10 January 2011

[40k Discussion] The State of Heresy

The State of Heresy

As Dan Abnett’s Prospero Burns has clawed its way into the NY Times Bestsellers list, marking the third straight Horus Heresy novel to do so, it seems about time to address the state of the Heresy; where it’s been, what has been announced for the horizon, and what we’ve yet to see. There will be spoilers ahead, so consider yourself warned if you’ve not waded through all 15 of the Horus Heresy novels.

Where We’ve Been


In terms of a timeline, the Horus Heresy is presently fixed right after the Dropsite Massacre of Isstvan V. Nemesis seems to be the furthest along in timeline, as it is clearly after Horus has taken control of the Traitor forces and seems somewhat entrenched in the planning of the assault on Terra. Most of the literature has drawn to conclusion right at the Isstvan massacre, though both A Thousand Sons and Prospero Burns conclude somewhat earlier, with the Razing of Tisca.

The Players

Thus far, stories have been told from the perspective of the Emperor’s Children and Iron Hands (Fulgrim), Word Bearers (The First Heretic), Dark Angels (Descent of Angels & Fallen Angels), Ultramarines (Battle for the Abyss), Thousand Sons (A Thousand Sons), Space Wolves (Prospero Burns), Alpha Legion (Legion) and the Luna Wolves/Sons of Horus, Death Guard, World Eaters, and again Emperor’s Children (Horus Rising, False Gods, and Galaxy in Flames)—chapters figure into other stories, but for purposes here, the featured chapters are the only ones I note in reference to each book. Additionally, we’ve seen the Custodes and Assassin Claves in Nemesis and the Adeptus Mechanicus in Mechanicus. By that count, 11 of the 18 Astartes Legions have been highlighted and detailed in some fashion in a Horus Heresy novel. We’ve seen Rogal Dorn and his Imperial Fists briefly, but the focus was hardly on them. Additionally, the Raven Guard and Night Lords have seen some face time in the audiobooks Raven’s Flight and The Lightning Tower; though the stories are brief, they do shed a bit of light on the Primarchs Corax and Konrad Curze. The Salamanders and Iron Warriors have both been mentioned in passing as participants in the Dropsite Massacre. The only legions thusfar unmentioned as as Legions are the Blood Angels and the White Scars, though Sanguinius was sighted at the Council of Nikea in both A Thousand Sons and Prospero Burns.

Secrets to Heresy (MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD)

While the first five or six books of the Horus Heresy were tools for narration and character development, beginning with Legion, readers were offered more insight into the characters at play in the Heresy, as well as some of its secrets. Starting with Legion, I’ll divulge and speculate on some of the secrets we’ve been made privy to:

Legion – We already knew the Alpha Legion was a secretive and pragmatic legion, but we were slapped in the face by the actual reality of their pragmatism and (perhaps) devotion to the Emperor’s Cause—the unification of mankind—when it was revealed to us that the Cabal, a mysterious group of seers, directed the Alpha Legion to side with Horus in order to prevent further bloodshed in the years that follow the Horus Heresy. Though not implicitly told to follow Horus, the Cabal indicated that siding with Horus would result in a shorter war that could eventually be overcome, whereas siding with the Emperor would lead to devastation and a war that would burn the galaxy.

Mechanicum – Though not laden with shocking truths, Mechanicum lays the foundation for the Dark Mechanicum and shows the civil war on Mars. Graham McNeill delves deeply into the notion of the Machine-God, ultimately leaving us hanging with the semi-revelation that the Dragon (perhaps a C’tan) is buried and dormant on Mars.

A Thousand Sons – Here’s where we learn a great deal. Another McNeill penned novel, A Thousand Sons reveals three primary truths to us:

1) by all intents, the Thousand Sons are loyal to the Emperor. Magnus and Co devoutly follow the Emperor, their hubris in their thirst for knowledge of the warp, not heretical intentions, is their undoing.

2) the Emperor was working on a device to seemingly rival the Eldar webways. In Magnus’ haste to warn the Emperor of Horus’ heretical intent, he psychically breaks down the barriers the Emperor has constructed around Terra to keep the malicious denizens of the warp out.

3)”There are not wolves on Fenris.” The most subtle, and perhaps most debated topic since A Thousand Sons was released, it is hinted that the wolves that accompany the Space Wolves are not in fact wolves, but rather another warp entity.

Nemesis – While providing insight into the Assassin Clades—as well as presenting two Clades we’ve previously heard little about—we’re also shown that perhaps Horus is not in total control of the Traitor forces, even following the Dropsite Massacre. The assassin sent to kill the Emperor is not mandated by Horus, and Horus tells Erebus at the end that he does not conduct war in the shadows, indicating that perhaps some of Horus’ nobility remains.

