We come together today to mourn the death of an era.
Now, I’m not here to complain about the direction a franchise is taking. If you’ve been here, you’ve already heard my thoughts on that. Things change, and canon rolls ever on, and every generation makes the material its own–and though it’s not always fun for those of us who are old-timers, it is the way things ought to be (if, of course, we want the fiction we love to live).
But, we can mourn an era, even as we acknowledge the place of a new development. And so we’ve come to do today.
I’ve talked a lot about Star Wars, and Warhammer 40,000, and Doctor Who–all franchises I love, and in some cases have loved for my entire life. I haven’t talked much about that other “Star” franchise, Star Trek. There’s a reason for that–two of them actually. For one, I simply only have so much time, and so many irons to put in the fire at one time. But for another, this blog has concerned itself more with books than with movies and television–and it’s been a very long time since I was conversant with the Star Trek “litverse”, as the fans sometimes call it. Oh, I’ve very occasionally looked at a book here or there; but almost without fail, those books have been from my own childhood or teen years, or even older. And for once, we’re not looking that far back!
To explain, you need to understand the state of Star Trek media over recent years (and by recent, I mean since 2000), and also a bit of in-universe lore as well.
Prior to the much more recent introduction of television series Star Trek: Discovery in 2017, things had been a bit…let’s say odd, in terms of televised or filmed Trek. The last movie of the original continuity was Star Trek: Nemesis all the way back in 2002, and the last television series was Star Trek: Enterprise, which ended in 2005, and which you should absolutely watch because it’s fantastic. In short, no one was doing anything with Trek on the screen, or at least not the Trek we’d all known and loved. I say this from the observations of an uninitiated outsider, not from any documented evidence; but, the consensus among people with influence seemed to be that we’d done all we could do there, the actors were aging…Trek was done. So of course, it’s time for a reboot! And that’s exactly what happened. Star Trek–the original series, that is–got a big-screen reboot in three films from 2009 to 2016, mostly creditable to producer J.J. Abrams. As fans are wont to do, we all endlessly debated/cursed/screamed/finally kinda sorta accepted the films, but it was rocky for a bit there.
That’s where the in-universe lore comes in! The saving grace of the reboot was that it wasn’t technically a reboot–it was a spin-off of sorts. Through shenanigans and time-travel hijinks, the reboot became an alternate universe, stemming off of the one we knew, which we now call the “Prime Universe”–and all at the cost of one Spock (not worth it, but what do I know). Thus, the universe was saved! Except for the planets Romulus and Remus, but who cares about them! We can still have stories set in the Prime Universe!
And for a whopping twenty years, give or take, that’s exactly what we got! Just…not on screen. No, what developed instead was one of the greatest collaborative writing projects I’ve ever seen, right up there with the Star Wars EU/Legends (and probably even bigger in the end), Warhammer 40,000’s Black Library, and the SCP Foundation wiki. That project is the “post-finale” era of the Star Trek Litverse.
Depending on how you count it, that’s up to twenty-four series of novels, all linked and interwoven together. Some twenty-five novelists came together to create this amazing shared universe, and together they took the Trek universe to places it could never have gone on television. Characters grew and changed; some came along, some left, and some died. New ships were introduced, new conflict, new regions. Star Trek was alive, more so here than on the screen, and it was amazing. I haven’t dug into this era myself, but I’ve watched from the outside, seen the chatter about it, and even just a glimpse is impressive.
And now, it’s coming to an end.
Three days ago, author David Mack announced on his blog that the end is nigh. You can read about it here. The gist of the story is something we could all have predicted, though no one wanted to. Star Trek has the same rules for its secondary (read: non-film, non-TV) media as nearly any other franchise: Such media, including novels, must be consistent with current television and/or film canon, such that it supports those expensive flagship projects rather than competes with them. Things have been a bit lax the last few years, allowing authors in the Litverse time to scramble toward completion of projects–but now, with a whopping four series running (Discover, Picard, Short Treks, and Lower Decks) and new projects predicted, the piper has come calling, and it’s time to go. The Litverse is not consistent with the creative direction of the new series, and developments in the Litverse have deviated too far to be grandfathered into the new canon. In short, Star Trek’s Litverse is experiencing what the Star Wars Expanded Universe experienced in 2014: relegation to secondary status in order to make way for new, canon-consistent materials.
Mack and his fellow authors have learned something from Star Wars, though, and they aren’t being caught unawares. When the announcement was made regarding Star Wars, there was no time to cap off the existing storylines–several novels remain unpublished, and we never see the deaths or other ends of our major characters (except Chewbacca–RIP Chewy, we still love you!). But, a wrap-up is coming for the Litverse, in the form of the aptly named Coda trilogy, which will be released over the next few months.
I can only hope that the fans will take this change with as much thought and preparation. Over in the Star Wars fandom, we haven’t always shown our best face in light of the changes to our universe. It’s getting better, I think; but we’ve had some rough moments. I think Trek fans, who have always been optimistic about the future (after all, that’s the core of Trek, that optimism!), will do a little better–and I wish them the best. I hope to join them myself at some point.
And so we salute the Litverse today. Neither gone nor forgotten–but laid to rest, and its place is well earned.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m grabbing a flowchart and heading to the bookstore.
Yesterday, while preparing to post the previous entry in this series, it occurred to me that for all the work I put into these book reviews (both here and over on The Time Lord Archives), I’m essentially just writing book reports. It’s junior high school all over again! And that’s a bit deflating to consider, until a friend reframed it for me–that a skill picked up in school continues to bring me pleasure today. Which, I think, is a much more charitable–and more valid–way to look at it. After all, though I appreciate every reader and follower, I really do this for myself, as an expression of the pleasure I’ve gotten out of books over the years.
That sentiment rings doubly true with me today, because, unlike yesterday’s novel, today’s novel launched while I was still in junior high (if only barely; I finished junior high two months later). Released April 1, 1994, that novel is The Courtship of Princess Leia by Dave Wolverton, and was it ever a nostalgia trip for me! To explain: The last seven books we’ve covered are the first seven books in the X-Wing series by Michael A. Stackpole and Aaron Allston–none of which I read at the time of release (1996-1999). Aside from not being particularly interested at the time in what felt like an offshoot of the main series of Star Wars novels, I also couldn’t afford them; I did my reading via the library, and they didn’t have the X-Wing novels. So, for those books, as with Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor, this project wasn’t a reread; it was the initial read. Not so with The Courtship of Princess Leia! I’m not certain that I read it immediately upon release, but it had to have been within the first year; I do know I had not read very much else in the Expanded Universe at that time, possibly only the Thrawn Trilogy (which we have yet to cover). So, for me, this was early days indeed.
That sentiment is true for the novel itself, as well. Only five of the new era of EU novels precede its publication: The Thrawn Trilogy, The Truce at Bakura, and Jedi Search. (To clarify: This is not including the young readers books, such as The Glove of Darth Vader, of which there were an equal number at that time. While the canonicity of those books can be debated, they have little influence on continuity, and we aren’t considering them here.) Fans of the later EU are going to find this novel to be a bit rough around the edges.
So, let’s dive in! As usual, there are spoilers ahead, although I should say that the major points of this novel have been well known among EU fans for a long time.
The events of this novel pick up shortly after the events of Solo Command, and flow immediately from those events. Han Solo returns to Coruscant after the apparent destruction of Zsinj’s flagship, looking for rest and expecting to reunite with Leia Organa–only to walk in on a most distressing event. Leia has been seeking a treaty with the reclusive Hapes Consortium, a monarchy covering at least 63 worlds, which possesses a large battle fleet and a fabulous amount of wealth, both of which the New Republic needs if it is to continue to deal with the remnants of the Empire. However, coming as a surprise to both Leia and Han, the treaty is contingent on a marriage proposal for Leia from the Hapan crown prince, Isolder! Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker is searching for records of the pre-Empire Jedi; his search leads him to mention of an obscure planet called Dathomir.
Han and Isolder quickly devolve into a hostile rivalry for Leia’s affections, in which Han is undercut by the efforts of the many diplomats who want to see the marriage take place. Desperate to impress Leia, Han gets into, and wins, a high-stakes card game, which nets him ownership of a planet. He plans to present it to Leia as a prospective home for the displaced Alderaanian people…only to find out it is deep within Warlord Zsinj’s territory. The name of the planet? Dathomir. Seeing time tick away, Han kidnaps Leia and takes her to the planet, but is shot down in orbit, and discovers the planet was interdicted by the Empire (that is, no landings or launches were permitted, cutting the planet off from all transportation). Isolder follows him there, and with assistance from Luke, arrives only minutes after Han and Leia–and, along with Luke, is promptly shot down as well. Luke saves Isolder’s life via the Force, and Isolder, his worldview shaken by this act, becomes a student of the Jedi way (although he lacks force sensitivity). Luke discovers a centuries-old Jedi ship crashed on the planet, a mobile training academy called the Chu’unthor; shortly after, he and Isolder are captured by a Force-powerful woman named Teneniel Djo. Soon reunited, our heroes–Han, Leia, Luke, Isolder, C-3PO and R2-D2–find themselves caught in an impending war between Teneniel’s tribe of Force-sensitive “witches” and their evil counterparts, the Nightsisters. The Nightsisters are seeking a way off the planet to spread their dominion; and they have just become aware of the Millennium Falcon, which is damaged but repairable.
Heavy spoilers here: In the end, several things are accomplished. The Nightsisters are defeated; Han trades ownership of the planet to the tribe; the Falcon is repaired; Zsinj is at long last killed by Han, and his ship, the Iron Fist, is destroyed; Luke obtains the extensive records from the Chu’unthor; Isolder weds Teneniel Djo and commits Hapes to joining the Republic; and, oh yeah, Han and Leia get married. It’s a strong transition to the next phase of the EU, and a lot of ground is covered!
So, what of those points? Let’s look at a few, and I’ll give you my thoughts.
The Nightsisters and Dathomir: When I first read this book, this was the only mention of Dathomir in existence. At the time, it seemed like just another interesting planet: Fascinating, sure, but probably just a one-off location, much like Mimban in 1978’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. Little did I know back then that Star Wars is guilty of that one utterly insane flaw that plagues franchise fiction: Never being able to let something go! This is a more egregious problem in Star Wars than in some other franchises, because of the sheer size of its universe, and it happens all the time. Rightly speaking, a backwater world like, say, Tatooine should not be as pivotal or as frequently seen as it is; but it shows up constantly, and everyone who’s anybody has been there. (“Well, if there’s a bright center of the universe, you’re on the planet it’s farthest from.” ~Luke Skywalker, A New Hope) Something similar happens to Dathomir, both in the EU and in current canon, where this planet that was so unknown that none of our heroes had heard of it or could look it up, takes on a much greater significance. Now, to be fair, it’s understandable for it to become significant in the future from this point; Teneniel Djo becomes the Queen Mother of Hapes, and her daughter becomes both Queen Mother and a significant Jedi. But the planet becomes significant for other, much less justifiable reasons, both in the future and the past. Likewise, the Nightsisters prove just too irresistible for later writers, especially in canon; they become a surrogate family for Darth Maul, and their history becomes quite muddled as compared to the simplicity found in this novel. It may be inevitable, but I find it disappointing; I much prefer the pristine, backwater Dathomir we see here, and the powerful but also pitiable Nightsisters we see.
The Chu’unthor: In 1994, this was the most striking part of the book to me, and yet it’s largely downplayed. These days, I understand the line the authors had to walk; the overall story of the EU could advance, and there seemed to be a plan for that, but no one could advance it too quickly. Thus, a discovery such as the Chu’unthor and its records should have been earthshattering–a real and powerful boon for the nascent Jedi order–but they are rarely mentioned again after this, as I recall. This is one instance where further expansion would absolutely be merited; and indeed it does get some elaboration on its lore, but mostly via supporting materials such as sourcebooks. What a pity; this was a great start, but it fizzles out later.
It’s worth mentioning that we’re seeing the early stages of something that is quite prominent in upcoming years. Luke’s attempts to restart the Jedi order really get started here, though there are nods to it in earlier stories (and of course some later stories had already been written–when I say it starts here, I mean in-universe). Remember that this all occurs before the prequel trilogy was produced. Things look very different from their final forms; for example, Luke concludes here that the Jedi never had a planet-bound training center at all, and instead had the Chu’unthor as a mobile academy. Obviously the Jedi Temple on Coruscant wasn’t a thing yet–it would be five more years before The Phantom Menace established it. Fortunately, the EU proved to be flexible enough to incorporate those changes when they came about. Chiefly it did this by making the Empire very effective indeed, especially in terms of expunging the memory of the Jedi; we’ve already touched on this a bit with the X-Wing series and the Jedi museum on Coruscant, which the Emperor had packed away. Still, throughout the EU’s lifespan, there’s always going to be some tension between the prequels’ portrayal of the Jedi–stiff, regimented, regulated, centralized–and the wild variety that springs up in the early days of the EU (which we’ll see when older Jedi are proven to have survived the Emperor’s purge).
Isolder and Teneniel Djo: Theirs is a great, if abrupt, romance. It’s almost too abrupt–one could get whiplash at how fast the affections of these two change–but in context that makes sense. Both characters are highly motivated people of action, prone to making quick but impactful decisions; Teneniel Djo even tells Isolder directly that women in her society often choose their husbands very quickly, with little time for forethought. I’m quite happy for them; but I have always thought of their marriage as a stepping stone for the purposes of the EU, as it’s going to get fairly little discussion later in favor of their prominent daughter, Tenel Ka. As for their kingdom (er, queendom? It’s decidedly matriarchal), Hapes, the level of intrigue and barely-veiled violence described leads me to only one conclusion: Game of Thrones in space! If ever there’s a spinoff in need of being written, it’s that one.
Zsinj and the Iron Fist: Here is the true payoff of the novel, and I would strongly suggest that Wolverton had no idea when he wrote it–rather, it’s mostly creditable to the work of Aaron Allston in Solo Command. That novel and this, I believe, are best read in quick sequence, as they function as an unofficial duology. Courtship was written in media res with regard to the war against Zsinj, which is in hindsight impressive to me. Wolverton gives us the end of the war, and hints at what has gone before, in a way that very much suggests that this is a sequel. The problem? It isn’t. In fact it was written five years before the book that would detail the events that Courtship establishes. And so, Allston completes the cycle. Wolverton tells us about some of the systems to which Han had chased Zsinj; Allston shows it to us. Wolverton describes the planetary Nightcloak (an invisibility cloak of sorts around the planet Dathomir); Allston shows us the prototype that saves the Iron Fist from destruction. The two books are so tightly woven that the only significant error I found is that Courtship implies that Iron Fist is a lesser class of Star Destroyer, rather than a Super Star Destroyer. It’s really marvelous how well the two books coordinate.
Han and Leia: Here we come to the purpose of the book. Timothy Zahn had already established in the Thrawn Trilogy that Han and Leia were married at some point; and as it’s unthinkable that such a prominent event for two of the “big three” characters would go undocumented, here we are! It’s a chapter that needed to be told. Ironically, the wedding itself only gets just a brief and cursory description, totaling about a page (I think; I did my reread in ebook form, so the page length varies), all told from Luke’s perspective as a late-arriving guest. Well, I suppose the title is “The Courtship of Princess Leia”, not “The Wedding of Princess Leia”. And yet, this simple scene is going to lay the foundation for two decades of stories to follow; Han and Leia’s marriage is one of the cornerstones of the post-RotJ EU, and no one would dare to suggest it’s anything less than rock solid (looking at you, The Force Awakens). Well, okay, maybe not exactly that. But this is a historic moment! Fun trivia: It’s not the only take on their wedding! The young readers Jedi Prince series–which we aren’t covering here–touched on the marriage of Han and Leia, four in-universe years earlier, in its final installment, Prophets of the Dark Side. That book featured Leia planning her wedding, and seeing a vision of Han and two children (ostensibly their twins Jacen and Jaina, already established in the Thrawn Trilogy). The plan was for the wedding to be interrupted, then addressed in the next and final book, which was never released. (Credit to Redditor /u/QualityAutism for this trivia.)
Before we go, here’s a hint of what is to come: There’s a minor, comedic plot thread here in which C-3PO, eager to help Han win Leia back from Isolder, digs into Han’s past and discovers that Han is the descendant of a king of Corellia, and thus hereditary king himself. Threepio goes on to call him “King Solo” throughout the book, before discovering on the day of the wedding that Han’s ancestor was a usurper and false king who was rightly deposed–much to Threepio’s horror and Luke’s humor. (Luke locks him in a closet to keep him from interrupting the wedding with this news.) It’s just a bit of silliness, but it presages the rather major topic of Han’s actual lineage, which we’re going to dig into in depth in the Han Solo Trilogy and the Corellian Trilogy–but that’s all a long way off.
Opinions have swayed over the years regarding The Courtship of Princess Leia. These days it gets a bit of flak, and doesn’t often make it onto fans’ “essential books” lists. Perhaps there’s justification for that. The story is choppy; things happen fast, without much setup. The characterization is uneven; Han, who has just come off being a decorated Republic general, gets drunk and says and does things that seem jarring coming from him. Some of that can be attributed to love making people both desperate and crazy, but it’s a little over the top (he literally shoots Leia with what amounts to a date rape gun, then kidnaps her). It’s probably not a story that would play out the same if written today–but it needed to be written. I personally consider it essential, not for its intrinsic qualities, but because it details such an iconic moment in our heroes’ lives. We need this story for what lies ahead.
So, that’s it! We’re over the hurdle of Han and Leia’s wedding, and all is smooth sailing ahead! No, of course not. After all, what’s a wedding without a honeymoon? And that’s what we’ll cover next time, in Troy Denning’s novel, Tatooine Ghost (accompanied by the short story, Corphelion Interlude). See you there!
The Courtship of Princess Leia is available from Amazon and other booksellers.
You can find Wookieepedia’s treatment of the novel here.
