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.


  1. Hey man. Don't forget the cool Garro audiobooks! The first one is great. Also coming up is The Keeler Image. An audiobook set in the 41st millennium starring Inquisitor Eisenhorn(!) looking back at the heresy.

    Also put forward are the following books

    The Outcast Dead (When an Astropath has a vision about the end of the heresy, it falls to a group of renegade traitors to get him off Terra.)
    Deliverance Lost (Raven Guard?)

  2. Yeah, I penned this previous to the Garro book coming out. Wow. It was great. I shall update soonish :)