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Warhammer 40,000 – Belisarius Cawl: The Great Work

This piece will contain spoilers for Belisarius Cawl: The Great Work

++You asked me to inform you the next time I did anything dramatic. I am about to.++

++Get on with it, Cawl.++ 

++You do know how to spoil a dramatic moment, Decimus.++

Right away, straight off the bat, I must give kudos to Guy Haley for this book. It’s excellent, well paced, rich with content, and brimming with lore-defining information and canon-defining information. I have, in the past, taken issue with some of his more flippant additions to the lore, including one fairly brusque twitter exchange over the creation of a new sub-faction within the Legio Custodes for no more reason than “because I can,” but Belisarius Cawl: The Great Work is more than enough to wash that bad taste out of my mouth.

Where this book excels is in character dynamics, character interactions, the aforementioned lore and canon-defining information, and implications that it leaves behind. And it all begins in orbit of that thrice-blighted world, Sotha.

The story opens outside the Aegida orbital space station, which hangs over the now utterly dead planet of Sotha where we find Tetrarch Decimus Felix enroute to a meeting with what remains of the original Space Marine contingent of the Scythes of the Emperor. All present are awaiting the arrival of Archmagos Belisarius Cawl and plan on making an expedition to the planet, the journey being part burial ceremony for the Scyhtes and part exploratory investigation. Ever since the Great Rift tore open reality following the fall of Cadia, the galaxy-spanning schism has been flicking strange energies into space, and they eventually roused the long dormant Pharos.

The character perspectives are rather interesting in the story, as they leap backwards and forwards by thousands of years so that we can get a grasp on important factors in their lives that would otherwise require separate stories to convey. It’s discovered that these aren’t mere memories, however; the Pharos is a tremendously powerful construct that connects events through time and space empathically. Basically, you will relive a previous experience rather than simply remembering it. This leads the chapter master of the Scythes to relive the fall of the planet; Cawl finds himself back in the time of the great heresy war, Decimus meets with his long dead younger brother, and that’s just scratching the surface.

The Pharos is, as many have previously assumed, Necron technology that far predates the Imperium of Man, having been built long long ago to help facilitate the Necrons’ faster-than-light travel and information sharing during the war in heaven. It goes without saying that this is a serious piece of kit, and it transpires that Cawl has actually found another one in the reaches of space, but it was unfortunately already destroyed. Cawl has come to Sotha to terraform the planet, but also to investigate the Pharos itself while the Scythes of the Emperor lay their geneseed to rest.

The Scythes, having been nearly wiped out, carry with them a secret of some description and Primaris Marine Cadmus warns the Tetrarch, “I believe they are hiding something, my lord,” and rightfully so. The secret shame of the Scythes of the Emperor is that they were infiltrated by a Genesteal cult and betrayed from within by their own trusted staff. This is, frankly speaking, the least interesting part of the entire story. That’s not to say it’s bad, not at all, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s the lowest ranking part of the narrative that ultimately results in a somewhat anticlimactic fight taking place between a Genestealer Patriarch (fantastically represented, it must be said) and chapter master Thracian.

For myself, and I imagine many others, the most interesting part of this story is the look back into the life of Belisarius Cawl. At one point, for example, we discover just how Cawl came into the world, circa 10,000 years ago. We discover that, some 10,000 years ago “he appeared to be about ten years of age, he was only hours old, fast-grown in the Xanthe Terra flesh vats of Magos Biologis Hammareth.” That’s right, Cawl was vat grown, he never actually had parents and was shunted into the world with accelerated growth and imprinted information thrust upon him. It is perhaps at this moment that Cawl was already destined for great things, given his inquisitive mind and predilection towards asking questions. Those familiar with Cawl know that he “wears” a personality to fit the occasion of who he accompanies, but the story goes deeper than this, showing us the many minds that he has taken into himself and absorbed over the years. Two such minds include that of Ezekiel Sedayne, the man who would go on to become Lord Geneticist and Director of the Emperor’s Biotechnical Division while perfecting the Black Carapace invented by Amar Astartes during the closing years of the Unification War, and Hester Aspertia Sigma-Sigma, a Magos Domina of the Mechanicum that would perfect mind melding and cloning techniques.

This is but a small taste of what you can expect to find in the book.

Strangely, and somewhat unexpectedly, we get some odd interactions with none other than The Emperor of Mankind himself in the story. At one point, he comes to what can be described as the would-be Cawl/Sedayne hybrid and tells him that, in the future, he will betray the Emperor. Understandably, the would-be Cawl/Sedayne hybrid is shocked at the possibility of defying Him on earth, but the Emperor tells Cawl that he will be right to betray him. Nothing more really comes of this, but it suggests that, in times to come, Cawl’s allegiances may change. What this means exactly, I can’t say for sure.

The other odd interaction comes from a character I won’t name; that would ruin the surprise, but they refer to the Machine God, Chaos Gods, and The Emperor of Man as follows, “The first is a lie. The second are emergent consciousness caused by etheric disturbance. The third is a weapon.” It’s strange to see the Emperor referred to as a weapon; he obviously has great power and influence, but to see him spoken of so bluntly indicates that he is something to be used with a specific purpose in mind, and that’s extremely intriguing for those who know the story of the shaman sacrifice that is said to have birthed the Emperor.

Needless to say, I could prattle on at length about Belisarius Cawl: The Great Work for a very long time, but what I can tell you with the utmost confidence is that this story will not waste your time. There’s far more to read into than what I’ve mentioned here, there’s a host of varied characters to get to know, and there may even be some more unexpected narrative twists in here than you would expect. Ultimately, I think it would be best to say that this is a must read for any fan of 40K lore, as there is simply so much going on that it would be foolish to ignore it.