We’ve done it! We’ve reached the end of the X-Wing series! Or, well, almost. That still counts, right?
When last we checked in with the pilots of the New Republic, we saw the formation and further adventures of Wraith Squadron, Wedge Antilles’s unique squad of screwups-turned-pilots who moonlight as commandos and intelligence agents. Rogue Squadron sometimes covered similar ground…but not particularly effectively–remember Corran Horn getting beaten to a pulp in an Imperial spaceport? For the Wraiths, it’s the order of the day, and they’re surprisingly good at it. They are, essentially, the Suicide Squad of the Star Wars universe–they’re washouts, occasional criminals, men and women with some very checkered pasts, and the guilt and burdens that go with those pasts. And I love every minute!
But, all good things must come to an end, and this is the last hurrah for Wraith Squadron–for now, anyway. Likewise, it’s the end of the X-Wing series, for now. We will indeed see a few more stories, one just a few books away, one much further–but both of those are later installments. We are, for the time being, done with the X-Wing series. So, if this is the last hurrah, let’s make it a good one!
The book is 1999’s Solo Command, by Aaron Allston, and it’s unique among the X-Wing series…but we’ll get to that later. For now, let’s dive in!
As usual, expect spoilers ahead! I’ll try to keep the bulk of the plot unspoiled, but some details are just unavoidable.
Picking up where we left off in Iron Fist, we find General Han Solo–yes, that Han Solo, making his first substantial appearance in the X-Wing series–consolidating his command for the final push against Warlord Zsinj. Zsinj, you will recall, has been the focus of the Wraith Squadron section of the series, replacing defeated (probably) Ysanne Isard as the antagonist of the hour. Zsinj gets most of his story told here, but he didn’t originate here; the fandom first met him five years earlier, in The Courtship of Princess Leia. That book is still to come for us, though! Except for the Imperial Remnant itself–the official Empire, if you will–Zsinj’s fragment of the Empire is the largest and most aggressive, and he has been giving the New Republic a run for their money for a long time.
I can’t say that Zsinj is the type of character I would like in real life (and of course he’s not meant to be liked)–but I will say that he’s a fascinating character. He’s a counterpoint to Isard. Where she was all hate and cool self-collection–after all, the Republic referred to her disparagingly as “Iceheart”–Zsinj is volatile and moody. While he’s still a fantastic strategist, he gives in to his emotions in the moment, often proclaiming that he can’t do one thing or another, or exulting over a victory he believes is sure. Where Isard crushes the spirits of everyone around her, Zsinj feeds off of their emotions and their reactions to him. He’s vain and foppish, at the same time that he’s shrewd and calculating, and both facets are equally him. Allston makes a powerful effort here to make Zsinj a real character, not just a monolith at which the Rogues and Wraiths will hurl themselves. (More on that when we get to The Courtship of Princess Leia.) We didn’t get a particularly good look at him in the previous two entries, but here, the veil is pulled away.
Perspective in this story switches among the Rogues and Wraiths, with a generous dose of Wedge Antilles, Warlord Zsinj, and Han Solo thrown in–but generally still follows the Wraiths as much as possible (after all, this is still Allston’s work). With the viewpoint bouncing around as much as it does, individual Wraiths don’t get as much screen time as they did in the last two books; primarily it’s Garik “Face” Loran and Lara Notsil/Gara Petothel who hog the spotlight here (but in a good way; their stories needed to be told). Numerous threads from the previous entries get tied up here: Face moves into a command position; Lara’s loyalties are resolved (I won’t spoil it, because we’ll see her again further down the road); Piggy (the modified Gamorrean in the squadron) gets some closure regarding his origins; Wedge returns to Rogue Squadron; and oh yes, Lieutenant Kettch is vindicated!
That last bears a moment of explanation, because it’s so entertaining. There’s been a running joke throughout the Wraith Squadron trilogy, in which the Wraiths convince Zsinj that they have a genetically-modified Ewok, named Kettch, among their pilots. Kettch is reputed to be as intelligent as a human, but–owing to his short stature–requires special prosthetics to fly a fighter. The Wraiths take the trick so far as to acquire a life-size Ewok doll and put it on Wedge’s lap during a mission, so that anyone looking into his cockpit canopy will believe the ruse. The story is just believable enough that Zsinj–who is aware of the bioengineering lab that created Piggy–falls for it. Doll Kettch gets a final showing in this book, and that seems to be the end of it…until Lara raids the biolab, and discovers (you guessed it) an intelligent, pilot-trained Ewok who uses prosthetics to reach the controls.
It’s a great joke, and one that would only work here–but it only works because Allston spent three books earning it, setting up the joke in a believable way. And this, I might add, is the sort of thing he did well in every instance. If Allston introduces a new element to the story, you can bet it’s going to pay off, and pay off well–but never in a “deus ex machina” fashion. The payoff will never seem strained, never seem to have been sprung on us; you’ll get there and exclaim “of course, I’ve been expecting that!”–even though it never truly occurred to you ahead of time.
And yet, I didn’t find this book to be as enjoyable as the previous two. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a particularly large difference. It’s that, in the previous two books, one very much gets the impression Allston is having fun for the sake of having fun. He’s still having fun here–but there’s a goal in mind. It’s time to land this plane. And, while I consider that to be a strength of the story–you’ll see what I mean when we get to the next book–it also makes it just a little less enjoyable, because there’s always an element of grind when you’re trying to reach a goal. You can’t just enjoy the ride the way you did before.
But, read it anyway. You’ve come this far. Land the plane.
Now, a taste of what’s to come. I’ll expand on this point in the next post, but let’s tie it together for the moment. When the Expanded Universe (today’s Legends) kicked off in 1991, with Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, the field was wide open for new Star Wars media. There had been previous entries, of course, including comics and books; but there hadn’t been a novel since 1983’s Lando Calrissian and the Starcave of ThonBoka, and there was practically nothing out there that expanded on the post-Return of the Jedi era. The pace was slow for a few years even after Heir, with only a few novels in the first few years. But by 1999, when Solo Command released, the field was already starting to become a bit crowded. Solo Command is actually quite the latecomer; nearly all of the novels between Return of the Jedi and the New Jedi Order series had already been released. (In fact, Vector Prime, the first book of the NJO series, released late in the same year.) And so, Allston (and Stackpole; after all, the Wraith novels proceed directly from the Rogue Squadron novels) had the perhaps unenviable task of wedging (pun definitely intended) their stories into the middle of an already well-established continuity.
But, Allston delivered, in the best way possible. His story fits nearly perfectly with the events of the next chronological novel, The Courtship of Princess Leia. I’ll go so far as to say that it would be hard to fully appreciate Courtship without first reading Solo Command; the books form a sort of unofficial duology that makes so much more sense as a unit. It still amazes me, after all this time, that Courtship set up the elements that it did, such as the end of Zsinj’s war with the Republic, and just…left them dangling for five years, until Allston came along and fleshed it out. It makes me wonder how much planning there really was behind the scenes, because it seems like something that must have been coordinated.
So: Read this book! It’s possible that one might look at the entire X-Wing series as non-essential reading; in many ways it is, in fact, a pleasant “extra” for the post-RotJ EU. Solo Command makes it harder to hold that opinion, I think; if you want to proceed onward–and of course, if you’ve come this far–you’ll want (dare I say need?) this book as well. At the very least, you won’t be disappointed; you’ll find it enjoyable.
Next time: We shift gears, and follow Han Solo back to Coruscant, where he gets a most unpleasant surprise! We’ll take a look at Dave Wolverton’s 1994 novel, The Courtship of Princess Leia. See you there!
X-Wing: Solo Commandis available from Amazon and other booksellers.
You can find Wookieepedia’s treatment of the novel here.
Over the last few books, the Horus Heresy series has stepped away from the “present day” of the Heresy to cover some important prequel events. The two books created a “bookend” of sorts; we looked at the I Legion under Lion el’Jonson, and the XX Legion, the last to be established, under Alpharius. The I Legion, the Dark Angels, will be loyalists during the heresy (though ultimately with an entirely separate betrayal within their own ranks–but that’s a story for another day), while the XX Legion, the Alpha Legion, will join the traitors–but with a twist (that I won’t spoil again here!).
Now, though, it’s time to step back into the action. We’ve seen the two great ambushes that Horus orchestrated to purge as many loyalists as possible from his ranks–the ambush at Isstvan III, and the Dropsite Massacre at Isstvan V. But there are plenty of loyalist legions left, and they won’t stand idly by while Horus comes for the Emperor. They, too, must be taken down if Horus is to win this war. There is perhaps no more loyal legion than the XIII Legion, the Ultramarines, under their primarch Roboute Guilliman–and so they become the target for the traitor XVII Legion, the Word Bearers under Lorgar. Lorgar, you will recall, is the first Primarch to fall to Chaos, long before Horus; it was his machinations that led to the fall of Horus at Davin. This is a Legion totally given to Chaos; and they have plans to destroy the Ultramarines before the alarm can even be raised. And thus we come to Battle for the Abyss, by Ben Counter.
Spoilers ahead! If you want a more spoiler-free review, with just my thoughts on the book, skip ahead to the last dividing line in the post.
The Furious Abyss
Hidden in the depths of the solar system is the moon of Jupiter known as Thule. This minor celestial body has been hollowed out by the Mechanicum of Mars, then converted into a massive, single-use shipyard; and hidden inside that shipyard grows a monster. The Furious Abyss is a new creation, an Abyss-class battleship, the largest ever constructed by the Mechanicum. Its engines are enormous, its armament unmatched–and it is entirely under the command of the Word Bearers legion. It is early days in the Heresy, and most of the galaxy is unaware of the treachery of the Warmaster and his aligned Legions, which include the Word Bearers. But they will know soon enough; for the Heresy is about to announce itself. The Furious Abyss takes flight for Macragge, the homeworld of the Ultramarines, to set an ambush that will open the way for an invasion of the entire system, and the destruction of the XIII Legion.
I need to stop here and talk about the Mechanicum for a moment. Since the colonization of Mars many thousands of years ago, the planet has been its own entity, sometimes even rivaling Terra. It is wholly given over to the pursuit of technology, hence the name of its ruling organization: the Cult Mechanicus, or the Mechanicum. They are a religious body as well as a political one, seeking oneness with their proclaimed god, the Omnissiah. Much has been written over the years as to whether the Emperor is also the Omnissiah, and I won’t get into that here–but it’s the pretext of that claim that allowed the Emperor to ally the Imperium with the Mechanicum rather than try to conquer them. This alliance is the reason the Emperor’s symbol is the aquila–the double-headed eagle, with one head representing the Imperium, and the other representing the Mechanicum. Since that day, the two have functioned as one, with the Mechanicum cranking out the ships, armor, and weapons that the Great Crusade requires. Mars’s influence also covers other bodies in the solar system, such as the shipyards around Jupiter, which explains Thule’s selection for the construction of the Furious Abyss. At this time, it appears that elements in the Mechanicum–all the way up to their leader, the Fabricator-General–have decided to throw in their lot with the traitors.
I could not find art of the Furious Abyss. All art is of the related Gothic battleship, from which the Abyss-class design was drawn.
The Furious Abyss–or just Abyss, for convenience–is captained by a Word Bearers admiral named Zadkiel, who is a true zealot indeed, and also quite paranoid. They aren’t called the Word Bearers for nothing; their form of Chaos worship is a dedication to the Word of Lorgar. They literally have scriptures that guide them in the pursuit of Chaos. As a symbol of this, the Abyss carries an experimental weapon, a plasma lance, in its prow–which is shaped like a massive book of scriptures.
The Fist of Macragge
Somewhere between Terra and Macragge, an Ultramarines cruiser called the Fist of Macragge sails the void, captained by Brother-Captain Hektor. The ship has been recalled to Macragge (or Ultramar, as the system is called–it also includes the planet Calth, among others, all under the jurisdiction of the Ultramarines) to muster for a campaign to liberate the planet Veridan from the Orks. On the way, it is supposed to stop at Vangelis Spaceport, a popular transfer point, to pick up a contingent of Ultramarines who wait to join the campaign.
The ship never makes it to Vangelis. Instead, its proximity alarms sound as it suddenly encounters the largest ship any of the crew have ever seen. The Furious Abyss wastes no time; it immediately fires upon the hapless cruiser, testing its weapons. Hektor never gets a chance to learn the name of the ship that kills him–but he does manage to get the astropaths to send a warning.
Let’s meet our protagonists! This story features a motley collection of Space Marines from various Legions, as well as Imperial Navy officers from the Saturnine Fleet, an older and storied fleet that is about to be retired. We have the Ultramarines who were waiting for the Fist of Macragge: Brother-Captain Cestus; his honor guard, consisting of Battle-Brothers Antiges, Saphrax, and Laeradis; and several unnamed squad members. There’s the VI Legion Space Wolves; it’s a small squad, led by Wolf Guard Captain Brynngar and his Battle-Brother Rujveld, and comprising several lower-ranked Blood Claws. There is a squad of the XII Legion World Eaters, Angron’s Legion (unaware that their Primarch and much of the Legion have turned traitor), led by Brother-Captain Skraal. And then there is a single representative of Magnus’s Legion, the Thousand Sons: the psyker Brother-Sergeant Mhotep, who serves as fleet captain of the ship Waning Moon. From the Saturnine Fleet, we have Rear Admiral Kaminska, captaining the Wrathful; her helmsmistress, Venkmeyer; and her Principal Navigator, Orcadus. The Wrathful will be accompanied by four escort attack ships; also, a Captain Vorlov, of the mothballed ship Boundless, will bring his ship and crew to join them..
All of the above are stationed at Vangelis Spaceport, awaiting various assignments. Cestus, Antiges, and Brynngar are old friends, having fought many battles together. The World Eaters, on the other hand, are looked upon cautiously by all others involved; their inheritance of their gene-father Angron’s renowned fury and battle-rage, makes them a bit suspect in everyone’s eyes. Mhotep keeps to himself until things kick off; and the Saturnine fleet staff–well, they’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Interstellar communication is a tricky thing. It can only be done via psyker, aka astropath; and astropaths are not known for transmitting text very well. They communicate instead in images and feelings, which must be parsed and interpreted. That would make things difficult enough; but when the message–no, the psychic death scream–from the Fist of Macragge comes in, it’s so overwhelming that a burst of power escapes from the receiving astropaths, damaging the station. Cestus, Antiges, and Brynngar leap into action to shut down the damaged main reactor; but in the process, Cestus gets caught in the psychic blast, and gets a vision of the projected course of the as-yet-unknown Abyss: Macragge. He knows, with a cold certainty, that the ship is going to attack Macragge. Worse, it is accompanied by a disturbance in the Warp that prevents communication; there is no way to warn either Macragge or Terra in time. Cestus will be forced to act.
A Desperate Alliance
Cestus calls a conference of all the available Astartes. Over their objections, he lays out what he knows: that the unknown ship has destroyed the Fist of Macragge; caused the inadvertent damage to Vangelis; and is en route to Macragge for some form of ambush. Then, he demands an alliance to stop the Abyss.
It’s a difficult thing to ask. One would be hard pressed to find a more disparate group of Astartes than the Ultramarines, Space Wolves, and World Eaters. It is made worse when, for reasons of his own, Mhotep arrives and volunteers himself and his ship and crew. Mhotep is a psyker, as is his entire Legion, and this does not sit well with Brynngar; the tension between the two will be an ongoing problem. (At this point the Council of Nikaea has already passed, and Magnus’s legion was censured for their sorcery; most legions still have their psyker Librarians, but the actions of the Thousand Sons are a step too far for many. It doesn’t help that Mhotep is here for reasons he determined through psychic divination.) But somehow, through sheer force of will, Cestus obtains the commitment of the others. At the same time, his honor guard is busy commandeering ships; and the flotilla they acquire happens to be that of Admiral Kaminska, who–in addition to the prospective mothballing of her fleet–is near retirement herself. She, too, will be a source of contention, as she simmers under Cestus’s command of her fleet; but the knowledge of the end of her career will drive her to give everything to this cause.
It’s a small fleet of seven ships that departs Vangelis: The Wrathful; its four escorts, Fearless, Ferox, Ferocious, and Fireblade; the Boundless; and Mhotep’s Waning Moon. The ships set off in pursuit of the Fearless Abyss, hoping to catch it before it can reach the Tertiary Coreward Transit, a major route through the Warp.
Meanwhile, Zadkiel sharpens his weapons, in the figurative sense. He deals with a young and ambitious Word Bearer named Ultis, whom he begins to shape into a weapon to hurl at his enemies–both to defeat his opponents, and to remove a potential rival. He is interrupted when the Abyss’s sensors detect the approaching fleet.
Perhaps things might have gone very differently in this book if Cestus and his people had known about the Heresy. As it is, they will hold back at first, unable to believe that other Astartes could have turned on the Ultramarines. But the message had made it clear: These were Word Bearers, brother Astartes. It seems impossible to believe. Nevertheless, Cestus sends in one of the escorts to make first contact, with Mhotep’s ship following along.
Zadkiel refuses to answer any hails; but he chooses instead to make contact with Mhotep, hoping to bring the psyker over to his side. The attempt fails; and the Abyss opens fire. The Fearless is destroyed in the first salvo, and the Waning Moon is struck and damaged. Cestus gives the order to engage and destroy–to break the Abyss in two.
As the battle heats up, Zadkiel releases the first of many unexpected weapons. Torpedoes strike the Waning Moon, but they seem to do no damage–until they begin chewing through the hull. Once penetrated, they explode inside the ship’s armor. A chain reaction begins that will ultimately scuttle the ship–but for now, it holds on and continues firing.
The Abyss weathers the attack, returning fire, but taking no decisive action; and so the Boundless launches fighters and attack craft. It looks promising–until the attack ships’ crews begin to turn on their pilots, killing them and causing the ships to crash against the Abyss’s hull. It suddenly becomes clear that this battle isn’t just conventional; it includes a psychic attack from the Word Bearers, driving crew members to turn on their own.
