I spent the entire latter half of the ’90s and half of the early ’00s playing every zombie game I could get my hands on. As such, I’m not a big fan of the genre anymore. It didn’t help that the internet decided to cram zombies into everything. But the concept of the undead in a WH40k hive is undeniably intriguing. I’m all for spicing up a genre with interesting takes. Nick Kyme’s Sepulturum is certainly interesting, but I’m not sure if that’s a compliment.
This Ain’t No Pink Eye
A woman named Morgravia wakes up with no memory of who she is. A man and his daughter witness a horrible event and look for salvation. A group of disparate characters gather in a bar. A crazed zealot seizes the opportunity to expand his control. All the while a strange frenzy is overtaking the people of Blackgheist hive, who are literally eating each other.
Of all the settings for an undead incursion, a hive might be the worst. Similar to zombies in space, there is nowhere to run in a hive. Not to mention humanity is already on top of each other with an ambivalence to life and death. As all of these narratives naturally intertwine, we are given the makings of a solid undead story.
The pallid, as Kyme calls them, are terrifying. Kyme resists the urge to cram them into every page and event, and uses them sparingly which adds to their dread. The moments of relative calm that descend over the survivors creates great tension. Also no one seems overly surprised at the appearance of cannibalistic creatures. This is the grim dark future. Some type of evil sweeping the hive is all but expected. These people are hardcore and I love it.
More Like Minoris to the Plot
Morgravia is revealed to be an Inquisitor of the Ordo Sepulturum, who are tasked with dealing with armies of the undead. It’s unfortunate then, that Morgravia’s status as an Inquisitor is really just a colorful backstory to the character. Neither the Ordo nor her mission really matter to the plot on the whole. When it’s revealed why she is there, I was left with more questions that go largely unanswered.
It doesn’t help that Morgravia is surrounded by either extremely interesting characters, or extremely flat characters; there is nothing in-between. The Broker and her hired gun, Drover, for instance, are intriguing. I am partial to a Western gunslinger as is, and throwing one in a hive is basically a recipe for my heart. Fharkoum and Kharata, on the other hand, are Human Scum™ stereotypes. They were repugnant and “evil” for the sake of it.
Elsewhere in the story is a man, Cristo, trying to save his ganger daughter, Karina. Much is hinted about Cristo’s rough backstory and what led his daughter to become a ganger, but it’s never really explored. By the end I was ambivalent to what happened to Cristo or Karina, as their story was largely inconsequential to Morgravia’s plot. This includes Celestia, a badass novice Sister whose sole purpose is to show how evil and lost a cult leader is.
The Crossroads of Confusion
When the book came to a crescendo, I felt largely confused. Morgravia is revealed to not only be hunting the Dark Mechanicus, she has been a puppet for them. That, my friends, is very intriguing, and I would have loved an entire book focusing on this. I’m already partial to the Dark Mechanicus, and seeing them in a hive, hunting what appears to be a Necron, or AI of the similar ilk, is AMAZING. Also, who doesn’t love the idea of a compromised Inquisitor who doesn’t realize she has been compromised? But the story feels at odds with the rest of the book. As I sat there reading it I ended up rereading a chapter twice because I felt sure I had missed a connecting thread. I had not.
Meanwhile, as Cristo’s story played out, I was confused as to how the Mechanicus related to a crazed cult. Hell, I was left wondering what the narrative purpose of the cult was other than opportunity to sermonize about the dangers of religious zealotry. Which seems strange in a WH40k story, especially given that this subplot crescendos with Celestia taking up the mantle of martyr. Her sacrifice feels a little cheap, too, as she is literally put to the flame in a “oh the humanity” moment.
Which again, doesn’t tie directly to the zombies, or pallid—which is an excellent word—plot. It is hinted at earlier that the cult had existed for quite some time. They were kidnapping people, and doing terrible things, and yet it’s implied that the Dark Mechanicus’ presence perhaps drove them? But when did that occur? The connection is left largely to the reader’s inference, but I’m not sure I had enough information to do so.
It feels as though Sepulturum was three separate stories that got merged into one. As separate stories, they are strong. An Inquisitor with a memory problem who has been compromised in a horrible way is compelling. A rag-tag group of survivors trying to outlast a plague of the undead is terrifying when applied to the close-quarters of a hive. A man on a quest for redemption while facing down crazed zealots is high drama. Any two of these combined would even work well. But there isn’t enough to really tie the three together, making them feel at odds. Like a math problem asking how fast a train is going based on the number of apples Sarah bought at the store, we aren’t given enough information to infer a connection. Ultimately the book would have been better served focusing on Morgravia and giving the cult the boot.