Cover Image: The Oubliette

The Oubliette

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Part of the growing Warhammer Horror range, The Oubliette is JC Stearns’ debut Black Library novel, a grim tale of bitter political rivalry on an isolated Imperial world. With her father and older brother dead in suspicious circumstances, Ashielle Matkosen takes up the mantle of Governor of Ceocan, trying to process her grief even as she fights to establish her reign with political enemies all around. When those enemies threaten her life, as well as her position, in desperation Ashielle turns to an ancient presence she encounters in the darkness under the palace; a creature with the power to protect her, but whose assistance comes with a high cost.

It’s essentially a morality tale – demonstrating how easily determination can turn to desperation, how one bad decision, though made with the best of intentions, can lead to damnation. Of course this is 40k and Black Library, so damnation comes in the guise of a very real, tangible evil. It’s not outright scary, certainly not in terms of jump scares or excessively graphic gore, the horror elements more about the slow descent into darkness and the underlying ghastliness of 40k. The overarching plot is excellent, it just all feels a little rushed, and could really have benefited from a longer word count to give characters more space to develop in order for arcs, relationships and individual moments to have greater impact. It’s all good…there’s just always a sense that it could have been even better in a longer format.
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"Abandon hope. Do not trust to faith. Sacrifices burn on pyres of madness, rotting corpses stir in unquiet graves. Daemonic abominations leer with rictus grins and stare into the eyes of the accursed. And the Ruinous Gods, with indifference, look on."

As I'd never explored anything from the Warhammer 40,000 universe before, yet heard so much about it from a long-time friend of mine, I was eager to experience a bit of it for myself when I saw the opportunity arise. 'The Oubliette' by J.C. Sterns was just such opportunity.

The cover depicts a seemingly large, dark hand.. clutching what seems to be a fallen being of fair hair and skin dressed in formal attire.. reaching for a pendant or something they have dropped which is about to slip away. The novel, listed under Warhammer horror, opens with the funeral for a highly regarded governor of the populace of a planet called Ceocan. It's viewed from the perspective of his daughter, who in what is perhaps some strange twist of fate, has found herself inheriting his role due to the death of both him and her eldest brother.

A younger sibling has also returned for the funeral. Having been sent away as an 'extra heir,' upon his arrival we find him to be an arbitrator, this world's version of an officer in charge of investigating incidents of just such magnitude. Though in this case, as a conflict of interest, it's not something he'd be able to become involved with despite his sister's certainty there was foul play afoot.

Normally, I lose interest with a lot of political intrigue, but the aristocrats amongst the Ceocan community are complex creatures. I enjoyed watching the battle even in what were essentially parliament style meetings between the various speakers of both the great and small houses. It was fascinating to watch them dance and duel verbally, utilizing not only their words.. but their social weight.. the volumes of their voices.. and the maneuvering of others around them.

It put me in mind of the great Senate meetings in Star Wars actually and since the original Warhammer Fantasy Battle tabletop game originated within years of the first Star Wars film, it's not unreasonable to think the creator may have taken some inspiration from it. Though, it could just as easily have been inspired by the Senates of Rome or some other real ancient ruling body.

"At the apex of the facade, the Emperor of Mankind stood in profile, His noble gaze cast to the east. In the middle of the night on Reunification Day, His gaze into the night sky lined up with the direction of Holy Terra, His graven visage seeing the distant star that mortal eyes could never discern in the blackness. Behind Him, the great aquila spread its bronze wings."

Though the violent crescendos throughout the story are brief, they are absolute. They are crisply detailed making the visuals unavoidable and lending themselves to the memory for some time.
While the supernatural horrors contained in the telling are highly imaginative, the ties that bind are a bit of rather brutal fun for the reader, so long as we're not overly squeamish.

There's a great deal of conflict, both inner and external. Enemies and friends alike, faced with unenviable choices of realignment or action, sometimes to a surprising result. Loyalties tested, mettle tested, even hands being forced by circumstance to choose pragmatism or failure at some crucial junction.

"Her father had had a saying: When conspiracy goes abroad, coincidence is the mask it wears, and she was beginning to see the wisdom in it."