The escort ships move in to attack, and it seems the Abyss is just going to allow it–until the giant book that comprises the ship’s figurehead begins to open. It reveals a massive gun barrel–an experimental plasma lance. The weapon fires, shearing off the rear third of the Waning Moon, and setting the ship into its death spiral.
No one has ever seen such a weapon in action, but Cestus has heard of it, though that is little help now. Mhotep, having survived the blast, is unable to contact the Wrathful; but he manages to escape his dying ship in a life pod. The Abyss turns its attentions to the Boundless, which is already suffering damage; at Kaminska’s direction, Vorlov breaks for an escape via Warp. That leaves only the Wrathful, Ferox, Ferocious, and Fireblade in action. The Abyss launches fighters–something that typical doctrine says that no ship can do, when also bearing such monstrous onboard weaponry–and begins overwhelming the escorts. At last the squadron must disengage; but the Ferox is unable to escape, and is destroyed. Many of its crew escape in life pods. The Ferocious dies next, its bridge destroyed and its command crew dead. The Abyss pulls away, heading for Warp, but it takes time to intercept and destroy the Boundless on the way; it softens the ship up with more hull-breaching torpedoes and magnetic pulse torpedoes, then finishes it with the plasma lance.
The Wrathful fakes an escape, to hide their pursuit of the Abyss. As the crews of the Wrathful and the Fireblade regroup, they take a moment to gather strength and make repairs. They collect lifepods, including Mhotep’s. Further, they try again to contact Terra and Macragge, only to find something horrible: Not only is contact impossible, but the Astronomican–the Emperor’s psychic beacon that enables Warp navigation–has vanished! It appears obscured by Warp storms, which seem to have arisen at the worst possible time. Nevertheless, they follow the Word Bearers into the Warp.
Cestus takes this opportunity to reinforce his coalition and his authority. The various dispositions of the Astartes, as well as Kaminska, are beginning to wear at the bonds between them. Nevertheless, he manages to hold things together–for now.
Aboard the Abyss, we get a glimpse of how the psychic attack was carried out. The Word Bearers employ supplicants: mutated psykers whose powers are reinforced through suffering and the Warp. With the supplicants, they can bend the Warp to their needs, and set any number of tactics in motion. However, doing so is strenuous, and in each effort, some supplicants die. Three have been lost already. Zadkiel doesn’t care; it’s a worthy cause, in his eyes. And he now employs them a second time: He launches some into the void, where their psychic death scream has an unprecedented effect: It collapses the Tertiary Coreward Transit entirely–with the pursuing ships inside.
Through the Warp
The Warp is always dangerous. There is always a risk of psychosis, mutation, and even death when passing through it. Worse, if the ship’s Gellar fields collapse, things out in the Warp can get inside. With the collapse of the Transit, the first risk became reality, and crewmembers began to suffer and die. As well, contact with the Fireblade was instantly lost. As the crew struggled to restore order, Cestus and his men debated how to deal with the Abyss–if they can even catch it. At the same time, he is forced to negotiate rising hostilities between Brynngar and Mhotep.
Kaminska’s navigator, Orcadus, explains the situation with the Transit. The Warp is like a wilderness, crossed by (mostly) stable and safe roads; but now the road they were on has vanished, and there is only wilderness. The only option is to follow the Abyss as closely as possible–but it will be neither safe nor easy, and dangerous things live in the Warp.
Things come to a head with Kaminska, as she finally rebels, verbally at least, against Cestus’s seizure of her authority. However, to her great surprise, Cestus admits his error, and apologizes. Thereafter, the Admiral recommits herself to the cause. However, before they can proceed any further, the Gellar field blinks–and something finds its way in.
Aboard the Fireblade, the crew falls victim to Warp psychosis–and something worse. We don’t get to see the full damage here, but we next see the ship coming in to dock with the Wrathful. Kaminska allows it, against her better judgment–something is off, here. Before the Wrathful’s crew can respond, they find themselves swarmed with daemonic presences, manifesting inside the ship. The crew mounts a defense, but it falls on the Astartes to do the dirty work; and they do, taking the battle down to the docking level. However, this is a battle against the Warp, and arms alone won’t prevail; and so Mhotep forces the other Astartes out of the dock, stating he will seal it from inside and activate its auto-destruct sequence. Mhotep strips the illusion off the entities, and finds them to be all extensions of one creature, which has completely possessed the Fireblade. He brings his full power to bear, and banishes it back to the Warp. Mhotep survives, though unconscious, but it is revealed to Brynngar that he only did so via “sorcery”. To keep the peace, Cestus is forced to confine Mhotep to a cell.
While the damage to the Abyss was not substantial, it *was* substantial enough to require some work before pushing on to Macragge. Only one suitable shipyard lies within range–the shipyard at Bakka Triumveron. It’s here that the ship would be at its most vulnerable, a fact known to both Cestus and Zadkiel–but, Zadkiel thinks they’ve lost their pursuers. Cestus presses the advantage and sets an ambush.
The shipyards are a ring of orbital platforms around the planet, each with its bubble of atmosphere. The loyalist marines come at the Abyss from its blind side, which means crossing a section of the ring on foot. They deploy in squads that quickly get separated; their goal is to fight their way to the ship and board it before it can take off again. Along the way, the World Eaters, in an attempt to stoke the fires of their combat rage, kill a number of civilians.
Let’s talk Space Marines for a second. Although all Astartes have the same basic design, the legions vary in the specifics of how their genetics play out; each Legion’s genetics are based on their own Primarch, who differs subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) from the other Primarchs. This means that sometimes a Legion’s geneseed–the organs that alter their genetics and make them into Astartes–will have a flaw that affects their capabilities, behavior, or both. Add to this the fact that the Primarchs are a varied bunch of people, with vastly different leadership styles, and one Legion suddenly doesn’t look much like the others. With the World Eaters, Angron’s Legion, the consensus seems to be that their geneseed wasn’t truly flawed; but it did tend to push the World Eaters to be angry, brutal, and relentless, much like their Primarch. Then, as well, Angron was raised as a slave in the gladiator pits of Nuceria, and was implanted with a terrible piece of old technology called the Butcher’s Nails. This brain implant made him even more brutal, subject to terrible rages that made him almost unstoppable in battle. Upon becoming Primarch of the World Eaters, he reverse-engineered the device and had nearly all his Astartes implanted with it–making them also prone to such fury and rage. That rage is powerful, but also feeds on violence; and so, when the World Eaters kill the civilians here, they consider it to be an acceptable action in order to be ready before they reach the Word Bearers–but it’s going to come back on them later.
In the end, the battle outside the Abyss is short but brutal. One important Word Bearer–Baelanos, Zadkiel’s second in command–gets crushed; he lives, and is recovered by his fellows, but is badly injured. We’ll come back to him later. Of the loyalists, only one–the World Eater captain, Skraal–makes it aboard the ship and survives. He is forced into hiding inside the guts of the ship, hunted by the Word Bearer Reskiel, Zadkiel’s third in command. The other World Eaters are killed; most, but not all, of the other loyalists make it back to the Wrathful as the Abyss launches again. Notably, Cestus’s friend and second, Antiges, is killed–but Brynngar manages to take a prisoner: the young Word Bearer, Ultis.
While all this is happening, the Word Bearers are preparing their next strategem: They are rousing someone named Wsoric.
Brynngar’s men attempt to torture and interrogate Ultis, but with no success. With no choice left, Cestus is forced to release Mhotep to psychically interrogate the Word Bearer; this decision is nearly a breaking point between Cestus and Brynngar. Mhotep also warns Cestus about the sentient beings of the Warp, before going to deal with Ultis.
While this is going on, the Wrathful comes under attack by Warp entities again; and one of them finds a way inside, possessing a man on the ship’s lance (i.e. energy cannon) decks. The resulting creature begins killing everyone on the deck. Cestus and his remaining honor guard attack the creature; quickly afterward, Brynngar and his men join them. After a few more deaths, they are rescued by Mhotep, who–having broken Ultis–now comes and uses his powers against the beast. He no longer has reason to hide his power from the others, and so he uses it freely here. As soon as it is vanquished, he passes out.
Aboard the Abyss, Skraal has an encounter with Zadkiel, who tries to tempt him to change sides, castigating him for his slaughter of the innocent civilians; but Skraal resists the temptation, and flees deeper into the ship. Over the rest of the Warp transit, he will lose his sense of time, and very nearly his sanity, as he tries to stay alive. Eventually he discovers Antiges’s remains, and learns they have been used for the sacrifice that will summon the Warp entity, Wsoric. He watches as the apothecaries use the remains for divination, determining that the mission is still unknown to Macragge.
Brynngar has finally had enough of Cestus’s sanction of Mhotep. He challenges Cestus to a duel for control of the expedition. It’s a tight battle, and Brynngar clearly has the advantage; but in a clever trick, Cestus manages to win, much to the relief of everyone watching. Later, Brynngar agrees to submit to Cestus, but warns him to keep Mhotep away. It seems Cestus has won the battle, but lost a friend. Shortly thereafter, Brynngar has a vision of his youthful trials on his homeworld; and Mhotep wakes up.
Mhotep uses his powers to push the information he gained into Cestus’s mind. Cestus considers it a violation, but, ever the pragmatist, he will use the information anyway. He learns that the Word Bearers plan to destroy Macragge’s second moon, Formaska, sending fragments to rain down on the surface. This will keep the planet and its fleets busy, while the main force of the Word Bearer fleet destroys the muster point at Calth, thus eliminating most of the Ultramarines before turning back on Macragge itself. At Macragge they will use virus bombs to kill anything still living. Mhotep reveals that he came here because he had traced his destiny to this point, and knew he had to be here to resist the traitors.
As the Abyss presses toward Macragge, a warp storm strikes the Wrathful, the first sign of Wsoric’s presence.
As the Wrathful fights through the storm, Cestus calls a final conference and reveals the Word Bearers’ plan. He and Kaminska make a plan–but it will be the final plan. It is unlikely anyone will walk away from this fight.
The Abyss leaves the Warp near Formaska. The Wrathful follows shortly thereafter as the Abyss prepares to bombard the planet. The two ships join battle, and the Wrathful is quickly crippled; but it launches shuttles toward the Abyss. The plan is to get in through the Abyss’s open torpedo tubes before they can be closed–and this close, it has a chance of succeeding.
Most of the Astartes, and a few of Kaminska’s guardsmen, make it aboard. (Mhotep is not among them–we’ll get back to him.) The Astartes begin fanning out through the gun decks, destroying what they can–but they know it won’t be sufficient. With the final battle at hand, Zadkiel pulls out all the stops; he sends Reskiel and a number of the Word Bearers to intercept the loyalists, and then releases the remaining supplicants to lead a psychic attack. Cestus still intends for now to destroy the cyclonic torpedoes that would shatter Formaska. One of his battle-brothers, badly wounded, sacrifices himself to set off the detonator that will destroy the cyclonics.
At that moment, the supplicants strike. Cestus finds himself in the midst of a long, repetitive vision of hell, in which he fails, over and over again. Brynngar also suffers a vision, in which he is fully a wolf–and unknowingly, he kills his own “pack”, his Blood Claws. Meanwhile, back on the crippled Wrathful, Kaminska orders her crew to evacuate, but the bridge crew requests to go down with her and the ship. Kaminska accepts, and honors them, but it is cut short when the Helmsmistress, Venkmeyer, falls ill. Kaminska realizes that a daemon has possessed her, and tries to kill her, but it is too late.
By the time Mhotep frees himself from his cell, the ship is weirdly vacant. He arrives at the bridge just in time to see Kaminska die at the hands of the daemon in Venkmeyer’s body. The creature erupts from Venkmeyer’s form, and becomes a massive, scorpionlike creature–this is Wsoric, fully manifested at the behest of the Word Bearers. It has gorged itself on the crew, and has grown powerful–but Mhotep is ready for it.
Brynngar shakes off his vision and is horrified by what he has done; but he stays focused. He finds himself in the weapons lockers, where he encounters Baelanos–who is midway through the transformation into a dreadnought. Dreadnoughts in 40K are oversized suits of armor, in which an otherwise mortally wounded Astartes is permanently sealed (or “entombed”, as they phrase it), in order to keep fighting. They are long-lived and powerful–but Baelanos is only halfway there, and his armor isn’t sealed or complete. Brynngar engages him.
Cestus survives and escapes his own vision, defeating his own doubts and fears. He fights his way through another squad of Word Bearers, and manages to reach the armories. But before he arrives, Baelanos is about to kill Brynngar–until Skraal, somehow still alive, manages to finish off the would-be dreadnought.
As Mhotep’s battle with Wsoric carries him throughout the failing Wrathful, Cestus, Brynngar, and Skraal restock their weapons and head for the Abyss’s reactor decks. One round of cyclonics has been destroyed–but there are still options left to the Word Bearers, and the only chance is to destroy the ship. And the only way to do that is to blow up the main plasma reactor–much as nearly happened to Vangelis station.
On the bridge, Zadkiel’s high priest, Ikthalon, attempts a coup, but is killed for his trouble. At the same time, the loyalists reach the reactor deck and engage the Word Bearers there, preventing the ship from activating its engines. Zadkiel sends Reskiel to intervene. Skraal turns the tables on Reskiel’s men, hunting them one by one and ripping them apart. He kills Reskiel, and rejoins Cestus and Brynngar to head to the main reactor. The losses prompt Zadkiel to take the matter into his own hands, and he heads down to lead the defense.
Mhotep is dying of his wounds. Wsoric exults in his supremacy, insisting that there was no chance of Mhotep killing him–but, that was never the plan. Mhotep reveals that he only intended to wound Wsoric badly enough to stop him from sustaining his presence in realspace, sending him back to the Warp. He sets off his remaining grenades, inflicting the final damage that sends Wsoric back; he is caught in the explosion, but lives long enough to watch Formaska approach as the dead Wrathful crashes.
At the enormous main reactor, Zadkiel arrives just before the loyalists can head inside. Skraal buys time by attacking the Word Bearers, though it will be suicide. Just outside the radiation shield, Cestus asks Brynngar for his remaining grenades; but, knowing it will be a one way trip, Brynngar hits Cestus and stuns him. He asks his old friend to avenge him; then he takes the grenades and goes inside.
Above, Zadkiel kills Skraal–but not before Skraal cuts off half of Zadkiel’s gun hand. Zadkiel goes to take the others, though it is too late…inside the reactor, Brynngar primes his bombs, and then leaps into the reactor core.
The explosion begins a chain reaction through the entire reactor network. Zadkiel, knowing his ship is going to die, runs for the shuttle bay to escape. There he meets Cestus, and the two fight their final duel. Even now, throughout it all, Zadkiel–zealot to the end–tries to convince Cestus of the rightness of the traitor cause; but he fails. With a final blow, Cestus cuts off his head. Then, at last, he awaits the destruction of the Furious Abyss, and his own death, knowing he has done his duty and completed his mission.
That was a long summary!
Battle for the Abyss is no longer than the other books we’ve seen (or at least not much longer); but it crams an amazing amount of action into its pages. There’s no careful setup here, no backstory; it barely delves into the progress of the Heresy at all. Instead it leaps into the fray, guns drawn and chainsword whirring, and never stops, right up to the final lines.
The obvious downside is that one cannot start here. You’ll be utterly lost if you do. Who are the Word Bearers? Why are they traitors? Why does no one know what’s happening? How did we get here? You’d have no idea! But, we didn’t start here, and so we can appreciate this story for what it is.
The other important point is that this is only half a story. The overarching story is the battle for Macragge and Ultramar, the planet and system of the Ultramarines legion. But, that battle happens in at least two parts: The attack of the Furious Abyss on Macragge itself, and the attack by the rest of the Word Bearers fleet on the Ultramarines muster point at the planet Calth. We only get the barest glimpses of the attack on Calth–actually, all we get is some of the lead-up to that battle. We’ll have to wait for another time to find out what happens there. This is emphasized by the book’s ending; when Cestus dies, the story ends, because it’s strictly told from the point of view of internal characters (who, spoiler, are all dead by then).
Cestus is a true soldier of Ultramar, through and through. Space Marines are known glory-hounds, regardless of their Legion; it’s a major motivation for them. Cestus carries out his mission, knowing it will be fatal to everyone involved, knowing full well that no one will ever know their story, that no glory will accrue to their names, because there’s no one left to carry the word of their exploits. He does it anyway, and never flinches. In so doing, he pulls together some very disparate warriors, and somehow makes a unit out of them. He dies knowing his only consolation is seeing his homeworld safe–not a small thing, no, but very lonely as consolation goes.
I wouldn’t want every book to be like this. I don’t think that dropping us in with no context, nothing to link to the larger narrative, is always the best tactic. It works here, though, and that is enough for me this time.
If we’re looking for a comparison from outside the 40K fandom, I’d go with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. You have the same tale of a ragtag group of warriors, full of conflicting motivations and secrets, taking on themselves a one-way mission to save millions of lives from a massive, spacefaring, technological threat. You can carry the comparison all the way down to the one character who is visibly supernatural in nature, and the final battle against the enemy’s leader. None of the protagonists survive–they’ll never even know for sure if they were successful, because elsewhere, the battle still rages. But they know, before they die, that what they’ve done will give their people a fighting chance. It’s a thing of beauty, if horrifically tragic!
One thing I love is the way the various Astartes here are portrayed. The Ultramarines and the Space Wolves will remain loyalist, so we’re glimpsing them in their prime, via their representatives here. We get their differences highlighted while still seeing the camaraderie and companionship they feel. Then there’s the Thousand Sons, represented by Mhotep, and the World Eaters. Those legions will ultimately be traitors–in fact, the World Eaters already are; it’s just that this squad is isolated and doesn’t know it. So, we get an exceedingly rare glimpse of them as loyalists, before their fall. I especially loved seeing Skraal, the World Eater captain, having his internal struggle against both the temptation to heresy, and his own impulses. We don’t often get to see World Eaters be true heroes (or so it appears, anyway), but Skraal is every bit a hero, no matter how much he scares the hell out of Cestus and the others. As for Mhotep…well, the topic of psykers in 40K is always going to be complicated, and this is no exception. But he’s an honorable man, and determined to stand against corruption, and soon enough that quality will also be in short supply among his legion. We’ll take it while we can get it.
