Around the same time that I created this blog I decided, after years of scepticism, to try reading the Black Library’s Horus Heresy series. I’d tried dipping in to the Black Library’s cannon before but had been put off by a few crudely written pieces, all of which ran along the lines of “the heroic Space Marine ducked low and spun right, scything down another thousand enemies with a single sweep of his manly chin”. Anyway, I decided to put my bias behind me and read The First Heretic, mainly because the cover looked awesome. To my pleasant surprise the contents were even better. Thus hooked I started to work my way through the rest. I’ll try to review them here without including spoilers but, as everyone’s definition of what that entails varies, you may wish to skip to the end where I’ve included a brief summary.
There’s already been a great deal said singing the praises of the opening trilogy (quite rightly) so I won’t spend too much time rehashing it here. I’ve also harped on quite a lot about the qualities of Wolf of Ash and Fire (the novella prequel to the series) – again, if you’ve not reading it’s not for the want of me telling you to.
In spite of the perceived importance of the Heresy as 40ks ‘genesis story’, setting up the universe in which the game is set and the historical events that shaped it, the series remains founded in character driven – rather than world driven – storytelling. The divisions within the Mournival (the council of four Captains that forms the ‘conscience’ of Horus’s legion) providing a superb setting for revealing the wider divisions within the legion. Just as in reality this split is never as clear cut as idealists would like us to believe and so we are shown a full spectrum of loyalties, between Loken (utterly loyal to the Emperor and the original ideals of the Great Crusade) and Abaddon (equally loyal to his primarch). The key, of course, is that each is devoted, beyond all else, to his legion – yet each holds a very different idea of what the legion stands for.
Critics have also accused Horus of transforming from an all-round nice guy into a murderous maniac in the blink of an eye – and all because Erebus says “You can’t trust your dad. Looks, some notoriously untrustworthy daemons agree with me”. Leaving aside the fact that this “overnight transformation” actually takes the best part of three books, the accusation remains unfair. Throughout the books so far Horus is shown to be a passionate and mercurial character, both before and after his rebellion. When he decides he likes someone (for example when Loken joins the Mournival) he quickly takes them into his confidence. When he decided he does not like them their expulsion, isolation or death is similarly rapid. The peace talks with the interex and their subsequent collapse, demonstrate this perfectly – once Horus has decided that an individual or group are his enemies he does not hesitate to turn on them, regardless of their previous relationship. Thus Horus does not “suddenly become a villain”, rather he suddenly comes to see Loken and his comrades as his enemies and – having done so – is as ruthless in his campaign against them as he is against any other enemy.
Following on from this opening set is Flight of the Eisenstein, a book which to me suffers a little from being “the forth in the trilogy”. Overall though it’s a solid and enjoyable read (and could certainly teach Battle for the Abyss a trick or two, but I’ll come to that). My only real complaint is that of the four Isstvan III legions it’s the Death Guard we see the least of, and as a result know the least about. Flight of the Eisenstein should have been the book to set that right but in the end we get glimpses into the nature of the legion (the ritual consumption of poison for example) but never feel fully immersed. Using Garro as the leading character should have been perfect for this, in many ways he’s an outsider in his own legion, a Terran in an army now drawn from the strange, toxic world of Barbarus, a dinosaur who has lived to see the Dusk Raiders transformed and renamed by the arrival of the Death Lord Mortarion. Instead the book concentrates on setting up the future chapters of the Garro story (and the story of the Death Guard – the foreshadowing of Nurgle’s influence is excellent). In spite of this gripe I’m interested in exploring the further chapters of Garro’s story and discovering his eventual fate (many people seem to think he’ll become one of the first Grey Knights although I believe James Swallow has already said this won’t be the case. Frankly I’m inclined to think he’ll be reunited with his decomposing comrades in Papa Nurgle’s service, as suggested in The Lost and the Damned, but maybe that’s just the devilish cynic in me).
Fulgrim is a solid enough read, charting the tragic fall from grace of one of the Emperor’s most favoured sons. The deus ex machina element of Fulgrim’s decent into madness is arguably a little unnecessary as his own relentless drive to perfection in all things would have sent him and his legion into a downward spiral without any daemonic influence, although the hideous talking portrait of the primarch certainly makes for disturbing and well executed scenes. My main criticism is that there were rather a lot of characters from the Emperor’s Children, each going spectacularly batty in their own ways, and I struggled to keep track of which was which. Fewer characters, developed in greater depth, would have added to the impact of the inevitable tragedy. I would have liked to see more of Ferrus Manus, and the pre- Isstvan V Iron Hands as well, this being essentially our last chance to get to grips with one of the largest and most powerful legions of the Great Crusade.
Speaking of tragedies the Dropsite Massacre is portrayed as powerfully as ever and as a reader you find yourself begging characters from both sides of the conflict not to step into this bloody arena. Even more so than the betrayal at Isstvan III this is the abiding, heartbreaking calamity of the series, perhaps the crux moment of the 40k universe overall, and we are spared none of its impact.Descent of Angels is another cracker, seamlessly blending fantasy and sci-fi elements into a cohesive, fully-realised whole. Telling the story of the knights of Caliban prior to the arrival of the Emperor it serves as a valuable first chapter in the story of the Dark Angel’s legion. Of course, this being the Dark Angels, it leaves the reader with more questions than answers, but manages to do so in a way that keeps you gripped and guessing, rather than seeming smugly self-satisfied. If medieval knights in rudimentary power-armour fighting ecologically impossible beasts in a vast, improbably dark and dangerous forest doesn’t sound too contrived to you then I’d highly recommend this one.