The First Heretic – This is an incredibly insightful book, particularly in terms of discovering the nature of Lorgar and the feelings his brother’s harbor towards him. The most revelatory thing here is the fact that Lorgar is barely in charge of his legion. His is led down a Heretical path by both Erebus and Kor Phaeron; rarely does he make a decision without them, and Dembski-Bowden makes it quite clear the aforementioned two are perhaps the architects of the Heresy. Further, we learn that Lorgar is despised by nearly all of his brothers and is nearly killed on Istvaan V by Corax, only to be rescued, much to his own chagrin, by Konrad Curze.

Prospero Burns – Perhaps my favorite Black Library novel, Prospero Burns tells us quite a few new truths. It examines the statement introduced in A Thousand Sons, “there are no wolves on Fenris,” but again does so in an abstract and incredibly vague way. Also up to much debate, Abnett seems to indicate that the wolves that accompany the VI Legion are either positive manifestations of the warp, or perhaps even the spirts of deceases Space Wolves that lay watch over Fenris and their living brothers. Again, the notion is extremely abstracted and left open to a lot of debate. Second, Prospero Burns shows us that Magnus’ undoing and the fall of Horus had been plotted for a long, long time previous to it happening by a Great Unclean One. What is does make quite clear is the Space Wolves place in the Imperium. They are the Emperor’s Executioners, but they do not relish the role.

The Known Horizon

We know that there are two Horus Heresy books on the upcoming horizon. First readers will see The Age of Darkness, a collection of short stories that will detail the seven-year period between the Dropsite Massacre at Isstvan V and the Traitor forces massing their offensive to Terra. We know that there will be at least one Nick Kyme story looking into the Salamanders in this collection. I imagine this is where we’ll see some expanding on the other Legions that have yet to be explored fully.

Second, the Black Library has just announced a Graham McNeill penned Horus Heresy novel that will, based off the cover art, presumably deal with either Malcador the Sigillite or a member of the Navigator Houses. My money—and hopes—would be on Malcador, though it’s doubtful that McNeill’s effort will be bad.

The Heretical Future

We know a few things, despite any lack of announcement:

We WILL see at least a few books detailing the Siege of Terra. I’d like to see a trilogy similar to the opening three, where the entire conclusion of the heresy is dealt with at great length over three novels. It would provide a really nice bookend to the series and would provide a nice mirroring to how it began. Bet money that if there are three books, Abnett and McNeill will be writing two of them.

We WILL see a Blood Angels book. I have no doubts about this. Sanguinius and Co figure to be one of the main chapters detailed in the Siege of Terra. My money would be on James Swallow writing this, as he has already penned five Blood Angels novels in the current 40k era, and proved with Nemesis that he deserves to be a member of the Horus Heresy writing staff.

We SHOULD see a book detailing the creation of the Grey Knights. I imagine that this idea could be built within the greater framework of the Imperial Fists and their defense of Terra, even though we’ve seen glimpses of Dorn’s presence on Terra in the short stories.

We SHOULD see a book detailing the Battle of Calth. It’s been hinted at now in both The Battle for the Abyss and The First Heretic. If it’s done like the raising of Tisca and is a two-parter, you can guarantee that the Ultramarines side will be penned my McNeill and the Word Bearers side will be written by Dembski-Bowden. I don’t know that I want to see both sides in two separate books. It’d be interesting to see a combined effort between the two, but I imagine there will be one book, it will be from the Ultramarines side (as they don’t have a great book focused on them yet), and Graham McNeill will write it.

I WOULD LIKE to see a book concerning the Custodes. They are a fascinating order, and it would do them a disservice, particularly after the marvelous short story in Tales of Heresy, to not give them a bit more face time

I WOULD LIKE to see a book detailing the Space Wolves and Dark Angels campaign of blood to Terra. By all accounts, the two chapters perhaps most loyal to the Emperor cut a swath through the galaxy that was unmatched by any other legion, plus it would really highlight the rivalry the legions and their Primarchs have with one another. Let’s call it “The Wolf and the Lion” and let Abnett write it.

I WOULD LIKE to see each aforementioned legion that has thusfar been slighted receive their own book. These books don’t need to be epic in length like Prospero Burns or Mechanicum, but I think the Salamanders, Raven Guard, White Scars, Night Lords, and Iron Warriors deserve to be highlighted in more than just some passing footnotes or short stories. They all have important stories to tell. Let’s hear them.


