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Milo, aka “Bane of Kings”, and Bellarius both have contrasting opinions on Vulkan Lives, the twenty-sixth novel in the New York Times best-selling Horus Heresy series published by Black Library.
“An entertaining novel with a brilliant premise that, whilst not quite delivering its full potential, offers a great look into two principal characters – Vulkan himself, and Konrad Curze, the Primarch of the Night Lords.” ~Bane of Kings, The Founding Fields
“Vulkan is Dead on Arrival.” ~Bellarius, The Founding Fields
In the wake of the Dropsite Massacre at Isstvan V, the survivors of the Salamanders Legion searched long and hard for their fallen primarch, but to no avail. Little did they know that while Vulkan might have wished himself dead, he lives still… languishing in a hidden cell for the entertainment of a cruel gaoler, his brother Konrad Curze. Enduring a series of hellish tortures designed to break his body and spirit, Vulkan witnesses the depths of the Night Haunter’s depravity, but also discovers something else – a revelation that could change the course of the entire war.
I’m in full knowledge of just how little Black Library fiction I’ve read this year. I’ve missed out on the previous two Horus Heresy novels, Betrayer and Mark of Calth – and most of the fiction that the publisher has been putting out this year aside from Pariah (which I didn’t like) and Deathwatch (which I did like). So, where better to start than the twenty-sixth novel in the long-running, multi-author Horus Heresy series dealing with Kyme’s first Heresy novel?
The book itself brings the Salamanders Legion to the forefront in the first time in the Heresy. They’re one of my favourite Legions – having been pretty much ignored in the previous outings of the Heresy, their only main focus being Promethean Sun, a novella also written by Nick Kyme – and it was about time they got their chance in the spotlight. Don’t worry though – unlike Prospero Burns (which I enjoyed despite the advertising), the book fulfils what it promised us – despite not offering an in-depth look at the legion, it does feature a heavy focus on Vulkan himself, who along with Konrad Curze, they both benefit from strong characterisation. However, not every character gets the same treatment as these two – I felt that the side characters, such as the few Salamanders that we encountered outside of Vulkan, were pretty much interchangeable and didn’t really stand out.
If you’ve read any of Kyme’s previous novels then you’ll know that he can handle action well and he does so again here, with some rather engaging action sequences that increase the page-turning ability of the novel. However, there presents another problem – the Salamanders in Vulkan Lives are of course Space Marines – indomitable, super human Astartes capable of withstanding blows that could cripple your normal member of the Imperial Army. However – in a move that I wasn’t a big fan of – we see multiple times, legionaries are slain by things which shouldn’t, according to lore – kill them. But despite that, there are some great moments that shine here, and I have to agree with fellow reviewer Bellarius (whose thoughts can be found below) that the Salamander’s planned assault on Khar-tann and the final confrontation between Curze and Vulkan are among the book’s highlights.
One of the strengths of the Horus Heresy series is that despite the fact that it is 26 novels long, assuming you know the basic storyline and have at least read the first five novels (Horus Rising to Fulgrim), – you can pretty much jump right in wherever you want, aside from a few exceptions like the Descent of Angels/Fallen Angels two-parter focusing on the Dark Angels Legion, and the A Thousand Sons/Prospero Burns duology focusing on the Invasion of Prospero. Vulkan Lives is a novel best read after the events of Fulgrim, at least in my opinion – and when you consider that we’ve pretty much moved past the Isstvan V Dropsite Massacre in the overall storyline, it may feel to some like a step backwards rather than a step forwards to read it this late in the series, but Kyme really does answer the question about what happened to Vulkan following the events of Isstvan V, and whilst Vulkan Lives may not quite be the Horus Heresy novel that Salamander fans wanted, it does provide an entertaining look into the two Primarchs, exploring and makes them tick.
What’s more – despite the negative thoughts that I raised about Vulkan Lives earlier in this review - I actually enjoyed it, and I felt, it was just what I needed to get back into the Horus Heresy kick. It’s a solid tale, but comes with a cautious recommendation – it may not be for everyone – particularly those who aren’t a fan of Kyme’s past works, but some will enjoy it – I think – on the flipside, those who enjoyed his previous novels will find something to love here. However, I’m certainly looking forward to more Heresy books by Kyme – it’ll be interesting to see whether he returns to tackle the Salamanders or deals with another legion in the future.
