Shadows of Treachery – Advance Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the latest Horus Heresy anthology, containing two brand new novella-length stories, as well as several reprints of old audio dramas and a formerly exclusive short story.
“One of the best anthologies that Black Library has put out, each story a perfect thematic fit to each other.” ~The Founding Fields
Shadows of Treachery is the fourth anthology in the Horus Heresy series, following on from the highly successful Tales of Heresy, Age of Darkness, and The Primarchs. It also marks a slight departure in terms of content from these anthologies, for where the first two contain only short stories and the third only novellas, this one contains two novellas and five short stories, an eclectic mix of tales from across the Heresy lore, both old and new alike. And so the stage is set for what promises to be a really great anthology, despite my earlier reservations as about a good 45% of the anthology is reprint of older material.
The lead-in story is Crimson Fist by John French, an Imperial Fists novella through and through by the man who gave us the downright excellent The Last Remembrancer in Age of Darkness. John French is among the newer crop of Black Library authors and has yet to have a novel of his own published, but given how good his short fiction has been so far, I’m sure one is in the works. Crimson Fist is a tale of two halves, the first dealing with the vengeance fleet that Primarch Rogal Dorn dispatched to Isstvan after learning of Warmaster Horus’ betrayal in Flight of the Eisenstein, and the second deals with Dorn himself, and his favoured son, the legion’s First Captain, Sigismund the Templar.
What struck me the most about Crimson Fist is just how well John has captured the personalities of Sigismund and Dorn, making these into so much more than they have been before, except of course in the excellent short stories (formerly audio dramas) by Dan Abnett and Graham McNeill that are also contained within the pages of this anthology. The scenes on Terra as Dorn begins the preparation of fortifying the Imperial Palace to deal with the traitors’ eventual invasion, are laden with emotion as John gets into the head of the Praetorian, Dorn. The interplay between him and Sigismund is well and truly that of a father and son in a galaxy of war, and is a very personal relationship rather than some of the more impersonal ones we have seen so far, like Horus and Abaddon which is a one-way trip of unbridled admiration and fraternal love. Dorn is someone who cares about his genetic sons, much in the same way that the more compassionate/passionate Primarchs like Sanguinius do.
And as was later revealed, John really did his homework on this part of the story, for these scenes fit in extremely well with Dan’s The Lightning Tower and Graham’s The Dark King, in terms of the mood, the various references to characters and places, etc. Definitely the best part of the novella.
The second part, told in first person through the eyes of Alexis Polux, one of the remaining senior commanders of the vengeance fleet, and the future first Chapter Master of the Crimson Fists, is written well, but it does not match up to the novella’s second half. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the insight into what happens in the Phall system, one of the more defining battles of the Imperial Fists prior to the Siege of Terra (and some might say the only one of note undertaken by the legion), but it was still lacking in a few places. For one, the actual void battle doesn’t happen until much later in the story and that disappointed me somewhat. The cover sets up a really fantastic look into what went on in Phall, but the event itself is rushed through. Its even more disappointing for me as when I had first seen the cover, I had expected this anthology to be anovel about Phall, which I think would have been a bloody fantastic job, but unfortunately not so. Still, this is a pretty good entry into the series, and one of the better ones in fact.
Next we have The Dark King by Graham McNeill. This is one of the older stories in the series, possibly the oldest alongside The Lightning Tower. And it used to be an audio drama too. I found this to be a truly fascinating story because of the fact that this one really gets into the head of Primarch Konrad Curze of the Night Lords legion, one the traitors during the Heresy. It marks that final rift between Dorn and Curze, the one where the latter murderously assaults the latter, and essentially goes renegade, until he marks an appearance at Isstvan as part of the second wave of attackers and betrays the legions of the first wave. This is a story that is all about the relationships between the Primarchs. Curze is confronted by first Dorn’s apparent naivete (in Curze’s eyes) about the goal of the Great Crusade and the legions’ place among it, and then is betrayed by Fulgrim to Dorn where Curze’s prescience is concerned. It is an almost heart-breaking story, almost because even though this is set in the 31st millennium, it echoes the full mood and atmosphere of the relentless 41st millennium where treachery and war are supreme. This also shows off Curze’s other psychic power, the one that grants him power in darkness and over shadows, to use as he sees fit. Ultimately, it is about the dichotomy of the Primarch, his frailty where his prescience is concerned, and his lethality where his physical prowess as a hand-crafted warlord is concerned. Well and truly a Heresy classic story.
