Monday, December 19, 2011

Book(s) Review - The Horus Heresy

"Got a note from Horus today lads - turns out the Emperor is a douche and we're off to tune him up."
My wife and I took a little pre-Christmas vacation down in California last week. On trips like this I like to bring some reading material to relax, and this time my reading diversions included the first three books from The Black Library's Horus Heresy series - "Horus Rising" by Dan Abnett, "False Gods" by Graham McNeill and "Galaxy In Flames" by Ben Counter.  In other words, no Christmas-themed reading for me.

The series is much longer than these three books, but they really got me fired up, and they kind of stand alone as trilogy on their own, so I thought I would throw a little review up on the blog.

The Horus Heresy is one of my favourite "periods" within the fluff of the GW 40k setting. First explored (at least I think) with the release of games like Space Marine and Adeptus Titanicus, the Horus Heresy has been firmly rooted in the foundation of the GW's 40k universe for a long time. The broad strokes of the story are well-established - Horus was made Warmaster, turned against the Emperor, betrayed several Space Marine Legions in the Istvaan system, then attacked Earth with his rebel Legions and laid siege to the Imperial Palace. It was touch and go for the Loyalist side, but the Emperor personally led a direct counter-attack into Horus' HQ. The Emperor killed Horus, but was seriously wounded and now lives eternally as a kind of sci-fi-gothic-soul-consuming-drink-machine on Earth. With Horus dead, the rebels were thrown back from Earth, and the Imperial side gradually won the war.

The Heresy itself faded from any actual representation in the GW 40k games - the Epic rules moved away from the Heresy period towards representing the "current" era, in which the forces that once fought on Horus' side are represented by the various iterations of Chaos. I have always found this strange - after all GW will publish a rules supplement for almost anything (hello "Cityfight"), but the specific period of the Heresy itself has lived on only in background references of the fluff in rulebooks and codexes.

Representing the actual Heresy era civil-war type battles in a 40k game, before everyone on Horus' side grew a tail, a fourth eye, Nurgle infection etc., especially at the 25mm/28mm scales, is something that GW didn't really seem interested in, for whatever reason.

So I was surprised that the Black Library ever did books on the Heresy itself, starting back on 2007. Writing a book - much less a series of them - featuring major characters that are well-known by the fan boys (like me) based on a story arc that is already established must have been daunting. When you see the awful Star Wars Episode I, II and III, you see how easy a project with parameters like that can go wrong. Attempting to tell this story with multiple authors and still managing to keep a similar arc and tone must have been really, really tricky.

And a final challenge is (in my view) found with a key fibre of the material itself - the Space Marines. The Marines have evolved over the years since Rogue Trader and the "Space Marine" game came out. They have always been "Humanity's Finest" in the 40k setting, but through new versions of the 40k rules, newer fluff etc. they have started to become a bit....silly....almost would the authors handle that?

How do you write a characters like Horus, much less the Emperor himself?
A very challenging endeavour! They started well...they had Dan Abnett do the first book!

"We're the Luna Wolves! For the Emperor!"

Dan Abnett is a fine writer.  His books featuring Inquisitor Eisenhorn are some of the most engaging sci-fi fiction books I've ever read.  His book "Titanicus" is just fabulous.  And that is only a small fraction of the volume he has written.  He captures the 40k setting perfectly, and takes you there.  So I was glad to see they handed the pen to Dan for "Horus Rising", and it's no small coincidence that this was the best book of the three.

In "Horus Rising" you meet not only the Warmaster himself, but key officers (like Abbadon) of his Legion, the Luna Wolves, fleet commanders etc.  This book takes you to the "Great Crusade", and the first chapters get you hooked into the period.  Actually, the first pages take care of it.

Abnett also takes you through the subtle seeds that would give rise to the Heresy - and he does it masterfully.  Wounded pride. Changing leadership. Changing times.  This book gives you the thrill of the Great Crusade, and you experience the disappointment and doubt when, for example, it becomes clear a council on Terra is calling the shots, as the Emperor goes about setting up an Empire, and no longer deals directly with Horus.  It all seems logical, but Abnett gives you the view from the personnel - Marines and civilians alike - and you get a sense of the tension the Emperor's decision creates.

Abnett handles the Horus character very well.  It's clear he is a total rock star, but you relate to his human flaws and strengths, as opposed to viewing him as some kind of loser comic book character even though he is a "Primarch" (see below for more on that).

Considering how ab-human the Space Marines actually are, Abnett does an amazing job dwelling on their humanity.  He plugs you in to the strengths, weaknesses and political tensions within the Luna Wolves Legion, and manages to avoid getting bogged down in too much Brother Dorculous and Captain Fantasticus-type silliness.  The Marines are super human, and super flawed, and that will totally suck at some point...but hey - what's so wrong with a warrior lodge?

Abnett also brings in other Imperium characters, and this is something he does so well - writing in characters that you would never encounter in a 40k game (except perhaps as objectives) but that are marvellous in terms of taking you right into the setting.  You meet "remembrancers" - very Imperium-type documentary sorts sent to "cover" the Great Crusade.  You meet "iterators" - official propagandists of the Imperium.  These characters not only become important to the plot - the perspectives of these characters provide a really cool "year 30k human" lens into the Great Crusade setting, and also providing an interesting contrast to the stone-faced Space Marines.

