Review: Genestealer Cults by Peter Fehervari

Posted by DarkChaplain at 10/10/2016
Members of a seemingly loyal cult devoted to the Emperor make a pilgrimage to the world on which their order began. But what they find there puts all they believe into question…

The galaxy is vast, and worship of the God-Emperor by His faithful takes many forms. The Spiral Dawn is one of the countless sanctioned sects of the Imperial Cult. As a gathering of Spiralytes make their holy pilgrimage to Redemption, the sect's world of origin and a shrine world of the Imperium, they find not a haven of enlightenment and introspection, but a soot-choked hellhole where their order's founders and an unorthodox regiment of Astra Militarum maintain an uneasy coexistence. As tensions between the serene congregation and the superstitious Guardsmen mount, the new arrivals begin to unravel the dark secrets concealed at the heart of their faith.
This is a difficult review to write, and probably to read. I've tried to keep things vague and abstract to not spoil the fun of the book. To put it bluntly: I'd highly recommend the novel. It is a great read with a lot of flavor and thrilling scenes. I certainly loved it and believe it is one of the best things to come out of Black Library's printers in quite some time.

The Story:
"Members of a seemingly loyal cult devoted to the Emperor make a pilgrimage to the world on which their order began. But what they find there puts all they believe into question…

The galaxy is vast, and worship of the God-Emperor by His faithful takes many forms. The Spiral Dawn is one of the countless sanctioned sects of the Imperial Cult. As a gathering of Spiralytes make their holy pilgrimage to Redemption, the sect's world of origin and a shrine world of the Imperium, they find not a haven of enlightenment and introspection, but a soot-choked hellhole where their order's founders and an unorthodox regiment of Astra Militarum maintain an uneasy coexistence. As tensions between the serene congregation and the superstitious Guardsmen mount, the new arrivals begin to unravel the dark secrets concealed at the heart of their faith."

The Review:
Legends of the Dark Millennium: Genestealer Cults, despite its highly generic title and cover, are anything but. The hint is in the author's name: Peter Fehervari.

While this is only his second novel for Black Library, he has a host of short stories and a novella under his belt, all of which share a common theme: The Dark Coil, which, at this point, seems synonymous with Fehervari's trademark atmosphere, sense of hopelessness and spiralling descent into madness, unravelling the characters to the core.
The "grim darkness of the far future" is something that is invited with every Warhammer 40,000 story, but barely any of them nails that as well as Fehervari. When you pick up his stories, you're in for tightly-knit nets of implications, revelations, and psychological horror, rather than the all-out bolter porn a lot of 40k stories devolve into.
You're in for well-crafted characters who are on the brink of breaking, walking a knife's edge between revelation and damnation. You're also in for inhospitable worlds, whether they be the thick deathworld jungles of Phaedra, the eternal night of Sarastus, the frozen surface of Oblazt or, with Genestealer Cults, the volcanic and ash-tainted claustrophobia of Redemption. A lot of thought goes into the stages for Fehervari's stories, and they always seem to strike you with a feeling of isolation and imminent danger.

While this novel is noticeably shorter than Fire Caste, in line with Black Library's short novel policy these days, I didn't feel that it detracted from the book. I would certainly have wanted more content - why wouldn't I? - but Fehervari did very well with the space he was given, and even snuck in a lot of references and parallels to his other works - something that I've come to expect from his works. Specifically, the novel features characters from Fire Caste and his Fire and Ice novella, printed in [book:Shas'o|26859331] / [book:The Tau Empire|32025763] (get the latter in paperback, it includes the former plus an additional novella), along with multiple short stories by him. Generally you can read any of his stories on their own, but the more you get involved in his sub-mythos, the more you'll be able to take away from his works.
This is especially true with Genestealer Cults. It straight up sees characters with ambiguous fates return to the fold, while introducing a load of new angles at things he previously talked about.

The Black Flags, this story's Astra Militarum regiment, is even made up of forces from across worlds previously named, and offers a natural way to reintroduce old friends. It is made up of stragglers and remnants from other regiments across the Vassago Abyss, reshaped into a somewhat coherent force with very peculiar mental tendencies. A lot of them are broken men and women, including their Witch Captain or Colonel Talasca, who often retreats into his tower to scribble madly at his walls. Everybody has his ghosts here, defying their past, present and future.

The primary protagonist of the book, Captain Cross, is a newcomer to the Black Flags. He freshly arrives on Redemption at the start on the book, alongside an imperial cult's pilgrimage to the shrine world. He feels that all the Sacred Spiral hogwash is fishy and doesn't trust it, prompting him to accompany the pilgrims, and Ariken Skarth, who he shortly befriended during his voyage. He gets involved in matters despite his better judgement, and the coil twists and turns til he is irrecoverably drawn into the unfolding holy war on Redemption, and the machinations of higher authorities.

