[Review] Severed (WH40K novella)

I recently read Severed, a Warhammer 40,000 novella, specifically number 4 of series 2, authored by Nate Crowley. The story primarily focuses on Nemesor Zahndrekh and Vargard Obyron. Zahndrekh leads a significant Necron force but unfortunately suffered mental damage during the Great Sleep and sees the world in a… unique way. Obyron, meanwhile, is a commander who also acts as Zahndrekh’s bodyguard, assistant, friend, and carer. The story joins the pair as they finish their conquest of an Imperial world and then follows them as they are directed to contact an old ally and work together to bring a “troubled dynasty” back into the fold.

Severed novella cover
Severed novella cover

Before I get to the review itself, I hope you can indulge me in a small tangent. When I came to read Severed I didn’t have much knowledge of Necron lore, having drifted out of the hobby about 15 years ago. I hadn’t paid a whole lot of attention to them before that other than knowing that i) armour meant nothing to them and ii) they just won’t stay dead. In fact when I started playing 40k, around the time of 2nd Edition, the Necrons had only a few models and essentially no background beyond “scary robots”. Things kicked off for them in 3rd Edition though and from what I’ve recently read it seems that Games Workshop has pretty much made major changes in every edition. The retcons are real, and Pariahs are not.

What all of this means is that I occasionally had to cross-reference things from the novella as I read it. Do you know what I found out at some point? The central characters—Zahndrekh and Obyron—are actual established 40k characters! With miniatures! So of course my first thought was to wonder how Nate came to expand their lore. Talking to Nate, I found that it came to be after a positive reaction to his short story The Enemy of My Enemy, published in Inferno! Volume 1. He was approached to pitch a story involving Necrons and after looking at the existing lore Nate realised that Zahndrekh and Obyron’s unique situation could mesh well with his writing style. As a bonus, the Necrons are rather more of a blank slate than a lot of the other races, and the nature of their partially resurrected empire means that it’s possible to place events out of the way of the core events and developments that Games Workshop is using to drive the 40k universe forwards. It seems that GW saw things the same way, because here we are with the finished novella.

Anyway, enough distractions, how was the story? It was good! There you go, three word review, job done.

It was good!
- John Kemp

Oh, I have to actually review it? Fine.

Given my lack of prior knowledge of the Necrons I didn’t know what to expect going in but it had me hooked from the start. The Necrons, or at least the higher ranking members of the race, are presented as much more… alive than I expected. As I mentioned before, I’ve missed the last 15-ish years of lore development so this was quite a surprise to me but Nate’s writing quickly brought me in to the idea. It’s possible that my lack of knowledge of the Necrons added an air of mystery and some surprises that helped enhance my experience, but in the end Nate’s writing is just genuinely good. He captured the interpersonal (inter… robotal?) conflicts of would-be Necron leaders in a way that feels natural despite them being fundamentally different to the other 40k races.

I love writing sheer spectacle — massive, mind-crunching scenes that would be pure sensory overload if you were there; that’s one of the reasons I love writing GW stuff. I guess what I do well, or at least so I’m told, is find moments of humanity in inhuman situations. I take a lot of time to think about how people feel when faced with these huge, mad, sci-fi situations, and how they relate to each other in the midst of it all. Basically, I try to find poignancy and humour in everything, because those are the things that anchor us to impossible worlds.
- Nate discussing his writing style (Author spotlight: Nate Crowley, Track of Words)

A key point of the story, and indeed a key issue for the Necrons generally, is the mental damage that occurred during the Great Sleep. This is the period after a massive war that saw the Necrons essentially go into hiding indefinitely, sleeping away the time until they would be awakened and return to conquer the galaxy again. Unfortunately for them this didn’t go quite as planned. While some awoke in a similar state as they went to sleep, many of them effectively became mindless drones while others suffered effects analogous to a wide variety of human neurological disorders. Zahndrekh falls into the latter category, suffering with a few problems but primarily the delusion that he and the rest of the Necron race are still flesh and blood and that many of the other races he fights against are actually rival Necron factions.

While Severed certainly delivers on the lore delving and massive battles you typically expect from stories set in the 40k universe, where it really shines is the relationship between Zahndrekh and Obyron. I’m not familiar with the show, but I’ve seen Jeeves and Wooster mentioned in relation to the pair in this story. Personally, Obyron immediately felt like Kif from Futurama. Zahndrekh doesn’t seem much like Brannigan, but Obyron is definitely a Kif. (“Sigh… yes sir.") Unlike Kif, though, Obyron’s loyalty to Zahndrekh isn’t enforced by rank so much as a shared history, friendship, and knowledge that there’s more to Zahndrekh than might immediately be obvious. That loyalty is threaded throughout the story and, in places, is what drives the plot forwards.

Nemesor Zahndrekh and Vargard Obyron
Nemesor Zahndrekh and Vargard Obyron

The story without this relationship would have already been solid as an exploration of some interesting parts of the Necron lore, but it is the element that really drew me in to the story and made it much more memorable. That the relationship survives the events of the story—which include war, Zahndrekh’s mental issues, betrayal, and the ghosts of the Necron race’s past—really shows its strength and emphasises the unbreakable team that Zahndrekh and Obyron form against all the odds. A more domestic side of this loyalty is demonstrated early in the story between missions. We are shown that, while Zahndrekh is still a powerful figure despite his issues, the reason he is remains alive is that Obyron consistently intercepts and defeats plots against him by other high-ranking Necrons. Whether Zahndrekh is truely oblivious to these plots or whether he pays them no mind because he knows Obyron can handle them is left somewhat to the reader’s interpretation.

To conclude, the central theme of Severed is of friendship and loyalty. It’s not what I expected when I sat down to read a story about Necrons, but Nate delivered and then some. It explores Zahndrekh and Obyron’s relationship and their relationship to other Necrons so naturally that it almost feels like this story was planned for them from the start. Would I recommend this novella? Yes, 100%, and I look forward to reading Nate’s future work.

John Kemp Written by:

I am a software developer by day and dip into a range of related activities in my spare time, including working on my own software projects, writing, proof-reading, and, of course, gaming of both the digital and boardgame varieties. I am slowly starting to sink my teeth into game development.