Belisarius Cawl: The Great Work

Book review

settings scifi warhammer

While I was painting a Warhammer 40,000 Genestealer Cult army and an opposing army of Adeptus Mechanicus, I decided to listen to the book Belisarius Cawl: The Great Work by Guy Haley. This is my review of it, and it contains no spoilers. But I'll cut to the chase and say that this is one of the best Warhammer 40,000 books I've read. That's saying a lot, because I hold Warhammer books in high regard. I tend to enjoy them, and I find myself getting emotional over them. I'm a fan. But Belisarius Cawl: The Great Work by Guy Haley is one of those books that, like Blackstone Fortress, stands out as a great science fiction story (where "great" is defined as entertaining to me).

OK, onto some specifics, and probably a few minor spoilers.


At the time I picked the book up, all I knew about it was that it was about an archmagos dominus of the Adeput Mechanicus. I've read about Cawl in other Warhammer books, so I sort of know his personality, and what part he plays in the wider universe, but this is his book, and it seemed especially appropriate as I painted a 1000 point army of tech priests and their machines.

What I got was so much more. This book, appropriate for my painting sessions, is about a Genestealer Cult plot to take down the Sotha system, and of course where there are Genestealers there are Tyranids. But wait, there's more. If you've got the Adeptus Mechanicus in a book, you may as well also have the Necrons, and they indeed figure into the story.

But wait, there's even more. The Scythes of the Emperor are an chapter of Ultramarines that got mentioned in passing in the 1990s, and in this book they resurface. I didn't know the first thing about Warhammer back in the 90s, so this isn't actually exciting for me. However, it brings to mind one of the things I love about Warhammer lore. I don't just love that there's a lot of lore. That's relatively easy to generate, given enough time and money and talent. I love that Warhammer uses its lore. Not all properties know to do that, so it's refreshing to know that the Scythes of the Emperor aren't just a made-up chapter of Space Marines (well, they actually are a made-up chapter because the Warhammer universe is pretend). The Scythes of the Emperor actually existed (not really, of course), and it's a little emotional to read about the handful of remaining marines from that chapter, fighting for Sotha and to preserve the memory of their company's heroes.

Theirs is the Genestealer Cult plotline, and it works exactly, I assume, as Guy Haley must have intended. You don't trust Thracian because you can just sense that there's an ulterior motive. And you're not wrong. You're right not to trust him.

The Genestealer you encounter in the book is as chilling as a Genestealer mastermind should be. She evokes thoughts of, well, the Magos from the Genestealer Cult Combat Patrol box (arguably because of what I painted as I listened to the audiobook) but also the New Life, at least in chill factor. I'll admit, I bought the Genestealer Cult Combat Patrol because A) I needed somebody to fight my Adeptus Mechanicus and the new Necron boxes hadn't been released yet and B) they seemed easy to paint. But looking back at New Life and Angels of Death, I'm realizing just how good a baddy the Genestealer Cult actually is. I'm elated I bought into it. (Er, I mean, I bought the box. I didn't join the cult.)

Stories about humans

The obvious irony of Belisarius Cawl: The Great Work is that it's a book about people who are barely human, some transhuman, others humans cobbled together from cybernetic parts and not just one or two consciousnesses, and yet in the end it's a touchingly human story. The Black Library authors have a knack for remembering to write about emotions and relationships, and it always surprises me when you're reading a 500 page book about the strategic advantages of Marco-extinction Targeting Protocols on the Cerastus Knight-Atrapos, and then suddenly you realise you actually care about the pilot of that Knight-Atrapos and you'd be really sad were she to die now after all she's been through.

This is that kind of story, except the emotions don't creep up on you. In this book, you get a relatively small cast of characters, and I can even name them without looking it up: Felix, Thracian, and Belisarius Cawl. After reading this book, I knew the characters well, I felt close to them. And throughout the book, I understood what drove them, what troubled them, and why they were compelled to do what they did. I didn't just understand these things, I felt them. I was sympathetic to these characters. Heck, I was even sympathetic to the Genestealer Cultist. Yes, she was misguided and ill-informed but I understood her delusion. I understood her need for it, just like I understood Thracian's need for vengeance, and Cawl's need for knowledge, and Felix's need for order.

I think this book works so well for me partly because it devolves into a dungeon crawl pretty early on. That's another way it's a little like Blackstone Fortress. You get a set cast of characters, they go to a place, they explore the place, they find the treasure that turns out to be dangerous, they fight for their lives, they beam back to the Enterprise, tell a joke around the captain's chair, and zoom away to continue their five-year mission. I'm mixing metaphors, but there's a reason a good dungeon crawl or a good sci fi franchise is so accessible. I'm not saying this formula is appropriate for all Black Library books, by any means. I think following a formula would be the death of Black Library, but I do think that sometimes it works well because it happens to be a proven formula, and sometimes that can be a useful tool. In this case, it works as well as you'd expect.

(Arguably, Adeptus Mechanicus is uniquely suited for that formula. They're famously foraging for archeotech anyway, so it makes sense for any number of books to follow them into any number of ruins to see what they're willing to endure to feed their addiction.)

Great hammer

I love pulp, always have. There's probably an argument that all Warhammer fiction is pulp, but this book approaches the kind of pulp you'd have found in Amazing Stories or Starlog and similar periodicals. It's a self-contained book about ancient horrors braved in the spirit of saving the galaxy. It's about lost civilizations and new hopes. It's about cyborgs and laser guns and bravery and the kind of impossible will power you find only in fiction, where the characters latently understand they're the main characters and can't die, and yet it's also about friendship and loss and memory. This has everything I want in a science fiction book, and in a Warhammer story.

All images in this post copyright Games Workshop.

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