Nothing starts the new year off quite like a good horror novel, amirite? After reading about men sloshing about in their armor and chaos plots, I was ready for a straight-forward horror yarn. JC Stearns’s The Oubliette is about as straight forward as they get. I was able to finish the book in a matter of days due to brisk pacing and not much by way of over-complication. Having said that, this is the first miss for me with the Warhammer Horror line.
Ashielle Matkosen is having a very bad month. Her brother, first heir to the Lord Governorship of Ceocan, died under tragically questionable circumstances. Soon there after her father also died in a suspiciously convenient accident. Ashielle naturally suspects their rival family, the Vaneisens, to behind the attempts. As she attempts to step into the Lord Governorship it becomes clear she is not only right, but that the Vaneisens are losing patience with their more subtle methods.
After an attempt on her life, Ashielle finds herself in tunnels beneath the ancestral manse which lead to the titular oubliette. Within the oubliette she comes face to face with a monstrous secret that is only too happy to lend a hand to her current predicament. To borrow a favorite quote, “in that desperation she turned to a man she didn’t fully understand.” The events that follow quickly descend into one bad choice after another.
As an aside, JC Stearns clearly put a lot of thought into the planet of Ceocan. Each family has a storied history that is presented to the reader, as is each alliance, history, and art stylings. All of this would have been much more interesting had it actually mattered by the end of the story. Also, despite all of this history, the politics of the world never make much sense. The assassination attempts, conspiratorial talks, and alliances left with me with a lot of questions that both undermined the plot, and yet probably didn’t much matter.
Do the ends justify the means?
One of the emerging themes within the Warhammer Horror line is the idea of human wickedness vs. chaotic evil. In both The Oubliette and The House of Night and Chain, our protagonists are flanked by decidedly “evil” antagonists. These are characters who participate in traditionally bad endeavors such as gambling, murder for hire, torture, smuggling, theft, etc. In the case of The Oubliette the villainous Vaneisen family might as well all be twirling mustaches and hiding behind black cloaks. They are the Snidely Whiplash type of bad guy that is always a little grating to read. That aside, despite the faults of both antagonist families, there is a very firm line they do not cross. They may be wicked, but they’re not heretics.
On the other hand we are presented with the virtuous, considerate, and loyal protagonists. In The Oubliette the Ashielle finds herself in league with chaos in the name of being better leaders. It’s not her choice, you see. She’s doing it as a loyal agent of the Throne, and for the good of her people. It leaves us the reader to ask whether or not we can follow her rationalizations.
In The House of Night and Chain the choice is far less difficult. We have to acknowledge that the antagonist is, in fact, quite correct her assertion that there are some lines that should not be crossed. In The Oubliette, I just kinda wanted the entire planet to disappear into the warp; I didn’t really care for any of the Ceocs by the end. The Vaneisens are horrible, yes, but to be fair, they don’t unleash that madness and darkness that Ashielle does. But I still can’t side with them. Someone get Niklau Radimir on the phone.
What is horror? (Baby don’t scare me, don’t scare me, no more)
When Black Library announced the Warhammer Horror line I was both excited and confused. The WH40k universe is, by nature, horrific. Using Shroud of Night as an example, the book is not a horror novel, but the scenes with Kharn the Betrayer are horrifying. In fact, in any sci-fi universe outside of WH40k, that would probably be classified as horror. What I’m saying is there is a very fine line between horror and just standard ol’ 40k.
I say all of that to say that The Oubliette is certainly dark, but I’m not sure it belongs on the Warhammer Horror shelf. It never quite manages to develop the scares of The Wicked & The Damned, nor the sense of encroaching dread as The Way Out. In many ways, The Oubliette plays out like the background to a different novel. I could very easily imagine Erasmus Crowl or Uriel Ventris dealing with the Main Action™ in a different book, while this book focuses on the machinations of the local lord behind the scenes. It’s the WH40k version of Sicario, if you will. Only less interesting. And definitely not very horror-esque.
When the book ended, I was a little surprised. I went back to make sure I hadn’t accidentally missed a chapter (reading digitally) or a few pages. I had not. Without spoiling anything, the book really is as simple as it sounds: Woman makes pact with awful creature to avenge her father’s and brother’s deaths. That’s it. I had rather hoped for more of, well, anything. Had it been simplistic but with a good sense of dread or tension, or had any real disquieting moments I would have enjoyed it more. As such, I found it to be merely OK. Not bad by any stretch, but certainly not the best Warhammer Horror effort.