This is an excellent story.. full of all the darkness and light that can be at war within.. elegantly crafted in the style of some of the most timeless 'classic' horror novels I've ever read. I'd highly recommend it to any horror buff who isn't just looking for a jump scare, but rather a slow dawning realization of the state of one's moral compass.
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The Oubliette is the latest novel to hit the Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Horror series. Written by J.C. Sterns, this is a graphic tale of what can go wrong, when a planet is left to its own devices for too long. Or perhaps it’s a tale of politics and temptation. You be the judge.

Ceocan has long run smoothly and efficiently. They meet their quota, and as such are essentially left to their own devices. But with the death of the Lord Governor, that is all at risk. But as with any tale of politics, will it be noticed before it is too late?

Ashielle just lost her father and eldest brother. She hadn’t expected to take on the role of Lord Governor, but thanks to that unfortunate series of events (which she has great suspicions about), she must do exactly that.

Ashielle will have to play the politics game in order to keep her planet afloat. But when danger strikes too close to her heart, a new darkness seeps in. And with it, the temptation to use it.

“Make your offering of flesh and blood. Of life. And the darkness shall descend where you command, leaving only whom you wish.”

Warnings: The Oubliette is a horror novel through and through. As such, it does contain some more graphic details. Most of them involve graphic details of death or gore.

The Oubliette was a mesmerizing read. This is a book that I simply couldn’t put down, or get out of my head. Even when I wasn’t reading it, I found myself wondering what was going to happen next. What turn of fate was in store for Ashielle. Or what drastic action she would take next.

I’m quickly learning that the horror novels coming out of Warhammer are my favorites. The chilling tones add an extra layer to this world, making them all the more thrilling and captivating. The Oubliette is no exception. As a happy side note, The Oubliette also features my favorite cover thus far.

This was honestly a chilling read, from start to finish. It had so many twists and turns. Some of them were predictable, but many were not. I actually suspect that the predictable elements were thrown in with intent – to trick us into a false sense of security. Or perhaps this story made me as paranoid as some of the characters within.

It was thrilling trying to figure out what was going to happen, and what the intent of the ‘other’ was in this novel. I love novels such as this, where much of the truth is intentionally obfuscated. The addition of the politics and scheming really enhanced the sense of dread, something I hadn’t anticipated, by very much appreciated.

I really enjoyed reading The Oubliette, and find myself eagerly looking forward to seeing what the next novel will be from Warhammer Horror. I’m also going to be adding J.C. Sterns to my list of authors to keep an eye on.
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Though reading more like a thriller with supernatural elements than horror as such (an atmosphere much better captured by Dark Harvest) I must say this book was just as excellently written. Its main hallmark in fact was a prose that excelled at being both beautiful and darkly evocative without bogging down the story as such.

The characters themselves, while being very distinct and interesting in themselves, something even longer books sometimes utterly fail at, were also the point at which the book struggled for me. Specifically, near the end, our mc's development feels jarringly rushed. Not so much in where she ends but in how fast. This makes the denouement feel more disconcerting than... Tragic?

I really believe a somewhat slower exploration could have benefited both her and Hanrik extremely, which in turn would have likely alleviated other shaky plot points that seemed to hang on uncertainly or maybe just a little too conveniently.

Ultimately, however, the book was extremely enjoyable despite my somewhat picky perception of its flaws and its definitely recommend it to people looking for something beyond the usual War-filled fare of Warhammer books
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OK  WH40k Story Fails to Scare.

The Oubliette tells the story of Ashielle Matkosen who has just taken over the Lord governorship in the wake of her father's and brother's suspicious deaths. One night after a failed assassination attempt she finds herself beneath her family home in the titular Oubliette. She then discovers an ancient, secret evil that is all too happy to help her seek revenge. 

JC Stearns shows a lot of potential as he wrestles with one of the emerging themes of the Warhammet Horror line which is human wickedness vs chaos evil. Unfortunately the villains in the story are just a little too cartoonishly evil to be compelling or interesting. Ashielle herself is an assured, confident character, which works well for part of the story but ends up failing her by the end.

The biggest flaw I see is that nothing about this story feels different than your run of the mill WH40k story. I'm not sure what really earned this the moniker of horror. 