The Horus Heresy series has never been better. The most recent four books (starting with A Thousand Sons) have really raised the bar on quality and have marked the Horus Heresy series as the avenue that for Black Library authors to explore the universal themes that are most often associated with “literature.” I’d argue that the Horus Heresy books have started to transcend the “military sci-fi” restrictions, though they of course fit there, and have breached the universe of mainstream fiction and literature. With James Swallow, Aaron Dembski-Bowden, Graham McNeill, and Dan Abnett, the Horus Heresy novels have been left in very capable hands.

07 January 2011

[40k Review] Firedrake - Nick Kyme

The Salamanders have a special place for me. They represent the first fully painted force that I’ve had in miniature gaming. Vulkan He’stan was one of the first figures that I painted to what I would consider a “high standard.” Further, they represent the Space Marine chapter that most embodies the heroic ideals that I find so intriguing: chivalry and brotherhood.

Firedrake is the second installment in Nick Kyme’s Tome of Fire trilogy and picks up where Salamander left off. Change is on the horizon for the Salamanders, with Da’kir, protagonist from Salamander, again playing a key role in the narrative. Da’kir has been elevated to librarian status, and the part he plays in the story has much to do with his Lexicanum training. Running concurrently to the Dak’ir thread is a story involving the abduction of Chaplain Elysius at the hands of Dark Eldar raiders. The two stories provide a nice balance for one another, as Dak’ir’s story is a bit more cerebral, focusing more on Dak’ir’s internal struggles, whereas the story of Elysius is a much more straightforward affair, a simple, yet interesting survival and rescue operation.

Da’kir’s story is interesting, if not a bit slow. Getting the chance to see his Lexicanum training is interesting, but often the pacing of his story is off and, as a result, can become a bit tedious. What becomes very clear is Da’kir’s power; he possesses unmatched raw talent, but his ability to control that power is really the focus of his story.

The survival of Elysius is a great deal more enthralling than the story of Dak’ir, if only because more ‘happens’—that isn’t to say nothing happens to Dak’ir, it does, but again, it is all quite cerebral. Elysius is abducted by Dark Eldar raiders. That alone is exciting; however, when Elysius, now sergeant Ba’ken, and Iagon (all from Salamander) are taken through the webway, the story becomes quite entertaining. The depiction of the Dark Eldar is spot on; they are malicious, they are violent, and they possess a graceful lethality. The presence of Lilith Hesperax enhances this, as she is the embodiment of all the aforementioned qualities. Further, Firedrake really provides a nice primer to the Dark Eldar for the uninitiated; I didn’t know much about them, but found their description, and that of the webway, really interesting.

On the rescue mission, we also get a chance to see Vulkan He’Stan in literary action. He is a mythic figure to the other Salamanders, and his portrayal is pretty cool. He seems larger than life, fights like a fire-born demon, and inspires the others around him to be greater. In short, he’s very cool, and I found it really cool that the Black Library is making a concerted effort to put characters from the Space Marine Codex into the literature. It really helps to tie the 40k universe together and make everything seem more fluid.

While I appreciated the stories of Firedrake, it leaves me feeling a bit torn. He furthers the notion that the Salamanders are protectors and that quality is unique to the Astartes. Their compassion is shown in droves. He provides clear narration and quality battle scenes, particularly the ones depicted in the webway. Kyme has a clear picture of what he wants from the Tome of Fire trilogy, there is no doubt. However, it was also clear that Firedrake is the middle chapter of a trilogy. In actuality, it shares a number of parallels with The Empire Strikes Back; Dak’ir’s quest and training is Luke’s training on Dagobah; Elysius’ capture is the capture of Han and crew on Bespin. And like Empire, there are major revelations that will affect the third chapter of the Tome of Fire trilogy. However, Firedrake lacks a bit of the ‘oomph’ that Empire provides in droves, mostly due to the difficulty grasping a similar level of emotional investment. That’s not to say the characters aren’t strong, or that we don’t care about them; the truth is quite the contrary. Kyme’s characters are fleshed out well, there are simply too many of them to invest in. Also, at times it becomes very clear that Firedrake is a middle chapter; Kyme does a lot of setting up future events that we presently see no payoff in.

I liked Firedrake, and again I’m excited to see how Kyme ends the trilogy. Kyme has a plan for the story, and once all three installments are released, I think the story as a whole will be worthy of much praise and a higher score. As it stands, Firedrake falls just a bit short, if only because it is an obvious middle chapter.

The Bottom Line

Nick Kyme’s Firedrake is very clearly the middle chapter of a trilogy, providing a nice filler narrative while advancing the overall story and further developing his characters. The story is strong, but the lack of resolutions—which are sure to come in the third installment—and the definitive absence of finality keep it from being great. Read it only if you’re previously read Salamander, as the novel will be confusing without the introduction Salamander provides. It is a solid novel, but requires previous reading, and some patience for the final book.

