It should be obvious by now that this series is full of spoilers. If you want spoiler free reviews, you’ll find quite a few on YouTube and in other places–but here, you must read at your own risk! If that doesn’t bother you, then welcome aboard, and let’s have some fun!
We’ve packed a lot of action into three short books! The opening salvos of the Heresy series give us the rise of the Warmaster, Horus; the last days of the Great Crusade; Horus’s fall to Chaos; and the massacre at Isstvan III that purged nearly all the Loyalists from his ranks. Now, with three other Primarchs at his side, and more to come, Horus is set to begin his campaign against the Imperium and the Emperor.
But, wait! Near the end of Galaxy in Flames, we saw survivors escape! It will be some time before we get back to the few survivors on the surface of Isstvan III; but in the meantime, we have today’s novel, James Swallow’s The Flight of the Eisenstein. Let’s get started!
Most of the legions at Isstvan III had a large contingent of loyalists, something approaching a third of their forces. It’s probably that this is why Horus chose to use the Life-Eater virus to dispose of them rather than simply have his own traitor forces fight them–the cost would have been too high. Instead he sent his forces in to mop up after the virus did its work, knowing there would be some survivors. The plan was wildly successful; the survivors on the surface ultimately numbered only a few, possibly even in single digits (I haven’t seen a number, but I know a bit of what’s coming for Garviel Loken, and that would seem to indicate that not many at all survived).
But then there’s the Death Guard, the legion of the Primarch Mortarion–and one of their battle-captains, a man named Nathaniel Garro. I’ll go ahead and spoil a bit here, and say that a full *seventy* loyalist Death Guard will survive, thanks to the actions of Captain Garro. Of course, it helps that they weren’t on the surface to begin with–but that didn’t stop the traitors from trying to kill them!
Garro is, not coincidentally, one of my favorite characters so far. I suppose that’s by design–he’s the hero of the story, we’re supposed to like him. He’s a ruthless bastard, but it’s hard not to like him anyway. Garro is an old-school marine; remember that the Crusade has been going on for two centuries now, and the legions–some of them anyway–date back to the last days of the Unification of Terra. Nathaniel has been an Astartes since the early days, long before his Primarch was rediscovered, back when the legion still called themselves the Dusk Raiders, and served the Emperor directly.
Moreover, he’s a traditionalist. He holds strongly to the old philosophies of the legion, and that makes him singularly resistant to the traitor cause. But old-timers like him are dwindling, and most of the Death Guard these days have come up since Mortarion’s ascension, and will follow their Primarch into the grip of Chaos. The thought of the end of the old ways is much on his mind in this book, and perhaps reinforces his decision to break with his legion and stay loyal to the Emperor. Also aiding his decision is the bond between himself and two other loyalist Astartes we’ve seen: Garviel Loken of the Luna Wolves, a.k.a. the Sons of Horus; and Saul Tarvitz, of the Emperor’s Children. Garro has fought and bled with both men before, and their friendships are strong.
But then, it all comes down to chance.
The Isstvan campaign started like any other. Garro took his Seventh Company of the Death Guard to join the Emperor’s Children in an assault on the outermost planet, Isstvan Extremis. There he had his first brush with Chaos, in the form of a psyker in service to Slaanesh, called a Warsinger. Nathaniel was badly wounded, with his right leg amputated at the thigh. (He was saved by an Emperor’s Children apothecary, Fabius, who will eventually become a person of great significance himself–but that’s neither here nor there.) The leg would be replaced with a prosthetic, but in the meantime, Nathaniel was unfit for combat, which frustrated him to no end.
But, it was this unexpected injury that would not only save his life, but set his path. Unable to fight, he could not be sent down to Isstvan III; and without their leader, his company wouldn’t go either. To do otherwise would have alerted the other loyalists to the plan. This left Horus and Mortarion in a quandary–what to do with the wounded battle-captain? His men could certainly still cause problems; they were still likely to be loyalists when the plan began.
So, Horus and Mortarion shuffled Garro out of the way. They stationed him and his men aboard an older Death Guard frigate, the Eisenstein. Nominally Garro had command of the ship, superseding its non-Astartes captain; but to ensure that Garro could cause no trouble, he was accompanied by another captain, a traitor, Commander Ignatius Grulgor, who already had a rivalry with Garro. Grulgor wasn’t fully informed of the plan; but he accurately assessed it from the assignments for the ground assault, and decided that if Nathaniel couldn’t be won over, he would be eliminated.
