This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Those of you who are new to the Warhammer 40,000 setting and perhaps have only been exposed to it my reviews might be inclined to ask “hey… why is the grim darkness of the far future so grim and dark in the first place?” Well, there’s many reasons. (“This universe has many themes…”) In fact, every single major faction in the galaxy is at once one of the worst things ever to happen to the universe as a whole and, at the same time, utterly and irreversibly fucked over and doomed. (Except the orks, who are perfectly happy with a grim dark future where there is only war because they consider war to be the height of lulz.) But from the point of view of humanity and the Imperium of Mankind in particular… well, there’s the fact that hyperspace is alive and hates us and wants to eat us, of course. There’s also the fact that the Emperor of humanity was basically Conan and Ferric Jaggar mashed together and cranked up to 11. There’s the way that humankind has for over 10,000 years thought to exterminate every single other culture in the galaxy expressly because of the Emperor’s guidance. There’s the fact that the venerated and adored peak of human perfection, the Space Marines, are a race of
atomic supermen genetically engineered monstrosities created by the Emperor to take over the universe. There’s the way that humanity is only able to navigate the stars in the first place thanks to the daily sacrifice of thousands of psychics to the Emperor.
But the thing which really screws the Imperium over – the thing which transforms it from an abhorrent monstrosity inflicting random cruelty on the galaxy to an abhorrent monstrosity inflicting random cruelty on the galaxy to distract itself from the fact that it’s dying of cancer – is the current status of the Emperor. Kept on life support for the past ten thousand years and more or less incapable of interacting with the outside world beyond the occasional miracle (which might just be the result of humanity’s faith in him resonating in the Warp), the Emperor exerts no control over Imperial policy and yet every major policy is developed as a means of perpetuating his agenda, as interpreted by a monstrous theocracy who consider the war crimes of his crusade to conquer the galaxy to be holy writ. And yet, the fate of the Emperor is the fate of the Imperium. As long as he is alive and is manifestly responsible for the continued viability of space travel there is no real prospect of these fucked up distortions of his maniac designs being abandoned. But the steady state currently imposed on the Imperium as a result of his current predicament can’t last forever because sooner or later entropy will do its work and the Golden Throne will break down. (In fact, in current canon it’s specified that at the end of the 41st Millennium the tech-priests maintaining the Throne discover serious problems with it requring urgent repairs… for which they don’t actually have the spare parts.) When he eventually dies, space travel will suddenly become radically more difficult, if not outright impossible. The resultant shock in the Warp as a result of the Astronomican suddenly cutting off will almost certainly have consequences, but Games Workshop have never specified what they are. (Dan once ran a Dark Heresy game which implied that the Emperor would ultimately become the Chaos God spawned by the fall of humanity, like Slaanesh is the Chaos God spawned by the fall of the Eldar; this isn’t canon but it’s sufficiently consistent with the metaphysic that it doesn’t seem at all unlikely.)
And the reason the Emperor is in this state is because of the Horus Heresy – the betrayal of the Emperor by his beloved son, Horus, who he had made Warmaster and given overall command of every Space Marine in the galaxy. Backed by half the Space Marine Legions and the dark gods of Chaos themselves, the civil war Horus unleashed left no part of the Imperium untouched; every single institution of the Imperium as it currently exists was either fundamentally transformed by the war or was created specifically in response to it. The Space Marine veterans of the Chaos side of that war to this very day lurk in the Eye of Terror and wait with baited breath for every opportunity they can to come out and fuck shit up (well, when they’re not infighting like crazy that is). And in the final battle between the Emperor and Horus, the Emperor was mortally wounded, leaving in him in the condition that he is in today.
