Book Review: The Horus Heresy – Books 1 through 5

HappyDD was kind enough to send along his review of the first five novels in The Horus Heresy series:

Throughout this review I am going to use a lot of jargon from the 40K universe without defining it, as it would be too laborious to define everything. This is intended to be read by those with a passing familiarity with the universe.

The first five books of The Horus Heresy series by Black Library are part of an indefinite series that currently stands at 50,000 books (ok, so it’s currently at a book 18 being published in January 2012, but damn this is a long series). Of course, those among you that know of the Horus Heresy and its role in the Warhammer 40,000 universe will know that it is a huge event spanning many years across the known universe. For those that don’t know, the Horus Heresy is a massive event that was the catalyst bringing the forces of Chaos into battle with the forces of the Imperium (bad humans with demons versus good humans, basically). It was an event where the elite forces of the Imperium, the Space Marines, experienced a schism, with half of the marines remaining loyal to the Emperor and half of them joining the traitor Horus. Those that side with Horus eventually lose and are driven into the Eye of Terror after their defeat on Terra (I won’t say this is a spoiler because it’s been canon since the 80’s). The Emperor basically boards Horus’ flagship, the Vengeful Spirit, and kills him. Oh, and by the way, Horus was the Emperor’s son (genetically engineered, not really by birth). If you want any more of the story than that, Google is your friend. These books, while accessible to non-fans, are definitely a massive fan-service designed to be read almost exclusively by fans of the table-top game. These fans likely know some of the Horus Heresy lore as it stood before this series and other important 40K events/characters.

Until the publication of this series of novels, the Horus Heresy was something that was touched on briefly in different instruction books or army-specific rule books for the game Warhammer 40K. There was very little in the way of a central canonical storyline (pre-wiki) and there were the typical literary contradictions that are to be expected over many iterations of a story across many forms of media. Let me state, first and foremost, that these books do a few things very well: they flesh out the setting extraordinarily well, giving insight into characters that wouldn’t normally be covered in other forms of lore (i.e., rulebooks), such as civilians; they are fairly fast-paced, are rarely boring, and cover important events in enough detail that they do justice to the importance of the events; and they give insight into the workings of the primarchs of the space marine legions, who were previously massive 1-dimensional figures that were almost caricatures of how they are portrayed in these novels. There is an allure to reading the canonical lore that carries these novels when they are not at their best: I like to read about primarchs and remembrancers, even if the story isn’t airtight, simply because I like the subject material. There, now that my biases are out of the way, let’s focus on what these novels suck at.

First and foremost is the problem of multiple authors writing the series. I know, I know, this series is a massive and ambitious undertaking requiring the efforts of many individuals as it would overwhelm any one author. Well, fine, but what you get when you do what Black Library decided to do is inconsistent quality. Would it have been such a terrible thing to have core authors write the central books and then have other authors handle the extra-bonus books? Yes, yes it would, because this series is a giant money factory for Games Workshop. Money for the Money God! The first book is by Dan Abnett who is an accomplished author in 40K works and author of the Gaunt’s Ghosts series. This book is excellent, I’m talking hands-down excellent and it stands on its own without the base material holding it up. Most books of this type in the Horus Heresy series are described by English dorks as being “all vehicle.” What these self-important idiots mean is that there is no character development, no importance to the work, no meaning to analyze, nothing to the story at all except for a series of events linked by characters that could be anyone. There is no need to care about these characters at all. Think of it as describing a pedestrian action movie that you forget about seconds after watching. Horus Rising, Abnett’s first contribution to the series, is not all vehicle. It makes you care about Horus, you are lamenting what you know is going to happen to him because Horus does so much good and wants to be good. He is a shining example, yet imperfect, and deals with his issues the only way he knows how. Seems the Primarchs weren’t taught many coping mechanisms, but that is part of his internal struggle: making sense of his entire existence. His captains are also interesting characters that have varying levels of devotion to the different tenets of being a space marine. This book could be set in World War II and would be just as interesting to read. It’s fucking awesome. The fourth book, by comparison (The Flight of the Eisenstein by James Swallow) is pure crap compared to Horus Rising. While in book number one we get lots of insight into Horus and space marines in general, in book four we are introduced to Mortarian, the primarch of the Death Guard. What do we know about him by the end of the book? That he is tall and skinny, he likes to drink poison, and he joined Horus FOR SOME REASON. Mortarian is supposed to be sophisticated, plotting, a bit straightforward and not interested in needless decoration but, shit, the guy is a primarch. Primarchs don’t just do things for the fuck of it, but all we see of Mortarian is his discussions with other marines. We never get his inner most thoughts or desires, he just walks around being important and doing stuff that moves the story along. If you replaced all the Death Guard in this story with World Eaters and the primarch with Angron and changed “he likes poison” to “he is constantly angry” no one would have noticed the difference in terms of story development or character importance. This inconsistency in story quality is the biggest hiccup in this series so far and really makes it unpleasant to move from great books to books that remind you of fan-fiction.