Ariken herself is a strong character as well. A healer by trade, she joined the Spiral Dawn pilgrimage to Redemption yet isn't as firm in her beliefs as most others. She is, in many ways, a driving force in the Black Flags' resistance, and her character develops heavily throughout. She was presented as intriguing, caring yet also increasingly ruthless as the stakes increase. Ariken, too, is drawn deeper into the spiral to the point of no return to ignorance.

But all that praise basically comes down to one thing: Peter Fehervari was the perfect choice for writing this first, defining novel about the modern incarnation of the Genestealer Cults. His skill set is focused on subterfuge, insidious plots, ambiguous characters and spiralling madness. This makes him the ideal pick for presenting the insidious nature of the Genstealers' indoctrination and the cult's inner workings. He touches on psychological aspects far more than any other author writing for the publisher, and that is exactly the close-up that this faction needed to flourish on the page. He dives right into the cult's activities while maintaining a front of ignorance on the side of the imperial troopers, up until the point of escalation.

Few things on Redemption are clear-cut. The Black Flags are made up of ambiguous figures, and from the beginning it is clear that there is more than meets the eye on the planet. While we, as the readers, are aware from the start that, hey, a Genestealer Cult is at work on the world, Talasca and co are oblivious as to what is going on. They suspect the Cult of the Spiral Dawn of treachery and danger, but the cult's fascade and stealthy indoctrination of their own troops, keeps them in the dark until it is almost too late. The initial reveals of hybrid monstrosities hit home, showing how out of their depth the loyalists are. Where they suspect the taint of Chaos, the reality of the situation is quite different.
However, the Genestealer Magi actively use the fear of the regiment to turn them on one another, and sway further soldiers to seek refuge in the Spiral. It really was nicely put together, and highlighted the psychic manipulation of the cult, and showed why these xenos infiltrators are as successful at undermining whole societies as they are.

From the first page on, up til the very last, the Genestealer infestation is showing its magic. In fact, right in the prologue we get to see the first steps in the Patriarch's evolution through the first infection on Redemption. They grow their strength and even penetrate the sanctity of the local Adepta Sororitas abbey! The whole prologue and later sections dealing with the more alien hybrids and aberrants are utterly inhuman and as close to the Tyranid psyche as you're going to get.

Honestly, this is the most difficult type of review to write for me. There are so many cool scenes and characters in here that I cannot really touch on without spoiling hugely enjoyable parts of the book. Across all of Fehervari's stories, the sense of mystery and satisfaction of discovering twists and turns and connections between stories is one of the things I cherish most, and I'd be doing any potential reader a disservice if I were to address them directly. So I have to talk in the abstract far more than I would like.

To give you a more direct example of how grim, gruesome and terrifying the Cult is depicted here, let me quote you one snippet:

[character a] sighed. ‘The last time I saw [character b] she was two months pregnant, though it looked closer to six. Their spawn grow fast.’ He shook his head. ‘She was overjoyed because she’d been honoured by the cult Iconward.’

Yep. That really twists your stomach, doesn't it? I know it did mine. And I loved the book for it. It doesn't try to hide the utter perversity of the infection. It hits right where it hurts, on multiple occassions. Not a single major character here is ever safe from the cult's influences and attacks. They can die in droves, just like that, without big acts of heroism or the often criticised plot armor. Fehervari was never afraid of getting his original characters fall to madness or an enemy's (or ally's) guns, and this is true here as well.

To my delight, there are various plot points left open for the future. While the plot itself is wrapped up as well as one can expect, Fehervari leaves the door open for themes and characters to feature in his future works, carrying on the Dark Coil's legacy. Thus the spiral turns again, deepening the overarching mysteries while delivering a damn fine read in its own right.

Genestealer Cults is one hell of a novel. It kept me awake at night, staying up longer than I should have, just to finish one more chapter, one more chapter. I ended up taking a few days off from reading more, just to let it simmer a little and not burn through it too quickly. After all, I waited years for Fehervari's next novel, so why cut the experience short. But even when I got back to it, I was drawn right into the thick of Redemption again, as if nothing had happened. The book does a fantastic job staying interesting and engaging all throughout, without any dull downtime, and when the cold war escalates and the Spiral Dawn reveals its true nature and purpose, things never let up again.

I'd highly recommend this novel to anyone with even a passing interest in Genestealer Cults as a faction, or anybody really who wants more out of the 40k IP than just numb bolter action flicks. I'd call Legends of the Dark Millennium: Genestealer Cults one of the best books to come out of Black Library this year - and they had a lot of pretty good stuff this time around...

Legends of the Dark Millennium: Genestealer Cults on Goodreads

About the Author

I'm known as DarkChaplain across the internet, and call myself a passionate gamer and book enthusiast. I have been blogging mostly about games for a couple of years, but finally found my way to reviewing a different medium: Books. Honestly, I prefer that job so far.
Follow Me on Twitter @TheDarkChaplain


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