This is far and away the most important background event in the Warhammer 40,000 setting, so it’s not surprising that there’s a lot of fan interest in it – to the point where numerous players of the miniatures game have attempted conversion jobs to make Horus Heresy-era armies. Bit by bit, Games Workshop have been doing more and more to cash in on this; just recently, in fact, it was announced that Forge World (their subsidiary for super-fancy artisan miniatures) would be producing a fully-supported product line geared to wargaming the conflicts of the Horus Heresy. This is something of a big deal for both Forge World and Games Workshop as a whole – Forge World have produced heaps of supplemental material for Warhammer 40,000 but this is the first time they’ve been permitted to make a fully-supported variant of it with full Forge World armies and so on, and it’s also the first time that Games Workshop have presented a wargame in the 40K universe based around the Horus Heresy. (There was a boardgame based around the final assault on Earth put out a while back, though.)
The groundwork for this decision seems to have been laid, to a large extent, by the Horus Heresy line of Black Library novels – an epic series chronicling the war. Most of the books in the series, as far as I can tell, tell mostly-standalone stories focusing on a particular incident from the conflict, both famous events from the canon and entirely original tales set against the backdrop of the war. The first three books, conversely, are a connected trilogy establishing the setting of the 31st Millennium, documenting the corruption of Horus, and depicting the beginning of the rebellion. In short, the trilogy both needs to give us an idea of what the galaxy is like as of the start of the Heresy, and then fuck the galaxy as thoroughly as humanly possible. The big question is: who gets to go first? Gosh, could it be the Black Library’s most popular and critically acclaimed author?
Of course it is; it’d be insane not to put Dan Abnett up first, his name on a 40K book more or less guarantees that people will rave about it. That said, the task facing him is not easy. As the debut novel in the series, Horus Rising doesn’t just have to introduce the characters and context that the other authors have to work with, it also has to present the most in-depth look we have ever been permitted to glimpse of how the Imperium was before the schism. The task is not easy; Abnett essentially has to come up with a 31st Millennium Imperial culture which is clearly distinct from that of the 41st Millennium, but at the same time could conceivably grow to become the rotting, moribund abomination we have come to know and love.
So you can almost forgive him for not having any plot.
That is slightly unfair, in fact; Horus Rising covers a number of exciting incidents in the career of the Luna Wolves Space Marines Legion, the Adeptus Astartes grouping which is under the command of the Primarch Horus. The story begins in the immediate aftermath of his elevation to Warmaster, and over the course of its 400-odd pages charts the journey of Loken, a Luna Wolf Captain, as he becomes one of Horus’s closest confidantes and most devoted supporters. It’s just that almost nothing happens over the course of this story concerning the actual Horus Heresy, aside from Horus cementing his position as the most powerful man in the galaxy next to the Emperor.
It’s Loken, in fact, who is the emotional heart of the story, though there’s a decent range of supporting characters. For example, there’s Mersadie, the Documentarist assigned to him to record deeds of heroism he performs as part of her duties as a Remembrancer, part of a massive cadre of civilian historians, journalists, and artists sent by the Council of Terra to accompany the Space Marine Legions to record in their various chosen fomats the events of the Marines’ adventures across the galaxy. There’s also Kyril Sindermann, one of the Iterators – the ideological manipulators, rabble-rousers, demagogues and political manipulators tasked with promoting the Imperial Truth and imposing the Emperor’s vision of human culture on all the worlds absorbed by the nascent Imperium. Loken’s interactions with these two unaugmented humans help him to retain a better connection to the little people the Space Marines were engineered to protect than many of his battle-brothers are able to manage; between the necessity of explaining his actions to Mersadie and Kyril’s attempts to teach Loken logic and philosophy, they combine to give him a chance to step back and ask his own questions about what exactly is going on in the Legion.
