Review: Vaults of Terra: The Carrion Throne by Chris Wraight

Posted by DarkChaplain at 6/22/2017
"In the hellish sprawl of Imperial Terra, Ordo Hereticus Inquisitor Erasmus serves as a stalwart and vigilant protector, for even the Throneworld is not immune to the predations of its enemies. In the course of his Emperor-sworn duty, Erasmus becomes embroiled in a dark conspiracy, one that leads all the way to the halls of the Imperial Palace. As he plunges deeper in the shadowy underbelly of the many palace districts, his investigation attracts the attention of hidden forces, and soon Erasmus and his acolyte Spinoza are being hunted – by heretics, xenos, servants of the Dark Powers, or perhaps even rival elements of the Inquisition itself. They eventually discover a terrible truth, one that if allowed to get out could undermine the very fabric of the Imperium itself."
I know I've been slacking lately. Please address complaints at Square Enix's Final Fantasy XIV team; the Stormblood Expansion just launched a week ago and I had to catch up on the story up to that point the rest of the month. Considering how much I adore the game's storyline and characters (the best you'll find in an MMORPG, I'd argue), reading actual books wasn't a priority lately.
But hey, this one's fantastic so I breezed through it anyway!

The Story:
"In the hellish sprawl of Imperial Terra, Ordo Hereticus Inquisitor Erasmus serves as a stalwart and vigilant protector, for even the Throneworld is not immune to the predations of its enemies. In the course of his Emperor-sworn duty, Erasmus becomes embroiled in a dark conspiracy, one that leads all the way to the halls of the Imperial Palace. As he plunges deeper in the shadowy underbelly of the many palace districts, his investigation attracts the attention of hidden forces, and soon Erasmus and his acolyte Spinoza are being hunted – by heretics, xenos, servants of the Dark Powers, or perhaps even rival elements of the Inquisition itself. They eventually discover a terrible truth, one that if allowed to get out could undermine the very fabric of the Imperium itself."

The Review:
The Carrion Throne is the kind of novel I've wanted Black Library to publish for years and years. I was honestly worried I'd be putting my expectations up too high - the announcement excited me like few Black Library releases had in recent years. But some things sound just a bit too good to be true, don't they? It has been a long time since BL had greenlit a proper, full-on Inquisition novel and now we're seeing two series kick off in 2017 (John French's Horusian Wars being the other). Fingers crossed that this would be good, then.

Spoiler: It was fantastic!

The novel delivered that sense of thick atmosphere of grit and intrigue that the setting has lacked a great deal in recent years, outside of some exceptions. There is no glorious war here, but plenty of misery under the vener of righteousness and piety. It is easy to think of Holy Terra, humanity's home and the God-Emperor's seat of power, as a jewel of the Imperium. Chris Wraight sets the record straight once and for all and makes it very clear that it is a terrible place to live for all but the elite few, including the Inquisition. People are afraid and driven to extremes, living off scraps and knowing little to no justice in life.

In a way, Wraight even leveled big criticisms against the Inquisition's modus operandi, both through his depictions of them in action and their hypocrisy throughout, but also by pitching Erasmus Crowl's philosophies against those of his new Interrogator, who previously served under a major hardliner. They clash in ideological ways, if not openly, which serves to keep things tense for the reader. It is easy to glorify the role of Inquisitors as the ultimate authority, the righteous gun to the head of heretics. The Carrion Throne explores the adverse effects of their creed in great detail and, by focusing on Interrogator Spinoza's shift from one master to another and all the uncertainties that come with it, forces the reader to reevaluate their views on the Inquisition's activities in more ways than one.

The bulk of the book is formed by two strings of investigation, one mainly led by Inquisitor Erasmus Crowl, the other taken over by Interrogator Luce Spinoza. As can be expected, both intertwine on various points, especially as the Sanguinala, a massive festivity on Terra, draws closer. As pilgrims once more swarm the hives of Holy Terra, misery grows stronger still and more subversive elements cause grief for the local law enforcement and Inquisition. What starts as a series of gruesome murders promises to endanger the Imperial Palace and the Sanguinala themselves. What better way to cause chaos than to bring down doom on millions of pilgrims in front of the Eternity Gate?

So Crowl and Spinoza are working against time, pursuing leads as to the killings while also looking for a missing Inquisitor, interrogating rogue traders, performing autopsies and infiltrating Mechanicus strongholds. I don't think we've ever seen as much of "modern" Terra as we do here. Not only does The Carrion Throne take us places on and around the planet, but it also showcases many walks of life on the Throneworld and the way their lives are governed by fear. I was particularly impressed by pious Spinoza's shock and disbelief at seeing a statue of a Space Marine defaced and demanding the crowds around her to show a similar reaction, only to realize they're numb to it all.
In other parts, it felt horrific with what supposed luxuries the people on Terra are somewhat content with, like living in tiny hab-units. Living plants are a miracle to this sorry lot and there is little light to illuminate the dark corridors of Terra's underbelly.

