Shadowhawk reviews the third Horus Heresy anthology, a collection of four novellas focused exclusively on a Primarch: Fulgrim, Ferrus Manus, Lion El’Jonson and Alpharius.
“Some of the best Black Library authors writing some of its best fiction, The Primarchs is an absolute must-read because there has yet to be a collection like this in the grim darkness of the far future.” ~The Founding Fields
Note: some spoilers for previous Horus Heresy novels will be mentioned.
The Horus Heresy is hands down one of the best Science Fiction series ever, especially since its such a collaborative effort between so many authors, editors and all the fantastic artwork courtesy of the amazingly talented Neil Roberts. When last I dipped into the Thirtieth Millennium, it was with Dan Abnett’s Know No Fear, a novel that told the first engagement of the Horus Heresy between the Ultramarines and the Word Bearers Legions as the latter ambushed the former at their own stronghold of Calth! Know No Fear was quite an excellent read and set the bar quite high for future novels in the series to follow so it was with some tense anticipation that I picked up The Primarchs at Black Library Live! in early May. My expectations were quite high since each novella focuses on a single Primarch and his legion and thus the promise was quite high but really, I shouldn’t have been so tense.
The Primarchs is a cracking read that makes you wish the anthology had gone on and on and not stopped.
First up is Graham McNeill’s contribution to the collection, the novella The Reflection Crack’d which focuses on the Third Legion and its Primarch: the Emperor’s Children and Fulgrim respectively. The novella has been described in many places as “Exorcist in 40k”. That really is not far off the mark and actually hits quite close to the truth of it. When Fulgrim ended, Fulgrim had been completely possessed by a malicious daemon of Slaanesh and it was as if his fate was sealed for none except Horus knew of this startling development and the Warmaster had vowed to free his brother. And then in Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s Aurelian we saw Lorgar realising that same truth and being quite physical with his opinions. The ending of it certainly created quite a buzz and it was with that ending that Graham begins the novella.
For the Emperor’s Children leadership is finally beginning to suspect that all is not well with Fulgrim and that Fulgrim may just not be Fulgrim after all. What follows is a brutal and visceral story of the Legion’s officers attempting to find the truth. The Reflection Crack’d is, in my humble opinion, the story that Fulgrim should have been and what it came quite close to being. The novella is a no-holds barred narrative that sees the Emperor’s Children embracing their Slaaneshi heritage in full and becoming true champions of the Dark Prince in the mortal realms. From start to finish Graham sets a tough pace for the reader with the promise that the secrets of the Third Legion are just around the corner and that you should keep reading lest you be left behind.
Revisiting Lucius, that depraved bastard from Fulgrim who ended up betraying his closest brothers for power and more power is back and Graham puts him in the spotlight as the focal character of the novella through which we see the narrative unfold. It really is some kind of an irony that it is Lucius of all people who should be the level-headed one in the novella and that he is the one who convinces his brothers that something is amiss with Fulgrim. The future great champion of Slaanesh finally comes into his own in the novella and it is an absolute joy to read more of him. The conclusion of the novella is intrinsically tied to Lucius and the way it ends, some pretty big things are on the horizon for the novella sets up Graham’s next full-length Horus Heresy outing: Angel Exterminatus, a novel with the Emperor’s Children fighting alongside their brother traitor legion, the Iron Warriors, against the Iron Hands. This will be great fun!
All in all, for its brilliant writing, and the various twists and revelations that are carried forwards from Fulgrim and towards Angel Exterminatus, plus the incredible “Exorcist in 40k” scenes, I recommend that even if you don’t get the anthology, get the novella as an eBook.
Next we have Nick Kyme tackling the Iron Hands and their Primarch, Ferrus Manus the Gorgon, in Feat of Iron. Ferrus is an interesting character because it so happens that he is the first Primarch to die in the 40k-verse, and that too at the Heresy’s most defining moment: the Istvaan V Dropsite Massacre. In Fulgrim we see how the long-standing friendship and brotherhood between the Gorgon and the Phoenecian (Fulgrim) is sundered and how that divide is taken to its inevitable conclusion. As such, it was always a question as to what Nick could do with him in light of this what kind of a narrative we would get from the perspective of a character who was, it seems, fated to one day lord over the Mechanicum,
Turns out that Nick took a really interesting approach with him. The events of Feat of Iron are set in parallel to the events of and take place on the same planet as in Promethean Sun, Nick’s previous Horus Heresy novella which was about Vulkan and his Salamanders. As far as I am concerned, the novella breathed Iron Hands for me, right from his characterisation of the Gorgon and to the characterisation of his Astartes. Additionally, seeing the Tenth Legion’s credo “Flesh is weak” turned on its head and biting them in their collective backsides was a big moment for me. What Nick did with the Astartes was a classic approach wherein you present your characters with a situation that is so inimical to them and where everything they know is challenged, right down to their very core. That, and seeing the Iron Hands attempting to fight against the Eldar of all races.
Overall, Nick has carried on with what Graham created back in Fulgrim with ease. The Iron Hands Terminators, known as the Morlocks, and their leader, Gabriel Santar had some of the best scenes in the novella and with Nick expanding the cast of the legion leadership beyond what we saw in Fulgrim, it was all very… cool. It was a little weird reading about the Iron Hands though, given the disaster on Istvaan V a few decades later, and Nick definitely had that fatalistic atmosphere in the narrative. Especially with Ferrus, who is forced to confront a certain truth about his future and it was almost heartbreaking for me to see him standing so firm against his destiny. More so when we see how much faith and trust Ferrus Manus has in his brothers.
