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