Over Isstvan III
Grulgor wasn’t the only competent tactical analyst on the Eisenstein. Garro himself figured out that something was up, when he realized that their orders for the battle didn’t match up to the ship’s usual capabilities. After all, this frigate was no troop carrier, so why would they be ordered into drop position? He also began to suspect that something wasn’t right with Grulgor. His suspicions were confirmed when his personal servant took it on himself to spy on Grulgor, and saw the loading of the virus bombs containing the Life-Eater virus.
Things began to come to a head when Garro was contacted with instructions. A Thunderhawk attack craft had broken from an Emperor’s Children command ship, the Andronicus. A cluster of interceptors were chasing the ship; then, the Andronicus issued orders for the nearby Eisenstein to fire on the Thunderhawk. But Garro was interrupted by the pilot of the Thunderhawk: Saul Tarvitz. Tarvitz told Garro that the Warmaster was betraying the Emperor, starting with this assault on those who might resist; he was making his way to the surface to warn Loken and the others. He also confirmed that the rest of the fleet were also preparing to launch virus bombs.
Making a last-minute decision to trust his friend, Garro ordered the ship destroyed–but in actuality, he destroyed the lead interceptor. He used the garbled readings from the destruction to report the Thunderhawk eliminated, while actually allowing Tarvitz to escape.
The combination of events was enough to convince Garro’s men that they had been betrayed, by Horus, but also by their own beloved Primarch, Mortarion. But there was little time to dwell on their decision, for Grulgor’s crew was about to launch the bombs. A drawn-out running battle aboard the ship ensued, in which Grulgor killed Garro’s servant–but in the last moment, the servant released the virus into the compartment where Grulgor and his men were massed, and sealed the compartment.
The Flight of the Eisenstein
With the help of the ship’s captain, Garro quickly consolidated his forces and explained the situation. Though horrified, the survivors all swore themselves to Garro’s decision, and took an oath to carry warning of the betrayal to the Emperor. He knew that any loyalists were on their own; any attempt to unify their efforts would just paint a target on his back, and no one else was in a position to carry the warning. He prepared the ship to break orbit and leave the battlefield.
But before he could do so, the ship detected another incoming Thunderhawk, this time from Horus’s flagship, the Vengeful Spirit. Flown by Luna Wolves captain Iacton Qruze, the ship carried three refugees from the civilian slaughter aboard the flagship: Mersadie Oliton, Loken’s personal documentarist; Kyril Sindermann, the iterator; and Euphrati Keeler, the imagist-turned-prophet that the Emperor’s faithful had begun to call the Saint. Their testimony agreed with the betrayal of which Tarvitz had warned; and so Garro let them board.
Garro had his crew report an engine malfunction, for which protocol decreed that they leave the main formation. But the Death Guard’s First Captain, Typhon, grew suspicious when he could not reach Grulgor to confirm; and so he moved to intercept the Eisenstein in his battleship, the Terminus Est. He managed to inflict severe damage on the frigate as it fled–but the ship managed to limp away.
Unfortunately, all of the ship’s Astropaths–the psykers who would handle communication through the Warp–had died in the fight; and the lone Navigator, the psyker who would guide the ship’s Warp travel, was mortally wounded. With no options, Garro ordered a blind Warp-jump to escape pursuit.
In the Warp
We’ve often mentioned the hazards of Warp travel, but we’ve never seen them–until now. The Eisenstein‘s damages included a weakening of its Gellar field, the shield that keeps the unreality and disorder of the Warp at bay. Thus it caught the attention of Nurgle, the Chaos God of decay and disease. Nurgle couldn’t manifest fully, but could touch the ship. He resurrected Grulgor and his underlings, now as plague-ridden monsters, and the battle for control of the ship resumed; in the battle, the surviving Navigator was killed. Grulgor was defeated, but not before he managed to infect a loyalist marine named Solun Decius with a Chaos plague, Nurgle’s Rot. He also attacked Garro; but Garro ordered an emergency transition back to realspace. Immediately, with the direct power of the Warp cut off, Grulgor and his warriors fell dead again.
But, now the ship was stranded, with no Navigator, in a barren stretch of space. With few options left, Garro had the ship’s Warp-drive engine set to explode, then jettisoned, reasoning that the shockwave would be detected by any passing Imperial ships in the Warp. He got more than he bargained for, when someone did detect it and respond: the Primarch Rogal Dorn and his legion, the Imperial Fists. Dorn was en route to Terra at the Emperor’s order, to strengthen the planet’s defenses and serve as its Praetorian; but, perhaps very coincidentally, his fleet had been becalmed by Warp storms, which had only just begun to abate when the explosion was detected. Dorn took the survivors in and, though reluctant to believe their story, finally accepted the truth when he had heard all the evidence. He agreed to carry their message to the Emperor.