If I were rating these novels–and again, I’m not–I wouldn’t put this one near the top; but not because it’s bad. It’s just that this book is not a very general sort of book–it’s very targeted, very precise. I certainly enjoyed it, but again, you wouldn’t start here, and you need the background of at least the opening trilogy in order to understand it. I have to take a few points off for that. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, and I definitely enjoyed it; so, if you’ve read everything up to this point, absolutely make sure you don’t miss this one. Besides, we still have the second half of the story to tell!
Next time: We’re going to divert a bit and start looking at the supplementary series, the Primarchs of the Horus Heresy series. These short novels, one to each Primarch (or almost all of them, anyway) are intended to shed more light on the Primarchs and how they became who they are. I’m not going to tackle them in order–they aren’t in chronological order anyway–but rather, as a Primarch rises to prominence in the Heresy series, we’ll pick up his Primarch novel. We’ll begin with Fulgrim: The Palatine Phoenix, by Josh Reynolds. And when we get back to the main series, we’ll pick up with book nine, Mechanicum, by Graham McNeill! See you there.
The Horus Heresy series, and other Warhammer 40,000 novels, may be purchased from the Black Library, or from many booksellers.
We’ve come far enough that I feel new arrivals could be confused about where we are in the Horus Heresy series. Therefore, starting today, I’m including in the post title the title of the book or story we’re covering. Note that the part number will not match the number of the book we’re covering; we started with some general material, and then also, later we’ll be covering entries that don’t fit into the numbered novels of the series. Today’s entry, for example, is book number seven in the series, but part eight of the blog series. It’s Legion, by Dan Abnett, and it’s a long one, but also a great one–so, let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead! If you want only my thoughts on the book, without (as many) spoilers, head down to the last divider line in the post and start there.
The Nurthene Campaign
Last time we took a break and looked at some events decades prior to the Heresy. Today we return to the very cusp of the Heresy, with the campaign to take the planet Nurth. It’s a desert planet, a degraded human colony world that is down to pre-industrial technology; and yet, it proves to be very difficult to bring to compliance. (Let’s go ahead and get this out in the open: There’s Chaos involved. Isn’t there always? But of course no one knows it at first.) The expedition fleet is the 670th (just how many expeditions are there?!), and for once, it’s not a Space Marine operation!
Well, at least not at first. We’ll get to that. The 670th is made up of units of specially bred or enhanced, but mostly normal, humans, all from the “Old Hundred”. The Old Hundred are the units that the Emperor allowed to persist after the Unification of Terra, due to their valorous service of him. They’re technically Imperial Army, but they’re the elite, not just standard guardsmen or soldiers. We’re introduced to a unit called the Geno Five-Two Chiliad (mislabeled on the Warhammer Wiki as the Geno Two-Five Chiliad, in case you’re looking things up), who will be the primary viewpoint characters of this book. They’re a unit of soldiers all bred from proprietary genetic lines, literally born to the task of fighting. They are led by their female members, holding the rank of Uxor, who are literal mother figures–their eggs are harvested at the outset of their careers in order to breed new soldiers for the unit. However, this harvesting somehow unlocks latent low-level psychic powers, called the ‘cept (presumably short for “perception”), which they use to bind the unit together and lead them. The Uxors’ ‘cept is short-lived, only lasting a decade or less before wearing itself out, after which the Uxors retire and become support staff for the unit. Meanwhile, on the combat side, the unit’s male leaders carry the rank of Hetman, and answer directly to the Uxors. There is also another relevant rank, that of Genewhip; Genewhips are the “internal affairs”, if you will, of the Chiliad, rooting out defection, betrayal, crime, and other disciplinary issues.
Relevant Chiliad members: We’ll focus largely on two Hetmen, Peto Soneka and Hurtado Bronzi. Their immediate superior is a young and precocious Uxor named Honen Mu. Another Uxor, Rukhsana Saiid, is nearing the end of her ‘cept, and will be retiring soon, if she makes it that far. And then there’s Genewhip Franco Boone, whom we’ll get to later.
The expedition is led by the Lord Commander Teng Namatjira, a longtime veteran who is a bit vain–okay, more than a bit–but very competent. Very little gets past him. He is aided by Jan Van Aunger, the master of the expedition’s fleet; and a squad of Lucifer Blacks, a highly skilled unit of the Old Hundred, whose numbers have been depleted to the point that they now hire out as bodyguards rather than joining the front lines. The Lucifers are elite among the elite–they are few in number because they took heavy losses in the Unification Wars, and because they lacked the replenishment infrastructure of units such as the Geno Five-Two Chiliad. They are led here by Bajolur-Captain Dinas Chayne. (Technically, the Lucifer Blacks aren’t declared to be part of the Old Hundred. I looked at their wiki page, and it also does not mention the Old Hundred. However, their description and history seems to strongly indicate that they are, and so I’m going with that interpretation until I see proof to the contrary.)
As our story starts, it’s two years before the beginning of the Heresy, and several months into the Nurthene campaign. (That two years is going to absolutely fly by, which brings me to something I haven’t emphasized til now: Time is a bit fluid in 40K. This owes largely to the great lengths of time it takes to travel through the Warp–you can be weeks or months on a single trip. We’ll be very near the start of the Heresy by the time we finish here.) The expedition has taken great swaths of the planet, and has driven the Nurthene back to the vicinity of their capital, Mon Lo. We open with the battle for the last remaining Nurthene-held city aside from Mon Lo, the city of Tel Uthan. It’s not going well, because the Nurthene have something that Namatjira calls “air magick”: A strange power that prevents anything in the airspace above Tel Uthan, as well as other effects. The Chiliad has pulled into barracks for the night, but one company–Peto Soneka’s Dancers–is still out. Hurtado Bronzi catches a hint that something bad is about to happen, and attempts to rouse his own company to go back out and help the Dancers out; but he is ordered back. He plans to go anyway–and when he tries, he is interrupted by a giant of a man: An Astartes calling himself Alpharius.
It’s a name that stuns him practically to silence. For Alpharius is not just an Astartes; Alpharius is the name of the Primarch of the XX Legion, the last legion to form, the last Primarch to be found, the Alpha Legion. Their fame is already legendary, and they have a different outlook, a much more pragmatic one, than their brother legions. But, what are the Alpha Legion doing on Nurth?!
For one, they’re letting the Dancers get cut to ribbons. When in anger, Bronzi confronts the Primarch, Alpharius admits it’s true–he set the Dancers up as bait, allowing the Alpha Legion to get into the city and rout the Nurthenes, setting the city ablaze. Alpharius emphasizes to Bronzi the brutal logic of the decision; it was tragic, and not to be taken lightly, but necessary in order to distract the Nurthene and break the city.
Elsewhere, Soneka is one of the survivors among the Dancers, though he is wounded. But he himself is confronted by one of the giant Astartes…who also claims to be Alpharius. We will come to see that, as the Legion says, they are all Alpharius–whatever that means.
While the expedition capitalizes on the fall of Tel Urtan and drives the Nurthene back into Mon Lo, the wounded from the Geno Five-Two Chiliad retire to a hospital facility to recover. The facility has a formal designation, but the soldiers simply call it “Visages” for the multitude of statues in the vicinity: stone faces of many sizes. Soneka and Bronzi meet up at Visages, accompanied by a third Hetman, Dimi Shiban. Shortly thereafter, Soneka–accompanied by Bronzi and Shiban–is summoned by the head Medicae (a doctor, in 40K parlance) to examine a body and confirm its identity. It is reputedly one of Soneka’s Dancers, but he doesn’t recognize the body. Soneka doesn’t know what the fuss is–all his men are accounted for, so obviously this one is simply dressed in the wrong uniform–but then, Medicae Ida drops a bombshell: the man has no heart. In its place was a cadmium centrifuge–and that is only the first of the rather extreme internal modifications the body has. And, curiously, it wears a small reptile-shaped brand. They conclude that the Nurthene have infiltrated the army units via surgical modification, but to what end? Bronzi, who is uninjured and still on active duty, sends an encrypted vox transmission to Honen Mu, notifying her privately of the situation. They are directed to take the body and quickly head to a set of coordinates far from Visages. Mu also asks who knows about the body, and Bronzi tells her, but leaves Soneka’s name out, intending to leave him behind for more investigation. However, he takes Shiban with him. Shortly after they leave, Visages is attacked by the Nurthene, and Soneka barely raises the alarm in time to fight off the invaders.
Meanwhile, Bronzi and Shiban take the body deep into the desert–where they are met not by Honen Mu, but by the Alpha Legion, who intercepted his transmission and faked Mu’s response. Before Bronzi can react, the Astartes have killed Shiban, and look as though they will kill him, as well.
Enter John Grammaticus. This interesting individual will be a character for the duration of the Heresy, and here we meet him for the first time. John, we will find, is a member of the Cabal. Over the course of the book, we’ll find out more about this shadowy group, but I’ll save some time and spell it out now: The Cabal is a group of aliens of various races, which for thousands of years–since before the rise of humanity–has opposed the power of Chaos, which they call the First Annihilator. Their interest now is in humanity, which they generally disdain, but which they acknowledge is instrumental to this era of history. For a thousand years, John Grammaticus has been one of their few human agents; and now he is here to do their bidding: Arrange a conference between the Cabal and the Alpha Legion.
John has a few noteworthy powers. For one, he is immortal, but not in any sense we’ve seen before. He’s not a Perpetual, able to heal and maintain his own body; nor is he just simply gifted with preternatural longevity like the Primarchs or Astartes. Instead, he lives normal lifespans, dies–and then reappears in a new body. We won’t get much detail about how that happens, but it doesn’t seem to be standard reincarnation; he retains all his memories between lives, and there’s no mention of having to grow up from infancy again. His second power is of far more interest to us right now: He is a powerful psyker. That power, in turn, has a unique aspect: He can understand and speak any language he is exposed to, and not only that, but can gather highly accurate information about the speaker, simply from their speech, accent, and dialect. When we meet him, he is living under the guise of Konig Heniker, a Geno officer and spy. Along the way, he has cultivated a relationship with Uxor Rukhsana Saiid, which has–much to his surprise–become genuine. We find him beginning a mission to slip inside Mon Lo and conduct some espionage into the Nurthenes’ magick.
What he finds instead, is Alpharius.
Grammaticus is taken in by a small squad of the Alpha Legion, who know who he is, but not where he comes from, or why he is there. With the aid of a Legion-affiliated psyker, they question him inside the city. He reveals the existence of the Cabal, and that they want to meet with the Legion, believing the Alpha Legion the best and most receptive to their message–after all, this was his mission, so he may as well tell them. He also tells them that Chaos is at work on Nurth, which they already know. However, they discover that another power is at work; and they must cut their questioning short as they come under attack. Grammaticus and the Astartes escape, but in the confusion, Grammaticus also escapes from the Astartes and flees back to the Geno camp.
Mon Lo locks itself down under siege, and begins to ramp up toward a final assault. This is no normal assault, though; and the preparations are most unusual–the city begins screaming. Everyone can hear it, though it is most likely psychic in nature. This change, coupled with the disturbing news from Grammaticus’s interrogation, causes the Alpha Legion to change tactics and reveal their presence openly to the expedition forces. Alpharius joins his efforts to those of Namatjira, leaving Namatjira in charge, but with Alpharius’s word going very far in Namatjira’s calculations. As the siege tightens, the Geno begins to deal with issues of its own.
The Alpha Legion is never one to share what it knows, and so they do not reveal Grammaticus’s presence to anyone in the expedition, leaving the Geno to figure it out on their own. This results in two parallel investigations: The Geno’s leadership sends Genewhip Franco Boone to investigate suspicions regarding Uxor Rukhsana; and Namatjira begins his own investigation into the Legion’s strange and secretive activities, as well as Rukhsana’s secrets. I’ll say that I feel for Rukhsana; what she is hiding is nothing more than a relationship. And yet, she’ll pay for it dearly.
Shortly thereafter, Soneka–now restored to duty–arrives at Mon Lo, and meets with Uxor Mu–but he quickly discovers that she does not know anything about the body. He concludes, erroneously, that that means that she is in on the conspiracy, whatever it may be.
During Namatjira’s meeting with Alpharius and his squad–which is led by an imposing, oversized Astartes named Omegon–Grammaticus tries to spy on the meeting, but is found by one of Namatjira’s Lucifer Blacks. He is forced to kill the man and flee. Before he gets away, he has an encounter with Boone in Rukhsana’s quarters, and barely escapes by psychic deception–which Boone will see through soon enough. Meanwhile, the Jokers–Bronzi’s company–joins the army at Mon Lo. Soneka sees him and tries to speak to him, but Bronzi brushes him off, leaving Soneka very confused.
Boone’s investigation points him toward Soneka, who survived the ambush at Visages when so many died. Soneka, suspecting Boone is in on…whatever is happening…is forced to flee as well. He is rescued by Bronzi in a land speeder, who drives him out into the desert.
Bronzi and another Geno officer interrogate Soneka regarding the body. Soneka ultimately reveals that he had only spoken with Mu about it, who did not seem to know what he was talking about; and everyone else who knew, died at Visages. Bronzi explains that Shiban is also dead; he had taken a piece of Nurthene bone as shrapnel, and it had begun to twist his mind, causing the Alpha Legion to kill him. They reveal to Soneka that they have become hidden agents of the Legion; and when an Astartes claiming to be Alpharius arrives, they begin to explain to Soneka why he should join them. (The body, as it turns out, was also an agent, killed in battle, but whose remains were needed for analysis. The brand on the body is the mark of the agent corps, which Bronzi and the others now bear as well.)
Back at the camp, Alpharius explains to Namatjira about Chaos in the Nurthene society, and coopts the use of Namatjira’s Astropaths–all psykers themselves–to suppress the Nurthene magick. Afterward, alone with his Astartes, he reveals that he is actually Omegon, playing the role of Alpharius. He is aware that Grammaticus killed the dead Lucifer, and has sent their psyker to find him. Meanwhile Grammaticus, injured from his fight, has made his way to an oasis and a hidden cache of supplies, where he treats his injuries before preparing to abandon his mission. He is intercepted by the Cabal, who set him back on task. They tell him that they have confirmed that only two years remain in which to set plans in motion to deal with Horus and the unleashing of Chaos. They reveal that the situation has become more complicated: The Nurthene, it seems, possess a Black Cube.
The End Approaches
Soneka ultimately joins the Alpha Legion’s agents, though the facts that persuaded him are not revealed. He returns with Bronzi to the camp, and presents a cover story, which Honen Mu unwittingly supports, getting Boone off their trail. Mu sets them the task of resolving the matter of what Rukhsana is hiding; and she gives Soneka a temporary reassignment to lead a different company, the Clowns, whose hetman was the now deceased Dimi Shiban. However, at the same time, Dinas Chayne makes the connection that the spy in their midst must be Rukhsana’s spy-turned-lover, Konig Heniker–that is, Grammaticus. He moves to take Rukhsana into custody; Soneka and Bronzi only barely beat him to the punch, delivering her to the Legion for…well, their less than gentle version of safekeeping (read: interrogation by psyker). The duo are then arrested by Chayne; but thanks to the Legion, they are able to present an effective cover story, and are released. Rukhsana is reported to have fled into the desert. Meanwhile Grammaticus sneaks back into the palace, and finds out about Soneka and Bronzi in connection with Rukhsana, but runs afoul of Dinas Chayne in the process.
In the morning, the storm–figuratively and literally–breaks. A massive sandstorm replaces the screaming of Mon Lo, and the Nurthene spill out of the city, attacking in overwhelming force under cover of the storm. The Imperial forces, including the Jokers and the Clowns under Soneka and Bronzi, take heavy losses before the Titans–the massive, heavily armed, walking battle platforms–can be brought to bear. Over it all, the sun fails to rise, and the sky begins to darken; the Imperials come to call it the Black Dawn. And in the midst of the battle, Soneka is approached by John Grammaticus. John gets Peto to take him to the Alpha Legion, where he can hopefully complete his mission. Along the way, he explains a bit of what is happening with the Black Dawn–it is the Nurthene’s final stand against the Imperium, and it will be deadly. Alpharius–the real Alpharius, as noted by John–takes Grammaticus into custody, and Soneka as well. It is then that Grammaticus realizes the truth that the Alpha Legion tries so hard to hide: The Legion’s Primarch is not one man, but two. Alpharius and the giant Legionnaire Omegon…are twins.
While the battle rages back at Mon Lo, Grammaticus explains the Cabal’s request, and the position the Imperials find themselves in now. The Nurthene possess a Black Cube, an ancient relic of Chaos from before humanity. Its activation requires a sacrifice of blood, hence, the battle at Mon Lo and the slaughter of the remaining Nurthene. Once activated, the cube will, through means unknown, render the entire planet hostile to life. Within twenty-four hours, everything on the planet will be dead. John urges Alpharius and Omegon to not only evacuate their Legion, but to get Namatjira to evacuate the expedition, and quickly. He then explains that he was sent to bring the Legion to the discussion table with the Cabal–for what, remains to be seen.
The Meeting at 42 Hydra
Five months have passed since the Black Dawn and the fall of Nurth. The Legion withdrew safely; the expedition as well, though with greater losses–nearly half its strength was lost in the evacuation. By all accounts, though the Nurthene were wiped out, the situation was a rout–especially to the psykers in the expedition, who can feel the demonic screaming of the planet as it dies.