The novel opens with the Luna Wolves embarked on the Great Crusade, the Emperor’s grand project to unite the far-flung survivors of humanity, exterminate all aliens everywhere, and drag the galaxy out of the Old Night (the dark ages during which the previous galaxy-wide human civilisation collapsed). The Emperor himself is absent, having granted the title of Warmaster and responsibility for the galaxy-wide Crusade to Horus and returned to Terra to work on some unknown project, which makes this particular point in time a good place to pick up the story; it keeps the Emperor at a distance, as he is (in a different way) in the standard Warhammer 40,000 setting, but at the same time he’s still an active and interventionist presence in the universe. The major manifestations of the Emperor’s will in Horus Rising are the Iterators and Remembrancers, whose functions would later be taken on in the Warhammer 40,000 setting by the Ecclesiarchy and the Administratum, but the Imperial Cult is not an official body of the state at this time – in fact, religion and superstition of all kinds are severely frowned on, purged wherever they are discovered, and those few fringe elements who choose to worship the Emperor of Mankind as a God must do so in secret.
What is strikingly clear, in fact, is that the Imperium of the Horus Heresy era is just as much of a fascism-plus-Stalinism-on-amphetamines nightmare as that of the 41st Millennium, only in a different way – rather than being a corrupt and decaying edifice run for the benefit of a bloated aristocracy claiming to act on behalf of a vegetable trapped helplessly in a psychic-fuelled life support machine which sooner or later will blow a fuse and plunge the entire galaxy into darkness, it’s a vibrant and virile and potent young force in the galaxy, conquering world after world, absorbing their cultures, and indoctrinating everyone into the service of an absolute tyrant. The Iterators declare that the Imperial Truth is the one true and objective model for human culture, but resort to fine-sounding but ultimately circular arguments to justify that stance, and the higher level officials and the Primarchs know that the Imperial Truth isn’t even true – for example, officially gods and spirits and demons do not exist, but the Empire knows of the existence of Chaos demons and other phenomena of the warp as a cold hard fact, although it’s not yet clear whether they are aware of the Chaos gods. (It is implied, in fact, that the Emperor’s seclusion is due to him working on a Final Solution to the Chaos question…)
It’s ironic, in fact, that every so often in Warhammer 40,000 novels set in the standard time period, you’ll get characters who are good people working for a bad system (the Imperium) and who manage to do good anyway through their absolute faith in the Emperor – this is often the case, in fact, in Abnett’s own Gaunt’s Ghosts stories – because with this new context it’s clear that the qualities these characters ascribe to the Emperor have very little to do with how he was back in the glory days; their faith is not in the actual Emperor at all, but an image of the Emperor they along with the rest of the Imperium have built in their own minds. This is easily one of the deeper ideas I’ve seen in tie-in fiction for dorky games about space orks. (Incidentally, the space orks are talked about as though they’re the most pressing threat the Imperium faces at the time, which made me smile as an ork player – it’s nice to see da boyz doing well.)
The Space Marines themselves also feel distinctly different. There’s obvious differences in their organisational structure – after all, the Legions were only split up into small, compact Chapters after the Heresy – but the big shift is the presence of the Primarchs, the genetic forefathers of each Legion, as active forces in the world. The pseudo-religious warrior-monks-in-space angle of the Adeptus Astartes is absent; rather than venerating dead or absent Primarchs in a manner vaguely analogous to orders of monks being dedicated to particular saints, they’re much more purely militaristic, with the Primarchs acting as warlords whose authority is not to be questioned and are beholden to nothing except the Emperor, who isn’t being especially hands-on with his management style.
It’s especially fascinating watching Horus interact with Leman Russ and Sanguinius, two Primarchs who, as someone who knows the history of the setting, I know will end up playing crucial roles on the side of the Imperium in the coming civil war with Horus. Abnett in fact manages to stuff the book with sly references with things that are going to come in the near future (mentioning that Horus’s personal standard is the “Eye of Terra”, for example) for the entertainment of people who know the backstory without allowing things to get to the point where people who don’t know what’s about to go down will be completely lost.
