This one is probably cheating a bit. This week of three book reviews was mostly to highlight books I love that feature really good world-building (that thing I adore.)
Jingo, from the unparalleled Discworld fantasy setting, Dracula with its moody gothic depiction of Victorian England and remote Wallachia… and now, for something from the sprawling morass that is Warhammer.
I’m going to take a look at the ‘Liber Chaotica’, which is definitely cheating because it’s 5 books in one, and it links Warhammer Fantasy to Warhammer 40K, so I can talk about both.
But it did win an ENnie Award, so that’s alright. (Don’t worry, I’ll wait while you look up what that even is 🙂 )
Let’s start with an overall review of Warhammer 40k, which is how I came to know about any of this in the first place.
Most people have probably heard of 40K – it’s up there in the top tier of super nerdy things people can do with their time, involving an awful lot of war-gaming with plastic figures and tape measures. It has lurid sci-gothic art, often in a lot of primary and metallic colors, and from the outside, it looks like a convoluted heap of plot got dropped on the floor for a cat to roll around in.
It is, in short, intimidating.
At its core, Warhammer 40K is a sci-fi setting in the 41st Millenium, where technology is advanced but no longer fully understood after apocalyptic circumstances throw entire galaxies into chaos. Mankind vies with numerous alien species over control of the universe as we know it, all the while beset by ‘daemons’ from another plane of existence, feeding off reality’s collective Id.
Pretty simple stuff, but with so much scope for exploration, imagination, and creativity. Through the vast swathes of space, with its innumerable planets and circumstances, just about anything is possible somewhere out there.
If anything is possible, then its certainly possible that on at least one world people settled… their descendants forgot there was ever any link with Earth/Terra and an entire setting of its own can grow up on the one world. Add in a medieval level of technology and fantasy elements and you get Warhammer Fantasy.
That said… Warhammer Fantasy, in general, makes absolutely no indication this is the case. It is a ‘separate’ setting to 40K and is what would happen if you dropped the sci-fi elements and stuck to fantasy instead. No more Space Marines in power armor, but lots of Knights on Horses. No more terrifyingly advanced alien Tau, but Lizardmen on Dinosaurs instead. Or giant steampunk rats ( ❤ )
Orks and Elves manage to appear in both settings but are unrelated to each other.
So why did I make that opening statement? Well, let me tell you about today’s book. The Liber Chaotica.
The Liber Chaotica goes on to make the exact link between 40K and Fantasy I made above. In particular, one can find sketches and mentions of 40Ks marines in the Book of Tzeentch, despite the entire work being from the Fantasy setting.
But let us back up so I can explain what this books actually is.
The Liber Chaotica is a lore book about the dark forces of Warhammer Fantasy. In setting, you have the various races of Men, as well as the Elves, the Dwarves, the Lizardmen, the Orcs, Skaven, Undead, and Ogres. They all hate each other, but not as much as everyone hates and fears the forces of Chaos.
Chaos is the Warhammer catch-all term for the forces and gods of the Dark Powers – the daemons. In 40K, these are gods and creatures from beyond reality, in Fantasy, Chaos comes out of the north awash in sorcery and black magic. Technically, I am simplifying all this a lot, but as a crash course for a brief review, this serves our purpose.
The Liber is a book about the gods of Chaos. In both Fantasy and 40K, the gods bear the same name and aspects.
Khorne – The Blood God. Deity of war, death, skulls and blood, Khorne is a simple enough guy to understand, and will absolutely add your skull to his throne.
Slaanesh – The Sensation God. Deity of experience, pleasure, pain and any form of sensation whatsoever, Slaanesh is most often linked to simple pleasures… and confusion over how to say his/her/its name. But it’s a lot more complex than all that and insidious to a fault. Will definitely make you an offer you dont want to refuse.
Nurgle – God of Disease. Deity of rot, odor, lesions, decay and all kinds of sickness, Nurgle thinks of all the ailing as his children, and just wants to give you a hug. Will certainly give you the flu.
Tzeentch – God of Change. Deity of difference, progress, unbound advance and the death of order. Tzeentch is clever, and fond of the question ‘what if?’. Devious beyond all else, Tzeentch can be a force for terrible good as he pushes people to try new things or change their lives… but he has no brakes. Will unconditionally change your life.
There are always rumors of a fifth god, but the Liber contents its fith and shortest section to the followes of Chaos Undivided – those who favor a little bit of all the dark Gods, and their aspects.
There is a definitive plot to the Liber, and in my opinion, it is bloody clever and the reason why I chose this book for my third review.
The book is mostly a lore primer about Chaos for those who like the faction and the in-depth nonsense the dark powers get up to. The Black Library (licensed printing house for all things Warhammer) could have just done a very clinical and cold study of the lore and slapped it down on paper next to some of the wonderful artwork they have available. The Horus Heresy, a guidebook to the 40K universe’s apocalyptic events, plays out very much like that.
But they didn’t. They got interesting and clever with it.
The plot of the Liber is double encoded in its presentation. The idea is that that five books of chaos which do detail the lore… were written by one man from the setting – Richter Kless.
On top of that, we then have the written notes of another man from the setting, listed as ‘M.V.S’ (referring to the actually real, Welsh author Marijan Von Stauffer, no doubt) commenting on the ‘original’ work, and giving us the current plot.
