Best of Black Library 2021
2021 is rapidly coming to a close, which means it’s time for my usual roundup of the best Black Library books I’ve read over the last year. As always, I want to open with the caveat that these are my personal highlights based solely on what I’ve read – I’m not suggesting that there haven’t been other excellent BL titles released this year, just that I haven’t read them! I should also point out that I’m basing my selections on books which were first published in 2021, which means I’ve chosen one that only had a Limited Edition release and won’t be more widely available until 2022, and that this year I’m almost entirely looking at novels. In previous years I’ve also covered other formats and split out my choices into different articles based on the main BL settings – 40k, Age of Sigmar and Horus Heresy – but this year I’m just going to do this one article, and concentrate on novels.
I think it’s safe to say that 2021 has been a bit of a weird year for Black Library for various reasons (I might talk more about this in another article), and for various reasons I’ve generally found myself less inclined to read BL books than in previous years. Out of 40-ish brand new titles (plus various omnibuses etc.) released in ‘21, I’ve read 14 (mostly novels or anthologies) and only reviewed five. That might still sound like quite a lot, but it’s less than half the number of BL books I reviewed in 2020 and less than 10% (!) of what I reviewed in 2019. So this article is mostly a recap on what I’ve reviewed in 2021 (with one exception), with a couple of honourable mentions and a few thoughts on some other 2021 releases that I definitely still want to read.
Without further ado then, let’s take a look at my personal favourite Black Library books from 2021 – check out the links to reviews or author interviews where available too. It was a tough call, but in the end I chose one book as my absolute favourite, along with four more that definitely need talking about (in no particular order)!
Track of Words Top BL Pick for 2021
Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waaagh! by Nate Crowley
I say it was a tough call, and in some respects it was – all of the other books I’m going to mention here are fantastic. At the same time though, there’s only really one book that could take the top spot, and that’s Nate Crowley’s incredible Ghazghkull novel, a book that while relatively short for a novel, packs in everything I want from a 40k story. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much while reading a 40k novel, or stopped so many times to marvel at how a scene or even a single line could perfectly capture the essence of 40k, of orks or even of the Imperium. This is a powerful character study of one of the big names of the setting, and it really does an incredible job of bringing the big lad to life (by way of
his little buddy the little monster, Makari), but it does so much more too!
It’s a tragedy that this has only been released in Limited Edition format so far, with the regular release not due (according to the wider book trade – BL haven’t confirmed anything) until March. I was lucky enough to be given a copy of the LE by my mates as a birthday present (they’re a good bunch!), and even five months later I’m still in awe at how good this book is, and devastated that I can’t discuss it in more detail with most people! For the time being most of you will just have to take my word for how good this is – but trust me, this is one BL book you don’t want to sleep on, once it’s more widely available. You can thank me later!
Penitent by Dan Abnett
It was a long wait. A really, really long wait. Pariah was first published in 2012 and it took nine years for the sequel to arrive, but I can say with total honesty that I don’t mind – it was absolutely worth the wait! Selfishly, I decided to read Penitent purely for myself with no consideration of writing a review, so that I could concentrate on just enjoying the story without thinking about how I might talk about it later on. What can I say about it now, without spoiling anything? Well…for a start, I’d recommend reading (or rereading) both The Magos and Pariah before tackling this (I actually revisited the whole Ravenor trilogy in audio too), just to make sure you’re fully up to speed. Beyond that, just kick back and enjoy Abnett letting his creativity run wild, exploring a weird little corner of the 40k universe that’s like nothing else anywhere in the BL canon, with typically compelling characters, a strange and kinda complicated but still deeply compelling plot, and some serious surprises. No, really…considering what happens in this book, I just can’t get my head around how this series is going to finish!
Grim Repast by Marc Collins
Black Library fans have been crying out for more ‘domestic 40k’ stories ever since Dan Abnett started exploring the interesting little non-military parts of the setting in his Eisenhorn stories, and with the advent of Warhammer Crime I really think BL have finally hit on a really smart way of delivering what we’ve been asking for. In my opinion, Grim Repast is comfortably the best Warhammer Crime story so far, in which Collins comes at the genre from the classic serial killer angle and delivers a bleakly compelling detective story that works brilliantly as a crime novel in its own right while continuing to bring Varangantua to grimy, unhappy life. It’s just an ideal blend of 40k’s tone and feel with the structure and stylings of proper crime fiction, and if it doesn’t mark the start of a dedicated series for Quillon Drask then BL will have got something very, very wrong. If the idea of Warhammer Crime appeals, read the short story Cold Cases first and then get straight into this book.