I’ve focused a lot on the worldbuilding here, and that’s because – Loken’s story aside – this really is a book that’s pretty much about worldbuilding, but Abnett manages to do it more or less bearably. I especially liked the crumbling document that Loken reads at one point which are about the Emperor’s wars to unite Earth in the chaos of the Age of Strife (which are already ancient history at this point), which give us a little glimpse of the anarchic, already-unrecognisable far future Earth from which the Emperor would emerge. But as fun as it is, it’s kind of wasted unless you already intend to read the rest of the Horus Heresy series. We’re at book one and already we’re getting a “devotees only” vibe, but I don’t think any 40K addict is going to necessarily complain about Dan Abnett writing a book that caters to the hardcore lorehounds..
The second book, in which the plot kicks into high gear, is written by Graham McNeill. I’ve not been impressed by the other McNeill I’ve read, but then again I’ve not read much – I tried to read the first book of his Ultramarines series, realised it was exactly as bland as the Space Marine chapter the series is named after, and gave up. This time around, though, I think McNeill does an excellent job of taking the status quo Abnett outlines and then shoving it out of equilibrium. He’s essentially in a caretaker role – he’s not being asked to cook up any major characters or plot elements himself since the canon and Abnett have already handled that job, he just needs to take the situation Abnett has set up and progress it to a point where Ben Counter can take over.
Specifically, McNeill’s mission with this novel is to depict the moment of Horus’s fall from grace and its immediate consequences – the incident in which agents of Chaos conspire to create a situation in which Horus, having been mortally wounded by a cursed weapon, has his spirit projected into the Immaterium so that he may be tempted to join the cause of the Ruinous Powers. McNeill does this perfectly competently, making Horus’s surrender to his own pride and the promises of power extremely believable. I especially like the way the Chaos forces manipulate Horus by telling him the unvarnished truth about the future of the 40K setting and how it becomes a grotesque inversion of all the ideals the Great Crusade held dear – neglecting to point out that this happens because of Horus’s rebellion. I thought this part was especially clever because it takes the fact that many (maybe even most) readers know what’s going to happen and rather than trying to work against it, McNeill rolls with it and uses it to the story’s benefits, letting the readers in on the Chaos Gods’ big joke on Horus. (“There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of slaughter and carnage, and the laughter of trolling gods.”)
Although by necessity Horus takes central stage for more of this novel, McNeill does a reasonable job of keeping us informed on what’s going on with the various side characters Abnett introduced, and uses their stories to depict how the personal fall of Horus takes place in the context of the growing, irreconcilable cracks forming in the society that surrounds him. What’s particularly interesting about his take is that the fractures become horribly apparent even before Horus is corrupted, suggesting that civil war was perhaps an inevitability and Horus was merely the catalyst and not the cause. The Luna Wolves changing their name to the Sons of Horus parallels the growing shift in their loyalties from Terra to Horus. The spread of the still officially forbidden Imperial cult continues apace, and an incident in which the Remembrancer photographer Euphrati Keeler apparently holds back the onslaught of a Chaos demon through her unwavering faith in the Emperor seems set only to make it grow faster. At the same time, the cult faces hostility both from orthodox followers of the Imperial Truth and those who feel that they should be saving their praise for Horus, considering that the Emperor hasn’t been especially visible or active since he delegated the Great Crusade to his favoured son. Several characters begin to question the relation of Astartes to normal human beings – an incident in which several members of Horus’s inner circle, including Loken, fatally trample a number of civilians underfoot in a rush to get the wounded Horus to a physician, directly raises the question of whether the life of an Astartes is worth more than that of a common mortal, and whether Astartes are subject to the same laws and rules the proles are. And, of course, there’s the whole point that having twenty-odd superhuman warlords out there conquering the galaxy is all very well, but what do you do with them once the galaxy is conquered? Are the Astartes fighting to make themselves redundant, and if so how long will the Emperor keep them around once the job is done?
What’s particularly interesting is the way one situation exacerbates the other. Horus’s moment of frailty and peril is a shocking event which shakes his forces’ confidence in the most basic principles of the Crusade’s guiding philosophy. The Warmaster is so charismatic and superhuman that the Astartes and humans under his command simply cannot imagine a world without him; when they are forced to confront the possibility that he may not always be there, it’s suddenly that much easier for them to question the other pillars of their society. McNeill takes the crises that result and develops them over the course of the novel to a crescendo which makes it clear that the Rubicon has been crossed, even if most people haven’t realised it.
