Roughly a year and a half ago, Games Workshop released their Dark Imperium box set. This coincided with an in-universe timeline advancement, which brought the proceedings to what can be termed “Warhammer 41K”. Whenever a new edition/box set is released, there is a push for visibility among the factions included; new models, fiction, etc. Dark Imperium featured the ubiquitous Ultramarines and the grotesque Death Guard. As a result of this, we have seen some spectacular new models for that odious group of Nurgle-worshippers, as well as books like The Lords of Silence by Chris Wraight, which we’ll be looking at today.
Black Library has had a commendable track record in offering compelling books focusing on the Chaos Legions; imbuing them with purpose and validity, rather than making them moustache-twirling, bolter-swinging caricatures (see Storm of Iron, the Word Bearers omnibus, and the Night Lords omnibus). The Lords of Silence is no exception – in fact, in my opinion, it goes above and beyond. Wraight has made the Legion his, in no uncertain terms. This book is less of a narrative focused on the completion of a goal than it is a treatise on the minds and tactics of the Death Guard. It is engaging, action-packed, written with exquisite detail, and tempered with just the right amount of levity to give true life to these undying warriors.
Before we delve into the story, let’s look at the back of the book:
The Cadian Gate is broken, and the Imperium is riven in two. The might of the Traitor Legions, kept shackled for millennia behind walls of iron and sorcery, has been unleashed on a darkening galaxy. Among those seeking vengeance on the Corpse Emperor’s faltering realm are the Death Guard, once proud crusaders of the Legiones Astartes, now debased creatures of terror and contagion. Mighty warbands carve bloody paths through the void, answering their lord primarch’s call to war. And yet for all their dread might in arms, there is no escape from the vicious legacies of the past, ones that will pursue them from the ruined daemon-worlds of the Eye of Terror and out into the smouldering wastes of the Imperium Nihilus.
And now, for the benefit of those who are still new to the Warhammer Universe, here are some Notes for Neophytes:
Remember, the First Founding of the Space Marines saw the creation of 20 chapters, each with their own Primarch. The Chaos Gods scattered the Primarchs across the universe, and the Chapters developed back home on Terra in their absence. The Death Guard was the XIV Legion of the Space Marines, originally known as the Dusk Raiders. When the primarch Mortarion was found on the toxic world of Barbarus, he brought some of the natives into the fold. The Dusk Raiders became the Death Guard, and was comprised of Terrans and Barbarans.
During the Horus Heresy, the Death Guard pledged themselves to Nurgle, the Chaos God of, well, rot is the best way to put it. Now, Death Guard forces are made up of original legionnaires, those who’ve ascended, and those brought from outside chapters/warbands into the fold.
In the new Dark Imperium, along with the Primarch Roboute Guilliman returning to lead the Imperium, the Death Guard Primarch Mortarion has returned to rally his forces.
A quick note before returning to Lords of Silence: a huge element of the events of the Dark Imperium-based stories centers around Abaddon’s 13th Black Crusade, which destroyed the planet Cadia, and tossed the galaxy at large into a state of upheaval. This action, as well as Abaddon’s aggressive push to permanently wipe the Imperium off of the face of the universe, have a trickle-down effect on The Lords of Silence.
The Lords of Silence is told in a non-linear narrative, offering us disjointed fragments of a few interconnected storylines. The book focuses on the titular Lords of Silence, a storied and legendary Death Guard warband, and their travels aboard their near-sentient ship, the Solace.
Wraight focuses his narrative on a superb cast of characters; a gaggle of higher-ups in the Lords hierarchy, all with different skill sets and philosophies. These attributes are filtered through scenarios which test their mettle, resolve, and direction. At each turn, they must prioritize which ‘need’ or ‘desire’ to satisfy: to fulfill the millennia-old mandates of their Primarch and assail Ultramar (home of the despised Ultramarines), answer Abaddon’s call to join the Crusade and end the Imperium, or just find the next target to whet their blades with fresh blood, and satisfy the need to kill.
Mind you, these choices must be made as the Solace drifts along in a galaxy turned upside down by the fall of Cadia.
The core encounters in The Lords of Silence involve the assault of an agri-world, taking part in the assault of a Forge World, and an attack on a fortress-monastery. In each situation; Wraight does an outstanding job of bringing the relentless tactics of the Death Guard to undying life – they have all the time in the universe, and can afford to play the long game.