Not Finished Yet
Dorn remanded the survivors to the care of the Sisters of Silence, an order of psychic Nulls–soulless individuals, also called Blanks or Pariahs, on whom direct psychic powers don’t work–whose usual duties are to hunt down rogue psykers. The survivors rested in the Sisters’ fortress on the moon (Luna), called the Somnus Citadel; but even here they resented the forced inactivity, considering it an imprisonment. Here, the wounded and plague-stricken young marine, Solun Decius, finally fell to Nurgle’s control. He was then possessed by a Greater Daemon of Nurgle, the Lord of Flies; he rapidly mutated into a horrific monster. Tearing out of containment, he went on a killing spree in the fortress.
Garro himself took on the Daemon, driving it out onto the lunar surface before ending Decius’s tainted life and forcing the Daemon back into the Warp.
A New Mission
Afterward, Garro at last was permitted to see the beginning of the Emperor’s response to the Heresy. He, along with Iacton Qruze and one of the Sisters, Amendera Kendel, was summoned to a meeting with Malcador the Sigillite, the powerful psyker/Perpetual who served as the Regent of Terra, second to the Emperor. At the Emperor’s order, Malcador informed them that they had been selected to form the foundation of a new body, composed of “men and women of inquisitive nature”, to seek out traitors, witches, mutants, and xenos. This, he said, would be part of the Emperor’s plan to salvage victory from the destruction of the heresy, as even the Astartes were not immune to corruption. As a first task, he assigned them to find seven other Astartes from both traitor and loyal legions, men who would be utterly loyal to the Emperor, to become Knights-Errant with them. We then end with a hint that these men and women would go on to form the beginnings of several other important organizations in the Imperium’s future.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of The Flight of the Eisenstein to the overall course of the Heresy series. Up til now, we’ve been covering the broad strokes of the Heresy: Horus’s fall, the massacre at Isstvan III. (Soon we’ll also cover the Dropsite Massacre at Isstvan V, the last remaining major set piece for the Heresy’s beginning.) Here, though, we make a transition to smaller stories, stories that are more focused on individuals or particular pieces of the puzzle. Most of the series will be stories like this, on a smaller scale. And that’s a good decision, I believe; a long tale like the Heresy is composed of a multitude of moving parts, and deserves to have those parts explained. We might not have the same version we received if not for this story’s example.
But more than that, this is a damn good story. In a world where war is the order of the day–it’s right in the setting title!–you expect action. But I will tell you honestly that we haven’t seen action like this before. Garro’s desperate flight to Terra is a nonstop roller coaster of battle, snap decisions, and last-ditch efforts, all just to survive–no: All just to let the Imperium survive.
Although the Heresy series was designed to begin with the initial trilogy, with most other books being optional (at your reading preference), I can’t imagine not including Eisenstein with the initial trilogy. Sure, the initial trilogy wraps up the immediate story of Garviel Loken, who has been the primary viewpoint character thus far (“protagonist” is really the wrong word; there are too many people who can fit the bill). But we’ve come to know and love too many other characters to stop there! Without Eisenstein, you’ll be left wondering what happened to Kyril Sindermann, Mersadie Oliton, Iacton Qruze, Euphrati Keeler–and of course Garro himself, who made his first appearance in the trilogy.
This book is a good place to bring up a recurring theme that we’ll see several times: The power of sound in regard to Chaos. Several times in the early Heresy, sound, and especially music, is portrayed as a potent tool of the Ruinous Powers. We see it on Davin, where Horus fell to Chaos; we see it here, when Garro battles the Warsinger on Isstvan Extremis; we’ll see it in the next book, on the planet Laeran; and we’ll see it again in book seven, in the screaming of the city Mon Lo on the planet Nurth. None of this is a coincidence; somewhere further down the line, we’ll see that sound is connected to Slaanesh, the Chaos God of sensation, who will one day have entire groups of traitor Space Marines dedicated to it (the Noise Marines–but that’s a long way from here!). Music and sound serve as powerful vectors for the twisted power of Chaos, leading to distortion and death.
This is now the end, for awhile, to the chronological tale of the Heresy. From here, we’ll begin jumping around, setting up the background of various forces and individuals, explaining how they began the path that leads them either to greater loyalty, or great betrayal.
So: Check it out! But it’s probably not best to start here. Garro’s story is strong on its own, but it depends heavily on what has gone before. This won’t always be the case; for example, one could read book six or seven without having read anything that comes before. But here, you’ll want to have had the entire trilogy behind you before you read Eisenstein. It’s worth it, though! If you’re interested, give it a try.
Next time: We’ll prepare for the Dropsite Massacre, and look at the heresy through another traitor Primarch’s eyes, in Fulgrim by Graham McNeill. See you there!