McNeill’s writing style is a bit more pedestrian and average than Abnett’s, but at the same time he has sufficient grasp of characterisation that the figures we remember from the previous book are recognisably still the same people, and when you have such a diverse range of writers contributing to a series that’s probably the best you can hope for. Furthermore, he develops the ideas Abnett came up with more than adequately. Loken’s questioning of the truth and his cultivating of the Rememberancers soon place him in an impossible position where he must choose between his loyalty to the Emperor and his loyalty to Horus; by the end of the novel, he’s uncovered sufficient reasons to be wary of what’s been happening to the Legion, and has witnessed enough inexplicable acts on the part of Horus, that it’s clear that shit is going to hit the fan between him and his battle-brothers. And enough shit hits enough other fans to keep the pace of the novel brisk in the meantime. I still don’t like his all-original stories but as far as caretaking jobs looking after someone else’s plot go, McNeill’s OK.
Galaxy In Flames
When Ben Counter picks up the story, it is clear to most of those accompanying the Warmaster’s forces that things have changed. Whilst they don’t know the precise details – for instance, only a few are aware that Horus is practising human sacrifice in order to negotiate an alliance with the Ruinous Powers – there’s a bunch of hints that the tone of the Crusade has shifted somehow. For example, there’s the way the Remembrancers are being kept confined to quarters, and the manner in which Space Marines who are not in with the in-crowd are being slowly frozen out of the decision-making process. There’s the new fashion for dying and disappearing which has cropped up amongst those who express doubts about Horus. Oh, and there’s those funny new banners in Horus’ throne room depicting eight-pointed stars and thrones of skulls; they’re kind of odd too.
Horus now intends to accept the offer of the Ruinous Powers of aid against the Emperor; for their part, the dark gods want the Emperor gone because they really don’t like the direction his experiments with the Astronomican and the Golden Throne are taking. Before going to war against the Emperor, though, Horus must purge the corrupted Space Marine Legions of the remaining loyalist elements. The upcoming fight against a rebellion on the planet Isstvan III – a place which had been thought to be perfectly compliant following its acceptance of the Emperor’s truth – provides him with the perfect opportunity. Meanwhile, Loken’s doubts have set him on a collision course with his battle-brothers in the Sons of Horus, Kyril can no longer deny the Emperor’s divinity after witnessing Euphrati Keeler’s miraculous banishing of the demon in the previous book, and Keeler herself is in desperate danger of assassination (particularly since the demon incident left her in a coma) because Horus and his new masters sure as shit aren’t going to suffer a saint to live. Those who know their 40K canon know that Isstvan III will be a bloodbath, so the big question here is: who will survive, and what will be left of them?
Galaxy In Flames is my favourite of the Ben Counter novels I have read to date, mainly because, as with McNeill’s job on False Gods, most significant decisions are taken out of his hands. The setting and characters have already been brought to life by Dan Abnett, Graham McNeill has set everyting in motion, and the Warhammer 40,000 canon provides the broad brushstrokes of the plot. His task is simple: bring the Loken trilogy to a satisfying close, set up the action of the subsequent Horus Heresy novels, and don’t fuck anything up. Since much of the novel consists of massive epic battles with the shit hitting the fan and masses of people dying and Astartes exchanging tender moments of brotherly admiration before plunging into a fight they know they can’t win, with the occasional tense and exciting subplot involving other characters, the scenario itself caters admirably to Counter’s strengths.
