by Andy Clark
Another Black Library work covering one of the setting’s named characters, Celestine frustrates me because I really enjoyed about half of it. This short novel is comprised of two parallel narratives: one following Celestine in the warp – presumably – as she undergoes her resurrection process, the other atop a crusade she leads on a planet under siege by Chaos. The narrative alternates between the two a chapter at a time.
One of these is a trippy allegorical personal spiritual journey packed with wonderful 40k high fantasy imagery. The other is a cliched mash of two-dimensional characters, unconvincing arcs, and tepid battle porn.
You can probably guess which of these I liked.
I’ve already said more than my piece about Clark’s prose; my experience and opinion remains unchanged by this.
Celestine is at its best when focusing on the titular character’s mystic journey. I hope it’s not a spoiler, but Saint Celestine’s shtick is that that she doesn’t stay dead, reappearing in another warzone whenever she falls. Part of this book delves into how that process happens from her perspective, offering a peek behind the scenes as it were.
Without giving too much away, the core gist of it is that after each death Celestine wakes up in a spirit realm (I’m assuming the warp, though it’s not explicitly stated here) with no memories, no possessions, and only a vague intuition of a light and warmth off somewhere in the distance she has to reach. She has to piece herself together – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. The process entails a series of trials and encounters while she makes her way towards the light, rediscovering herself, her motivations, and her capabilities along the way along the way, and reaching the light sends her off to the next place in the galaxy she needs to be.
I loved this stuff. Call me a sucker for mythological allegories and meta-physical journeys of self-discovery. Add in a healthy does of the hero wandering the underworld thematic archetype. There’s also just something about sublime (in the archaic sense) angelic women with longswords that spikes my brain’s happy center.
The nature of where/not where this is happening opens the door for some delightful fantastic imagery. Mountains formed from the bones, armor, and weapons of uncountable slain. Great decaying cities raining burning ash. Immense worm-burrows of trapped souls. Unimaginably vast seas of every color, where leviathan things lurk just beneath the surface.
Furthermore, compared to Clark’s prior Shroud of Night (of which this is an indirect sequel to), Celestine actually gets to be a character here, as she relearns not just who she is but also what she has to give up in pursuit of her eternal, Sisyphean task.
At its best, Celestine reminded me of Dante’s Inferno and C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce – fantastic mythological imagery as the backdrops for journeys of personal discovery and epiphany.
And then the chapter ends and we go back to cliched cutouts of Battle Sisters and Imperial Guard and Khornate cultists charging gunlines and hamfisted characterization and tedious battle scenes and I pull a Darth Vader at the end of Revenge of the Sith.
This entire plotline did not need to exist. Showcasing Celestine’s effect on the faithful and doubtful from the perspective of the not-saints is probably the biggest waste here, as basically everything else GW has published with her has focused on that aspect. If you want a story of ordinary soldiers coming face-to-face with the numinous quality of a living saint and the ecstatic awe and terror that experience compels, the Gaunt’s Ghosts Saint arc does it way better. All this does is eat up page and word count from the far more compelling narrative of Celestine rediscovering herself.
And that’s what’s so frustrating – what’s good here is really good, and the raw potential of what could have been something magical shines through like the sun behind a veil of clouds. I would have loved to have seen this expanded, focusing just on Celestine’s personal Inferno-Purgatorio-Paradiso journey with some more personal flashbacks as she wanders the spiritscape, more trials and temptations (say, by each of the Chaos gods?), and written by the likes of Harrison or Wraight or French.
So do I recommend Celestine? For half of it, hell yes (heaven yes? Warp yes?). The other half, not so much. On balance then, call it a halfhearted recommendation. Let me echo and contrast what I said about Clark’s Shroud of Night.
You probably won’t regret reading it – but it does change your idea of what a 40k novel could be. It’s just a shame it does so more in the conceptual potential it hints at than the execution achieved.
6.6 7 due to personal preferences angel swordswoman simping/10
P.S.: Could some game studio please make a 40k rogue-lite a la Hades where we play as Celestine busting out of the warp? Pretty please?