MATTHEW FARRER – Crossfire. Black Library /Games Workshop Ltd., paperback original; 1st US printing, July 2003. A book in the “Warhammer 40,000” series.

   I confess that I haven’t read any of the other Warhammer books, but the series consists of a long list of novels taking place in a universe set far in a future ruled by the Emperor’s Imperial Guard, the “ever-vigilant Inquisition” and the “tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus.” Lots of bloody warfare, I gather, with “no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.”

Shira Calpurnia

   Maybe it’s a video game, too, or a role-playing game, or maybe I have it all wrong. In any case, if you haven’t already skipped this review and gone on to the next one, the small incident on an isolated planetary system that this novel is about has both a crime, or a series of crimes, and an active detective whose career seems to be only beginning. Really. Stay with me, and I’ll tell you what I mean.

   What caught my eye first was the cover. A punkish young lady with reddish, short cropped hair, dressed mostly in shiny black – either leather or metal, or a combination thereof – holding a light saber of some sort in one hand and a huge pistol-looking affair in the other.

   Her name is Shira Calpurnia, and she is the newly arrived Arbites officer on the planet Hydraphur. From the first sentence on, we know, hey Jenny, we’re not in Kansas any more, when she meets Genator-Magos Cynez Sanja, of the Order Biologis:

   The machine cultists of the Adeptus Mechanicus are not prone to strong emotions – the beautiful coldness of the Machine is held up as a model for admiration and emulation, even for those orders of the Mechanicus not directly concerned with physical mechanics and the gradual transfiguration of their own bodies into cybernetics.

   An attempt to assassinate Shira is made soon thereafter, and hunting down the miscreants responsible takes the remainder of the book, which consists of 320 pages of very small print, and baroque prose nearly always as dense as the short extract above.

   Or as below, taken from page 51:

Shira Calpurnia

   The Augustaeum, nestled within its walls at the peak of the Bosporian hive, was not flat – its sides kept sloping up to the High Mesé, the avenue that ran along the hive’s very peak. The formation of Arbites making their way through the steep, tangled streets of the Artisans Quarter were already high enough up to be able to look over the Augustaeum wall and down at the upper floors of the towers on the lower slopes of the hive. Above them on the left the Cathedral of the Emperor Ascendant speared the coppery Hydraphur sky. Its spire was twenty minutes’ walk away and already Calpurnia had to crane her head up to look at it; they were getting close enough for her to be able to see the great statues of the Imperial saints that formed the columns for its upper tiers. Each statue was fifty metres high and carved from pure white marble that shone like gold in the thick butter-yellow Hydaphur sunlight.

   Words fail me. I could not write like that in a million years.

   I’ll skip all of the action, all of interesting if not fascinating, all of it filled with a sense of wonder that I haven’t felt as strongly as this since I was about 12 years old. Not that I understood it all. Maybe you have to be, um, 12 years old. But the ending I understood, and you will, too:

Shira Calpurnia

   One day, she promised herself, she would sit down with Keta, or Athian Tymon-Per; or whichever of them she thought she could persuade to listen, and try to make them see. She would read them the maxims she had learned on Ultramar, get out her old children’s primers, if she had to. She would talk to them about her duty, about Law and honour. That the Law could be cold and the Law could be cruel, but the Law was their guard and guide and peacekeeper and protector. She would try to talk to them about doing what was right.

   She may not look the part, but Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and all of other virtuous gumshoes who have toiled and labored in the mean streets the world over have a worthy descendant in Shira Calpurnia, destined (I believe) to continue on with other adventures.

— November 2003.

Shira Calpurnia

UPDATE [June 2006].   I was correct. Shira Calpurnia has indeed appeared in a follow-up entry, and a third one that will be showing up soon looks extremely interesting:

   Legacy. Black Library, pb, US, August 2004. Shira takes more of a background role in this one, more of a novel of political intrigue than a mystery novel (from what I can deduce from a rather meagre description).

   Blind. Black Library, pb, US, July 2006. A telepath is killed with no weapon found nearby. Said to be a locked room mystery. It sounds like a must-have to me.

[UPDATE #2] 08-16-11.   These three are all there are in the series, so far. Enforcer, released in 2010, is an omnibus collection of all three.