7/10 Above Average

03 January 2011

[40k Review] Prospero Burns - Dan Abnett

When Graham McNeill’s A Thousand Sons was released and had time to be processed, readers were almost immediately clamoring for it’s sister story, Prospero Burns; I know, as I was certainly one of them. However, due to an unfortunate medical situation, Dan Abnett’s accompanying story was put on hold for nearly four months.

It was worth the wait.

Both Prospero Burns and A Thousand Sons before it detail the events leading up to and the subsequent razing of Prospero, the Thousand Sons chapter homeworld. Where A Thousand Sons focused on the title legion and their primarch Magnus, Prospero Burns is the anthropological study of the VI Legion of astartes, the Sons of Russ, the Vlka Fenryka, seen through the eyes of conservator Kasper Hawser.

Hawser is an imperial conservator, his job roughly translated to a modern day anthropologist. He studies cultures through their histories and what they left behind, piecing together the lost bits of knowledge, hoping to discern from them the ‘why’ behind the Dark Age of Technology. His search leads him to Fenris where he ultimately finds his home as a skjald, or storyteller, for the VI Legion.

As skjald, Hawser is privy to the innermost workings of the VI Legion. Hawser, as he is cryptically instructed by an astartes priest, “is free to go as he pleases.” This allows the reader to see these otherwise private dealings through the eyes of a human, to see his reactions to them, and to see the very human responses Hawser has. Because of this freedom, the entirety of Prospero is told through Hawser’s eyes, to much the benefit of the novel. Through Hawser, we see life on Fenris, we see an Astartes battle drop, and we even see the Council of Nikea, but more importantly, we see his reactions to each situation as a human.

Like A Thousand Sons before it, Prospero Burns is a complicated, layered novel. Abnett has essentially remade the Space Wolves here; he keeps very much alive the Nordic spirit that the legion has previously embodied, but purposefully distances them from their barbaric roots. These are not the feral, unthinking wolves of yore; rather, through Hawser we see the intricate and rich culture Abnett has crafted for the Vlka Fenryka. Prospero Burns is a cultural study. Though we see the Wolves in action fighting, like most of Abnett’s work, the battles, while visceral and exciting, are purposeful and sparse. In fact, the actual siege and razing of Prospero accounts for a mere chapter in the entire book. This book is not bolter-porn. The story of Prospero Burns is not the fall of Prospero; rather, the story here is the men of the VI Legion, their culture, and their legacy.

I’ve seen a great deal of criticisms of Prospero Burns, primarily from two dissenting accounts: “there is not enough action” and “I hate that it is told through the eyes of a human, not an astartes.” Both of these complaints frustrate me. Part of the beauty of the Horus Heresy novels is that they are the grounds for the ‘literature’ of the 40k universe. The authors are allowed the freedom to explore ideas of morality and religion, and are allowed the freedom to be creative in doing so. In this regard, Abnett’s novel is supremely successful. As I’ve enunciated previously, Prospero Burns is an anthropological study of the Space Wolves. It documents their rich traditions and way of life of the VI Legion, and with sister novel A Thousand Sons creates a beautiful counterpoint to one another. The Space Wolves and Thousand Sons are perfect foils: one, a pragmatic, knowledge seeking culture driven by the thirst for more; the other an instinctive, tradition-rich and superstitious culture marked not by their ferocity, but rather their restraint. Abnett and McNeill need to be applauded for so deftly intertwining their novels while allowing each to stand firmly on its own ground, while having the foresight—and perhaps even courage—to write these novels from a human perspective; Prospero Burns would not have worked were it told from the eyes of an astartes.

Prospero Burns, as a result, is a masterful work. The novel is cerebral and deep, and while that has apparently garnered detractors, I’ve now read the novel twice and can find little wrong with it. Abnett’s take on the VI legion is brilliant. He has successfully created a story that gives the already tradition-rich VI Legion an even more interesting background, while maintaining some of the best facets of established Space Wolves canon and giving knowing winks to the readership with nods to the VI Legion’s history. His crafting of the astartes characters through the eyes of Hawser is spot on and helps weave a novel that not only stands on its own, but becomes even better when counterpointed with Graham McNeill’s A Thousand Sons. Simply put, Prospero Burns is the best Horus Heresy novel to date, and perhaps the best novel released by the Black Library.

The Bottom Line

Prospero Burns tells the story of the VI Legion astartes, the Space Wolves, through the eyes of human Kasper Hawser. Dan Abnett crafts a purposeful novel at a deliberate pace, showing apt restraint in regards to battles, while creating lasting characters and a rich culture for the Space Wolves. The best of the Horus Heresy novels and perhaps the best the Black Library has to offer.

10/10 Masterful, a must read