Now, the Legion and the remains of the 670th expedition orbit an uninhabitable planet selected by the Cabal, called 42 Hydra Tertius. John Grammaticus and Rukhsana remain in custody (though separated from each other). John is becoming frantic; he insists that he must go to the surface ahead of the Legion in order to vouch for them, and thus prevent a catastrophe; but Alpharius denies his request. However, the Legion detects a terraformed region of the planet’s surface, apparently made for them; and so Namatjira sends forces down to secure the area, including Bronzi’s company. Meanwhile Alpharius and Omegon meet with Grammaticus to try to gain more information, but are mostly unsuccessful; he only acknowledges that only the Alpha Legion is suitable for the Cabal’s purpose. However, Grammaticus is stunned to learn that Horus is already the Warmaster, meaning that the Cabal’s timetable is wrong; the Heresy is much nearer than expected.
Just prior to the Legion’s deployment to the surface, Soneka comes to John’s cell and rescues him, taking him to a drop pod. Along the way, they rescue Rukhsana; then they make their way to the surface, and then to the meeting sight–where the various alien members of the Cabal begin to arrive. Meanwhile, aboard the expedition’s ships, Dinas Chayne–who has been working over the situation in his mind for a long time–finds Boone and reveals that he is aware that Bronzi is in league with Soneka, and that together they are working for the Legion. They head to the surface to deal with Bronzi, and take him into custody, much to Honen Mu’s alarm. Back aboard ship, they torture him, but he tells them nothing.
Grammaticus greets his masters, but things immediately go south, when Soneka and Rukhsana turn on him. They reveal that they were put here by the Legion, to ensure that the Legion could dictate the terms of the meeting; and they activate a locator beacon. The Legion’s leaders teleport onto the scene, quickly securing the perimeter around the Cabal.
Despite this inauspicious beginning, the Cabal agrees to negotiate anyway. First, they force Omegon to reveal himself as one half of the Primarch, joining Alpharius. They explain that Horus is beginning a path that could give Chaos its ultimate victory, something they do not wish to allow. However, seeing that Alpharius and Omegon are unconvinced, they offer to psychically share their knowledge, letting the twins see it for themselves. At the same time, their huge, city-sized flagship bursts through the midst of the fleet and lands outside the conference site. Namatjira, now fully gripped in paranoia about the Legion, prepares to bombard the landing site, knowing it will kill the Legion as well as the aliens.
Soneka, Rukhsana, and Grammaticus accompany the Cabal and the Legionnaires aboard the Cabal’s ship to witness the psychic sharing. As the Cabal shares the vision, they explain that Horus’s war will have only one of two outcomes. In one, Horus wins, and Chaos triumphs; in the other, the Imperium wins, and Chaos declines. However, the Imperium’s victory would be hollow; if they win, the Emperor himself will be struck down, and the Imperium will stagnate, and over time Chaos will seep back in and consume it in a Chaos victory from which there is no return. But if Horus wins, the Imperium will self-destruct, and take Chaos with it. The rest of the races of the galaxy will live, thanks to humanity’s sacrifice. If the Imperium wins, in ten to twenty thousand years Chaos will also win; if Horus wins, in a few generations Chaos will be essentially exterminated. So, as Alpharius says, victory…is defeat.
So, then: if true victor is to be won, then the Alpha Legion must side with Horus.
Alpharius and Omegon both deny this possibility–they are true sons of the Emperor, and loyal. The Cabal then shares the full force of the vision, showing them the truth of the matter; and it is as the Cabal described.
In the end, Alpharius hates the decision…but he knows what must happen. He declares his loyalty to the Emperor, who stands against Chaos, the Primordial Annihilator, and wants nothing more than its overthrow…and so he declares that whatever he does from this moment, he does for the Emperor, though it may not seem that way. Omegon agrees, and determines that they must begin at once. It will begin with dealing with Namatjima, who is now beginning to accuse even the Legion of treason–oh, the irony! And so the Primarch gives the order–and their ships turn on the 670th expedition fleet, destroying it.
Only details remain. Soneka and a few Astartes of the Legion are sent to rescue Bronzi from custody, as the flagship begins to come apart. Along with Rukhsana, the two hetmen are taken aboard the Legion ship. Alpharius himself goes aboard the flagship to ensure that Namatjira does not escape, and kills Chayne along the way. Mu and the other ground forces are abandoned to die on the surface as the terraformed area is overwhelmed by the planet’s hostile natural conditions. And John Grammaticus returns to the Cabal–but, horrified by what he has done to humanity in essentially signing its death warrant, he plans to throw himself out a hatch and die.
I’ve tried to avoid ranking the novels of the Heresy series. There are just too many of them; after awhile, any rankings I made would lose all context under the sheer weight of the series. But, if I were making a ranking, at this point in things Legion, along with Flight of the Eisenstein, would be near the top, or even at the top. It’s a delicious read, cover to cover.
Genre fiction in general–and franchise fiction in particular–gets a bad rap sometimes. The accusation goes that they are formulaic, and thus they don’t employ any real characterization or plot or, you know, depth. I’ll allow that genre fiction is often formulaic–it has to be. After all, is the outcome ever really in doubt? In a romance novel, you know the couple will get together; that’s the point. In a horror novel, things will end badly for the protagonist(s). In a sci-fi novel…well, it depends on the context, I guess, but there are definitely patterns. And in an action novel–especially a Warhammer action novel–the heroes are going to win, and kill a lot of people along the way. What I deny is that this precludes decent plotting or characterization, or even depth.
I’m thrilled that so many of these early books have chosen to tell their stories through the eyes of common soldiers. (I’m including space marines in that, because even Astartes have their version of common soldiers–with only a few exceptions, we don’t see things through the perspective of their leaders here.) It’s hard to really care about a Primarch; we know how it’s going to end for them. Maybe if this series was written from the ground up, that might not be the case; but the fates of the Primarchs have been known for years in the 40K fandom. They’re demigods whose actions are leading up to an unavoidable future, and that makes it hard to see them in any commiserative light. But the common soldiers–ah! Now, there’s something promising! (Same for the iterators and non-military we’ve seen.) I can get into their stories. And Legion is no exception. I truly like Peto Soneka, Hurtado Bronzi, Honen Mu, Rukhsana Saiid. They have echoes of real people whom I’ve known in my life. And those I don’t particularly like–like Dinas Chayne, Franco Boone, a few of the Alpha Legion–well, I at least get them. They’re well-drawn, fleshed-out characters. I felt Soneka’s horror when he saw his company getting cut down; the outrage when he learns it was part of the plan. I sympathized with Honen Mu’s frustration at not knowing what her hetmen were up to, and I felt her horrible resignation at knowing what her fate would be at the end.
With that said, though, the Primarchs of the Heresy are the elephants in the room. We may know where they’re headed, but we still have to acknowledge their actions. The Heresy is, after all, primarily their story. Here we meet the Primarch Alpharius, youngest of the Primarchs (courtesy of warp shenanigans during the scattering of the Primarchs), last to be found, freshest of perspective. He is the Primarch of the XX Legion, the Alpha Legion. If you skipped down to this section to avoid spoilers, I’ll oblige you and not spill the BIG secret–but I’ll throw this bone out there: The Alpha Legion’s shtick is that they strive to be interchangeable. Every Marine, via cosmetic augmentation, strives to look and sound as much like their Primarch as they can, so that anyone can be made to play the role of Alpharius as the situation demands. In a very real sense, as the Legion says, “we are all Alpharius”.
A few entries ago, when we talked about Fulgrim (the novel, that is), I said that we’d be seeing some parallels in a future book. That book is Legion. In Fulgrim, the titular Primarch meets with an alien civilization (the Eldar), who engineer a meeting in order to warn him about Horus’s impending fall into heresy. (Perhaps not coincidentally, this meeting would have taken place around the same time as the beginning of Legion.) Fulgrim shrugs it off, denies that such a thing could ever happen, and slaughters the Eldar. He then skips off back to Horus, and promptly gets corrupted himself, falling to Chaos by way of a daemon trapped in a Laeran weapon. Now, consider Legion: The Alpha Legion under Alpharius is approached by an alien group (the Cabal), who engineer a meeting in order to warn him about Horus’s impending fall into heresy. Naturally, Alpharius is highly offended; but unlike Fulgrim, he hears them out, and comes to believe them. The choice he makes will immediately enter him into the coming conflict…on the side of the traitors. (Ah, but if you read either the novel or the summary, you know there’s more to it than that!)
On the surface, it looks like the same outcome–but, I’m not convinced, and if you know the spoilers I’m not revealing here, you shouldn’t be convinced either. Alpharius has gone over to the traitors, but not to Chaos–or at least not yet. What’s that going to mean for how things work out? And for once, I truly don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see. I did catch an interesting detail, though: Prior to the meeting, Alpharius and his legion seem to know more about Chaos than Fulgrim did (though certainly not enough). I can’t say that that will or will not make a difference to the Imperium–but I can assure it that it makes a difference to the Primarch, as Fulgrim is currently possessed by a daemon. Maybe he could have avoided his fate, if the Emperor had told him more about Chaos.
It’s certainly seeming like the Emperor has a lot to answer for.
All in all, I would say to read this book. If you must, you can skip the previous book, Descent of Angels; you can skip some upcoming books. Don’t skip this one. You’ll be missing out if you do.
Next time: We’ll shift gears again and rejoin the Heresy in progress, with Battle For the Abyss, by Ben Counter! Also, soon we’ll take a break and get some background with a few of the Primarchs of the Horus Heresy novels, which delve into the minds and motivations of the Primarchs. See you there!
The Horus Heresy novels can be purchased directly from the Black Library website, or from various retailers.
Welcome back! We’re slowly getting caught up now–just a few more books, and this series will be as caught up as I am with the Horus Heresy. Today we’ll see the series (the books, rather, not the posts) take a different turn. Until now, we’ve been following the opening events of the Heresy in more-or-less chronological order; but that’s all about to change!
Today we’re looking at book six in the Horus Heresy, Mitchel Scanlon’s Descent of Angels. This story actually takes place several decades before the Heresy begins, during the middle days of the Great Crusade–but as you’ll come to see, we need this story in order to come back to these characters during the Heresy. Until now, we’ve focused on several Adeptus Astartes legions: the Luna Wolves/Sons of Horus, the Death Guard, the Emperor’s Children, and to a lesser degree the Iron Hands and the World Eaters. Today we’ll add another legion to that list: the I Legion, the Dark Angels, under the primarch Lion el’Jonson. (Trivia: In my opinion, the Lion has admittedly the greatest name, out of universe, of any Primarch, just for the sheer ordinariness of it. It allegedly began as a joke; his name is drawn from the real-world poet Lionel Johnson, whose story can easily become a bit of an internet rabbit hole. Johnson was allegedly a closeted homosexual–with connections to Oscar Wilde, who was anything but closeted–who came to a somewhat tragic end; the stress of trying to reconcile his Catholic beliefs with his sexuality was apparently quite the strain, and may have contributed to the stroke that killed him at a young age. It’s a sad story, not one to make light of, and none of that, of course, makes the Lion’s story funny by itself; it’s just that the Lion is so very different from his namesake on every count. Oh yeah, and Lionel Johnson’s most famous work is a poem called Dark Angel, so there’s that, too.)
I won’t post the entire disclaimer I posted last time, but I will remind everyone that there will be extensive spoilers ahead! I cover the entire plot of the novel here. If you want to see my thoughts on the book, but don’t want so many spoilers, skip down to the last section, beneath the final dividing line. And with that said, let’s get started!
Caliban and Zahariel
The planet Caliban is one of the far-flung colonies of Old Earth, now long isolated by the Age of Strife. Caliban, situated very distant from Terra near what will one day be called the Eye of Terror, has been isolated long enough that humanity’s origins among the stars has long faded to myth, and is in danger of being forgotten. Some remember, but the stories have the force of fairy tales at this point.
Caliban is a world beset by monsters. Great beasts roam its forests, preying on anyone who wanders into the wrong grotto or copse. Each one is different, but the beasts are so prevalent that humanity lives in walled towns and fortresses for the sake of survival. The civilization is feudal, led by orders of knights who hunt the beasts and keep the populations safe–and, of course, sometimes battle each other. By the time of our story, one such order has risen to prominence. Simply calling itself The Order, it battles its way to the top of the hierarchy, until it has subsumed many other orders, and its word is essentially law on Caliban.
Enter the Lion. Lion el’Jonson is a wild man, bigger and stronger than anyone else on Caliban, a demigod among men if ever there was one. He was found at a young age, living wild in the forest, and brought to the Order. Luther, the knight who found him, became like a brother to him; it was Luther who gave the Lion his name, after the Lion killed the most fearsome of all beasts, a Calibanite lion. The big man quickly learned the speech and the ways of civilization; and it was not long after that his star, and Luther’s, began to rise within the order…though perhaps Luther’s star, not as much as the Lion’s.
We’re planting that seed now for the future, because ultimately–not even in this book, but later–it will blossom into a tragedy. In any other age, Luther would have been the leading figure of his generation, the strongest, wisest, most powerful. And rightly so! Luther is practically beyond compare among his fellows. But, any other age wouldn’t have included the Lion–and beside the Lion, Luther just doesn’t quite match up. It rankles him, and it’s going to fester for a long time.
Enter Zahariel el’Zurias. Zaherial first appears as a seven-year-old boy, a supplicant to join the Order. After a grueling ordeal in the snow, he and his cousin Nemiel, along with a few others, are selected from among a crowed of supplicants, and allowed entry to the Order’s fortress, Aldurukh. We’re going to view this story through his eyes, but the salient points here are few: Zahariel and his cousin will have a longstanding rivalry that goads them on; and Zahariel finds an idol and hero in an older knight, Brother Amadis. His course is set when he, still a teenage trainee, is asked to accompany Amadis on a training patrol. The patrol unexpectedly encounters one of the Great Beasts; it wounds Zahariel and kills others on the patrol before Amadis kills it. This tragedy, though, brings Zahariel to the attention of the Order’s leaders, and he begins a rise of his own–further adding tension to his friendship with Nemiel.
The Lion’s Campaign
Around the time that Zahariel joins the order, the Lion begins a controversial campaign to rid Caliban of the beasts. Until now, the population has existed in an uneasy balance with the beasts; the knights purge any that encroach on humanity, and humanity stays within its bounds. That’s not enough for Lion el’Jonson, who sees a future where humanity lives in true peace and prosperity on Caliban. He wants to exterminate all the beasts, making the forests safe, but this plan is not universally embraced.
Before things come to a head, though, Zahariel experiences another formative battle.
The campaign is nearing its completion. Only one stronghold remains to the beasts: the Northwilds, a particularly rugged area. The region is led by one of the other remaining knightly orders, the Knights of Lupus–and they have been the most vocal critics of the campaign. Now, their leader, Lord Sartana, comes to Aldurukh to plead for a cessation of the campaign.
It ends badly, and–not to put too fine a point on it–war is declared between the Order and the Knights of Lupus. But in the meantime, Sartana drops an offhand reference to a beast ravaging the border town of Endriago. And Endriago, as it turns out, is the hometown of Brother Amadis. (Incidentally, there’s a reference earlier in the book to Brother Amadis leading the destruction of an order called the Blood Knights of Endriago. One wonders if he has history with that group prior to his time with the Order?) As Sartana leaves, Amadis–stricken with fear for his people–swears a quest against the beast of Endriago.
Skip ahead. The campaign grinds on, for nearly another year, now complicated by skirmishing with the Knights of Lupus. Around the same time the Knights are driven back to their fortress-monastery, Amadis returns to Aldurukh…but not victoriously. Just before he succumbs to his wounds, he passes his weapon–and his proverbial mantle–to Zahariel; and he warns him that the beast of Endriago is the most fearsome kind of all: a Calibanite lion, only the second ever known, and the same kind of beast that gave the Lion his name. At once, Zahariel declares his own quest to destroy the beast–much to the horror of everyone around him.
The Beast of Endriago
Fully expecting to die, Zahariel sets out to find and slay the beast. It’s a lengthy journey; Endriago is on the verge of the Northwilds. When he finds the place, he pays a guide to take him into the woods as far as he will–which is not far–and then continues on his own.
Before long, he begins to sense something wrong with the woods here. He doesn’t know it, but the psychic power of the Warp gathers here, and he is overwhelmed by darkness and foreboding. Finally he is approached by mysterious ethereal figures, which he terms the Watchers, after an old Calibanite proverb. (In truth they are part of the Cabal–tuck that away for the next book, where it will make more sense.) The Watchers urge him to leave, and debate killing him outright, stating he is touched by corruption. They warn him against the dangers of the Warp and Chaos, though they don’t use those terms; and they warn him that his race is both susceptible to such evil, and a particular danger when in its hands. At length he strikes a deal with them, stating he will stand against that evil as much as the mundane evils on Caliban; and they let him leave, and tell him where he will find the beast.
And find it he does. The battle with the Calibanite lion is every bit as dangerous and desperate as he imagined. But in the midst of it, something strange happens: He feels power rising within him. Suddenly he can see into the beast; and more, he can reach inside it as if it were not solid. With this power at his disposal, he shoots it in the heart, killing it at once. He takes its head as a trophy, and begins the long journey home, stopping only long enough to have his wounds tended in Endriago.
Upon his return to Aldurukh, he is raised to full knighthood–and immediately dispatched for the final battle with the Knights of Lupus. Meanwhile, Lion el’Jonson is raised to the post of Grandmaster of the Order–and Luther continues to seethe in silence.
The Knights of Lupus
The battle against the Knights of Lupus at their fortress-monastery is nothing like the battles against the beasts. It’s chaotic and bloody and deafening. Zahariel’s squadron is part of the force that breaches the fortress’s walls and takes the battle inside; but they quickly discover a shocking revelation: The Knights have gathered and caged beasts from the forests, which they now release on the Order’s forces! It’s a gruesome fight, but the Order’s superior numbers are victorious; and Zahariel and Nemiel move through the fortress as part of the mopping up.