Read more herr:
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The Oubliette (Warhammer Horror)

J. C. Stearns

Black Library

The Warhammer Horror imprint has been one of my favourite new developments coming from Black Library, only narrowly beaten by the two Novella Series’ that were released in 2018 and 2019 and which helped draw me back into the Warhammer fiction fold. Although the Warhammer settings (principally 40,000 and Age of Sigmar) have a general underpinning of cosmic and supernatural horror (40,000 was one of the originators of the term Grimdark, after all) I don’t believe that any Warhammer fiction could ever really fully utilise that horror before the creation of Warhammer Horror because it was always inevitably restrained by the need to advance a certain meta narrative for the settings overarching plot, or to advertise a new unit or campaign or model released by Games Workshop.

As such, I was excited by the idea of a series of titles unhindered by the requirements of the games developer; shorn of those limitations, surely we would be able to see new and veteran authors alike develop terrifying and unsettling horror stories using the 40,000 and Age of Sigmar universes? Fortuitously that is indeed what happened, and I’ve become such a cheerleader for the imprint that I’m determined to review every novel, anthology and audio drama that is released as part of Warhammer Horror. The latest title, released on Boxing Day 2019, was The Oubliette by J.C. Stearns, a new author to Black Library but one whose stories have already impressed me. His short story The Marauder Lives was a highlight of the Maledictions anthology because of its subtle blend of psychological horror and character-driven plot, and as such I looked forward to seeing what Stearns could do with a full-length novel.

The cover illustration for The Oubliette is one of the most arresting pieces of art I’ve seen in quite some time. The Warhammer Horror titles have had uniformly high-quality illustrations used for their covers, but this piece is by far the best I’ve seen, both for the imprint and Black Library titles in general. What at first glance I took to be a multi-hued flower of some kind is instead a stunning illustration of a woman in a petticoat falling through darkness, a spectral hand grasping at her as she falls. Some kind of pendant or jewellery piece falls with her, just out of her desperate reach. It’s a hugely evocative and memorable piece, and really brought me into Stearn’s tale before I’d even started reading, aided by an intriguing back-cover blurb. Ashielle Matkosen is now the new Governor of the planet of Ceocan, unprepared for the harsh realities of ruling a planet in the God-Emperor’s name and faced by enemies in every direction. A pact with an ancient monstrosity under the Governor’s Palace may hold the key to surviving the treachery of her family, friends and enemies, but – this being Warhammer 40,000 – can only have dire consequences for her and the world in general.

The Oubliette opens with an Administratum document that handily summarises the planet Ceocan and its population, highlighting that it’s an agri-world that produces a nutrient paste for Mechanicus workers and Tech-priests, with a small population that doesn’t seem to have any real hardships. It’s a deft move by Stearns as it makes a nice change from the warn-out trope of war-torn, Chaos-blighted worlds that usually feature in Warhammer 40,000 novels, and contrasts nicely with the coming darkness, thereby making it all the more shocking. With the death of her father, Ashielle now takes her place as Governor of Ceocan, and realises that political manoeuvring against her has begun even before her father is in his grave; she has no allies save her younger brother who offers no support, and is socially and professionally isolated at the exact moment she needs help the most. Assassins are soon coming for her and those few she trusts, and in desperation she finds herself throwing her lot in with something ancient, abominable and heretical lurking in the depths of the ancient labyrinth underneath her Palace. It saves her life – but at a cost she cannot even begin to fathom, and one which becomes more and more sinister and beguiling as time passes and her enemies draw closer and closer to ending her short reign as Governor.

One of the best elements of The Oubliette is the richness and depth of the world-building to be found in the novel, with Stearns deftly and engagingly building up a portrait of Ceocan and its population. As the plot progresses, we get to see a minor planet that’s been all but forgotten by the wider Imperium, valued only vaguely for its agricultural output. As a result, lack of oversight has allowed the planetary elites to ossify and become decadent and corrupt even before the actual Chaos being underneath the Palace comes into play. Stearns shows us a quasi-feudal state that is dominated by the subtle snobbery of the planetary elite and the perilous, isolated existence of the Matkosen family as the hereditary Governors encircled by vicious enemy families. This is a society where even the order of speaking in a conversation can lead to a loss of prestige or social problems, and the cut and thrust of politics has prevented anything but the most conservative form of economic and social development. Stearns has a masterful eye for barbed wits and cutting comments, writing natural and multi-layered conversations between socialites, elites and politicians that develops the planet into something unique and memorable compared to the settings of many other Black Library titles. This is also a world that has an original and strikingly impressive Pre-Imperial History that Stearns weaves into the narrative and then leads to a number of major plot-twists in a manner that I don’t think I’ve seen done before in Warhammer fiction; or if it has been done, then never as well as this.