Then we have Dan Abnett’s The Lightning Tower, which is quite possibly the best Heresy short story to date, although Matt Farrer’s After Desh’ea, John French’s The Last Remembrancer and Graham McNeill’s The Kaban Project are strong contenders. This is another story that concerns Dorn and is all about him coming to terms with his worst fears about the Heresy. This is a somewhat concurrent story to John French’s Crimson Fist, but more towards the other extreme of the timeline therein. With nothing but Malcador the Sigillite’s counsel at his disposal, the Emperor being busy in his deepest vaults within the Imperial Palace, Dorn is a conflicted man because he cannot grasp what it is that could have turned Horus traitor. And I loved this story start to finish. This is a character study about Dorn, one where we really get to feel and experience what he does, his hopes and dreams and his nightmares. Together with the other two stories so far in the anthology, it forms a trilogy that is bound tightly in its themes and characters. It might as well have been subtexted “Shadows of Treachery” for Dorn has to come to understand and wrestle with that concept where it concerns his traitor brothers
Fourth up is another Graham McNeill story, The Kaban Project, a short story which first appeared in the artbook/companionbook Horus Heresy: Collected Visions, which is one of the best sources of Heresy lore to date, although much of the material therein has been revisited as the Heresy series started and progressed, and a fair few things have been retconned. Not this one though, a prequel story to Graham’s Mechanicum, which detailed how Mars and the Mechanicum fell to Chaos. This short is all about Adept Ravachol and his (unknowingly) treacherous creation, the Kaban Machine, a self-aware/thinking /sentient robot whose kind is forbidden by the Emperor. It is also one of the cogs in the machine so to speak, the machine being the wider treachery at play within the Martian Priesthood. This is almost like a thriller horror story because the reversals in here are shocking, even more so if you’ve read Mechnanicum first. The play of loyalties conveys the naivete of the principal character, Adept Ravachol, and how innocence is slowly being corrupted by the traitors among the Priesthood. A highly recommended story.
Then we have the original prose of the audio drama The Raven’s Flight by Gav Thorpe. I have the review of the audio version here. As much as I like the audio drama, the awesomeness of which owes much to Toby Longworth’s fantastic voice-acting, I have to say that the prose is unarguably superior in comparison. It contains a few deleted scenes and the full original cast of characters that didn’t make it onto the audo version because of the restriction in how much can be put on a single mp3 disc. The “extras” therefore add that much more to the story and make it feel complete, in hindsight of course. This gets a big thumbs-up from me, especially since it was a ton of fun reading the short story while having Toby Longworth’s voice playing out in my head. Highly enjoyable.
The final short story in the anthology is another Graham McNeill story, Death of a Silversmith, which first showed up in the Black Library Games Day Anthology 2011/12, reviewed here by me. As you can see in that review, I didn’t like this so much when I first read it. It was simply lacking in a way that I could not articulate properly in the review. However, reading it as part of this collection was a much better experience. Thematically, it fits in perfectly and the other stories in the anthology help pull it up. The context that I was lacking earlier is now there, even though I still wish that this had been a bigger story, so that we could have seen much more of the silversmith than we do.
The final entry in the anthology is another novella, Prince of Crows by Aaron Demsbki-Bowden, and tells the story of the end of the Thramas Crusade, one of the earliest conflicts of the Heresy, and one between the Dark Angels and the Night Lords. Prince of Crows is about Sevatar, the First Captain of the Eighth Legion, the Primarch’s most favoured and most loyal son. The novella is all about the man (or warrior) behind the myth, acknowledged widely among the survivors of the legion post-Heresy as the only one who could have held the fractured legion together following Curze’s death, the best among them all. On that score, the author doesn’t disappoint at all because Sevatar is shown in a very strong light here. He is characterised with a heavily irreverent and unconcerned attitude which makes him really likable, and shows how he truly could have been a great leader among the legion after the Heresy had he only survived whatever death claims him. It also delves into why he was a condemned man among Curze’s sons, gauntlets forever painted red as a mark of shame, a shame that is as personal and tragic as Sigismund’s own in Crimson Fist, and is a trait of both these warriors that defines their individual personalities.
In the novella, we don’t see much of Primarch-Primarch relationships, which is something I feel Aaron is really good at portraying, but instead a lot of one-liners and witty dialogues that are another of his strengths. They get to be a bit much at times and the overuse is jarring, but it still fits in the larger scheme of things, for its something that Sevatar is good at. He can disarm anyone with the right words and sarcastic remarks.
For me, while the novella has a lot of thematic links to the other stories, and also in terms of the characters (Curze most notably), it didn’t quite fit in as well. Not to mention the somewhat weird ending that I’m still not sure about. It seems somewhat unnecessary in that there seems to be no reason for how things turn out in the climax. I see loyalist characters as more interested in futile last stands than traitors. All I can say is that there better be a follow-up story to this!!
Overall rating: 9.5/10