They find themselves face to face with Lord Sartana himself, in his private library. The Knights of Lupus are known for their libraries, their collected knowledge, and Sartana’s library is filled with documents of arcane knowledge. Sartana takes a moment to explain himself to them: his stand against the Lion, his wish to stop the campaign. He explains that the knights–in all the orders–are warriors; and when the beasts are exterminated, and all is at peace, what will they do then? Will they consume each other? They are men of war, not peace, and without a purpose, they will only unleash destruction on Caliban.
And then, unwilling to be taken by mere teenagers, he uses his blade on himself, and dies.
In the aftermath, the Lion sets fire to the fortress, and commits forces to finish the campaign in the Northwilds; but first, he gathers the collected writings from the libraries of the fortress, and sends them back to Aldurukh for study.
All continues in peace…until the Imperium arrives.
It seems coincidental that the Imperium arrives during the Lion’s victory celebration–but that is exactly what happens. Warriors of the First Legion land in the middle of the gathering of the Order’s knights, and introduce themselves.
The next few weeks are largely glossed over. We don’t see the moment when the Lion discovers that he is in fact a Primarch, and not just any Primarch, but the Primarch of this very legion, the First. However, we see that the Calibanites welcome the newcomers, and a great exchange of technology occurs. Caliban will have no problems coming to compliance–though some lament the introduction of industry and the razing of some of the forests. The Astartes of the First Legion begin to scout among the knights of the Order for those still young enough and strong enough to undergo the process of becoming Astartes; and Nemiel and Zahariel are high on the list. However, in a competition between the two, Zahariel once again finds the well of internal power that let him defeat the Calibanite lion; and he catches the eye of a unique Astartes, Librarian Israfael.
I haven’t talked about Librarians before. Librarians are the psykers among the Astartes, wielding psychic energies on behalf of their legions. There will come a time soon enough when the Emperor outlaws the use of psychic powers among the Astartes, to prevent incursions of Chaos; but these are early days, and the Librarians are still a force for good. Israfael determines that Zahariel is also a psyker, and thus a potential Librarian himself; therefore he hastens Zahariel’s passage into the ranks of the Astartes. Along the way, he tells Zahariel the true history of Terra and the Emperor, the Primarchs and the Astartes–and reveals that the Lion is one of the Primarchs, set to take the lead of the First Legion.
At the same time, Zahariel, due to his closeness with the Lion, is approached by a group of disgruntled Knights, with Nemiel as their figurehead. They express their dissatisfaction with the changes wrought on Caliban by the coming of the Imperium. To Zahariel’s horror, they express a plan to do the unthinkable: to kill the Emperor when he comes to Caliban. Zahariel swears to have nothing to do with the plot, and persuades Nemiel to discourage it.
The next day, as the Emperor’s ship descends, Zahariel finds that the plot is proceeding anyway. He intercepts a knight with a pack of explosives, and stops him–but not before the incoming Astartes take them both for traitors, and drag them off to a cell aboard their ship.
Zahariel is interrogated by Israfael and other Astartes, and has his third brush with his psychic powers. At length he tells all he knows about the plan, and how he stopped it–with a visit from the Emperor himself adding credence to his story. At the end, the Emperor has Israfael remove Zahariel’s memories of everything since the landing.
And finally, Zahariel and others are taken to join the Legion. In a fiery speech, Jonson takes his place at their head, and gives them a new name: The Dark Angels.
The Crusade at Sarosh
Some years have passed, and the Dark Angels are now well involved with the Great Crusade. (The book will end about fifty years before the beginning of the Heresy–but remember that Astartes are functionally immortal, and thus most will still be alive and participating in the Crusade by the time the Heresy begins.) They are ordered to the planet Sarosh to relieve the White Scars legion, as Sarosh has proven…reluctant…to come to compliance. The transition has been peaceful thus far, but slow, owing to the byzantine bureaucracy of the planetary government.
We are introduced to Rhianna Sorel, a pictographer and Remembrancer with the Dark Angels fleet. (This seems to be a bit of an anachronism; she makes reference to Remembrancers in every fleet of the Crusade, but it had been my understanding that the Remembrancers were a late arrival, around the time of the Ullanor campaign, right before the Heresy.) Sorel is kidnapped, and taken to be used as part of a plan to wipe out the Astartes; for Sarosh has a secret. The planet, as it turns out, is given over to Chaos, in the form of the Melachim, their gods. As such they have decided that the Imperium is an abomination, and must be ended.
Meanwhile, Zahariel and Nemiel, now Astartes themselves, discover something unusual. Discrepancies in the records on Sarosh indicate that in the last ten years, over seventy million people have disappeared on the planet. It won’t take long to get to the point; their vague fears are confirmed when the planet’s leader comes up to the flagship to discuss compliance, and instead sets off a rebellion, which includes mutiny on several ships. And once again, Zahariel realizes that something else is wrong here.
He heads to the ship’s embarkation deck, and examines the leader’s shuttle–where he finds a rather destructive nuclear bomb. But much to his surprise, he also finds Luther there. In a brief confrontation, Luther admits that he at first intended to let the bomb detonate, potentially taking out the Lion with the flagship. He admits to the jealousy that drove him to this point. However, he also says that he saw the situation clearly, and changed his mind, and has come to stop the bomb. At great personal risk, he and Zahariel manage to get the shuttle off the ship before it explodes.
Suddenly, the Dark Angels find themselves at war.
Much of the battle for Sarosh proceeds normally. However, Librarian Israfael discovers a buildup of psychic power in a remote area on the planet’s surface. He determines it to be a sort of gateway in the making, constructed from the warp presence of the seventy million missing–and now dead–Saroshans, intended to bring out some vile creature from the Warp. He has a plan to stop it by detonating a sort of psychic bomb at the site–but he must be there in person to focus the blast.
The Final Battle
The Astartes touch down near an old mining facility. Israfael and the Lion lead them down into the mines, where the psychic force is concentrated. There they find the ritual well under way; the portal is nearly open, and the beast–the daemon, for that it was the Melachim truly are–is about to come through and inhabit the body of Rhianna Sorel.
For Zahariel and Israfael, the battle is psychic as much as physical, as they struggle against the gathered despair of the place. But at last, as Israfael readies the warhead, Zahariel finds himself face to face with Rhianna…and sees something inhuman in her eyes. Honoring her last plea, he kills her.
The daemon, now disembodied, strikes out through the open portal in the form of a writhing mass of deadly tentacles. The Astartes take them on, though it could be a losing battle, as Israfael finishes his preparations. At last, Israfael activates the device, and Zahariel pours his power into focusing the blast–and the portal is closed. The battle is over. All that remains is the end of the resistance.
But something is changed, and the legion may never be the same. The Lion sees something in his forces, including Zahariel–something that doesn’t sit well with the Primarch. And thus he sends a detachment of them back to Caliban to rule as regents over the legion’s homeworld…led by Luther. Zahariel has a feeling this will not end well.
I’ll go ahead and spoil one thing for you, for the distant future: The Lion is a loyalist Primarch. He doesn’t fall to Chaos. But it’s long established that some of his legion will turn traitor; and this novel reflects the beginning of that process. It’s a shame, really, because there are some very admirable characters here. I like Zahariel, especially, and I don’t relish the though of him potentially turning traitor–if that is what happens. (I’ve avoided looking ahead–but I know what happens to Luther, and Zahariel is part of his contingent now, so it’s not looking good…)
At any rate, it’s the first time we’ve had a viewpoint from a legion that stays loyal, except for some small parts of Fulgrim that featured the Iron Hands. It’s too early to say if the Dark Angels and the Lion will be my favorite loyalists, but I’m liking them so far, and I hope for good things from them. The Lion is also unique in that he’s one of only a very small number of Primarchs who both remain loyal AND survive into the 40K era (although he’s not active in the setting as of now).
There are a few oddities in this book. For one, there’s the Remembrancer, Rhianna Sorel. Don’t get too attached; we won’t be seeing her again. At any rate, her presence, and her musings, seem to indicate that Remembrancers are common throughout the fleets of the Crusade–but I was under the impression that the Remembrancers only joined the fleets after the Triumph of Ullanor, shortly before the Heresy. It’s an odd mistake to make, given that she plays a fairly small part in the story, which could have been filled by any non-Astartes from the fleet. Or I could simply be wrong, and the Remembrancers were here earlier than I thought.
For another, there’s a weirdly high amount of knowledge of Chaos to be had in the Librarians. Remember, the Emperor didn’t tell his people the truth about Chaos. He attempted to hide the truth, so as to limit exposure to it. And yet, here, fifty years before the Heresy, Israfael seems to know quite a lot about the creatures in the Warp, and how they might be summoned. It would have fit in decently with the beginning of the Heresy, but this is very early days.
On the plus side, this story introduces the Cabal, albeit briefly. I won’t get into the nature of the Cabal, because we’ll see that in detail in the next book–but remember them, if you will. It’s a nice bridge to the next book, however small.
Overall, I was impressed with this book. It’s a rare glimpse of the glory that the Emperor had in mind for his Imperium, before everything goes to hell. It’s almost a shame to know what lies ahead–but that’s how it works, I suppose. I highly recommend this book, and–oddly for a book in the middle of a series–you can read it as a standalone work if you like. It does not require any of the books that came before it.
Next time: We’ll move on to one of the most interesting groups in the setting: The Alpha Legion! And we’ll meet their most curious Primarch. The title is Legion, by Dan Abnett. See you there!
Now that we’re into individual novels, I really should start putting the titles into my post titles instead of just “Part <number>”. But…not today.
Last time, we covered book four of the Warhammer 40,000 Horus Heresy series, The Flight of the Eisenstein. Today we’re looking at book five: Fulgrim, by Graham McNeill. It’s an interesting choice for this early in the series: Other than Horus himself, it’s our first look into the psyche of a Primarch, and how they handled the temptation to Chaos (or the threat thereof–some of them will never be tempted). We’ll have more soon enough.
I never really made this statement in the previous entries, though I should have: There are spoilers ahead!If you continue, you will have the general plot of the story spoiled, including its ending. All the posts in this series will have that level of spoilers. I’m writing chiefly for those who don’t mind, or who are familiar with the setting; if you’re not there yet, and don’t want it spoiled, feel free to come back after you’re caught up. I feel justified in doing things this way, because Warhammer 40,000 is in a unique place where there’s so much material, that people tend to obtain spoilers through discussion and forums long before reading the books; for example, the general events of the Heresy are very widely known, if not as widely read. If you would like my thoughts on the book without the plot details, skip down to the last section, after the last divider line.
With that said, let’s dive in!
The Primarch and the Eldar
So far, we’ve hardly mentioned the Eldar. The Heresy is a story of the Imperium; it usually only concerns xenos (alien) races when the Imperium is steamrolling over them, or when Chaos is stealing their relics for nefarious purposes. But this ancient race makes its first substantial appearance here, and they deserve a little discussion.
In tabletop gaming, the Eldar are the 40K equivalent of fantasy elves–even the word, Eldar, is a nod to Tolkien, who referred to his elves as the Eldar, the elder children of Eru Illuvatar. So, you can expect that they will be an ancient race (though still young by 40K standards–in a world with C’Tan and Necrons, the Eldar are adolescents); that they will have high involvement with magic or its equivalent; that their technology will appear more organic; that they will look like elves to one degree or another; and that they will generally look down on humans. In the game, they’re a playable faction, and thus have everything they need to be the equivalent of all the other playable factions; but in the novels, they’re…not quite that mighty.
Or at least not anymore. The Eldar, or Aeldari, once dominated the galaxy. For millions of years they were the dominant force, controlling not only realspace, but also the Webway, the tunnels that connect realspace and the Warp. They were both mighty and noble, and considered themselves superior to other races (okay, not too noble). This empire lasted all the way into the human Age of Technology, five or six thousand years before the Great Crusade.
It all came crumbling down–or, more accurately, it was blown away with the force of a million supernovae. Over time the Eldar became corrupt and hedonistic, seeking pleasure and possession more than anything else. But, all Eldar are psykers to one degree or another, and no one realized the effect this would have on their impression in the Warp. All of that greed and pleasure-seeking and lust eventually congealed in the Warp, and suddenly–too suddenly–a new, fourth Chaos God was born: Slaanesh, the god of pleasure.
Slaanesh’s birth destroyed the Eldar empire in a single stroke. Its birth tore the fabric of space open in a massive Warp incursion that consumed the Eldar homeworlds, as well as worlds held by other races (including humans). That tear would persist, and become known as the Eye of Terror, an ongoing stronghold of Chaos. Billions of Eldar died at once. Further, the Eldar had previously not feared death; upon death, their souls were peacefully absorbed into the Warp, to be reborn later. But now, their lusts had given life to Slaanesh’s own lust–and the thing she lusts for are the souls of the Eldar. Upon death, the Eldar find no solace; they are consumed by Slaanesh to suffer for eternity. (They’ll find workarounds later, but that’s a topic for another time.)
Now, the surviving Eldar wander the stars in massive ships called Craftworlds (mostly anyway; there are a few other factions with different strategies–but again, we’ll cover that another time). And that is where we find them in this novel.
Fulgrim is the name of the Primarch of the III Legion, the Emperor’s Children. After his rediscovery by the Emperor…well, it’s safe to say that he and his legion started out with a chip on their shoulders. Recall that the Astartes, the Space Marine legions, are genetically modeled after their respective Primarchs–that is, their geneseed, the extra organs that make them Astartes, are derived from the Primarch’s DNA. In the case of the III Legion, there had been an accident. Much of the available geneseed was lost, and without Fulgrim around to help with replenishment, the legion had grown very slowly. When Fulgrim arrived, only two hundred marines had been created. But, he rallied them to his cause with a speech so impassioned that it led to the Emperor granting them his own title for their legion name, and allowing them, alone of all the legions, to wear the Imperial Aquila, the Emperor’s symbol, on their armor. This lack of numbers caused Fulgrim to have a strong drive toward perfectionism, which he then trained into all his Astartes.
Needless to say, he’s a bit proud.
Which brings me to the point: You could not have created a more ill-fated confrontation than when the Eldar came to confront Fulgrim. Now, in their defense, they meant well; and their mission was urgent. They came to warn Fulgrim that his brother, Horus, was about to fall to Chaos (as foreseen by their prophets, or “Farseers”). This did not go over well. Fulgrim rejected this warning out of hand, and turned his forces against the Eldar delegation, killing most of them.
But don’t be too hard on Fulgrim yet. Remember that the Emperor had concealed the existence of Chaos from, well, everyone; and his sons were no exception. It’s been an argument in 40K for a long time as to whether the Primarchs would have fallen if only the Emperor had told them the whole truth–but, he didn’t, and here we are. Until now, Fulgrim is just working with what he knows.
From here, the book is told from the perspective of lesser individuals within the Legion–mostly, First Captain Julius Kaesoron and Captain Solomon Demeter. You may have noticed that this is the general pattern of the Heresy series: stories are told through the eyes of underlings, often simple soldiers, rather than the Primarchs themselves. We find our protagonists attacking the world of Laeran, the home of the serpentine Laer. It’s a long and difficult battle, and once again we get a view of the importance of sound to Chaos; the cities of the Laer howl in the wind, and the sound channels the power of Chaos. Laeran, as it turns out, is a planet completely given over to the power of Slaanesh, the same Chaos God that devours the Eldar.
It didn’t have to be this way. Every cost estimate showed that bringing Laer to compliance would be too long and too costly. There was even talk of making the world a protectorate–essentially leaving it alone and cordoning it off. But Fulgrim, ever the perfectionist with something to prove, boasted that he would complete the extermination of the Laer, and quickly, too.
The important thing, though, is what happens at the end of the campaign. Fulgrim leads the charge to take the last stronghold of the Laer–and inside, he finds a sword. It’s not particularly magnificent–it pales beside the sword he carries already, which will come up again shortly–but he finds himself pulled to it, and takes it anyway. From that moment, he begins to hear a voice in his head.
Fulgrim and Ferrus
The Primarchs are very much a blended family, and they suffer the same disputes, alliances, and petty jealousies of any such family. Fulgrim, as it turns out, is closer to one brother than any of the rest: Ferrus Manus, Primarch of the Iron Hands legion. Ferrus is an interesting character, and maybe we’ll talk more about him later; but for now, suffice to say these two were tight. Upon first meeting, they had felt an instant rivalry–and then it was revealed that each considered himself a master blacksmith. They had set up a competition to see who could create the greatest weapon. Fulgrim created a massive, exquisite warhammer (get it?), which he called “Forgebreaker”. Ferrus created a one-of-a-kind sword that forever glowed with the heat of the forge, called “Fireblade”. Upon seeing the weapons, each was overwhelmed with the beauty of the other’s creation, and gained a new insight into each other. They traded weapons, and were instant and devoted friends ever after.
We’ll leave Fulgrim for a minute, but I will say that the voice in his head continued. Unfortunately, as it turns out, the voice belongs to a Greater Daemon of Slaanesh, manifesting through the sword; and, playing on his vanity and drive to perfection, the Daemon will eventually bring about the fall of Fulgrim to Chaos, taking most of his legion and most of the non-Astartes population of his fleet with him. I wish it was more dramatic than that, but it isn’t–the Daemon just simply wears him down; however, it all culminates in a meeting with Horus, who provides the final push to persuade Fulgrim to give in. Horus would go on to give Fulgrim the anathame, the Chaos blade which had given Horus the deadly wound that led to his own fall (although it did not replace the Laer blade). All because his drive for perfection led him to exterminate the Laer.
Sometime after Laeran, the Iron Hands would encounter a roving civilization called the Diasporex. This civilization was composed of a mix of humans and xenos living in harmony; so of course it was anathema to the Imperium. Ferrus’s legion worked for some time to wipe them out, but was unsuccessful. At last he was reinforced by Fulgrim and the Emperor’s Children, who helped him formulate a decisive battle plan. During the battle, Fulgrim’s personal ship came under attack, and was rescued by Ferrus…which, again, offended his sense of perfection. He retaliated by leading a shipboard action on the Diasporex flagship–but again felt cheated, when Solomon Demeter took the ship’s bridge before Fulgrim could arrive. These events only fed the malignancy growing in his mind, and further turned him against both Ferrus and Demeter.
