Blackstone Fortress book review

Black Library

settings scifi warhammer

Blackstone Fortress is a Black Library novel by Darius Hinks. As its name implies, it's largely about a fortress. Made of noctilith, also known as blackstone. The reason it's significant that the fortress is made of blackstone is that noctilith famously both channels and repels the powers of the warp. This book is about a team of adventurers who dare to delve into it, and what they find.

The book doesn't go into great detail about the physical form of the Blackstone Fortress, but other 40k books do. A Blackstone Fortress (there are more than one of them) is a space station, of sorts. It's a gigantic structure floating in the farthest reaches of space, long forgotten until somebody happens upon it. After the one in this book was found, a space port called Precipice formed near it, as an assembly point for all the hundreds or thousands of people brave and foolish enough to attempt to delve into the fortress.

They've been used as weapons by the Imperium and the forces of Chaos alike, but nobody knows exactly what Blackstone Fortresses are actually for. Cult Mechanicus believes that Blackstone Fortresses are what reinforce the barrier between real space and the warp. Some believe the fortresses are the design of the Emperor. Others assume they're of a xenos race, or from the warp. Theories abound, and it seems people from all over the galaxy want to explore it for one reason or another. Janus Draik, a Rogue Trader from Terra itself, travels to the titular Blackstone Fortress because he believes it contains a powerful artefact that could bolster the Imperium in its fight against Chaos.

Or does he just want to impress his dad?

Nevermind. Whatever his reasoning, he's got his ship, his reputation, and his loyal assistant Isola, and he's determined to do whatever it takes to succeed.

The team

Before venturing into Blackstone Fortress, Janus and Isola decide to gather an adventuring party.

The first adventurer he recruits is Grekh, a kroot mercenary. It's at this point that you realise this isn't like most Warhammer 40,000 novels. This is a Rogue Trader novel. Xenos and humans work together in Blackstone Fortress. It's a tenuous alliance, but it takes you by surprise if you're used to the endless war of either Horus Heresy or 40k books.

Next, Janus recruits Taddeus the Purifier, a bonkers priest convinced that he's been granted visions of the path to the Ascuris Vault within the fortress. Like Janus Draik, Taddeus believes the vault contains a valuable relic, known as the Eye of Herminus, that could help the Imperium of Man.

Pious Vorne is Taddeus's loyal acolyte. A former ganger turned religious fanatic, Pious Vorne is one of the most fascinating characters in the book. She's by no means a central character, so what little of her character development there is you have to glean from the couple of scenes she gets. In very little time, though, she makes an impact on both the reader and on Draik. It never ceases to amaze me how minor characters can sometimes have the biggest impact, and for me at least Pious Vorne is a standout character of this story.

There are other team members that get acquired, and some paid guardsmen who go along to serve dutifully as Red Shirts. Assembling the team takes up a good portion of the book, actually, and the process is good enough to be a book all its own. I'd read a book with just Janus and Isola roaming around Precipice being vigilantes.

Present and accounted

If you're considering reading Blackstone Fortress because you're playing the board game of the same title, then some of the party members are familiar. Janus Draik, Grekh, Taddeus the Purifier, and Pious Vorne are all miniatures you assembled and maybe painted. Others are only in the book.

Several of the explorers in the box aren't mentioned at all in the book. UR-025 gets a cameo (or at least, it really sounds like it's UR-025 who Janus Draik bumps into early in the book), while others just don't exist in the book at all.

The characters the book covers are all properly interesting, though. You might argue that maybe Espern Locarno could have taken the place of Corval, for instance, but I think the choice to exclude some names was intentional. By limiting which explorers get featured in the book, the author ensures that the named explorers get plenty of character development. An explorer left out of the book isn't short-changed by getting too little development in the book, and instead remain a mystery for your own imagination to resolve.

Dungeon delve

Assembling a team of explorers is all good and fun, but the point of the book is its title. Janus Draik wants to delve into the Blackstone Fortress, the same as gamers do when they sit down to play the board game. And as with the board game, the journey starts with the maglev, which deposits you in a seemingly random and unpredictable destination. This perfectly mimics the randomness of the board game, but it also makes for an easy plot device. Explorers never know what they're getting themselves into, and literally anything might be waiting at the other end of the lift ride.

The Blackstone Fortress itself must have been intimidating to write, because it's got no limitations. The laws of physics and reality don't apply within the Blackstone Fortress, so literally anything can happen there. As an author, how do you choose one thing from "anything"?

If you're used to a traditional dungeon delve, either as a Pathfinder or Tales of the Valiant player or as a reader of Hickman and Weiss or Salvatore, then this "dungeon delve" probably won't feel very familiar. This is a sci fi dungeon. There are mind games, there are xenos and other dangers lurking in the shadows, there are traps and puzzles, there are annoying exceptions to established rules, and last-minute escapes from impossible odds.

The one thing it lacks is a sense of history. We're told over and over that the Blackstone Fortress is old and mysterious, but once we're actually inside there's no clue about why or how it exists. The maglev chamber is, I think, the room with the most character and even it has only the weird control panel as its defining trait. I'm used to fantasy dungeons being steeped in history, which usually the adventurers uncover as they go. Whether it's an ancient dwarven hold that fell to an orc invasion, or a magical tower that was abandoned during a great cataclysm, or a castle that fell to a vengeful dragon, a good "dungeon" tells its story to you as you go. Blackstone Fortress doesn't quite do that. The most you can glean from exploring it in this book is that there were other explorers who came before, and you know that mostly because there are dead bodies lying around the place.

Admittedly, writing a book about a building has got to be difficult. Lovecraft wrote some stories about ruins, but those usually depended more on poetry than plot. Arthur C. Clarke did it, in a way, with 2001 (if you interpret a spaceship, or an interstellar monolith, as a building). This book uses some of the same tricks. The Blackstone Fortress is itself a character, like an old abandoned city in a Lovecraft story, but there are forces roaming around it, some real and physical and others mental or spiritual.

Read this book

I enjoyed Blackstone Fortress. After reading the Horus Heresy series, I have to admit that reading a book set in the 40k universe that wasn't about space marines or traitor legions was a little bit of a shock to my system. But it was refreshing. The Imperium is mentioned in this book, either out of allegiance or fanatical devotion or fanatical hatred, but it's just background. This is a book about humans and xenos in a strange environment, searching for impossible answers to elusive questions. Maybe unsurprisingly, the story is about more than just a physical journey into a mind-bending reality-warping fortress. It's an emotional journey, too, and several of the characters are changed by the experience.

I don't know whether you'll be changed by your exploration of the Blackstone Fortress, but at the very least you'll be entertained. This is a captivating corner of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Precipice, at least, feels just a little less dystopic than the rest of the galaxy, and the diversity of the Rogue Trader scene feels comfortingly anarchic. I enjoyed this book, I'll read it again. You should read it, too.

All images in this post copyright Games Workshop.

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