The King of the Spoil is dead. Assassinated. In the massive hive city of Varangantua where the rich few use the unending mass of the poor to make their fortunes, a gang war is is about to set The Spoil and all of its inhabitants aflame.
Part of the Warhammer 40,000 crime series, The King of the Spoil by Jonathan D. Beer tells the story of an uprising of the destitute against the wealthy and safe, started by a dangerous assassin. With the death of Sorokin (the titular King of the Spoil) the agreement between the Valtierri cartel, who smuggle obscene wealth through the Spoil, and the Spoilers, who scrape by on the Spoil’s cut of the smuggling now that their natural mineral wealth manufactory districts lie mostly in ruin, is very quickly falling apart. A new voice in the Spoil calls for the Spoilers to take back what is theirs, and all hell breaks loose.
Melita the data broker has just woken from a drug haze to the news that the King of the Spoil (Sorokin) is dead. Her bodyguard punches a needle into her thigh and she explodes from her comfortable blackness into a world of new born fear and opportunity. A clipper of tickets, in the chaos is where opportunity lies for her, but also danger. Melita provides the top-down view of the story as she mixes with those who stand to lose the most financially.
Haska is a wannabe street ganger, choosing the violent and often short life of a street knife over the slow debilitating fate of her mother, who works in a factory that is slowly killing her. For Haska, the king’s death also means opportunity—the big gangs that could secure Haska and her friends’ future will war. And war creates gaps in the ranks, and chances for her and her friends to find their place. Haska provides the ground-up view of the story, her crew sitting underneath even the lowest blooded gang member, and the people she loves desperately scratching a short, painful, and often violent life from the rust and rubble of an Imperial hive city.
The opening scenes of the book are absolutely brilliant. They introduce you to each character and their relationship to each other, while also epitomising the old saying in business that shit rolls downhill. It was a really fun way to be introduced not only to Melita and Haska, but also to Mattix the corrupt regional Sanctioner leader, Vasimov the brutal mercenary desperately trying to retain a veneer of power while the Valtierri Cartel’s domain starts to crumble around him, and Edi the ex-Sanctioner bodyguard to Melita who does his best to keep her alive while simultaneously watching her destroy herself.
The King of the Spoil is an unwilling detective tale meets 40k-style massed battle against a backdrop exploring the absolute hell life is in the Imperium is for untold trillions of unfortunate citizens. Beer does well to take advantage of the ridiculous wealth of 40k lore available to build this tale while not locking out the new reader who might not know the universe well, if at all. It’s a difficult balance to strike that Black Library don’t always get right. The King of the Spoil is a fun read as you unpick the mystery of Sorokin’s assassination and the purpose behind it, and there is a clear intention there for this to be a series, which I’m quite excited about.
Beer absolutely nails his character cast. From the first chapter when we meet the key players through to the way they tell the story from opposite sides of the poverty line, each character feels worth investing in and plays a key point in creating the story. In particular, Melita’s addictions are well thought out and portrayed, and the way Edi interacts with her around them was well written. I feel those two have a tumultuous future ahead, should Black library continue the Melita Voronova tale. I also loved Haska’s stand-offish relationship with her mother, who slowly kills herself every day to try and make sure Haska can have a meal while Haska almost can’t bear to look at her. Haska sees her mother’s debilitating and slow trudge towards death as her most likely future without joining the short bloody lives of a gang, and this fear drives her decisions. There are times when Beer tugs very hard on the heartstrings through that relationship.
The feeling and scale of the massive Imperial hive cities is also brilliantly done here, with the sweeping plain of The Spoil surrounded and walled in by the massive districts of wealth that both distance themselves from the destitute while also using them to make fortunes—a rather common theme in the harsh 40k universe that lands quite well with the divide between first and third worlds in our contemporary society. That theme is also central to the story, with the downtrodden reaching their breaking point while the rest of the hive city watches them fade, and a spark lighting a match to set the world ablaze. This also provides probably the only thing about the book that I wish were different, which for the sake of spoilers, I’m going to be as vague as possible on (you can also just completely de-risk yourself by skipping the rest of this paragraph): when I discovered the reason behind the uprising, I was a bit disappointed. While completely understandable from a universe perspective (and I feel most readers won’t even blink at it), I think it left what could have been an excellent Imperial society story ending on the table.
In plenty of my reviews of 40k books I often point out that a part of the enjoyment of these 40k books is rolling with some pretty ham-fisted info dumping. If that’s not a style of storytelling you enjoy, generally you just know that it’s coming, accept it, and get on board with it. With The King of the Spoil, I feel Beer handled this really well and created a story that really flowed and released the lore to you in a smoother, less noticeable fashion. A tip of the glass to the author for really nailing that immersion.
The King of the Spoil by Jonathan D. Beer is a fast paced cyberpunk detective milSF read that is a fun read, and likely also a solid entry point to the 40k universe for fans of gritty stories where the massed battles of the space marines and Imperial Guard perhaps aren’t the most appealing part of the universe. If you’re a fan of the Eisenhorn or Ravenor series, I think you should give this a go.