At Horus’s direction, Fulgrim sent most of his legion to Isstvan to prepare for the purging of the loyalists. But Horus had given Fulgrim a different mission: the corruption of Ferrus Manus. Fulgrim took a smaller group to assist Ferrus with the subjugation of the Orks at a planet called Callinedes.
The confrontation did not go well for Fulgrim. Ferrus refused to be swayed, voicing his loyalty to the Emperor, and his intention to bring Fulgrim and Horus to justice. The two fought in Ferrus’s quarters, and Ferrus broke Fulgrim’s Fireblade, hurting them both. The daemon in Fulgrim’s head urged him to kill Ferrus, but Fulgrim resisted; instead, he used Ferrus’s own Forgebreaker to knock Ferrus out. Stealing the warhammer, he fled the ship, killing a number of Ferrus’s marines in the process. His ship opened fire on Ferrus’s, crippling it long enough to escape back to Isstvan, where Fulgrim faced Horus’s wrath for his failure.
We’ve already covered the atrocity at Isstvan III, in which the bulk of the loyalists in Horus’s four traitor legions (the Luna Wolves/Sons of Horus, the Emperor’s Children, Death Guard, and World Eaters) were purged by the Life Eater virus and by personal combat. It gets a brief account here, but our focus is elsewhere. Horus, angry at Fulgrim for his failure, sends him away to Isstvan V to set up the next phase of the purge.
Meanwhile, aboard Fulgrim’s flagship, Chaos has infected nearly everyone. It comes to a head when a Remembrancer, composer Bequa Kynska, stages her final performance: an opera called the Maraviglia, ostensibly to the glory of Fulgrim. The composition, and the newly created instruments that perform it, are completely corrupted by Chaos; it drives mad anyone who hears it, causing them to mutate and kill each other. Ultimately, the civilians are all purged by the Astartes in the room, who merge with the instruments to become the first Noise Marines, using sound as a weapon of Chaos. This moment marks the dedication of the Emperor’s Children to Slaanesh.
The Dropsite Massacre
Ferrus Manus had not been idle since his failed battle with Fulgrim. He had quickly gathered the nearest loyal legions he could find: His own Iron Hands, the Salamanders under Vulkan, and the Raven Guard under Corax. Those forces now gathered at Isstvan V to confront Horus, Angron, Fulgrim, and Mortarion.
It should have been a normal battle, if any battle among Astartes can be called normal. Four legions against three is perhaps not fair, but it’s close enough. But, we call it the Dropsite Massacre for a reason; and here, betrayal is in the air. More arrived mid-battle to reinforce the loyalists: the Night Lords under Konrad Curze, the Iron Warriors under Perturabo, the Word Bearers under Lorgar, and the Alpha Legion under Alpharius. But, if you’ve been following along, you should already know something is up, given the presence of Lorgar…
As soon as they landed, the arriving legions turned on the loyalists. Horus, it seems, has been busy, and a full seven Primarchs–Angron, Fulgrim, Mortarion, Curze, Perturabo, Lorgar, and Alpharius–had sworn to him and the forces of Chaos. That’s nearly half the existing legions; remember, two legions are long gone and expunged from the records, so there are a total of eighteen. We’re treated to some classic 40K here: a long and glorious, if tragic and bloody, commentary of the battle–but, calling it a battle is hardly fair: It’s a rout, then a massacre. The only thing that saves the loyalists is the fact that their entire legions aren’t present, just what forces could be gathered quickly. Even so, some legions were reduced to a fraction of their former strength.
Fulgrim and Ferrus, Part 2
Fulgrim fights his way to a final confrontation with Ferrus Manus. Their brotherhood, their true friendship, has reached its end. It’s an epic battle, with Ferrus wielding a repaired Fireblade and Fulgrim using the stolen Forgebreaker; but in the end, Ferrus is just outmatched. Ferrus is as yet unaware of the treachery of the newly-arrived legions; Fulgrim points it out to him, to break his spirit. Their battle then resumes. Ultimately Fulgrim swaps Forgebreaker for his Laer blade, and wounds Ferrus. He prepares to strike the killing blow…and has a moment of clarity, seeing how far he has fallen. He is horrified, and tries to pull the blow, but he is too far under the control of the daemon of the blade; and he decapitates Ferrus with a single blow. The first of the Primarchs has fallen.
But the worst is yet to come. Fulgrim is horrified at his own actions, and can’t stand the thought of living with himself for what he’s done. In this moment of supreme weakness, the daemon whispers that Fulgrim can find peace in oblivion; and Fulgrim agrees. With this invitation, the daemon escapes the blade and possesses Fulgrim, taking over his body and locking his mind away deep inside, where he will scream for a long time indeed.
After the massacre, daemon-Fulgrim met with Horus, and revealed himself. Horus, though given to Chaos himself, is horrified at what has become of Fulgrim; nevertheless he accepts the daemon as an ally, agreeing to keep its identity secret. Secretly, he plans to one day destroy it and free his brother–though he has no idea how to begin.
Afterward, Horus dispatches his legions to various battles, and sets his sights on Terra. But before he begins, he is contacted by one final Primarch: Magnus the Red, the powerful psyker and Primarch of the Thousand Sons legion. Magnus had previously tried to warn the Emperor of Horus’s betrayal, using psychic power to do so, but disrupting the Webway project in the process. In a rage, the Emperor had sent the Space Wolves legion to bring him to Terra to answer for his crime; but things had gone terribly wrong, and his world of Prospero had been devastated, turning Magnus to the side of the Traitors. (But that’s a story for another book.)
I won’t lie: I struggled a bit to get through this one. It’s certainly an engaging story–I’m not suggesting that it was dull or uninteresting. Rather, it felt haphazard and unfocused. There’s a lot of ground to be covered between the covers of this book, and sometimes it feels thrown together. After all, we’re covering a story as grand in scope as Horus’s fall–one could argue that it mirrors Horus’s fall, with a cursed blade, a xeno-accomodating civilization, and a massacre at Isstvan. But, Horus’s fall gets three books to tell its story, while Fulgrim’s fall is crammed into one. It’s unfortunate, because the Dropsite Massacre is arguably more important than the Isstvan III atrocity–and yet it gets less coverage.
But, there’s a bigger and better comparison to be made, and though we’re not there yet, I want to plant the idea in your head. When we reach book seven, Legion, we’ll see powerful parallels with this book, and yet with a very different–and, in my opinion, much more interesting–outcome.
Far be it from me to suggest, though, that Graham McNeill did a bad job with this book. I simply think he had more to cover than he could do justice. His characterization of the principal characters is as good as any that went before it; I was especially fond of his portrayal of Ferrus Manus, whom we unfortunately won’t see much more, if at all.
And that’s really it! There’s not much more for me to add about this book; it wasn’t bad, but wasn’t my favorite by any means. We’ll have more commentary on upcoming entries. With Fulgrim, we’ve wrapped up the major opening strokes of the Heresy. From here, we’ll begin to look first into the early days of certain players, and then into the next phase of battle.
Next time: We’ll visit with the Primarch Lion el’Jonson and his legion, the Dark Angels, in the early days of their career, in Descent of Angels! See you there.
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!
When I first began to read the novels of the Horus Heresy series, I had no real idea of what I was getting into. I had only read one Warhammer novel (Guy Haley’s The Death of Integrity, which was a great introduction to the setting, and you should absolutely read it). That novel is set in M41, the “present day” of the 40K universe, and I knew up front that the Heresy series would be very different. It’s the Heresy that gave us the modern version of 40K; the galaxy in M31 was a much different place. Also, the authors would be telling stories that were as close to set in stone as anything ever is in this setting, stories that had had the power of myth and legend for real-world decades. And then, on top of all that, I knew that the series was long–fifty-four numbered novels, eighteen non-numbered Primarch novels, eight planned Siege of Terra novels (I believe four had been published at that time), and a whole host of short stories and spinoff materials.
All that to say, I was a bit intimidated. I’m still intimidated–I know I may never finish them all. I’ve come to terms with that–I even wrote an entire post about it–but still, even if I skip around, there’s a lot of ground to cover. And so I wasn’t sure if I was even going to make the attempt. That’s why I didn’t try to review the early novels as I finished them; what’s the point of starting if there’s no chance of finishing?
Well, here we are, seven books in, and it’s time to take the plunge! Fortunately I’ve been able to focus a bit more, and move a little faster through the series. Unfortunately, that means I need to back up and talk about the six books I’ve already finished! And I am notoriously bad at holding onto all the details of a book once I’ve moved on from it. Therefore, the next few posts won’t be incredibly detailed; they’ll be an overview of several books at once. But that’s okay; the opening entries in the Heresy series were intended to be more tightly woven than the later books. We’ll make it work.
So then, let’s get started! Today we’ll cover the opening trilogy of the series, the highly interconnected Horus Rising by Dan Abnett; False Gods by Graham McNeill; and Galaxy in Flames by Ben Counter.
You’re going to find that many books in the Heresy series start in media res, with important foundational events told after the fact. We dive right into that pattern here at the beginning, with the most powerful first line I have yet to encounter in 40K:
“‘I WAS THERE,’ he would say afterwards, until afterwards became a time quite devoid of laughter. ‘I was there, the day Horus slew the Emperor.’
Well, there it is! Mission complete! Roll credits! It was a good Heresy, boys, now let’s go home.
Except, wait. The legend as it’s always been told has the Emperor killing Horus, not the other way around. So what’s going on here?
We open with the conquest of a most unusual star system. The system bears an uncanny resemblance to the solar system of Earth, aka Terra–nine planets in the same configuration, led by the third planet, all orbiting a yellow sun. But more than that, the people of the third planet believe their world is Terra, the homeworld of humanity. Naturally, when the Imperium shows up, claiming to be from the true Terra…they take that personally. So then, the Emperor mentioned above isn’t our Emperor, and it’s entirely believable that Horus would kill him personally.
The tale-teller here is Garviel Loken, a Space Marine of Horus’s XVI legion, the Luna Wolves. Loken is the captain of the legion’s Tenth Company, and after his adventures on this imposter Terra, he will be raised to the Mournival. This small group is his Primarch’s personal advisory council, an egalitarian body that accompanies and advises Horus without fear of reprisal. Loken is one of my favorite characters thus far, and has an interesting future ahead of him, but he’s going to have some suffering first.
Soon we’ll back up and get some perspective. The Great Crusade is in its two hundred and third year. Not too long ago, the Ullanor campaign ended, and Horus was elevated to the post of Warmaster. But that decision, and the Emperor’s unexpected retreat to a secret project on Terra (the Webway project–see the last post) have left Horus and his brother Primarchs with doubts.
Several major developments happen in this novel. The Crusade is joined by a huge host of Remembrancers, for one. Remembrancers are artists, authors, imagists (i.e. photographers), dramatists, musicians, orators, philosophers, and other practitioners of the fine arts. At the Emperor’s directive, they are sent to record and memorialize the triumphs of the Crusade, filling the fleets with arts and culture, thus humanizing the Astartes and the military and connecting them with the populations of the Imperium. It’s a grand dream, and shows the thoroughness of the Emperor’s vision for humanity. Several Remembrancers figure into the story here: Mersadie Oliton, a journalist who serves as Loken’s personal Remembrancer; Petronella Vivar, also a journalist, Horus’s personal Remembrancer; Ignace Karkasy, a poet whose works would ultimately drive a wedge between the Mournival and the non-Astartes population of Horus’s fleet; and Euphrati Keeler, an imagist who ultimately becomes a sort of prophet of the Emperor, leading the transition from the atheist Imperial Truth to the cult of the Emperor.
For another, the 63rd Expedition–Horus’s fleet, consisting mostly of the majority of the Luna Wolves and their support apparatus–encounters the Interex, a civilization in which humans have learned to live in peace with xenos, and especially with a race called the Kinebrach. Horus, to the surprise of his subordinates, at first looks into the possibility of peace with the Interex; but the negotiations are short-lived. A bladed weapon called an anathame, known to have ties to Chaos, is stolen from an Interex museum; the Interex erroneously accuses the Luna Wolves of taking it, and the talks devolve into violence, after which the Luna Wolves exterminate the Interex. As it turns, out, though, the blade wasn’t stolen by the Luna Wolves…
…It was stolen by Erebus, a visiting chaplain from Lorgar’s Word Bearers legion. The Word Bearers had long since given themselves over to Chaos, though this information remained a secret. The Ruinous Powers had led Lorgar to the knowledge that the anathame would be needed to bring Horus over to Chaos. Exactly how, will be revealed in the next book. However, after the battle with the Interex, Horus decides that the Luna Wolves have lived up to his example, and thus he renames them: The Sons of Horus.
My verdict: Obviously I must have liked the book, because I’ve kept on with the series–but I will admit that this opening novel wasn’t quite as I expected. I didn’t know just how complex the story of Horus’s fall would be, or how much backstory it would require. The story is excellent, but there is definitely a feeling of incompleteness, and I felt the need to hurry on to the next entry. I was very pleased with the characterization, though, and was ultimately disappointed to find out that Loken won’t get a lot of screen time after this first trilogy. But we’ll enjoy it while we have it!
We pick up some weeks after the battle against the Interex. Erebus is the star of the show here, if not the viewpoint character; it’s Erebus who weaves the web that ensnares Horus and brings about his fall to Chaos. He has already stolen the Chaos-empowered anathame from the Interex, and arranged its delivery; now he must get Horus into position. To that effect, he tells the Warmaster about the Davin system.
Davin is an already-compliant Imperial world; but now its Imperial Governor, Eugen Temba, has rebelled. Unknown to any of the Warmaster’s forces, the planet has actually given itself over to Chaos, which is a concept that the Emperor has continued to keep back from his sons and the population. They don’t know what they’re walking into; but Erebus has prepared surprises for them.
On Davin’s moon, Davin 3, the Sons of Horus encounter their first real Chaos opposition, in the form of plague zombies: diseased zombies in the service of Nurgle, the god of decay and sickness. While the marines battle it out, Horus infiltrates the wrecked battlecruiser that serves as Temba’s fortress, and fights Temba himself. But Temba is wielding the stolen anathame; and he mortally wounds Horus with it. The Mournival rush Horus back to his flagship, the Vengeful Spirit; in their haste, they trample and kill a number of Remembrancers and other mortals aboard the ship. This act will ultimately be recorded by Ignace Karkasy in an inflammatory poem that will drive a wedge between the humans and the Astartes.
With the legion’s medicae and apothecaries unable to heal Horus, Erebus convinces the Mournival that hope can be found in a Davinite healing ritual. Reluctantly they agree, and transport him to a temple on the surface of Davin (the planet, not Davin 3, the moon). And the ritual works! Except…
During the ritual, Horus’s spirit is thrust into the Warp, where Erebus meets him. Erebus shows him visions of what the future holds: a galaxy in which the Emperor has betrayed all the ideals he has formerly espoused, leading the galaxy into pain and misery. It’s a true vision, but the catch is that it is Horus himself who will bring it to pass if he serves Chaos; but of course he doesn’t get that part. Erebus is countered by the unexpected psychic presence of the Primarch Magnus, a powerful psyker himself; Magnus attempts to warn Horus against this path, and exposes Erebus’s plan. However, it’s too late; Horus has chosen to accept the offer of power from the Chaos Gods, and has given himself over to them. The stage is now set for him to rebel against the Emperor in what will become known as the Horus Heresy.
Horus, now miraculously healed, leads the Legion against another human civilization, the Auretian Technocracy, while he prepares his plans. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Loken and his fellow captain Tarik Torgaddon start down a path that will set them against the rest of the Mournival, and against the Warmaster himself. Ignace Karkasy is killed; and then, Horus directs the expedition to a planet called Isstvan III.
My verdict: I knew enough about the beginning of the Heresy to know that things are starting to come together now! Isstvan III is the site of one of the two major battles that will inaugurate the Heresy–but we’ll get to that in a moment. This book was more satisfying than the first, but only because it feels like the key in the lock of the first book; and soon, we’ll see the tumblers of that lock start turning.
Galaxy in Flames
Galaxy in Flames picks up shortly after the end of False Gods, with the 63rd Expedition taking the Isstvan system. Here, under Horus’s now-traitorous machinations, other Primarchs begin to gather with their legions–specifically, those Horus deems susceptible to his new cause. Those gathered are Horus with his Sons of Horus XVI legion; Fulgrim, with the III legion, the Emperor’s Children; Angron, with the World Eaters III legion; and Mortarion, with the XIV legion, the Death Guard. Others will join the traitors in the future, but for now, these comprise the core of the rebellion. All three Primarchs come to Horus’s side easily.
But, not all is according to Horus’s plan. A shockingly high number of Astartes are easily swayed to the traitor cause–but not all of them. About a third of each legion will not bend, remaining loyal to the Emperor. Horus cannot tolerate this, and so he devises a strategy to rid himself of the loyalist elements.
It’s important to note that his plan depends on secrecy. The loyalists have to be eliminated before they realize there is a schism in the ranks; if they knew, they would break ranks and warn the Emperor. But fortunately for Horus, Lorgar and Erebus have prepared for this! Years earlier, Lorgar created the Lectitio Divinitatus and released it to the Astartes in secret. This religious text declares the Emperor to be a god, contrary to the atheistic Imperial Truth, which states that there are no gods. It may seem counterintuitive to declare your enemy a god and send worship his way; but faith in 40K serves whichever Warp entity it is directed toward. Lorgar’s goal is to create this faith, and then turn it to Chaos. Now, the faith has spread in secret throughout most of the fleets, in the form of secretive “lodges” where anyone can meet as equals. Many of the loyalists are those who refused to join the lodges, or walked away from them as the situation grew darker. This breach allows Horus to single out the loyalists while diverting attention from the truth of his cause.