So the world-building is absolutely first-rate, and the plot is evenly-paced and moves along at a nice pace, with some rather cunning and surprising plot twists that actually surprised me in places and weren’t telegraphed at all: again, that’s rather rare in Warhammer fiction and something that seems to be common in the Warhammer Horror imprint. The characters are also first-rate, well-developed and multidimensional people that never really fall into the clichés that often dominate Warhammer fiction. Ashielle is a fantastic protagonist who’s character develops significantly through the plot of the novel, and her decisions always seem to be organic to the world-building that Stearns has created, rather than because the plot summary and remaining word-count demand it. The abomination itself is also a fascinating character because, while at first it just seems to be the usual tropey warp spawn seen in a hundred Black Library titles, it slowly develops into a genuinely repulsive creation that Stearns imbues with a sardonic personality and a merciless lethality that the new Governor comes to rely upon. It’s entirely alien nature really comes across in the text, as does its instinctive sadism, and its imbued with this raw, primal energy that left a real impression on me days after finishing the novel.

There’s so much more I’d like to say about The Oubliette, but I fear to do so would both bore you as a reader, and spoil some of the best bits within the novel. It really is a fantastic read, even more impressive when you consider that this is Stearns’ first novel for Black Library, and given the thought, detail and passion that the author has clearly put into it I expect to see much more from him in the near future. Indeed, given that one of the best plot elements of The Oubliette is the investigation by a veteran Arbites into the murders committed by the Chaos creature, Stearns seems like the obvious candidate to write a novel for the Warhammer Crime imprint starting later in 2020. Multi-layered, deftly paced and with some incredibly dark and grimly shocking moments of both cosmic and human horror, The Oubliette is a superb debut novel by a talented and skilful author, one who joins the ranks of other impressive newcomers to Black Library such as Thomas Parrott, Nate Crowley and Richard W. Strachan.
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For transparency purposes, I was granted a free review copy of this book, and while I am grateful for the opportunity, it will not colour my review beyond the fact that I have taken a bit more time to collect my thoughts.

This was my first foray into Warhammer Horror, a label of the Black Library that I had previously overlooked as I had wrongly assumed that all of the titles in the series would be set in Warhammer Fantasy or Age Of Sigmar; and as I am only mortal, I tend to stick to the Warhammer 40,000 & Horus Heresy titles, simply out of lack of infinite reading time. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that The Oubliette was set in the grim darkness of the 41st millennium.

I went into this book expecting horror, as it was my first Warhammer Horror title I didn’t know where Black Library would be pitching the level of horror/adult content given that a significant portion of Games Workshop’s player base is young adult. Considering the general darkness of the setting, it would have been tricky to amp up the body horror without becoming excessive in the gore and violence. J.C. Stearns paints a different kind of horror, a more psychological horror.

In Black Library’s fiction have often been presented with villains, sometimes even as a main character. It is a rare to see the protagonists slow slide from an act of desperation, through post-act rationalisation, to Machiavellian cruelty; starting a heroine, and ending the very villains she set out to defeat. Much like Walter White in Breaking Bad, Governor Ashielle’s decent into villainy is paced and believable, with every evil deed seemingly the only logical choice in the moment. The writing style mimics Ashielle’s fall, slower and more considered in the beginning, moving almost in real time; becoming faster and looser, with bigger and bigger time jumps, as her first step into darkness turns into a ever more frantic tumble downwards.

I saw a couple of the twists and turns coming, but was still caught off guard by others. It was also nice to see so many female characters, and not just female for the sake of being female; once again Black Library is ahead of their miniature producing counterparts in representation. Flavour wise it felt no less a Warhammer 40,000 book for being a horror story, and no less a horror story for being set in a science fiction setting.
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This book I find very well written, since the first page you can dive deep into the storyline. I also liked the cover very well. It is nice designed in the color and in the design itself. The writing style is very good and very pleasant and fluently to read. The book has been very clearly structured and the plot is traceable and very interesting. The characters  look very authentic and traceable to me. The author succeeds in writing very detailing about the scenery, characters, surroundings and emotions. This story is fascinating and consistent at the same time and keeps the tension until the end.
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