Reader’s Recommendation: Sigismund: The Eternal Crusader
“We are all nothing until we decide what to become.”
This was good. Shockingly good, and I knew the moment I ordered it the novella would be an enjoyable read.
John French since Praetorian of Dorn has hardly let any Imperial Fist enthusiasts down, and he understands how to write a good yarn for their particular sensibilities as much as he does Thousand Sons in his psychedelic and esoteric Ahriman series.
I knew I would buy it. A short story, on Sigismund pretty much sells itself. You have a story about a futuristic knight and the first High Marshall of the Black Templars. Space knights and duels, with a character famed in-universe for being an incredible warrior who never loses. But French did here what Josh Reynolds created writing Fulgrim: The Palatine Phoenix, and Gav Thorpe did for Lorgar: Bearer of the Word, reinventing and distilling a more elaborative and character building read. It’s a little more inventive than you would expect from a short character focused novella easily capable of putting in filler.
In a world of sorcery, alien technology and empowerment through the means of devilish arcane practice, Sigismund as a character has always stood out as being mundane. His quality indeed comes from the mundane. He is no demigod, but remarkable for his conviction and unwavering dedication. In a series where the Traitors are given more colourful personalities, mutations and abilities, with the Siege of Terra it’s been nice these past few years honestly to give the Loyalist faction needed engagement also. For a start 40K and the Imperium is hardly ‘the good guys’, nor is there any need for any faction to be somewhat vanilla given how ludicrously over the top 40K is.
There is enough drama, excitement and opportunity for questioning human nature in an eight-foot tall, ‘mundane’ transhuman warrior. And as someone given the opportunity to write Sigismund as early as ‘The Crimson Fist’, and perhaps future material come The Scouring, this novel is oddly placed in our world, but from an artistic view likely the better for it. A ‘prequel’, general kind of book depicting the hero in their prime is likely the place to start, with the advantage of Warhawk already setting in stone his transformation into the Emperor’s Champion, and Black Legion years ago detailing Sigismund’s end. I can see this book being on the ‘must read’ or ‘read first’ list; and I very much like how work it this is.
This could have been a throwaway novella. It could even have been bad due to lazy writing or a relentless deadline. Instead, John French elected to give us pieces of new information, and give us the action and appeal of brutality making Sigismund’s almost inhuman will and conviction into a power we can actually relate to. His power is the same we admire when a parent comes home from a hard shift. When we see a person carry another from a burning building. Physical persistence, which is possible due to mental fortitude and the defiance of pain is one of the most visceral responses there is to relate to.
Such undoubtable power is engaging to read about, even more so within the 40K universe because it’s over the top nature makes a transcendent virtue and superpower of what I would argue indeed is a real-life superpower everyone can admire when we watch people building a skyscraper, win an athletics competition, endure agony and strife purely for the benefit of others. Reading about pain and defiance strikes a chord within us very easily, and French uses this impulse for all it is worth.
I have heard ‘The Last Remembrancer’ praised as the definitive pinnacle of all of 40K literature, that it is the short story best encompassing the essence of the franchise, cutting to the heart of the tragedy and drama of the setting. It’s both subtle, poignant, and stabbing in hindsight that French uses Sigismund as the place to add more of the incredible Solomon Voss into this story also. It fits perfectly, giving us more time with the character. It’s tragic chronologically, but for emotional reasons particular to the character. Not only is it hurtful to see this man in his artistic prime, and know now he never was changed whatsoever in the story where he was dubiously called a liar; but his reasoning for the crusade is a stabbing surprise illustrating the transformative nature of pain and love.
Voss is a perfect framing device for an Imperial Fists novella and a character study, perfect for this faction. As far as framing devices I’m not sure which is more clever of either Sigismund or Luther: First of the Fallen, but I suspect collaboration was likely made by both in the conception and creation of both books, and give credit to both French and Graham McNeill for taking time justifying framing devices which are often unnecessary or clunky things to add to a piece of literature.
Frankly I find the Sevatar duel one of the lower points in the novel, more a testament to its surprising quality and personally more interesting new scenes. This entire novella could have been about that duel and audiences would have loved it. Instead, it turns into development, in a non-lethal manner no less to demonstrate a growing mastery that echoes the transcendence of warrior philosophy, akin to the titular Musashi in that iconic novel. I like that John French has tied in similar motifs to The Solar War and Warhawk.
