Today, we bring to you another book review, this one by a reader who was completely new to the Warhammer 40,000 setting and whose first point of introduction to the setting was the first novel of the Horus Heresy series. It is quite an interesting review and I hope you all enjoy it.
Warning: Here be spoilers.
So, with that out of the way, let’s get in medias res. No, we need another disclaimer. I am not a 40K expert. More than once while reading this book, I was rushing off to ask one of my more knowledgeable friends “But what does X mean?” “What is a Y?” and “Can Space Marines have sex?” Ah, scratch that last one, the answer is obvious in the book (and for, the record, it’s ‘No.’). But, still, even I know how this will end. Horus falls to Chaos, so do half his brothers, there’s a huge war, lots of characters you like die, and in the end the Emperor Shoots the Dog – Horus – and becomes a human vegetable. It’s kind of like watching the Star Wars prequels. We all know Anakin becomes Darth Vader. The point is how it happens.
Well, very differently. Horus is not Anakin. Chaos is not Palpatine (it’s a lot more gross ^^). The book takes a very interesting approach to the basic plot of tragedy. For it to be a tragedy you need to be invested in the main character – but knowing what the reader knows, she’ll be reluctant to do so. Generally speaking, emotional investment in the characters and the story is difficult. The Imperium of Man is so far from our world, from our way of thinking that you struggle to sympathize. It doesn’t help that the beginning opens with a) a huge deception and b) a very distanced and ‘epic’ tolkienesque approach to story telling. “I was there the day Horus killed the Emperor.” “Wtf?”
Eventually, it’s cleared up that this was a different Emperor and you find out that the book is told in two distinct voices, one that is History speaking through the work of documentarist Mersadie Oliton, and one that is History happening, through the limited 3rd person POV of Garviel Loken, a legion Captain of the Luna Wolves, and rememberancers Oliton, Karkasy and Keeler. To be honest, the history book sequences aren’t that good. Abnett strives for a tone similar to the Silmarillion but it simply doesn’t work that well. But the other sequences are far better. The use of the rememberancers as storytellers is inspired: their job is to be there and witness, to show the people of Terra what is happening in the Great Crusade, and probably where their tax money is going to. Since they are all artists, not reporters, their approach to their job is very different since it is quite whimsical, eclectic and – in case of Karkasy – sarcastic. Like the reader, they are professional witnesses, but they do not just observe, they comment, they judge, they interpret. And, like the reader, they are not socialised in the militaristic culture of the Astartes, seeing it all with detachment and maybe even disdain.
Karkasy walking through the demolished capital of 63-19 is one of the more memorable sequences. A major problem of science fiction told at this scale is how to make foreign cultures memorable. How to present them as something relatable but at the same time fundamentally different from the standard, and to do so in a couple of pages or minutes of screen time. Here it works impressively. The same is done again with the Interex, which is more exotic and therefore more superficial, but still interesting.
For a story told about a character’s fall to darkness, the author made an interesting decision on how to go about it. The newly-established Imperium of Man is a very alien environment for the 21st century reader. It is violently imperialistic, autocratic, fundamentalist. Its soldiers are not human, but something different, of enormous size, physically enhanced, biologically different, and mentally conditioned.
As I understand it, a baseline human boy is taken, implanted with enhanced organs and cybernetics, conditioned, hypnotized, maybe brainwashed. This sounds revolting and abhorrent for us and in the beginning; we get exactly what we expect. A world is brutally conquered, and when Loken shows… humanity or maybe just compassion, his Warmaster pops in and executes the enemy leader with ruthless aplomb and a sarcastic quip. When the rememberancer meets Loken, her first impression of him is his inhumanity, his mixture of beauty and grotesque exaggeration of human traits. We learn that he cannot feel fear, and when he puts her down for saying something that – we must assume – went against his conditioning, the word she thinks is that he is brutal. Only then, when the reader is reminded of all his preconceived notions, do we look beneath the surface. Loken is inducted into the Warmaster’s inner circle, and we are introduced to the iterators: the propaganda and reeducation ‘teachers’ who bring conquered worlds in line. And we see them debate, discuss, doubt. We see the questions asked that we have been asking from the start and they are answered. It isn’t that all of the answers are what we agree to. But we see the questions exist. We learn the Emperor has been giving up power on account of a civilian administration and catching flak for it. On Terra herself.
This isn’t yet the Imperium of 40K. And Horus has not yet become the setting’s fusion of Lucifer and Kain. In fact, after his rather unflattering introduction, we learn a lot more about him. And about Loken. We see Horus comfort a distraught soldier, we see him be kind, gentle. We see him politically savvy, and later as a son who was loved by his father and dearly loves him (and misses him) in return. In these moments, it is irrelevant he is three meters tall and that his father is an immortal with godlike powers. Suddenly, there is the humanity, both in him and in Loken that we have been missing – and taught not to expect. And the knowledge of the fall rears its head and we ask how this can happen, when we understand it is not a foregone conclusion.
Horus certainly has flaws. He has quite an ego for one. He struggles with his role, with the enormous responsibility, with the weight of his choices. In the end, he argues against slavish adherence to dogma and for a more responsible approach. And, when in the last chapter, he fights what seems to be a last stand against overwhelming odds – the author echoes our feelings, by stepping back and saying how much History has become skewed and distorted by the knowledge of what happens next. How the horrible end makes everyone forget the noble beginning, thus echoing the reader’s own preconceptions from the start. In the end, you are sorry. Sorry for this brilliant, complex individual who will be remembered only as a monster. I did not read the other books yet, and so far, I feel that Horus is the setting’s Old Yeller. The brave, courageous creature that through no fault of his own becomes infected with a terrible ‘disease’ and has to be put down by the one who loved him most. And this sadness colors my perception of the book more than anything else.