As mentioned, the crew of the Solace are a memorable, well-(rotted) fleshed out group, full of enough nuance and characterization to shoulder a franchise. The Lords are commanded by Vorx, a legionnaire whose tenure with the XIV stretches all the way back to the days of the Heresy. He is methodical, obsessed with numerology, wise, and a tad acerbic in wit. A primary foil to Vorx’s command is Dragan, a younger commander (originally from another Chapter), who is a bit of a hot-headed heir apparent.
The other characters are all notable; especially Philemon, a Tallyman of Nurgle (think a warrior-auditor, but also a rotting, walking superhuman corpse).
What solidifies Lords of Silence in the upper echelon of Chaos Space Marine books is that Wraight finds a way to make the ‘bad guys’ sympathetic. There has to be a rhyme or reason for anyone to follow the path they tread; there are no arbitrarily evil characters (well, not good ones, at least). At one point, when Vorx weighs the fact that the path of Nurgle embraces the inevitability of change, while the Imperium represents clamping down on the stagnancy of a past ideal, it’s hard to argue the validity of his logic. This is a master stroke, and at the core of what makes this book stand out.
Wraight adds a bonus with the story of Dantine, a stalwart Guardsman who finds the fortune of the worst kind has smiled upon him, as he becomes one of the faceless wanderers of the Solace. This story arc terrifyingly captures the onset and development of Nurgle’s ‘gifts’, as his body literally rots and wastes away before his eyes; but with the sweet release of death callously removed from the equation.
And finally, the real stars of the book are the Little Lords, an affectionate term for the capering, belching, flatulating, murderous little critters normally known as ‘Nurglings’. Nurglings have always been fun additions to festoon one’s Death Guard army with; and kudos go to Wraight for creating a perfect characterization for them.
The Lords of Silence is a perfectly paced work; and the ratio of action to discourse and word development balances out nicely. The action setpieces are staged magnificently; with Wraight making sure to incorporate imaginative weaponry and tactics. At the Death Guard’s disposal are unstoppable warriors, plague zombies, biological terror agents, warp-distorted insectoid monstrosities, as well as thousands of years of honed malice.
Wraight is a savvy enough author to really define the identity of each faction in battle, and bring them to life; be it the rotting forces of Nurgle, the overwhelmed members of the Guard, the pragmatic Adeptus Mechanicus, or stalwart loyalist Space Marines. Each Chapter, each faction has their own style, their own identity, and that lends itself to a truly immersive, satisfying reading experience.
This is a necessary category for a novel showcasing the Death Guard. I’ve mentioned in previous reviews that, for an author, the forces of Nurgle must be the most fun Chaos factions to write for. There’s just so much room to roll in the mud and have fun playing with motifs of rot and decay. And Wraight is obviously enjoying himself with Lords of Silence. There is an oppressive, rank, fetid feel to everything; stifling heat and humidity reign, hands touching walls return with writhing, viscous slime. Things chitter and buzz in dark corners, flesh fuses with armor, boils and sores fester, burst, and ooze. It is all delightfully disgusting, and Wraight writes it all with a floral flourish. Well, floral like the petals scattered to mask the rank odor of bloated corpses, swollen to the bursting point with accumulated gases.
This is a book that will make you wince, make you retch, make you gag. A high gross-out factor is essential for any piece of Death Guard fiction, and The Lords of Silence scores off the charts.
With The Lords of Silence, Chris Wraight has redefined the Death Guard as something more than a gimmick Chapter (Space Marines, but rotting). He has given them identity, he has given them purpose. Like Grandfather Nurgle, he has given them undying strength and endurance. So here’s hoping that a second book is in the works.
Before closing, I’d like to give a shout-out to Johan Grenier for a captivating cover; one that is not only amazingly drawn and detailed, but also accurately portrays some of the primary players. The portrait of brutal beauty is saturated in the vomitous olive greens and browns so associated with the Death Guard.
I also wanted to include a quick excerpt from the book; one which I think captures how effectively Wraight portrays the Death Guard mentality:
“This place is the mother church, the incubator for every bio-creed and flesh catechism, the pregnant source, the fertile seed. It is all for dissemination elsewhere. The Legion will only rest when all planets are Plague Planets, and the bells toll out across a galaxy made into this image of spectacular decay.”
Check out The Lords of Silence. Highly recommended.
Buy The Lords of Silence by Chris Wraight