Know No Fear by Dan Abnett – Advanced Review [EJ Davies]

Know-no-Fear

EJ Davies takes on the most recent, and one of the most eagerly anticipated, entries into the Horus Heresy saga.  The stage is set.  The First Heretic gave us the background.  Aurelian gave us the why.  Know No Fear gives us the how.  The Battle of Calth begins.

“A startling, gritty, visceral, punishing ride into the battle for Calth.  It’s simply astounding.  A must read.” ~ The Founding Fields.

The synopsis from our friends at Black Library:

“Unaware of the wider Heresy and following the Warmaster’s increasingly cryptic orders, Roboute Guilliman returns to Ultramar to muster his Legion for war against the orks massing in the Veridian system. Without warning, their supposed allies in the Word Bearers Legion launch a devastating invasion of Calth, scattering the Ultramarines fleet and slaughtering all who stand in their way. This confirms the worst scenario Guilliman can imagine – Lorgar means to settle their bitter rivalry once and for all. As the traitors summon foul daemonic hosts and all the forces of Chaos, the Ultramarines are drawn into a grim and deadly struggle in which neither side can prevail.”

Dan Abnett took the honour of writing the first novel in the Horus Heresy saga.  Since then we’ve seen highs (Fulgrim, First Heretic, Prospero Burns), mediums (Deliverance Lost, Mechanicum, Fallen Angels), and lows (Descent of Angels, Battle for the Abyss.)  It is therefore little wonder that the highest of highs in the series has come from Black Library’s own multi-award winning, million selling authors.  Although Graham McNeill already has a legacy of writing Ultramarines with his 40K novels, I feel the scope of this atrocity was much better suited to Dan.  Include in this that within the last 18 months Graham has given us A Thousand Sons with its own colossal battle scenes, Know No Fear could easily have burned him out.

The Battle of Calth is one of the most titanic points in the Heresy – alongside Signus Prime (coming in Fear to Tread but Jim Swallow in the coming months), the Dropsite Massacre, and the scourging of Prospero.  The Word Bearers, fresh from their censure on Monarchia by their genefather – before the Ultramarines legion – Lorgar Aurelian sets the Legion on a voyage of discovery, trying to locate a power in the universe worthy of the Word Bearer’s adulation and praise.  Finding it in the empyrean, Lorgar’s legion spreads the word throughout the Imperium, and some forty years after Monarchia, the Battle of Calth – under the orders of the Warmaster – the Ultramarines, the single largest legion in the galaxy, is to be persecuted and annihilated.  Under the auspices of brotherhood, the Word Bearers move against the XIII Legion, bringing them to the brink of extinction – yet their true motives remain concealed.

We have already had hints regarding Calth in Garro: Oath of Moment – and one of the characters, Tylos Rubio, appears briefly in the opening quarter of the book.  As you would imagine, Calth is an extermination.  A war.  A fratricide.  So this book was going to be less about politicking behind the scenes, and more about the gritty fighting.  But I don’t think I was truly prepared for the scale of it.

First off, I have to mention the narrative structure.  Dan excels at certain things – injection of humour before moments of dire emotional wrench, characterisation, world building, creating cultures – but more than ever I think I learned to appreciate just how easily Dan can switch his voice, his writing style, to suit a new idiom.  Like the opening bar scene in ‘The Social Network’ getting your ear tuned to Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue – Dan takes the first few ‘chapters’ to get you used to the tone and style of writing before hitting you with the big punches.  It reads as part war correspondent media inload, part narrative, part journalistic rambling, part XIII Legion battle record.  It’s stunning.  The fresh approach to the narrative is a gripping one, and considering the sheer number of battle scenes – the bolter porn, should you wish – a necessary one to ensure pace, clarity, and concision.

The other literary device in operation is the use of a ‘mark’ – explained in the first chapter as the time prior to/following the announcement of a retaliatory strike against the Word Bearer’s – gives you the tactical map against which to project the events throughout the novel.  This further emphasises what we read and almost factual recording through various data stacks, cogitator banks, and sensor array dissemination of the Battle of Calth in the wake of the heresy.  Almost like Roboute Guilliman himself has pored over the transcripts form every data source and compiled Know No Fear for distribution to the loyalist factions as a tactical treatise.  It’s – interesting, and engaging.  Though I would like it to stay an original feature, I fear it may be duplicated.  The sentences are also short, deliberately so.  Disarmingly so.

The story itself focusses in several key areas.  Reading the Dramatis Personae at the opening of a HH novel has become something or a ritual for me – looking at which characters are coming and already strating to get my imagination turning.  Normally this spreads over a double page – in KNF it’s four pages long.  Yet it’s still not crowded, it’s still not overpopulated.  We get some old favourites turning up – Remus Ventanus (from Graham’s short ‘Rules Of Engagement’ in the Age of Darkness anthology), Argel Tal, Lorgar Aurelian, Roboute Guilliman (his first real starring role), Kor Phaeron, Erebus; and new faces who turn out to be more connected to the deeper saga than we could first imagine – and promise to turn up in later novels.  We see the battle through these key characters, we see the actions these heroes take in response to the atrocity committed, and we see the fallout of these actions.  It’s mind bending to think just how much real-estate these things must have taken in Dan Abnett’s cerebral cortex.

I love Dan Abnett’s writing.  I love his Horus Heresy entries so far.  And this is a worthy entry, if not the worthiest of entries, into the saga.  Know No Fear easily ranks towards the upper end of the saga, if not has already toppled the mightiest of them so far.  The Ultramarines had the opportunity to be starch-arsed, by the numbers, soulless heroes; but they are characterful, damaged, jaded, and vengeful.  The Word Bearers had the capability of being nothing more than pantomime villains, but they themselves are evil in a way that defies description.

By far, this is the novel that should be held above all others to this stage.  Know No Fear is (in my opinion) the finest Horus Heresy novel to date.  A great read, and a must read.

EJ Davies

EJ Davies: reader, reviewer, writer; and an avid lover of Black LIbrary products since the release of the seminal Horus Rising. EJ is currently working through the massive back catalogue of Black Library titles, and plugging away at his own fiction-based efforts in the vain hope of cracking his way into the author pool.

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