Second, and related to the first point, is what has been called “war porn” on this blog and elsewhere. This is especially prevalent in the weaker books, I’m not sure if I just noticed it more in those books, but it seems to make up larger sections of the books that score lower overall. I get that space marines can kick the shit out of plague marines and that plague marines are gross in life and in death. But fuck, once I have read about one plague marine dying I get it. It is a useless waste of everyone’s time to describe the intestines spilling out of a plague marine’s bloated, maggot-infested belly as a chainsword wetly rips through the plague marine’s rotting skin, all while clouds of flies buzz around repairing any wounds sustained by festering in them. This is doubly true when the description has been given many times already, as there is an entire squad of the fucking things fighting space marines. Anyway, this is a bit of a sore point with me since it belies weak story. Maybe some people out there love this shit, and I will agree that it has its place and is effective at either disgusting the reader with what happens when Chaos infests, or at letting the reader know how brutal the battle is, but it quickly goes from exciting to boring. If I pick up a Skip and Spectre novel I will expect this kind of splatterhouse stuff, but it seems out of place in the Horus Heresy novels, like a man masturbating on a bus.

My final BIG dislike of the series is the cameos, and I think this is somewhat related to the multiple-authors thing. Mortarion, as far as I am concerned, is still just making cameos in the stories. If this were a series of movies, Mortarion would walk in, look at the camera, someone off screen would say “My lord!”, then he would nod to that person and slowly walk off into the darkness. Lots of people from the 40K lore make similar cameos: Kharn, Angron (“ME ANGRY!”), the entire Imperial Fists and Blood Angels legions (including primarchs), and so on. Now, if this were mere foreshadowing then that’s great, but you cannot foreshadow things that will occur multiple books in the future written by a different author effectively. It just won’t work. So we get this strange cameo phenomenon.

Book Specific Scores (out of 5):

Horus Rising by Dan Abnett

I never read a Dan Abnett book before this one, so I can’t reasonably be accused of fanboy-ism, but this book is awesome. I already mentioned what this book does well above. I give it 5/5.

False Gods, by Graham McNeill

This is an alright book, and is quite similar to Horus Rising in tone. So similar, in fact, that reading them back to back feels kind of repetitive. It was a good sequel, and had the unpleasant task of linking the first book to the third. Considering, it was okay: 4/5

Galaxy in Flames, by Ben Counter

Again, it was alright. You want to get specific? The legion turning traitor was just too fucking easy. I get it, the marines were easy to convince, but GODDAMN WERE THEY EASY TO CONVINCE. We’re talking about hand-to-hand combat against their fucking former brethren, people they have been training with for, let’s say, one hundred years. They had witnessed the attempted extermination of their more loyal compatriots. Then, the now-traitor marines are all “Fuck those guys!” and drop down to the surface to finish the job, without so much as a blink? I dunno. I get that Aximand was supposed to represent many people like him, people that had misgivings about what they were doing but followed orders anyway. That should have resulted in a mass slaughter of traitors by loyalists in my opinion, but did they ever ask for my opinion? No. That’s why this book gets: 4/5

The Flight of the Eisenstein, James Swallow

What the hell was this book’s deal? Garro is an awesome character. He is Death Guard, so he’s instantly blunt and a workin’-hard-blue-collar-union-man, but then James Swallow comes along and says “You know what would be THE BEST? If Garro had the same personality as my pet goldfish!” Garro, to be more precise, is quite reactive. He basically just states he has no intention of turning traitor, his company just kinda goes with it, and he spends the rest of the book trying to get away from the baddies who are just totally evil. The first three books paint the traitors as bad guys, but purposeful. Lawful evil, if you will. The bad guys that chase the Eisenstein would be at home in the Borderlands video game. They are one step above raving-lunatic baddies compared to the composure and poise of the traitors in the first three books. This book was also the worst violator of the “war porn” issue discussed earlier. I have a theory that they intended to end the series after this book, but it was so shitty they had to pump out at least 20 more novels to bury people’s memory of this one. 2/5, max

Fulgrim, by Graham McNeill

Wow. This book was great. Disclosure: I am a sucker for Slaanesh, I’m pretty sure if I had to pick a god to follow, I’d choose Slaanesh. But really, this book focuses in on the corruption of a Primarch and does a damn convincing job of showing how someone so dedicated to perfection could fall so far from it with the right mixture of sycophants, self-doubt, and weak introspection. I’m really glad this book happened, otherwise I wouldn’t have realized what Graham McNeill could do. 5/5

To conclude: I’m not sure if you can outright skip Flight of the Eisenstein, but I wish I could un-read it at this point. Maybe they pick up that storyline later, I know there is a new J-Swallow joint called “Garro, Legion of One” or something to that effect. I dunno, it will take a complete about-face from Swallow to convince me to read some of his stuff outside of this series.


3 Responses to Book Review: The Horus Heresy – Books 1 through 5

  1. wwasp says:

    Oh James Swallow, how do you keep getting paid? Given my previous exposures to his rubbish and your experience with the Flight of the Eisenstein, I’ll be skipping that one for sure.

  2. Kit says:

    Total agreement about everything and lols for your wording of it.

    My specific thing with Garro in Flight was that I felt like the book kept telling me “This guy is exactly like Loken. Look, he believes the same things Loken (There’s no explanation for why he holds these beliefs different from most people’s, you’ll have to transfer that from Loken too). You should transfer all your good feelings about Loken onto him.” And I was thinking I agreed with the sputteringly evil people that Garro was a stuck-up asshole who rightly had very few friends.

    So much love for Dan Abnett. Like you, that my first book of his to read. It was so heart-wrenchingly beautiful, even knowing what was going to happen. Especially knowing.

  3. HappyDD says:

    That’s actually something I didn’t realize, Kit. Now that I think of it, it does seem that Garro was supposed to be a Loken photocopy so that we would easily identify with him. Now that’s a new level of lazy, it’s epic-scale-meta lazym

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