This book will have you wanting to paint up some Luna Wolves in no time at all! I heartily recommend this book - it's a page turner for sure, and if you appreciate the 40k setting, you'll love it.

"This Crusade Armour is awesome - wait till Forge World sells it!"

Graham McNeil builds the story on Dan Abnett's foundation, and he does a very good job. This book takes you through to the actual "fall" of Horus, and the divisions within the Luna Wolves (as well as their accompanying Expedition Fleet) start to build.   McNeil details how Horus' "fall" occurred on the world of Davin.  Obviously we all know what path Horus' character is on at this point, but McNeil still makes it a good read. 

This book is still a page turner, but some flaws in the series start to appear.  Thankfully, the author manages the material well so readers will not tune out.

What do I mean by flaws? Well, the forces of "Chaos" start to appear in this book.  Other "Primarch" characters start to make more appearances too.  The Primarchs are the founding leaders of the Space Marine Legions. Meant to be super-impressive, they just seem really absurd (take "Saguinius" of the Blood Angels he has wings - the tampax Primarch!).  Each Primarch has a back story and a flawed-yet-super persona.  They are supposed to embody the attributes of their Legion.  They really just make you roll your eyes.

This isn't a knock on McNeil - the Primarchs and their personalities are key to the story - after all, they will decide whether to join Horus or not, so you can't just avoid them - and their absurdity is also bolted into the fluff of 40k, so McNeil could not dodge it.  The Primarchs all seem to have come of the reject board of a Marvel Comics intern meeting.  A creation story is even floated in this novel - I don't want to ruin it for you, but it's just....absurd.  As pinnacles of Humanity and as idols of their Marines, the Primarchs are beyond hilarious.  Lucky for the reader, their direct parts in the book are brief. 

After all the real interest of this story lies with the grunts - after all, you know what Horus is going to do.  What will happen to these people - especially when it becomes clear that Horus will turn against the Emperor?

What is very good about this book is the continued development of other, more front-line characters. McNeil does an excellent job continuing to the story of the building tension among the front-line troops, work crews and others within the fleet, as people start to sense that...well, things are no longer what they used to be.  The unity and clarity of purpose of the Great Crusade is gone - what will replace it? 

The emergence of the notion of the Emperor-as-God is just starting too, and is a source of real (and, for the reader, I believe interesting) debate amongst the characters. That is fun to read too - after all, in the 40k setting, the whole Emperor-as-god thing is pretty much locked in, and your planet can be nuked for denying it.  Watching Marine captains, remembrancers and iterators debate the "absurdity" of the notion (which was the establishment view at the time) is entertaining.

"Goooooo Horus!"

"Galaxy in Flames" tells the story of the first shots fired in the Heresy.  In the fluff of the Space Marine rulebook, we know that Horus kicked off the Heresy by virus-bombing the world of Istvaan after the planet rebelled from the Emperor.  The act was seen as a major overreaction by Horus, the first major sign that he was out of control, and the signal for the Emperor to act. Author Ben Counter takes the reader through a detailed story about the campaign against Istvaan, and Horus' moves in that campaign.  

In this book Horus' betrayal is revealed - and Marine turns against Marine for the first time.  Horus basically sends all the "unreliable" types into his first wave against the formidable Istvaan rebels - which he then bombards from orbit using virus-weapons. Yikes!  Some of the heroes survive this betrayal, and try to hold out against Horus...

On the down side, the Primarchs also play a greater role in this book, and reading about their silly outfits and ridiculous personalities is....well, I find it lame.  Horus' character is still well done, but I wish the book would have dealt more with how Horus schemed to maneuver these characters into doing his bidding, as opposed to grand councils where clowns like Angron (Primarch of the World Eaters) are making vented pronouncements, and losers like Fulgrim (Primarch of the Emperor's Children) are making grand appearances.

Wolverine would make a perfect Primarch - unkillable, sullen and totally useless. I think his Legion could be known as the "Pouting Claws", and they would always arrive in drop pods, with reporters, after the fighting was over...but I digress....

Where the Primarchs suck, the front-line-type characters shine again, make this book an overall solid read. But the story arc takes these protagonist characters to a place that there really is no way out of, and you kind of know it early on.  They are betrayed on the battlefield of Istvaan, and considering that these new-found "loyalists" have zero support, and Horus has like four Space Marine Legions, a bunch of Titans, and a whole fleet, it's hard to see how they have much chance. The last stand is impressive, but you know how it's going to end....


So to sum up, I recommend these books to 40k fans.  They are well written (Abnett in particular is brilliant) and very engaging. You get a feel for a 40k setting that is consistent with "today's" version, but still unique in that it feels "earlier".  These books will have you fired up to paint something...even as you realize you would have to play using 40k rules....


Curt said...

Great review, Greg! Very thoughtful and reasoned. Like you I'm not a great fan of the 40K game but love the gothic storyline. I think it was very wise for them to lead-off the series with Abnett as his writing is very solid. Based on your recommendation I'll have to give them a go - thanks!


Dallas said...

Nice reviews, man. I've read Abnett's "Eisenhorn" stories and enjoyed them, might have to give these a go too.

Jim Hounslow said...

I recommend reading the fourth book, 'The Flight of the Eisenstein', it wraps up the story and is a far better book than the Horus trilogy. It's one of the best in the series.