It goes without saying that the Horus Heresy has had a turbulent history. For every Fulgrim we have had a Nemesis, for every Betrayer we have had a Descent of Angels, and for every glowing success a sub-par instalment. It’s unfortunate then that coming off two of the series’ best, Vulkan Lives is easily one of the weakest books of the Horus Heresy.
Divided between the events of the Great Crusade, Drop Site Massacres and a time of the legion’s shattering; the tome explores the nature of the Salamanders and their primarch. Throughout it their methods and differences are called into question, along with just what makes them stand apart from their more ruthless brothers at times of strength and weakness.
Or it at least tries to.
Despite taking place in multiple timelines there is no single solid impression of the legion which sticks. For all Betrayer’s flaws, the World Eaters had a clear and very concise presentation of what the legion XII was from beginning to end. Here we get some aspects of the Salamanders’ desire to preserve lives, but little else. The book is so focused upon their apparently superior morality, usually stating rather than showing this, that many other areas are simply left lacking. Their expertise as smiths and their traditions of this era are all but ignored. This lack of distinctiveness and character is only exemplified with eye rolling battle cries of “Eye-to-eye!” “Tooth-to-tooth!” A poor man’s substitute for “Iron Within!” “Iron Without!” if ever there was one.
Having a bland army is fine when you have interesting characters, but Vulkan Lives fails in this respect as well. Nemetor, Varrun, Numeon, all the Salamanders felt completely interchangeable even when they were in the same room together, a problem present throughout the book and only made worse with similarly blank characteristics from members of three other legions. The only one who manages to truly escape this is Konrad Curze, only by benefit of being utterly insane.
The one who suffers the most as a result of this is Vulkan himself. For the first time we’re given an in-depth first person perspective from a primarch but the lacklustre style of his sections means he could be anyone. Eisenhorn and Kage both had distinct styles to make their characters clear to the audience, but Vulkan’s thoughts are blandly generic. They do not read anything like you would expect to see of a demigod, brother to humanity’s worst traitors and a leader of war who genuinely values human life. Up to the very end he reads less like Vulkan and then Average Joe Salamander 1082, even when placed within the prison of a sadistic madman.
Said prison, and all of the book’s environments for that matter, are described in a bare bones minimum style. Vulkan Lives’ deceptions truly are the antithesis of vividly imaginative environments, lacking not only in detail but often scale and sensory information from the character. This causes many scenes to fall to bits around the characters, and combined with their simplistic personalities turns many potentially interesting or rousing scenes into dull slogs through the pages.
The final nail in the coffin with characterisation originates from how none of the legionaries ever feel like astartes. Multiple times they are killed with single shots or blows from basic blades or bolt weapons, with even Vulkan himself being horribly wounded time and time again by things which by rights shouldn’t even be able to pierce his skin. Notably one point where he is mortally wounded by dining room cutlery!
Between their diminished state and constant failings, Vulkan Lives is more a session of Nick Kyme gleefully kicking them while they’re down than developing their tale. Something only driven further with pointless retcons such as the Salamanders being on the verge of extinction prior to the Emperor finding Vulkan, and their fumbling incompetence shown during the Great Crusade.
Further retcons are made to specific characters which only serve to create confusion within the reader, especially when stacked against events from previous books. The sudden return of someone we thought dead, willingly working for an organisation they hate. A Raven Guard Librarian freely using his powers with little to no opposition from his comrades, from three separate legions no less. We have a Word Bearer with nostalgia for the Emperor worshipping days who despises the effects of Chaos, apparently having escaped two legion wide culls for disloyalty. The sudden name-dropping of Samus to have meaning within one Librarian, which is never explained. Then there’s Vulkan himself who, continuing with the trend of giving each of the Primarchs superpowers, has the most baffling addition yet. Unlike the Warp sight of Perturabo which at least added to his character, Vulkan’s one adds little to his personality and opens up more questions than it does answers.
Combined with a cliffhanger non-ending, terms like “frag storm” being used for horrifyingly serious events, the continued quota of Guilliman praise (now claiming him to be Horus’ true rival rather than Dorn), and painfully uninspired fights there’s little here which is good. While the occasionally great moment such as the Salamanders planned assault on Khar-tann and Vulkan’s final confrontation with Night Haunter are high points, they’re sparsely scattered between chapters.
Vulkan Lives had good concepts, but its actual execution makes it one of the poorest instalments in the series yet. A dull, very long, very drawn out, series of set pieces and events we have seen handled far better in other novels. Avoid it and save your money for something better.