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Shadowhawk reviews Graham McNeill’s latest Horus Heresy novel, wherein he tackles one of the most overlooked Primarchs and Legions in the series to date.
“A decent and extremely promising novel that also misses the mark often and is ultimately let down by the high expectations created by Graham’s last full offering that I really enjoyed, A Thousand Sons.” ~The Founding Fields
The Horus Heresy series is one of my favourite SFF series to date, partly for the fact that it is so epic and far-ranging in scope, and because this a series with about 7-8 different ongoing authors and a bunch of other (so-far) contributing ones. The series touches on the most defining grand events of Warhammer 40,000 history, and so far, despite a few missteps along the way, it is one of the most well-written series I’ve read to date. The last offering, Fear To Tread by James Swallow was a very enjoyable read, covering as it did Sanguinius and his Blood Angels, a Primarch and legion that I always enjoy reading about, and my expectations after that for Angel Exterminatus were quite high.
However, I’m not sure if Angel Exterminatus has actually met my expectations at all. There were some elements of the book that I really liked, and others that I didn’t. Overall, my initial reaction to the book was quite positive, but having read a few discussions about it since, and reconsidered my own feelings and thoughts with respect to it, I find that it is not as strong a book.
The hands down best moments of the book are whenever there is Perturabo involved. As one of the Primarchs who has gone relatively unexplored so far, barring John French’s recent novella Crimson Fist, he gets a great outing, and it’s nice to see his character explored in such detail. The novel also continues the trend that with each novel, the Primarch in question comes out on top when put up against his brothers, whether it is a metaphorical comparison, or an actual contest of arms, but I really didn’t mind that. Each of the 18 Primarchs has his own redeeming qualities, his own strengths and weaknesses, and despite the opinions that they all hold about each other, the fact remains that they are pinnacles of Humanity. That is of course despite the fact that they are all essentially test-tube babies. If I had to pin down one memorable scene that really stood out, it would be when Perturabo engages in both the defense and then the offense of the Imperial Palace in a mock-game with his senior legion officers. Perturabo is a master of siege-combat, a reputation that clashes with that of his brother Rogal Dorn, who is similarly gifted and is a source of great conflict between their respective legions, the Iron Warriors and the Imperial Fists.
The novel is also great in that we get to see a fairly good in-depth look into the Iron Warriors’ psyche and see how the legion works and how it thinks. There are a ton of legion characters involved and it can get overwhelming at times, but I honestly enjoyed the diversity. It would have been absolutely fantastic if Graham hadn’t felt a need to involve almost all of his 40k-era Iron Warriors characters (from his Iron Warriors and Ultramarines novels) into the narrative, because that often broke my immersion into the novel, since I kept wondering if these guys were really the best the legion had to offer across a period of 10,000 years. And not all of the characters are done justice, such as First Captain Forrix and Warsmith Barban Falk, but overall, Graham gave me enough of an insight into the legion that I was okay with his heavy-handed approach. I do wish however that I had gotten to see a lot more of the Honourable Soulaka and Barban Falk, since they were two of the most interesting characters for me.
The Emperor’s Children, about whom Graham has already written quite a bit in the series, are alongside the Iron Warriors almost every step of the way, and one of the cool things about the book was how Graham plays them against each other, and how their differences and similarities come out. There is a particularly memorable scene when one of the senior Iron Warriors officers is invited about an Emperor’s Children ship and is almost converted to the cause of Slaanesh due to surreptitiously being dosed with psychotropic drugs and some specially concocted narcotics. That was undoubtedly one of the best scenes in the book.
Of course, when it comes to the Emperor’s Children, their Primarch Fulgrim is never behind, who is portrayed as rather insane and self-serving and a drama queen of sorts. One of his memorable moments in the book is when he gives a dramatic performance inside a theater that he asks Perturabo to build specifically for the performance. He is extremely over the top as he tells the story of the Angel Exterminatus, a great mythological figure from the Eldar myth cycles. Another is when Perturabo disciplines him, and none too gently either. That scene is very shocking in its impact and is something that I definitely did not see coming. Fulgrim didn’t either, and that’s why it’s so great!
When it comes to Fulgrim’s legion officers, the best portrayal was definitely for the two rising stars, Lucius and Fabius. One is the most dangerous swordsman in the galaxy, and the other the most depraved and twisted man of medicine to have ever lived. It’s almost an automatic joy to read any of their scenes, because of twisted and dangerous both of them are. The ones who lose out here are First Captain Julius Kaesoron and Captain Marius Vairosean. Neither of them were done any justice, much like with Forrix of the Iron Warriors, owing largely to the fact that there are simply too many characters jostling for prime position throughout the novel. I will say however that the novel also documents the final fall of Marius and his warriors of the Kakophoni, those Emperor’s Children who will later go on to become the Noise Marines as they are the ones who use sonic-based weaponry on an exclusive level. That moment, when they give themselves over completely to Slaanesh, is another memorable moment.
Finally, rounding off the huge cast of characters are a few loyalists. The Iron Father Sabik Wayland (Iron Hands) and Legionary Nykona Sharrowkyn were first seen in the eShort Kryptos (also by Graham, but not needed to understand the plot here), wherein they got a great outing, even though some of their antics were a little overdone. They are one of the stand-out characters in Angel Exterminatus, and much of the loyalist plot revolves around the both of them. Through them, we also see a lot more of the survivors of the Istvaan V Dropsite Massacre, a concept that has largely been ignored till now in the series. We are shown how some of the Iron Hands survived and formed their own resistance movement, and how they have been disrupting the movements and plans of Horus’ allies among the legions. Once again, it is the fact that the cast is so huge that the other loyalist characters here don’t have much of a scene presence. Also, given how they are all woven into the narrative, I believe that the entire loyalist plot could have been cut from the novel, leaving only Wayland and Sharrowkyn to carry out their covert operations. Graham builds a lot of expectations for the characters towards the climax, but their (the loyalist) arc has a very tepid ending, which was quite disappointing.
The novel has a decent enough pace, which lags every now and then, but overall, it is quite satisfactory. It is jam-packed with lore, character exploration, faction development and a ton of other things, so in that respect it is very entertaining, even if it can all be overwhelming as well. Given how the climax resolves, I fully expect there to be a sequel. Should prove to be interesting.
Other than all that, it is important to keep in mind that this novel is very late into the series, and therefore I would highly suggest reading the original trilogy (Horus Rising, False Gods, Galaxy in Flames), Fulgrim, and The Reflection Crack’d at least if you want to make some sense of the plot here. Angel Exterminatus does a great job of moving the overall plot of the series forward, although keep in mind as well that it was announced recently at Black Library Live 2013 that BL plans to release about 40 books in the series. Consequently Angel Exterminatus is roughly at the mid-point, so there is a lot that remains to be covered in the Age of Darkness arc.
Finally, one last point. Angel Exterminatus is the first book in the series to be given a special hardback format that includes four special illustrations provided by Karl Richardson, who has worked on some of the BL graphic novels in the past. While his like his coloured panels for the graphic novels, I can’t say the same for Angel Exterminatus. To be honest, these are very hit and miss. Two in particular, showing Perturabo and Forrix respectively, are far too similar for me to distinguish between them. Given that these extra illustrations, and the author’s afterword were touted highly by marketing as exciting new additions, even for the companion digital copy, I’m afraid that I don’t consider either of them to be worth the extra price on the hardcover edition (just want to point out that I have the hardcover as a review copy), if you are considering that format. The jacket and the artwork embossed on the hardback itself is very nice, but neither of them I would pay extra for, personally.
Angel Exterminatus is a decent enough novel but it could have been a lot better as well.