Silent Hunters by Edoardo Albert
There are a lot of Space Marines stories out there, and even quite a few featuring the Carcharodons, but Silent Hunters stands out to me as one of the strangest, most unexpected and most interesting I’ve ever read. It’s the sort of story where you go into it expecting one thing only to quickly realise that every time you think it’s going to go in one direction, it goes in a different one entirely. The Carcharodons are as creepy as anything I’ve read, all void-black eyes and eerie silences; the drukhari are whimsical and almost playful while also clearly utterly awful; the plot takes in water worlds and a pleasure cruise, the weirdest Space Marine ship I’ve ever read about and the trippiest depiction of the Webway yet. It’s just consistently interesting, really cleverly done and frankly unlike pretty much anything else I’ve read from BL. If you like the weirder aspects of 40k this is definitely for you, but frankly I’d say it’s almost required reading for any 40k fan.
The End of Enlightenment by Richard Strachan
Strachan’s first BL novel Blood of the Everchosen was easily my favourite Age of Sigmar book of last year, making it onto my overall top 20 SFF books of 2020 as well, and I was delighted to read this, his second AoS novel, and find that it’s just as good. It’s a very different novel of course, focusing on the Lumineth and the Bonereapers rather than the multiplicity of mortal followers of Chaos, but it shows the same evocative, engaging prose and clear eye for a compelling, character-driven narrative. I love a story where the protagonist and antagonist are equally entertaining, and the two central figures here manage to be both exemplars of their type and just really interesting characters in their own right. This is a perfect book for AoS fans wanting to learn more about these two factions, but it’s such a good story that it’s honestly a slam-dunk recommendation for anyone even vaguely interested in the setting. If you haven’t read any of Richard’s stories yet, get on it!
For this year’s honourable mentions I’m going to quickly talk about a couple of 40k anthologies that I can happily recommend to anyone who enjoys a good short story. They’re two very different anthologies, but I thoroughly enjoyed both of them.
Sanction & Sin: a nicely balanced anthology exploring what life is like for some of the women of Varangantua, from all-guns-blazing badasses to regular everyday folk trying to scrape a living. It’s great to see a whole anthology focused on the female POV, especially with four of the stories written by women, but ultimately this is just an entertaining collection of stories that do a great job bringing ‘domestic 40k’ to life. Check out my review of Sanction & Sin and also my interview with four of the featured authors.
Sabbat War: the third anthology set in Dan Abnett’s own little corner of the 40k setting – the Sabbat Worlds – this features a couple of stories from Abnett himself along with tales from a range of authors both familiar and new(ish) to 40k. There are a few standout stories here, but all told it’s another really successful exploration of the lesser-seen aspects of this consistently fantastic series.
I asked on Twitter whether people were still interested in me writing this post given that I’ve read so few of Black Library’s 2021 releases (thanks to those who responded!), and one of the interesting replies I received suggested that I talk a bit about some of the other 2021 releases that I haven’t got round to reading but would definitely like to. I thought that was a great suggestion, so here are a few 2021 books that are 100% still on my TBR list:
The Twice-Dead King: Ruin by Nate Crowley: I’ve loved everything of Nate’s that I’ve read, and I keep hearing so many great things about this book! I’m tempted to wait until the sequel (The Twice-Dead King: Reign) is released though, so I can read the pair of them back to back – I reckon that’s going to be brilliant!
The Book of Martyrs by Phil Kelly, Danie Ware and Alec Worley: I’m a big fan of Sisters of Battle fiction, and I’m interested in portmanteau stories as a whole, so this has been on my list for a while. It helps that I’ve enjoyed all of Danie’s and Alec’s Sisters stories so far, too!
Gitslayer by Darius Hinks: there are few more entertaining Warhammer characters to read about than Gotrek Gurnisson, and I’ve had a lot of fun following his Age of Sigmar exploits so far. I just know this is going to be hugely entertaining, and I can’t help but love that title!
Liber Xenologis by Darius Hinks: I did actually start this not long after it came out but got distracted, so I must get back to it soon. Darius’ Blackstone Fortress stories are great, so I really like the idea of this background book being written ‘in-universe’ by Janus Draik, and all the weird alien creatures do tend to be some of the coolest things about 40k!
Warhawk by Chris Wraight: to be honest I’m not as excited or engaged by the Siege of Terra as I thought I would be, but I’m sure I’ll enjoy Warhawk when I get around to reading it. Chris is a consistently excellent writer, and this seems to be getting really good reviews, so I’m expecting it to be worth reading.
So there you have it – my personal Black Library highlights from 2021! I would love to talk about BL books I’m looking forward to in 2022 but sadly there haven’t been very many announced as yet. Keep an eye out for an article coming soon in which I’m going to talk about general SFF books coming in 2022 though, which will probably include at least one BL title that has been announced.
Let me know what you thought of the books I’ve talked about here, and what your favourite Black Library releases of 2021 were! Whatever you enjoyed the most, drop me a line in the comments below or over on Twitter.
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