In closing, the novella has a good pacing, although it gets a little slow in a few places, especially when Ferrus Manus is undergoing that confrontation with his future and the Eldar are making their play to turn him towards a different course. But still, I really liked the novella, because for me it shows that Nick can successfully write about a legion/chapter other than the Salamanders!
The third novella in the collection is Gav Thorpe’s The Lion, which continues on from Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s short story Savage Weapons in the Age of Darkness anthology. Gav is no stranger either to the Lion or to the Dark Angels as he has written a lot about them over the years and even participated in adding to their rulebook lore while he was with the Games Workshop Design Studio. The Lion is an interesting story because it depicts the Lion as a very mercurial character. There are shades of Mitchell Scanlon, of Mike Lee and of Aaron in Gav’s portrayal of the First Primarch so we get to see a lot of different sides of him. Although I’m not sure if that really works for him, being that diverse with his personality.
What I did love however was the Lion’s single-mindedness and his adaptive nature when faced with certain situations that go against some really strict rules as set by the Emperor himself. Not to mention that Corswain, from Savage Weapons, as the Lion’s equerry makes a comeback, as does Nemiel in his role as a Legion Chaplain. The interactions between these three characters made for some really nice moments and for an enjoyable read. The two Astartes work as great complements to their Primarch and seeing that come about was a highlight of the novel, as were the action scenes involving the Dark Angels having to defend themselves on their own ships from Chaos forces. Gav writes some great battle scenes and these were no exception, especially considering how this particular combat sequence climaxed! Was a definite surprise I can assure you, one that hammers home the point that we should not take any of the major characters in the series to be “fixed”. The galaxy is a dangerous, unpredictable place after all.
The second half of the plot, involving an ancient, somewhat-forbidden tech, and the efforts of both the Iron Hands and the Death Guard in claiming it was intriguing but I’m not sure if having something so obscure featured was right or not. There is definitely a sense of build-up however, one that makes me believe that plot threads here will carry on in some future works so I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. The pace does drop in the second half though, although the narrative is still a fairly easy read. People who have read the short story Rules of Engagement in the Age of Darkness anthology will recognise the import of the Iron Hands’ mission to Perditus and that made for an exciting but brief moment in the second half.
All in all, a decent contribution that carries on from what has come before and creates some rather high expectations for what is to come next. The Lion was serialised in issues 17-19 of the Hammer & Bolter eZine, for those who are interested.
Finally we have Rob Sanders rounding off the anthology with his Alpha Legion novella, The Serpent Beneath, continuing the tale of the twin Primarchs Alpharius and Omegon. Having read Rob’s astounding entry The Iron Within in the Age of Darkness anthology, I expected a lot from Rob Sanders, especially since I’ve loved his Legion of the Damned and the short story The Long Games at Carcharias, both of which feature the Alpha Legion, albeit in M41 rather than M31. The Serpent Beneath is a pure action novella that really delves into the inner workings of the most secretive and mysterious legion and its Primarch (or Primarchs, but only the legion itself is aware of that secret).
Start to finish, The Serpent Beneath is a roller-coaster ride that refuses to end as Alpharius and Omegon become aware of a potential leak within their own ranks and take steps to get to the bottom of the batter, no matter the cost. This more a story about Omegon than Alpharius but where the novella shines is in showing the relationship between the twins and giving us shades of grey about that relationship and their commitment to the plans of the Cabal and Horus alike. A lot of interesting questions are raised too and there are no easy answers because there is a very stark truth that is prevalent in the novella: This is the Alpha Legion and when the Twentieth Legion goes to task, nothing is ever as it seems. In other terms, be prepared for some really surprising twists.
By the time the novella ends, I had a new healthy respect for Omegon, who I really liked in his outing in Gav’s first Horus Heresy novel, Deliverance Lost. Omegon is still a hard-nosed, deceptive bastard but he is also one who is absolutely lethal, whether it is in intelligence-work or in close combat. And the Legionnaires themselves aren’t given the short shift either: they are themselves lethal. We see them fight against White Scars bikers and we see them fighting their own brothers without hesitation, just a strength purpose and the utter belief in their Primarch. Consequently, the actions scenes are just brilliant, continuing the tradition of some really exciting and evocative sequences of Astartes fighting Astartes.
Ultimately, The Serpent Beneath is about the Alpha Legion doing what it does best: mind-frakkery that makes you want to read on and on.
As an anthology, The Primarchs, is a great initiative to tell some Primarch-focused novels. None of the four novellas disappointed me and they were all excellent additions to the 40k-verse lore. After all, everything that happened in the Horus Heresy has ramifications right down to M41 and the writers showed that off beautifully. The anthology also sets up future works in a nice, easy manner, although I’m not sure how Feat of Iron will fit in, considering that the legion is leaderless and without its Primarch since the Dropsite Massacre. But going with some scenes in The Lion, someone is taking control of the disparate groups of Astartes all over the galaxy and it remains to be seen just how that particular plot thread continues on.
Overall rating: 9.25/10