Why all this effort? Simple – Chaos corrupts. That is the overarching link of Chaos in both 40K and Fantasy, and it is shown through the work for both ‘Richter Kless’, and ‘M.V.S’ too.
What starts as a mission from the pure deity-saint Sigmar to complile all knowledge on Chaos and its forces so Men might know how best to combat it… turns from prose filled with prayer to Sigmar to outright admiration and worship for the dark gods.
We see this in the ‘main’ text from Richter Kless as he writes down an absolute encylopedia of lore, to then affecting the ‘compiler’ of the works, ‘M.V.S’, whose handwritten notes in red ink get steadily more desperate and crazed in turn.
The result is one comes out of the plot feeling not only like one has absorbed an entire college-course worth of knowledge on Warhammer Fantasy’s many creatures and rituals, but also seen the downfall and corruption of two academic men in turn, both of whom one sympathizes with… and also feeling like you yourself need to go pray to the dark gods.
It’s really good!
Considering I just talked about the unique presentation of the plot above, it would be easy to walk away and leave it at that, especially as the double layer of narration is so well executed.
But that would do a grave disservice to the physical layout of the book, and it’s beautiful interior.
The Liber is supposed to be the compiled works and documents of Richter Kless… and the Liber certainly looks the part. Here’s an example:
The whole book is like this. Every page is the double-column of printed text a la printing press works, with sketches and ‘image plates’ collected and presented by the ‘author’, amid related documents imaged onto the page. Over top it all, the red text of ‘M.V.S’ giving the second layer of insight and story, carefully positoned on the pages to run alongside or over the original work, just as if someone really had written on your physical copy of the book.
It’s a genuinely beautiful book to hold, own and thumb through, with something to be seen and studied on every page.
Finally, let me take a minute to talk about the prose of Warhammer works.
The Black Library has some truly brilliant authors. One day, I will review a Dan Abnett work on here, just to let the world know how much I appreciate the original king of Character Killing before George RR Martin came along. I still think Abnett did it better and for better reasons, too (not to mention, I still have mental scars from Gaunt’s Ghosts).
They also have their less than stellar authors, and I wont touch most books about Space Marines as a result. Bland, dry, predictable.
One thing the Black Library tends to push however, is a set theme for opening their work. I’ll quote Warhammer 40K’s standard opening here, as it is something I am now intimately familiar with after years liking the setting:
‘It is the 41st Millenium. For more than a hundred centuries the Emperor has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the master of mankind by the will of the gods, and master of a million worlds by the might of his inexhaustible armies. He is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of Technology. He is the Carrion Lord of the Imperium for whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day, so that he may never truly die.
Yet even in his deathless state, the Emperor continues his eternal vigilance. Mighty battlefleets cross the daemon-infested miasma of the Warp, the only route between distant stars, their way lit by the Astronomican, the psychic manifestation of the Emperor’s will. Vast armies give battle in his name on uncounted worlds. Greatest among His soldiers are the Adeptus Astartes, the Space Marines, bio-engineered super-warriors. Their comrades in arms are legion: the Imperial Guard and countless planetary defense forces, the ever-vigilant Inquisition and the tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus to name only a few. But for all their multitudes, they are barely enough to hold off the ever-present threat from aliens, heretics, mutants – and worse.
To be a man in such times is to be one among untold billions. It is to live in the cruelest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be re-learned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace among the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.’
It’s a heck of an opener to any book. Mood, setting, theme, tone, history all crammed into one, and I like to think trying to follow on from that at least challenges authors to have a suitable opening hook for their own words to come immediately after.
The prose of the Liber is no less stellar, and fits itself to its time zone wonderfully. Consider the following, the opening to the Liber from ‘M.V.S’:
‘My Lord, further to the work I have already completed in gathering Richter Kless’s works together into four separate volumes, you have now tasked me with the odious job of compiling them into one book. Revisiting these foul works for a second time is almost more than I can stomach, but my duty to the Empire will carry me through with unstained heart. Or so I hope.
It will be my task to compile all of the material gathered by poor Richter into one unholy volume: The Liber Chaotica. It will be a dark repository of darker knowledge and secrets, gathering together many disparate sources into a whole.
However, it will take a better scholar than myself to separate truth from fiction, and reality from apocrypha. I pity any who read this book after me, and I ask them to pity me, the poor fool charged with its completion.’
Don’t you want to read it now?
If so… please go and do so! It’s a wonderful book, easy to get lost in, beautiful to look through and crammed to bursting with lore and imagery. It’s an adult book, so I wouldn’t give it to teens under 16 years of age, but I would definitely recommend it to anyone who loves some grim dark horror, and certainly recommend it to anyone who likes 40K, but doesn’t touch Fantasy. It’s a wonderful go-between for the two sides.
Title: Liber Chaotica
Author: Games Workshop/Marijan Von Stauffer
My favorite quote: ‘It is the unfortunate paradox of life, therefore, that with wisdom comes sorrow. To know ourselves for what we are is to know ourselves for what we are no longer, and for what we may become.’
So! There we go. Three book reviews on novels with world’s I just adore. Next week? Getting down to the core of writing in another series of linked blog posts. See you on Monday for a look at Goal Setting.