Gulzacandra has remained free from the Imperial yoke. The invading forces have to make do with those antique artefacts their forefathers brought to the world with them, and the inferior imitations they are able to produce in their factories; although they imagine they are doing the will of the Emperor, there's every chance that they have been both culturally and spiritually contaminated (in the eyes of the wider Imperium) by their close contact with the by and large unreformed natives. Despite this, the planetary governor Orloc Melcarth has decided that now is the time to take Gulzacandra once and for all, and dreams of making himself ruler of the whole planet - and perhaps, in time, declaring himself Emperor in his own right. Meanwhile Ragan Balberith, the head Inquisitor of the planet, believes that the warp storm is receding again and through the use of his enslaved psychics he can make telepathic contact with the Imperial Fleet - he hopes that they will come and restore proper Imperial authority over the planet, although he is aware of the risk that they will simply annihilate the planet from orbit. He is more than willing to submit to that, if it saves the souls of Sigmatus...

At the same time as all this is happening, the residents of Gulzacandra have turned to their traditional and murky religious practices to build a resistance, led by Gavalon the Great, a potent sorcerer whose very body has been warped and reshaped by the god he serves. For the natives of Sigmatus and are ruled by shamen and sorcerers in the service of Tzeentch, the manipulative Chaos God of change, secrets, and deception (although as in The Wine of Dreams the name of the Chaos God involved is never stated outright). The bulk of Pawns of Chaos consists of Gavalon's master plan for defeating the Imperials - summon a Lord of Change, one of the most powerful demons in the service of Tzeentch, in order to advance the dark god's plans for the world!

The main viewpoint character in the novel is Dathan, a teenage lad whose Gulzacandran village falls to the first wave of the invasion. In the company of his childhood friend Hycilla, a psychic who is being trained for the service of Tzeentch, he flees to find Gavalon's forces in order to war them; on the way, they encounter the strange child Nimian, who is the vessel for Gavalon's summoned demon, Sathorael, and is gradually transforming into the Lord of Change. The crux of the matter, from there on, is whether Dathan joins Hycilla in willing surrender to the whims of an uncaring god for the sake of vengeance against a truly vile and awful regime, or whether he finds a reason to retain his humanity and self and keep alive in the face of a universe in which his own personal struggles are, comparatively speaking, utterly meaningless.

Although there's plenty of exciting adventure and dizzying plot twists to be had, it's this philosophical dilemma which sets it aside from other Warhammer novels. Just as the protagonist of The Wine of Dreams is constantly tempted by the dubious pleasures of Chaos, Dathan is forced to consider whether the quiet, ordinary life he once led, which was disrupted by the arrival of the Imperium, isn't more important to him than the faith of his fathers, which spurns such a lifestyle as the insignificant lot of the magically ungifted and prizes not order and stability but chaos and revolution. As a god, Tzeentch plays a game on a scale far beyond one mere planet, and by the end of the story it is made strikingly apparent that the entire civil war on Sigmatus, which over the course of the novel has been established as being of paramount importance to every living person on the planet, is in fact a mere sideshow in an ongoing struggle that spans the galaxy, and Tzeentch's intervention in the situation has nothing to do with the desires of Gavalon or the Gulzacandrans at all.

The awful truth, however, is that because Tzeentch is so far beyond anything else in the universe aside from his fellow Chaos Gods, he simply doesn't value anything especially highly, including his own plans. Even his own existence is a mere game to him, whereas Dathan, as a human being, may be utterly irrelevant on a cosmic scale, but it's precisely because Dathan is mortal that he can ascribe any value at all to concepts and ideals and things. Tzeentch's existence is ultimately meaningless because there is nothing which can ever be of sufficient significance to a god to be considered meaningful from the god's perspective, whereas Dathan's ability to find meaning in things like his village or his people - things which are of no consequence on a galactic level but are of supreme relevance to Dathan himself - means that he can invest his own life with a meaning and purpose, giving him a capacity to hope that his own god lacks.

Craig thus both makes an existential argument for the validity of the meaning we choose to impose on our lives, whilst at the same time making a disturbingly plausible case that any divine or near-divine entity must be a nihilistic one. This is a tremendously big idea for tie-in fiction to handle and I'm still thinking it through several weeks after reading the book. Highly recommended, if you can track the thing down; sadly, the Black Library appears to have let it vanish into the aether with Sathorael...
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Comments (go to latest)
Rami at 04:05 on 2010-03-06
This sounds really interesting. How long ago was it written / how long has it been out of print for?
Arthur B at 13:37 on 2010-03-06
It came out in 2001. It's never been updated to the newer cover styles of the GW books, so I reckon it's been out of print since at least 2003 (when the Gaunt's Ghosts books were given a new cover style) if not earlier.
Arthur B at 22:42 on 2011-02-27
A little update: Pawns of Chaos is now available as a print on demand title. It's in the "Heretic Tomes" range of novels which have slipped into becoming uncanonical though, which is a shame because I'd toss a thousand Space Marine novels down the canonicity hole if it'd make Black Library and Games Workshop embrace Brian Craig's take on things as presented here.
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