Thus, he saves the hardest battle for last. He causes the loyalist elements of the four legions to be dispatched onto the surface of Isstvan III for a final offensive. Then, he moves the fleet into a bombardment position…and launches one of the Imperium’s deadliest weapons: virus bombs.
These bombs contain an engineered virus called the Life-Eater, which is the perfect mass-murder weapon. The virus destroys all forms of organic life in seconds, with no chance of survival. It propagates through air and water, sweeping a planet’s surface in minutes; and then it dies out shortly thereafter, leaving the planet scoured clean and ready for the taking. But Horus isn’t interested in taking the planet; and so he follows up with a firebombing that ignites the atmosphere, burning off most of the breathable air. Most of the loyalists are killed.
And he would have got away with it too, if not for that meddling…Tarvitz? Saul Tarvitz, a loyalist captain of the Emperor’s Children, and friend of Garviel Loken, caught wind of the betrayal just before it happened. Risking his life, he stole a Thunderhawk gunship and raced to the planetary surface, where he would be in range to broadcast a warning to Loken and others. Thus Loken was able to lead some fragment of the loyalists to safety in sealed bunkers before the bombs fell.
At the same time, Horus had his traitors turn on the Remembrancers, who had little stake in his cause, and could serve as dangerous witnesses. Aboard his ships, nearly all Remembrancers were massacred. But some escaped deep into the ships, where they engaged in sabotage before they were hunted down; and one small group managed to escape.
The Remembrancer Euphrati Keeler had been scarred by a brush with Chaos during a recent campaign. That encounter, couple with her strong faith in the Emperor, changed something inside her. When an archivist, at the behest of Loken, conducted research that unintentionally released a daemon into the real world aboard the Vengeful Spirit, it was Keeler’s faith that led to the miraculous defeat of the creature. Now called “the saint” by her amazed congregations, her words and deeds led to a rapid increase in faith in the Emperor among the people of the fleet. When the massacre began, she and Mersadie Oliton, along with Iterator Kyril Sindermann, were rescued by loyalist Luna Wolfe Iacton Qruze. They made their way to a Death Guard frigate, the Eisenstein, where loyalist captain Nathaniel Garro had been stationed after being wounded in action. Garro’s marines took the ship from the traitors, and blasted their way out of Isstvan in a desperate bid to reach Terra and warn the Emperor of Horus’s betrayal.
And on Isstvan III, the fate of the survivors remains to be seen…
My verdict: A most satisfying, and frustrating, book! Satisfying in that this novel gives us the payoff of everything we’ve been building toward. It’s well-written, a real page-turner. Frustrating, in that there are now new plot threads that we need to play out–and I can’t wait!
So: If you’ve kept up with me this far, and you’d like to get into this series, go on and jump in. Try to finish the trilogy, at least. Don’t stop with Horus Rising, even if it doesn’t convince you; it’s a great book, but it poses many more questions than it answers. If you get to the end of Galaxy in Flames, you’ll have everything you need to know in order to decide if you want to continue the series.
Next time: We’ve covered one of the two major battles that begin the Heresy. The other is the Dropsite Massacre of Isstvan V; but before we get there, we need to see what happened to Garro and his refugees aboard the Eisenstein! And we’ll get that in book four, Flight of the Eisenstein, by James Swallow. See you there!
Last time, we finished up with a description of the setting of Warhammer 40,000, up to M30 (the thirtieth millennium), just after the conclusion of the Unification Wars that established the Imperium of Mankind. If you’re just joining us now, and especially if you’re brand new to 40K, click here to go back and read that post, and you’ll be caught up and ready for today!
We left things in pretty good order, all things considered. Despite the chaos of the five thousand year Age of Strife (or “Old Night”, as it is sometimes called–if you haven’t noticed, *everything* in 40K has multiple names), things in the galaxy have largely reached a quiet moment, at least in the materium, the physical universe. The Eldar have fallen, but that largely doesn’t concern anyone but them at this point. Slaanesh, the fourth Chaos God, has arisen, but as yet that has not begun to tip the balance of power. In most of the galaxy, the Warp is pretty well separated from the materium (though not everywhere!). Chaos is potent, but hasn’t really done much that would affect the Imperium or other civilizations aside from the Eldar, except in isolated pockets. The Warp storms that prevented most travel have abated. Terra and its neighbors are united under the banner of the Emperor. The Tyranids have not arrived, the Necrons have not awakened, the T’au are still primitive. The Primarchs remain lost, but that hasn’t stopped the Emperor from creating the Space Marines, the Adeptus Astartes.
Thus begins the Great Crusade!
The Emperor’s Plan
It certainly took him long enough–thirty-eight millennia, more or less–but the Emperor has a plan. It’s a far-reaching plan; but here at the outset, the goal is simple: Reunite the scattered worlds of humanity under one banner, that of the Imperium. After the Age of Strife, humanity is distributed throughout the galaxy on potentially millions of planets (there’s never a definite count; like so many things in 40K, this is kept intentionally vague for the sake of the tabletop game, to allow players freedom to design their own campaigns). There’s little communication, and often little awareness that other worlds even exist; it’s not uncommon for planetary civilizations to have regressed to a point where they have forgotten that they came from the stars in the first place.
The Emperor’s views would be barbaric by the standards of the twenty-first century. He holds several tenets: The superiority of humanity; the inferiority of alien races, or “xenos”; the right of humanity to both live and rule. Not very tolerant, eh? And indeed, there will be those even in the Imperium who don’t agree–but mostly, humanity will come to embrace those views. It’s best to just consider them the prevailing attitude of the Imperium, and not be concerned about whether they would be acceptable here in the real world–40K isn’t the real world, and its situation is so far removed from our reality as to not be comparable.
But, the Emperor has a longer plan, too. He is well aware of the threat of Chaos, and the risk it presents to humanity; also, he is aware of the increase in danger posed by the mass rise of psykers among humanity. His goal, ultimately–though it will be a long time before he says it–is to sever humanity from the Warp, ending the risk of Chaos forever.
But first, he has to unite all humanity.
The Great Crusade
The Emperor deployed his twenty legions of Astartes, along with the Imperial Army and Navy, into the galaxy to locate and retake human-settled worlds. Some would join the Imperium willingly; most would resist, and be militarily pacified and occupied. The goal in each instance is to bring the world to “compliance”–that is, full adoption of, and absorption into, the Imperial system (including, of course, taxation and military conscription). Compliance required more than just military subjugation, though; and so, with the fleets went many Imperial Iterators: teachers, philosophers, and other functionaries who functioned as the engine of Imperial propaganda, convincing the locals of the rightness of the Imperial way.
It all sounds a bit fascist–but that’s the unfortunate truth of the Imperium. The Imperium is not a democracy in any sense; it is a monarchy or dictatorship. And that brings me to a central principle of the 40K setting: The good guys aren’t always the good guys. It’s all highly dependent on the situation and the individuals; there are few points of moral high ground when the future is all war. This, again, goes back to the tabletop game; players can play any faction they like, and aren’t bound to behave in an “evil” way just because they play a faction that sometimes behaves that way. The Imperium are, for the most part, the protagonist faction in the setting, but they can be both good and evil depending on the context.
I have to mention that the Crusade didn’t focus only on worlds already occupied by humanity. The Emperor considered xenos to be inferior to humans, and the standing policy of the Imperium is that xenos be wiped out wherever they are found. That will come to the fore shortly.
The Emperor himself led the Crusade at first. This was a heady time, as many systems flowed into the Imperium, and the pace of the reconquest increased. Moreover, one by one, the Emperor rediscovered the twenty lost Primarchs, all now grown to manhood on scattered worlds. Beginning with Horus, he brought them into the fold and set them in charge of their respective Legions, dispatching them to fight the battles of the Crusade.
Around the beginning of M30 (the 31st millennium–remember, the first millennium was 1 AD through 1000 AD, so M30 is the 31st millennium), the Crusade came to the Ullanor sector of the galaxy. This sector was ruled by the Orks under an Overlord called Urrlak Urruk. Under the Imperium’s tenets, this situation couldn’t be allowed to stand.
Thus, the Emperor deployed what was likely the largest concentration of force in the entire Crusade. One hundred thousand Astartes were accompanied by eight million Imperial Army troops and six hundred starships, and deployed into the Ullanor sector. Not all the Primarchs were present–many were too far away to be called to the battle–but Horus and his Luna Wolves legion led the fight, second only to the Emperor himself. It was Horus’s strategic planning that took the capital world of Ullanor Prime, defeating a force that outnumbered them five to one. Within a year of the taking of Ullanor Prime, the rest of the sector fell under Imperial control, and the vast majority of the Orks in the sector were wiped out.
The Emperor chose the victory at Ullanor as the opportunity to enact the next phase of his plan. At Ullanor he initiated a great celebration of the Imperium’s victory. Fourteen legions (of eighteen–the two lost Primarchs I mentioned yesterday had already been removed, with their legions) were able to attend, accompanied by nine of the Primarchs, great hosts of regular military, ships, and Titans–the massive, walking war machines that had been instrumental in the battle.
And then, the Emperor stepped down from the Crusade.
The Emperor honored Horus, the first-regained and favorite of his sons, by naming him the Warmaster of the Crusade. He placed Horus in charge of the Crusade, to prosecute and complete as he wished. Then, the great celebration completed, the Emperor returned to Terra, keeping his reasons and his plans to himself.
This would prove to be a great miscalculation, and a great misunderstanding of the Primarchs. They were, after all, still human, if not exactly normal humans; and they had their fears and their petty jealousies. Ultimately the forces of Chaos would use those flaws to turn some of them against each other and the Imperium.
The Horus Heresy
The events known as the Horus Heresy began not long after the appointment of Horus as Warmaster; but their origins go back further, and are in some way still murky. It is clear that some characters had already begun to be corrupted by Chaos at this point–most notably, the primarch Lorgar and his legion, the Word Bearers. But none of this was known at the time; and the actual beginning of the Heresy can be dated to the corruption of Horus, in approximately 005.M31 (that is, the year 30,005).
I will not try here to cover all of the events of the Heresy, because my goal is to cover it as I read through the novels. But, an overview is in order.
Much tragedy could possibly have been prevented if the Emperor had simply chosen to let Horus in on his plan. It was Horus’s doubts about the Emperor’s commitment to him, the other Primarchs and Legions, and the Crusade itself that opened him up to the influence of Chaos. Likewise, notifying the other Primarchs might have prevented them from seeing Horus’s appointment as Warmaster as a sign of favoritism from the Emperor, and may have prevented some of the rifts between the Primarchs. Moreover, the Emperor created an administrative bureaucracy to handle the running of the Imperium while he pursued his secret plans; of necessity, this meant that the Primarchs now had to bow to the will of civilians. Naturally, this didn’t sit well with them.
Lorgar, having already given himself to Chaos in secret, made sure to place himself close to Horus where he could whisper dissent into his ear. He also created the Lectitio Divinitatus, a religious text that proclaimed that the Emperor should be worshipped as a god. This was contrary to the Emperor’s atheist edicts, the “Imperial Truth”, which sought to eliminate the practice of religion (and thus deny Chaos a source of power, though he did not publicize that aspect of it). He ensured that secretive “lodges” were established among the military and Astartes, to spread this heretical view.
Lorgar then engineered the mortal wounding of Horus on a Chaos-touched moon of the planet Davin. His lieutenant Erebus then arranged for the use of local mystical practices to heal Horus. During the resulting rituals, Horus’s spirit entered the Warp and saw a vision of the future in which the Imperium would become a violent, stagnant, suffering-filled theocracy–a vision provided by the Chaos Gods. It would prove to be true–but, only because of Horus’s actions, a fact hidden from him. Horrified, and already suspicious of the Emperor, Horus gave in to the Chaos Gods and rebelled against the Imperium.
Most of Horus’s Legion, the Luna Wolves–now renamed the Sons of Horus–would accompany him, as well as the World Eaters under the Primarch Angron, the Emperor’s Children under Fulgrim, and the Death Guard under Mortarion. However, some elements of those Legions, as well as the Iron Hands under Ferrus Manus, would not; and so Horus engineered the destruction of these loyalist elements. In two great massacres in the Isstvan system, he set ambushes to wipe out the loyalists in the first great battle of Astartes against Astartes. However, some few survivors escaped. Horus then declared war on the Emperor, and set about trying to bring other legions and Primarchs to his side.
The Webway Project
However, despite Horus’s beliefs, the Emperor had not abandoned the Imperium. He had, instead, begun the next phase of his ultimate plan to sever humanity from the Warp. Travel in the Imperium depended upon the Warp, not only as the medium of travel, but also by way of the psykers required to navigate and to generate the Gellar fields that protect ships. The Emperor planned to eliminate this need by taking control of a much more ancient form of travel: the Webway.
The Webway consists of tunnels outside normal reality, connecting farflung points in space. Technically it passes through the Warp, but is separated from it, and protected from it. The Emperor planned to add new tunnels, centering around a great Webway portal beneath the Imperial Palace on Terra. It was to this project that he had secretly dedicated himself.
It was not meant to be. One of his sons, the Primarch Magnus the Red, was a powerful psyker, perhaps nearly as powerful as the Emperor himself. He and his legion, the Thousand Sons, were dedicated to the pursuit of psychic ability, to the disapproval of the Emperor; such pursuits had already been forbidden to the Astartes at the Council of Nikaea. Magnus, through use of his powers, foresaw Horus’s betrayal. He attempted to warn the Emperor; needing to do so quickly, he chose to do it via a powerful psychic message, reasoning that the Emperor would be willing to forgive him under the circumstances. However, he did not know about the Webway project; and his overpowered message destroyed the psychic wards around the palace, and damaged the project. Thus, daemonic forces of Chaos were able to penetrate the Webway and attempt to breach the gate into Terra itself. A long and desperate battle resulted. In the end, the Emperor was forced to reinforce the barriers himself with his unparalleled psychic powers, sitting on a device called the Golden Throne that served as a psychic amplifier. Only once would he rise from the throne, years later. The Emperor’s plans now lay in ruins.
The Siege of Terra
The Heresy would go on for nine long years. Many battles would be fought, which I will cover in later books. In the end, the Traitor Primarchs and their legions would lay siege to Terra itself. Terra was defended by Rogal Dorn and his legion, with some reinforcements from other Loyalist forces.
At last, Horus himself came to Terra to complete his conquest. He lowered the shields of his flagship, the Vengeful Spirit, and challenged the Emperor to personal combat. The Emperor accepted the challenge. He rose from the Golden Throne, placing his regent, Malcador the Sigillite, on it in his place–Malcador being the only remaining psyker with enough strength to even temporarily take the Emperor’s place there. He then teleported to the Vengeful Spirit, accompanied by the Primarchs Dorn and Sanguinius, several companies of their Astartes, and his own personal guard, the powerful Custodes. The Emperor and Sanguinius confronted Horus, who first struck down Sanguinius before taking on the Emperor himself.
The Emperor won the battle–but not before being mortally wounded by Horus. He then gathered all his psychic power and erased Horus from existence, body, soul, and spirit. He then returned to the palace.
The tech-priests of the Mechanicum quickly swapped out the Emperor for the now-dying Malcador, who sacrificed the last of his own power in a burst to sustain the Emperor’s life. At the same time, they made hasty modifications to the Throne, giving it life-support capabilities. The Emperor, knowing he would never be able to leave the Throne again, gave orders to the survivors on how to cleanse the last of the traitors from the galaxy. He then fell silent, pouring his power into two tasks. First, he devotes the greater share of his power to protecting the webway portal from Chaos; and second, he maintains the Astronomican, the great psychic beacon that serves as a lighthouse to guide ships through the Warp. He would remain on the Throne for the next ten millennia, his body slowly growing weaker and decaying while still alive, dependent on the failing machinery to survive. His spirit remains strong, but he rarely speaks, leaving the Imperium to his underlings.
Nearly all the remaining Primarchs are lost to the Imperium today. Many are dead; of those that survive, some are devoted to Chaos and continue to prosecute its wars. Only two Loyalist Primarchs are confirmed to survive: Lion el’Jonson, of the Dark Angels, secretly survives in stasis in the heart of their fortress-monastery, awaiting his return; and Roboute Guilliman, of the Ultramarines, has returned to the Imperium, and now serves as the Imperial Regent, leading the Imperium in his father’s stead in late M41.
The legions themselves were mostly disbanded and reorganized after the Heresy, in what has become known as the Second Founding. To ensure that no great force of Astartes could ever be corrupted at once again, they were redistributed into small chapters of no more than a thousand Marines each. Each chapter now functions as a smaller legion, waging its own wars and carrying on the legacy of its parent legion as it deems fit. Few, if any, maintain the pure geneseed legacy of their parent legions, with most having some sort of flaw or defect endemic to their chapter. The Imperium is ruled by the Lords of Terra, and policed by the Inquisition. The Imperium has become a dark and grim place, populated by trillions living in suffering. The Necrons are slowly awakening; the T’au have risen; the Eldar remain a potent force despite their fall; the Orks continue to spread; and the Tyranids have come to the galaxy–and over it all is the shadow of Chaos. The people worship the Emperor as their god; the Imperial Truth is all but forgotten. The Adeptus Mechanicus maintains the Golden Throne, while the Adeptus Custodes watch over the decaying Emperor and attempt to carry out his will. And the Throne is failing. Soon the Emperor will die; and whether the Imperium can survive, no one knows.
Perhaps you can see why this setting gave us the term “grimdark”.
But in the meantime, we have stories to tell. We’ll begin with the stories of the Heresy. Next time, we’ll look at the opening trilogy of the Horus Heresy series: Horus Rising, False Gods, and Galaxy in Flames. See you there!
Want to read along? Most books in the Horus Heresy series remain in print; many are available also as ebooks and audiobooks. Check your local retailer, or order at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or your preferred online retailer.