Tag Archives: Book Review

Alpharius: Head of the Hydra 

I am Alpharius. 

This is a lie.

As opening lines go those take some beating don’t they? I don’t normally do book reviews here, at least in part because writing them is bloody hard work and although I take my hat off to those who do it, it’s something I very much struggle to pull off. I do however read a lot of books and, as a fan of all things Warhammer, plenty of them are from Black Library. Black Library novels can be a bit of a mixed bag, some are excellent, many are a bit duff if I’m honest – Space Marine fan-fiction with dubious plot lines and turgid battles of blazing bolters. This is one of the good ones though. In fact this one really deserves a bit of gushing praise and so that’s exactly what I’m going to give it. 

Alpharius

Alpharius: Head of the Hydra by Mike Brooks, tells the story of the Primarch Alpharius in his own words for the first time. The ultimate in unreliable narrators Alpharius is known to all 40k fans as the Primarch who lies a lot – or as he describes himself to Leman Russ “I’m the one who keeps secrets”. Given this fact it’s hard to be sure if this really is a behind the scenes tell-all from the master of dishonesty, or if we’re being spun a load of nonsense. Most likely it’s a bit of both. 

There is the official story of the Imperium’s early years and the finding of the Primarchs, and then there’s the version laid out here. Thus in many ways the reader is drawn into the universe to the point where we almost become actors in our own right. Now this has always been true of 40k, with the “head cannon” story behind my army no less valid that which is laid out in a codex or Black Library novel. However what I’m driving at here is that, in the end, only a comparatively tiny number of 40k fans will read this book and so hear this side of the story. All the rest will stick with the version which has been laid out in codexes and novels for over three decades. Are those of us who do privileged members of a fraternity to whom deeper truths have been revealed or are we dupes taken in by a narrator famed as a master of lies and manipulation? 

Alpharius Forge World

Writing Primarchs, particularly in the first person, is a tricky business. Almost inevitably authors who attempt it fail to pull it off. These are gene-forged demi-gods, far beyond us frail baseline humans in every way, yet all too often they come across as tall space marines with quirky personalities. For Alpharius however it works perfectly. After all you can barely trust the words spilling from the serpent’s mouth, so anyone else trying to narrate these events second hand would become so tangled in misinformation as to be not worth reading. How could anyone but Alpharius tell his story when he takes such pains to keep everyone around him guessing and ensure that no-one ever knows the full truth? A book in which everything is false or guesswork wouldn’t be worth reading after all. No, the joy of this book is trying to guess at which points he’s lying – and concluding at the end that it’s all true.

Some authors seem to struggle with the Alpha Legion, putting Alpharius himself at the core of every mission as though he’s the only spy the Imperium has (Deliverance Lost I’m looking at you here), turning him into a one dimensional mustache twirling scoundrel (“I would have got away with it too if it wasn’t for Rogal Dorn!”) or bogging everything down in so many triple-crosses that it’s hard to remember who’s currently betraying who. Again however telling the story from Alpharius’s own perspective helps to get around this, rather than us readers trying to keep track of how many seemingly innocent people in any given room are actually Alpha Legion agents with conflicting agendas (hint: it’s all of them) we’re walked through events by the man who masterminded them. Does it make sense for Alpharius to be involved in every mission? It does here because this is his story, whereas all too often in the Horus Heresy we’re “surprised” to discover that every Alpha Legionary we encounter is really the main man himself rather than one of his – supposedly self-reliant and independently-minded – underlings. There are nods to the Alpha Legion’s reputation for overcomplicated schemes – a tech-priest asks how a top secret mission can be used as cover for an even more top-secret mission (and yes, there is a good reason for it) – but on the whole we avoid all the doubling-crossing the double-crosser (cross squared?) that can at times make Alpha Legion stories near impossible to follow.

Alpharius Omegon

As an aside I’ve always enjoyed the fact that there are several in-universe official accounts of Alpharius’s death, leaving the reader guessing as to which, if any, are true. Between being able to disguise himself as his own legionaries, encouraging his legionaries to pass themselves off as him, and having a hidden identical twin, is it any wonder that he has been “officially” killed off by at least two of his brother Primarchs? My own pet theory is that Alpharius/Omegon never could stick with the limitation of having two bodies. It is already cannon that Fabius Bile successfully cloned all of the Primarchs – including making dozens of versions of Ferrus Manus, a young Fulgrim and a reborn Horus. Those wondering how Games Workshop might someday bring back Sanguinius or one of the other dead Primarchs should look no further. If downhive Esher gang-queens and low-ranking Dark Eldar kabalites can bring themselves back to life as clones there’s no reason for the Primarch of the Alpha Legion to stay dead a moment longer than he chooses to.

In writing this I’ve steered away from talking too much about the plot, and quite deliberately so. I went into this knowing next to nothing about the story and I think I enjoyed it all the more as a result. However one thing I will say is that the more familiar you are with the 40k canon the more you’re likely to enjoy this. If you’re completely fresh to 40k then this really isn’t the best place to start, a degree of familiarity with the big players of the pre-Heresy era is vital to save yourself a lot of frustrating head scratching. If on the other hand you’re well versed in the story of how the Imperium came to be, the Great Crusade and the finding of the Primarchs, then prepare to enjoy having some well established “facts” revealed as falsehoods, key events turned on their heads and major players re-examined from a uniquely insightful perspective. After hearing things from Alpharius’s point of view I don’t think I’ll ever trust Rogal Dorn again!

Of course, it could all be a lie. Hydra Dominatus!