The two leading characters Crowl and Spinoza were brilliant to read about too. Their dynamics as new mentor and adopted student were unique and full of tension due to clashing philosophies. Crowl himself has a lot of depth to him, not all of which has been explored just yet. There's much that I'd love to see covered bit by bit in future novels. Spinoza meanwhile already had a short story, Argent, to showcase her time under her former master and how she got honored by the Imperial Fists. Her development in The Carrion Throne was spot on and potentially more satisfying than Crowl's, simply because of her own crisis of faith and overall doubts after coming to Terra, whereas Crowl has a long history in his role already and, having been on Terra for a long time, adjusted his methods.

Crowl's retinue was, dare I say it, about as compelling as Dan Abnett's Eisenhorn retinue. Only of few of them were along for the ride for a substantial amount of time, but even the short scenes we got of some, like archivist once-Yulia Huk, are hard-hitting sections. It was compelling seeing her role in things and how both Spinoza and later Eresmus interact with her. There was a level of sadness there, of longing, that made Eisenhorn's group feel more happy-go-lucky than expected. Crowl's storm trooper captain Revus may not smile much, but his fierce dedication to the job and attitude complemented the Inquisitor's own tremendously well. Comedic relief comes in the form of sergeant Hegain, whose exchanges with Spinoza first felt a bit cringey due to the acolyte's stiffness, but opened up a good deal as characters developed and grew closer.

In my opinion, Wraight created a cast of characters that work exceptionally well together and are compelling to follow around, one and all. There was nobody I didn't care for in some capacity or wanted to learn more about. Each and every one of them deserves further exploration, whether in future novels or short stories like Argent.

The involvement of the Custodians had me excited and anxious both, seeing how Games Workshop had just printed rules for use of the Emperor's personal guard on the tabletop when they had been a defensive, reclusive force for the past 10,000 years. I was afraid that we'd be seeing a lot of them in action where they - in my opinion - do not belong. To my utmost relief, Wraight did not do that at all. In fact, I was surprised that they even relented to do as much as they did, which, until the climax, wasn't much beyond dialogue with Inquisitor Crowl.

On top of that I enjoyed the way these golden defenders of the Throne were presented, mainly through their "leader" Navradaran. In his interactions with Crowl it easily becomes apparent that his cohort have been very disconnected from the Imperium at large. They still maintain their exceptional martial prowess and intimidating presence, but their eyes are turned inward towards the Emperor's inner sanctum. In fact, Navradaran was the first Custodian Crowl had encountered or even heard of venturing outside the Palace's inner wards. His attitude and situation serve to strengthen what was known about the Custodes from a lore standpoint while making them as awe-inspiring as they needed to be here.

This is exactly what the novel needed to show. This book, for all its talk of glorious victories of ages past, the breathtaking views of the Imperial Palace, the sheer unlimited authority of the Inquisition, is one of vicious contrasts. While the wider Imperium reveres Holy Terra and considers life there a sign of immense status and luck, reality is a punch in the gut.

I cannot remember a book that has fleshed out the Imperium's society on a similar level since Dan Abnett's Eisenhorn and Ravenor novels. I guess it really is down to the Inquisition books to deal with the gritty details of these things. Even beyond the dynamic plot developments, Wraight managed to fill his book with little pieces of fluff. For example, there's a book mentioned alongside others called "My Wish to Generate Children with You is Only Exceeded by My Devotion to Him"! Nevermind what the Sanguinala brings to the table to shape Imperial culture, or the fantastic retinue Crowl has serving under him. It covers all the things I wanted out of this book.

It boggles my mind that it took Black Library this long to once again publish a novel of this caliber. The setting needs this in many ways rather cynical look at the Imperium's self-righteous hypocrisies. Seeing how well the Warhammer 40,000 universe has lent itself to this style of content featuring Inquisitors and their retinues in the past, I am happy to see its like back in production. But even aside from my relief in those regards, I still believe that Chris Wraight has truly outdone himself here and written one of his best books to date in The Carrion Throne.

Now, excuse me while I try to convince some friends to join me for a session of Fantasy Flight Games' Dark Heresy Pen & Paper Roleplaying Game (which the license expired on so FFG isn't selling it anymore, of course). I've been wanting to do that for years, but this novel has certainly increased my desire for more Inquisition adventures by a tenfold...

Vaults of Terra: The Carrion Throne 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


The Reading Lamp

0 comments:

Leave a Reply

DarkChaplain's bookshelf: read

The Dragon Engine
Tomb Raider II #7
Star Wars #22
Star Wars: The Force Awakens Adaptation #3
Deathwatch: The Last Guardian
The Harrowing
Whacky
The Awakening
Blackshield
Poe Dameron #5


DarkChaplain's favorite books »