Rather than repetition or laziness, it reflects simplicity of purpose and character. Sigismund is a champion and duellist, his direction single minded. How do you exposit and create entertainment besides the raw appeal of action? Involve the notion of cutting, or perpetual battle, or binary divides, and use this story as the baseline for a lynchpin of development. ‘The knight and his shadow’ will become ‘the knight and the infidel’, symbolising the transition from the Jungian fixation on inner conflict and fighting the chaos and self-destruction of humanity within, into a new certainty against those encroaching upon the tenants of a faith and civilisation. The cuts will never end (in his lifetime), and neither will the combat -or the pain of combat and missing as French illustrates particularly here, and in hindsight punctuates his ultimate failure against Abbadon- but the nature of Sigismund’s resolve and his reputation will.
The pain, respect for others, and lack of domination keep Sigismund on the side he is, and away from the corruption of Chaos preying upon resentment and the reaction to futility. Arguably he becomes the empowered champion, even avatar of another Warp God, but a divergent one at least somewhat concerned with the human race, channelling the dominance and cruelty present within 40K into the self, rather than warping and enslaving others. A point worth noting I find especially given the Siege being finished currently is that the new God Emperor is desperate, not fully conscious, pained and beset on all sides. Such a God reasonably would not be the picture of benevolence, and it’s displays of power initially small and keeping with The Emperor’s detached and monofocused nature. For a child of war, never given a choice, the decision is not to welcome death, and to find meaning in protecting or defending other principles or people. While the debate is there, and we can empathise ultimately this is the difference between the black templar and Kharn. One does feel more and has possibly been less mutilated in certain aspects, but fighting for the cosmic hunger for blood, enslavement and betrayal against a human empire mortally wounded are not the same thing.
Credit: Misha Savier
John French tied his own work to the recent Warhawk by his colleague Chris Wraight very well, it speaks positively of a shared universe and an author to integrate motifs, similarities of prose in BL’s rather broad setting and story selection to form what’s quite a complete view of a single very popular in-universe character. There are contradictions in tone, facts and other details elsewhere that I won’t go into here; because I want to highlight how effective this fusion is.
You could not tell from a cursory, or even attentive reading whether French or Wraight was writing Sigismund in his Heresy/Siege storyline, which is exactly the high standard of continuity and artistic direction you want in a multi-author collaborative project. A similar nod is made including an Iron Hands character written by Dan Abnett I believe, in the duel I found from an unbiased perspective the most difficult for Sigismund to win, certainly the most visceral conflict making it painfully clear what makes both Legions value.
There is more I do not see and have yet to understand, but failure and history make up Sigismund’s victories, as well as his sword. Rust and dirt, small uncomfortable pieces of realisation melt together a growing acceptance and reputation matching the soul of the young Sigismund. Humility is threaded into his being with this story, this is not the popular failure theme where an everyman or hero lapses due to ego, or simply to show that all people stumble. The coarse, simple understanding of mankind is treasured above technology or the esoteric, fitting Sigismund’s mindset.
By Warhawk this binary will become warped, corrupted, or else a sign of transcendence depending upon your view. Much of the Heresy depicts the power of Chaos, of mythology and the soul directly affecting the physical form. Sigismund is the rare example of this process happening slowly to the Loyalist faction. Already simple, idealistic and powerful, Sigismund’s monomania is slowly depicted shifting his mind into becoming more inhuman, more the avatar of the templar, a champion of the Gothic human nightmare.
The last confrontation shows the novel does seem a little challenging, confusing in its impressions. It’s about simplicity, the devoted and firmly reasoned or self-contained mind being retained within a turbulent and cruel universe. And for all the harsh and uncomfortable experiences, what matters is not being alone and raising your own existence among myths. I like that this concept applies to a nascent god, to traitors and loyalists and setting this novella within the Great Crusade makes it work, the character series is less a cash grab and more a shot in the arm for authors making a lot out of what could easily have been cash grabs.
By the end of this novella, the forging of Sigismund is complete. I like how without any author tract and for logical reasons it’s natural and understandable how every key girl, boy, man and woman placed the foundations for what made Sigismund great and so devoted to service in their name even before he was noted as a Lieutenant. Much of the Imperial Fist faction’s character as they are being somewhat rewritten from what they were in years past is devotion that comes from much unsaid.
They remember, they feel, if anything they have an obsession with suffering on behalf of others (which synergises fantastically with their Blood Angels and White Scar allies on Terra); but stubbornly avoid giving the impression of anything else as a mirror to their archenemy Iron Warriors, who likewise maintain almost absurd stoicism, but to hide their childhood resentment, adult bitterness and importantly the links of their brotherhood being of pain but with sacrifice robbed of its heroism given the lack of empathy a warrior has for others. That no one struggles in vain, that no one struggles alone is paramount.
