After more than a year’s hiatus, I’ve found my way back to the Dark Coil series, and the novel Fire Caste. Peter Fehevari is without a doubt one of my favourite Black Library authors, and I had been looking forward to getting round to his debut novel for quite some time – to the point where I don’t really know why it took me this long to read it, if I’m honest!
While calling the Dark Coil a series is perhaps a bit of a misnomer, because they don’t really follow one another per se, but instead weave in and out and around each other, Fire Caste follows on from the short stories Out Caste, and A Sanctuary of Wyrms, set on the dense jungle planet of Phaedra. It’s not a death world per se, though nobody really understands why the Imperium and the Tau are so bent on possessing the planet given its lack of strategic value. The story is told through the 19th Arkan Confederates, a regiment of the Imperial Guard who are still haunted by the insurrection they have fought on their own home planet, and the Commissar Holt Iverson, a man haunted by the ghosts of his past in a very real way.
I think any type of synopsis just wouldn’t do this book justice, really. The story explores the haunted past of the Arkan Confederates, who are easily as well fleshed-out guardsmen as the Tanith First and Only, and takes quite a horror twist on the 41st millennium while doing so. We also have that situation mirrored in the current warzone of Phaedra, where the incumbent Guard regiment, the Lethean Penitents, have become corrupted by the world and the taint has seeped into their culture. It’s all just disturbing enough that it’s part-horror, not full.
I’ve read many summaries of the book that have talked about how this novel is not a typical 40k story, and there are many layers to unfurl in a slow-burn narrative. It’s not your average Guard story, and it most certainly isn’t a Tau story, despite what you might think from the title. True, the Tau do feature, but the focus is really on the Guard regiments. There are a couple of set-piece battle scenes that are very enjoyable, starting with the Guard going up against Vespid Stingwings, then against the Kroot, and finally Sentinels vs Crisis Suits. Each of these scenes is quite wonderfully done, and shows the varying degrees to which the taint of Phaedra has affected each of the sides in the battle. The Tau auxiliaries fight more ferociously, the Guard themselves become almost deranged; it truly does show the horrors of war but seen through that tint of 40k good stuff.
Perhaps the most overt Tau scenes are those that feature the water caste diplomat O’Seishin as he attempts to convince Colonel Cutler of the merits of Tau philosophy. I do like the way that the Tau ideology is explored here, and how in many ways it does present almost the perfect counterpoint to the Imperial dogma. Maybe I’m just easily led, but you have to wonder why more Guard regiments don’t just switch sides more often!
For all that I liked it, though, I did actually find it quite hard going at times. I think it’s perhaps the prose – you can’t just sit down and have the story wash over you, you have to really concentrate on the narrative as it twists and turns around. It’s just beautiful, though, and a highly worthwhile read.
Years later, the war between the Tau and the Imperium had petered out, and reduced to skirmishes between the factions left. Abandoned might be a better term, for supplies had been withdrawn and both sides seemed to just leave Phaedra, along with whatever personnel were still on-world. The Adeptus Mechanicus of the Iron Diadem, a faction not really explored in the novel proper, take centre stage in this short story follow-up to Fire Caste, as we see more of the warriors of the Machine God and their side of the war with the Tau.
Despite the conflict having tailed off to nothing, the Skitarii cohorts are tasked with a mission by the Magos Caul who has been in charge of the Iron Diadem facility, and so the forces of the Omnissiah storm the Tau stronghold within the Coil. There is a skirmish between the vessels of the Skitarii and a Hammerhead tank, after which the Skitarii begin to advance upon the Tau fortress, only to be the targets of a Broadside battlesuit. The Skitarii Alpha beings a quartet of Ironstrider Balistarii to bear, and the Tau respond with Crisis Suit backup. However, the Skitarii are still able to breach the fortress and a single trooper is able to achieve the mission objective, recovery of a human captive who himself appears close to death. The captive has an iron circlet around his head, and when he is taken to the Magos, all becomes clear.
The Iron Diadem is a void ship that requires a Navigator, and Caul has discovered such a mutant on-world. The man tells the Magos that his third eye was removed “for the Greater Good” and Caul, in anger, crushes the circlet, only to be instantly killed. The story ends with the Navigator’s simple admission, “I lied”.
I really liked this story, as well. I suppose that’s the theme with Peter Fehevari’s works, but he’s such a good author I can’t help but enjoy it. There are so many hints along the way, as we see the Tau/AdMech conflict from the side of the Skitarii, that you have to wonder just where the Magos got so much raw material for his cyborg army. One trooper shouts out “the Omnissiah condemns!” in a blatant call-back to the earlier novel, and one of the Ironstrider riders seems to recall a former life that might have been at the helm of a Sentinel. Something that I found particularly interesting was the fact the Skitarii Alpha muses that her face must be hideous as she is encased in a “puzzle box” mask. Did the Adeptus Mechanicus basically comb the battlefields of the earlier war, and reuse Tau and Guard casualties indiscriminately? Very interesting, and very grim-dark!
I don’t know what the Tau are protecting behind their bulwarks, but the scene inside the Phaedran temple, with bodies kept barely alive yet hooked up to some apparatus at the top of the structure was very horror-movie. I find myself hoping there is more to be read about Phaedra, as I want to know more about this stuff going on!
All in all, another thoroughly enjoyable read!
I think there’s only the novel Requiem Infernal left to read now, though I could be wrong. I’m certainly hoping that Peter Fehevari continues to explore the Dark Coil for a long time to come!
6 thoughts on “The Dark Coil (part three)”
the little bit I’ve read of the Tau makes me wonder why ruinous powers haven’t made them more of a priority. Their ability to link up with other species and cultures seems more of a threat than the purely military might of the Empire of Man…
I’m not sure if this has been addressed in the lore, or whether it’s my imagination (or just putting 2 and 2 together to make 22). However, it’s my understanding that the Tau have no psychic potential, so are immune to the power of Chaos. There was something in the last edition codex about a failed expansion that somehow dabbled in the Warp and got destroyed, but it’s all very vague. Either way, I hope that my favourite fish-men are free of the taint of Chaos for a long time to come!!
Which would make them an even greater threat then. Surprised that a bajillion black crusades haven’t gone after them.
This is what happens when you come into the tail end of something. I just don’t know the history, what there is of it….
Are you saying that Abaddon has got it wrong all these years?! 🤣 Yeah, when you put it like that, you’ve got a very good point!
Maybe the Tau aren’t as widespread as the Imperium, so they may have the superior tech and superior diplomacy, but because they only take up a small slice of the galaxy they’re just forgotten about?
I won’t ever accuse the writers of wh40k of being great strategists 😉
I like your theory. It fits…
I always though Tau psycicly doninated the kroot… then again, i ve read no tau books yet… also thought tau were where the perpetuals originated from but i tend to confuse them with eldar🙈