Back when I reviewed Dan Abnett’s Xenos, the first book in the Eisenhorn series, I mentioned that there were better Inquisitor stories out there. Well, Vaults of Terra: The Carrion Throne by Chris Wraight is one of those excellent Inquisitor stories I was talking about. Carrion Throne doesn’t hold back in portraying live on Terra as awful and takes it’s time to hammer that fact home. However, at the core of this story is a compelling mystery and some wonderful characters. Let me tell you why Vaults of Terra: Carrion Throne is one of the best Black Library stories out there.
Let’s kick this off by going back to the story’s framing. Rather than revelling in the glory of the Emperor, Carrion Throne lays some hard truths about life on Earth. There are no medals to be won here, no battle-brothers or valiant defences. Instead, the people are driven to the brink and survive on what few scraps they can find. If you are coming here looking for Terra to be a beacon of the Imperium, you will be disappointed. What we have is extreme poverty met by a corrupt justice system, where the elite look down and those looking up can do nothing but try to get through another day. And, for me, that’s exactly what I was after.
To look below the surface, it’s easy to read a lot of the Warhammer 40,000 novels centred on the Imperium and view them as the righteous good guys. They tell you that they needed to virus bomb that planet, genocide for the right reasons. There’s a lot of shooty bangs and the ugly aliens all die in the end. Every Space Marine lost is a tragedy and the only good Xenos is a dead Xenos. And because they are the human faction, we can relate to them more easily and make excuses for the culture they live in. With Carrion Throne, there are no apologies. We clearly see that unless you are born into a high position, life in the Imperium is not good. And often the Inquisition makes it worse. All of which, again, is excellent. Warhammer 40,000 is a grimdark setting after all. There shouldn’t be any good guys or bad guys, only shades of grey that reflect our world to show us how it might look under different circumstances.
Throughout Carrion Throne, we follow two key characters, Inquisitor Erasmus Crowl and Interrogator Luce Spinoza. Both are exceeding deep and nuanced characters that grow and change throughout the book. It is also worth mentioning that Black Library has made a concerted effect to include more female characters into Warhammer fiction outside of the Sisters of Silence/Battle Sisters (who can be reduced to Space Marines but women – I know there’s more to it than that but stay with me here), and Luce joins the ranks of Minka Lesk and Dalia Cythera as an excellent, well written female protagonist. It’s nice to see representation in these books.
These two characters’ sides of the story met and intertwined throughout the Carrion Throne. And while their dynamic of grizzled veteran and naive apprentice has been seen before, it fits perfectly for the story with Luce slowly understanding the scale and scope of the Inquisition and coming to terms with how she fits into everything. Luce also acts as an organic way for us to uncover and be equally horrified by everyday life on Terra and the unjust ways the people are treated. At the same time, though, she is an Interrogator and comes with the baggage that carries as she tries to balance her own morality. All of which makes her easily the most interesting character in this book (with a big list of potential seconds) and one of my favourites in all of Warhammer fiction.
Crowl at first seems like your usual Inquisitor, but there is a lot more beneath the surface. He plays off Luce excellently as she questions her role and that of the Inquisition a large, whereas he has lived on Terra for a long time and the everyday atrocities don’t bother him. He has his own way of doing things and that doesn’t always match the code of conduct Inquisitors are meant to work under. This lends him a rogue-ish quality that again blends well with Luce’s rigid philosophy. This means that Inquisitors are never glorified in Carrion Throne and their role is constantly questioned and pushed against. This in turn makes the reader question their purpose and the wider implications of how they act. This means that every scene is an intense philosophical debate regardless of whether it’s a shootout or a simple conversation
And then there’s the supporting cast. Crowl’s retinue are each compelling and diverse. I won’t get too bogged down in the details but there is enough time spent with each for them to grows on you. They are a more sombre crowd that you’d normally expect, but there is some comic relief thrown in to mix things up. However, it’s the Custodes that are the most intriguing addition in Carrion Throne.
There aren’t many books about or that feature the Adeptus Custodes. This reclusive force isn’t seen much even for those who live on Terra. It makes them a big mystery within a book about a totally separate mystery. For the most part, we only get dialogue but with the distinct impression that they are dangerous and not to be trifled with. It showed how out of touch the Custodes are and emphasises the imbalance of power on Terra.
I’m not going to delve into the wider mystery and story within Carrion Throne. Instead, let me assure you that it will have you guessing the answer until the very end. Carrion Throne was a story I didn’t know I needed but it showcased the very worst of the Imperium and never glorified the horrors it showed. I can’t wait to see where the next book takes this cast of characters.