We see this in a very general way given the scope of the Siege and the fate of say Camba Diaz; but French focuses sharply on this personal focus on those who suffer knowing the fate of others in pain and actively take much upon themselves as their duty. Archamus in Praetorian of Dorn is the novel-length example of this theme, Sigismund: The Eternal Crusader is the novella ensuring Sigismund is also included as possessing this fixation also. It’s not about seeing him as a child, but deliberate attention given at the very beginning to scatter the seed of essentially pity and helplessness growing his strength.
That people were willing to die for him as a child, that people depend upon him were the catalyst for his warrior prowess. That’s potent and human. A thing no amount of sci-fi technobabble and training can match. Through mantras and tapas, through repeated written and vocalised intention to perform for the same benefit of humanity and to fight for a righteous reason layers again and again the certainty and motivation that seals into fighting ability, and the cyclical exchange of respect and compassion as those civilians and ‘others’ Sigismund fights for respect him, make a hero of him, and one seeks him out to understand him, feeling his opinion has worth because he is a worthy individual who should be commemorated and empathised with.
Probably my favourite touch is this book’s significance of the sword salute. Incredibly subtle, an allusion to a previous act -and very good artwork- from The Solar War, the salute like the rest of Sigismund is a simple action that belies a great deal of complex emotions and the nature of repetition giving a sense of ritual and power. It’s entirely fitting within a secular age, the vague theme of constant combat since the dawn of humanity, and possibly alludes to the kind of flesh-and-bone habit the Fists favour like sealing a bond, choosing a name and so forth. If there is one original thing that only resides here it is the very first battle of the book, that little ritual being taken up, and it evolving meaning.
The most beautiful chapter by far is ‘Temple’, which is a small work of art itself. And I find the heart of the Imperium and the ethos of the Great Crusade lies in pages 102-105 regarding a particular weapon I’ll not spoil here, but it all ties to the short but effective pace and theme of the book. Many of those remembered by Sigismund had lives that were was wearisome. They were devoted, and small, and crushed before their time.
But duty and quality endure, they are eternal and captivate humanity, as Sigismund himself does for his people. Acknowledgement, not merely sacrifice differentiate the Fists from their Iron Warrior rivals. And his refusal to forget and further embedding of the tradition of remembrance and compassion are such a quality trait that I believe it’s implied this makes Sigismund the greatest Astartes swordsman. Simply his compassion and devotion are greater, and so anything less than superiority are impossible.
Sigismund was not made quickly, not given divine favour, and what he became was an active choice made with the application of what he took to be honour forging links in his mind, which he turned into bindings to keep his control and hold him to existence in a purposeful fashion, which in turn kept him alive to continue fighting forever so that another does not have to. Without saying the word ‘honour’, giving a treatise, mistaking it for morality or the gloss of the ‘knight in shining armour’ (which was an insult when first coined), French shows a better application and internalisation of the concept of true honour which fits the 40th Millennium and gives a few good pointers to the person reading. This would fit very well as a book for a teenager as well as having a general appeal, if you’re tired of YA and maybe want your kid or a relative to pick up a few words and take to some fiction or the setting.
I’m not one for limited editions and early orders (and GW is rather notorious for being quickly sold out and expensive books quickly being ‘scalped’ by hustlers on Ebay exploiting and overpricing books they sell back); and frankly not a fan of the colour yellow. But it’s something I’m very happy to have, the bluntness is as fitting as the colour and attitude of whom the novella is about. I notice that there’s pretty evident differences in look comparing my normal paperback to the Primarch Series one’s so far. I don’t really have much of an opinion about it; just some information for those curious about these things.
Postscript: As an addendum, I noticed a small italic dedication to Chris Wraight, reinforcing the awareness the author had, and confirming my suspicions about their co-operation and shared artistic invention.
Abnett, D. Dembski-Bowden, A. French, J. Kyme, N. McNeill, G. Sanders, R. Swallow, J. Thorpe, G. Wraight, C. Age of Darkness. Black Library, Nottingham. 2011.
Thorpe, G. Luther: First of the Fallen. Black Library, Nottingham. 2020.
Abnett, D. Dembski-Bowden, A. French, J. McNeil, G. Thorpe, G. Shadows of Treachery. Black Library, Nottingham. 2012.
Wraight, C. Siege of Terra: Warhawk. Black Library, Nottingham. 2021.
Savier, M. ‘Sigismund’, illustration. Available at: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/rRPRoJ [Accessed 08/12/22].
French, J. Sigismund: The Eternal Crusader. Black Library, Nottingham. 2022.
Disclaimer: All Black Library and Warhammer material is the intellectual property of Games Workshop. I do not own the rights or have any association to the property and literature, and only make this article and recommendation as an individual consumer.