Counter just about manages to keep things interesting even for those of us who know exactly what happens on Isstvan III by making sure the human-scale subplots continue to seem relevant. First off, there’s the question of the fate of all those Iterators and Remembrancers, mere humans who as far as Horus is concerned are dead weight at best, a loyalist fifth column at worst. Specifically, there’s the question of how the hell Mersadie, Kyril and Euphrati are going to get to safety – or even if they’re going to get to safety at all, considering that a living saint dedicated to the Emperor would be number one on the shitlist once the rebellion starts. In addition, there’s another subplot revolving around the crew of a Titan and whether the crewmen supporting the Emperor or Horus will prevail. By and large, Counter does a good job of making these subplots seem important enough to engage us, even though they clearly are not remotely as significant on a galactic scale as the Astartes storyline, and he chooses more or less the right time to let the squishy little people shuffle off stage; by the time the human subplots are resolved, the main Space Marine-focused aspect of the story has hit the point of no return and their momentum kept me hooked to the end.
On top of that, Counter splits the Space Marine angle into three interestingly, to show how various loyalist members of the Sons of Horus, Emperor’s Children and Death Guard each in their own way find some way to make a stand for the old values of the Crusade in the face of the massed hordes of the traitor Marines. Death Guard Captain Nathaniel Garro takes command of the starship Eisenstein and flees with it to bring news of the rebellion to to Terra; meanwhile Loken along with Saul Tarvitz of the Emperor’s Children desperately lead the remaining pro-Emperor elements of the traitor Legions in a doomed struggle against their former comrades on the surface of Isstvan III, determined to inflict as much damage on the Chaos forces as possible because it’s now too late for them to disrupt Horus’ plans in any other way.
Between all these plot threads, Counter doesn’t leave himself much space to focus on Horus himself, but I think this is a good thing. McNeill’s greater focus on Horus in False Gods was necessary to meet his goal of depicting the corruption of Horus and his fall into the ways of Chaos, but it had the knock-on effect of slightly putting the other plotlines in the shade, both in terms of plot significance and in terms of spotlight time. Conversely, Abnett and Counter both take the opportunity to keep the focus more on the other characters, and I genuinely think this works better. Though the Emperor and Horus are the dominant characters on their respective sides, the really interesting thing about the Horus Heresy series is how the various other members of their factions – from mighty Primarchs to lowly serfs – respond to being plunged into this awful civil war as a result of Horus getting into a spat with his daddy. In other words, both Abnett and Counter recognise that the Emperor and Horus both work best as motivations rather than characters.
Although there are a few minor victories in the book, on the whole it presents one crushing disaster after another, which seems to be Counter’s forte – I still think Crimson Tears is the best of the Soul Drinkers series because it’s an enormous, hellish meat grinder which wears its characters down to the bone, and Galaxy In Flames is very similar. Counter also captures the doomed bromance between the loyalist Marines much more convincingly than the bromance attempts in his other 40K fiction. Despite knowing that they are going to be snuffed out, I still found myself rather moved by Loken and the others’ dogged attempts to keep the fight against Horus going for as long as they could. As an end to the Loken trilogy, I think it’s very successful.
Are We Nearly Heretics Yet?
At the same time, though, I’m glad the Loken trilogy wraps up here. It does a good job of establishing the setting as being distinct from the standard 40K universe – most of the credit goes to Abnett there, I think – but it does at points feel rather constrained by the necessity to stick to the established canon and to present key points in the ongoing heresy.
I’m keen to keep reading the series because I’m much more interested in the untold stories from this era than in the known material. Not only do I suspect most 40K lorehounds will feel the same way, but I also think the authors themselves (Abnett and Counter in particular) are more interested in telling original stories than in riffing on the canon – this would be why the parts about Loken and the Remembrancers sparkle much more than the parts about Horus himself. Indeed, the fact that Horus and the Emperor don’t seem to be necessary to tell a good Horus Heresy-themed story makes me suspect that we’ll see the series continuing for a long, long time – even if Games Workshop do decide to eventually publish a novelisation covering the end of the conflict, there’s nothing stopping them jumping around the timeline to put out more material covering yet more untold stories of the war itself (not to mention that the aftermath itself would make good fodder for a tale or two). After all, it’s a big, big galaxy out there, and now thanks to Horus the entire place is fucked.