The Dark King is a good read, especially for those like myself who’re fans of the Night Lords. However it’s The Lightning Tower that really shines here, an exceptional piece of character driven storytelling based around some remarkably simple props.
There’s not a lot I can tell you about Legion apart from “read it”. Read it, then burn it, then eat the ashes and await further instructions. I’m Alpharius.
On a side note, not about the book but about the Alpha Legion themselves, does anyone know why they brand the hydra mark onto their agents? For a legion which places such importance on secrecy and deception this seems rather counterproductive. If anyone knows the answer, or has a good idea, pop it in the comments box below.
Unfortunately Legion (one of the best of this opening set) is followed immediately by Battle for the Abyss (easily the worst by a considerable margin). This is especially unfortunate as the premise is excellent, the desperate pursuit of the vast traitor vessel through the troubled warp by a much smaller loyalist ship, whilst the disparate crew turn upon one another and daemonic entities sneak aboard and wreak havoc in the darkness (think Hunt for Red October meets Alien and you’ll have a good idea of what this book could so easily have been – that is to say; magnificent). There are plenty of moments where the tension could have been ratcheted up to breaking point (as storms threaten to swallow the plucky ship Wrathful and dead crewmen come crawling back to murderous life). All too often however these are skipped over in the space of a few sentences, or turn rapidly into fast-paced, low tension, shooting matches.
Fans of the English language should also avoid this book as the torrent of superfluous description and crudely assembled sentences kills any drama before it gets the chance to take root.
The cast of characters however is perhaps the most disappointing missed opportunity of all. Here was an opportunity to see the Heresy in microcosm, with legions from both sides of the divide crammed together to battle a common enemy in the cramped corridors of a single ship. This was a chance for the disparate characters of those legions to be explored to the full, with characters from the Ultramarines, Space Wolves, World Eaters and Thousand Sons uniting in the hunt for the Word Bearer vessel. None, however, are given the opportunity to fully develop. Take Skraal the World Eater for example. He’s a ruthless killer, a driven and unrelenting warrior with little time for doubts about the necessity of his actions. How does he feel then about threatening the success of his mission by getting distracted and slaughtering civilians in a blind rage? Surely even if he cares nothing at all for the loss of life a “living weapon” such as himself must suffer some self doubt about putting the mission in jeopardy? What about his erstwhile allies? How do they feel about having a representative of a shunned and feared legion in their midst? By this stage in the crusade rumours were already circulating widely that Angron’s entire legion were mad. Surely living in close proximity to Skraal can’t have done anything to alleviate such suspicions amongst the others. Having this savage psychopath on the side of the heroes should have opened up all kinds of moral complexities and quandaries, especially when compared to the “villains” – the bookish, scholarly Word Bearers (more on them in a moment). Instead we’re shown a character who gets angry a lot. And that’s it.
The rest of the cast come across equally poorly. The Ultramarines are wooden and generally indistinguishable (and their vaunted tactical genius comes down to “follow that ship!”). Brynngar the Space Wolf comes across as an idiot, a drunken bumbling fool who doesn’t give a damn about the deaths of his many faceless Bloodclaws (and if I read the word “feral” one more time I may end up as mad as Skraal). What a shame that the role of the Wolves as the Emperor’s headsmen is so utterly overlooked. The thought of fighting other space marines may be uncomfortable to most of the loyalist cast, but to Brynngar it might well be all too familiar. And what would have happened had Mhotep of the Thousand Sons received a message from his brothers, telling him what the Wolves had done on Propero in his absence?
Similarly it would have been interesting to see the shared history of the Word Bearers and Ultramarines incorporated further. It hardly seems radical to have made Cestus – the lead Ultramarine character – one of the warriors sent to destroy Monarchia when the Word Bearers were first shamed. Would he feel guilt now about having set them on their current path or would he feel validated by their betrayal?
And so it goes on, as the unique opportunity provided by this book to get under the skin of each of the represented legions fails to materialise. A special mention needs to be reserved for Kor Phaeron who comes across as the most determinedly clichéd villain imaginable. By the end I was honestly expecting him to announce his arrival at Calth by saying something like “No Mr Guilliman, I expect you to die” whilst gunning down henchmen for their perceived failures. Where is the bitter half-astartes who knows he has wasted his life in the service of a lie, the old man rebuilt to become the thing he most desired to be, yet never truly could – a space marine? Where is the iron willed warrior whose influence curbed Lorgar’s more mercurial elements?
I admit I only skim read the final few chapters as the only pleasure I was deriving from the book was trying to guess what clichéd thing the characters would say or do next (unfortunately, I was usually right – when a daemon addresses someone as “Puny human” before going on to exclaim that they cannot be defeated it’s never a good sign).
Anyway, next up its Mechanicum which, given that it features my favourite Imperial faction (the clue is in the title) and is written by Graham McNeill (who knows his way around a sentence like a fiend) should be a step back in the right direction.
As promised, here’s the summery:
Read ‘em now! – Horus Rising, False Gods, Galaxy in Flames, Descent of Angels, The Dark King/The Lightning Tower, Legion
Decent entertainment – Flight of the Eisenstein, Fulgrim,
Don’t bother. Really. Look up the synopsis online, then get on with better things – Battle for the Abyss.
So what did you think? Was the plot of Fulgrim as thin as his talking portrait? Did Battle for the Abyss keep you gripped until the very last page? Should Horus have told Erebus “I could read you like book” (yeah, that was a joke about his tattoos – suck it up!). If you have an opinion the comments box below is the place for you. Otherwise, consider this, the time you spent reading this you could have spent reading Wolf of Ash and Fire. So thanks, your decision to choose me over Graham McNeill means a lot.
All images copyright Games Workshop.