Assault on Holy Terra by William King – Short Story Review [Bellarius]
Bellarius takes a look at the cataclysmic finale of the Horus Heresy with William King’s Assault on Holy Terra.
“A forgotten gem of a tale which truly does the legend of the Siege of Terra justice” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
For the last several years with the Horus Heresy series there have been two questions repeatedly asked by fans surrounding the books: When will we get to Terra? Who will be writing that final instalment?
While neither are yet known, and the Siege of Terra is still a long way off, what few know is that one prominent Black Library author has already recorded the famous siege. Thirteen years prior to the release of Horus Rising, a single article in April 2002’s White Dwarf covered a four thousand word short story covering the final hours of the Heresy and confrontation between brothers. It was the first detailed fiction involving the primarchs, the epic conflict which shaped the galaxy for ten thousand years to come and the tragedies which befell those involved.
The reason I use the word “epic” in that description is it’s the only term which fits the style of the story. The last book we covered by William King was written in a distinctive style to fit the characters and surroundings, with touches to make it seem more like a personal journal than a published work. The same is really true here, the paragraphs are short, the terms bombastic and some details feel oddly archaic in their style. The way it is presented feels almost like something to accompany a tapestry, with grandiose elements used to punctuate duels between foes and certain elements are skipped. It cuts right to the meat and many events few witnessed are glossed over in this style, with the entire final duel being covered in a single paragraph and instead focusing upon what followed. Few if any were there to truly see what took place, so it makes sense such details might be lost.
As with Angel of Fire, understanding this apparent approach is key to really enjoying the tale otherwise it can sound like the works of Mat Ward. Unlike his abominations however, there is method to King’s approach and no story element is sacrificed to glorify another. Both the traitor and loyalist primarchs are treated with respect for their status and power, with many facing in duals and conflicts which feel like something out of a Shakespearian play. Sanguinius benefits from this especially, first meeting with Angron as they arrived to support their forces and later in an airborne battle with a Greater Daemon of the Blood God.
Many of the siege’s most memorable moments of heroism exist within the tale and truly impress just how desperate the situation truly was. From the suicide attack by the critically damaged Sky Fortress to Jaghatai Khan’s counter charge against a nearby space port, the story manages to feel huge despite the low word count and every paragraph makes a major point. There is absolutely no point during which the story drags, slows down or you feel the tale is truly wasting its time. Instead it keeps hitting hard and fast until the final words herald a close to the Heresy.
The unfortunate trade-off for the very effective style is a lack of personal thought and distinctive character moments. Many who are used to a more traditional approach to seeing through the eyes of characters or their personal thoughts. Instead it’s told in a much more distant style more like those usually found within codices, and as a result it can create a very impersonal feel towards the characters involved. Furthermore while the story and its descriptions do have the charm of their age as much as the style, some do feel horribly out of place. There are moments which push too far and feel too overly bombastic or simple. The biggest offense of these is, prior to fleeing Terra, Angron stops and shakes his fist at the defenders of the Imperial Place. In all honestly, all the scene required was to have the Red Angel roar “I’ll get you next time Gadget, Next Time!” and it would be a Saturday morning cartoon ending.
There are also moments where the tale’s breakneck speed can feel like it is working against it, skimming past events which feel as if they need more focus. There is a point where Rogal Dorn seemingly teleports from being inside the palace to being on-board the Sky Fortress as it moves across Terra. It’s almost lost in the moment, but the apparent switch of locations is one of several points never really resolved.
Finally, the tale does require a fair degree of familiarity with the Heresy and M31 itself. There is no real introduction as to why Horus is attacking, no moment where what the primarchs are is explained and the very abrupt opening makes it feel like an extract from a much bigger tale. This, again, might be appropriate given the apparent style used but it can also feel very jarring to those not familiar with all elements involved. There is an almost Steven Moffat level of cutting corners here between the non-beginning and a very rushed conclusion.
Ultimately Assault on Holy Terra is a great throwback to the old canon and hopefully an insight to what will come once the Heresy reaches its end. While short it’s an enticing read which still works despite visible flaws and maintains a sense of being a retelling of a truly historic event from beginning to end. The Collected Visions retelling of events is definitely more comprehensive, and it is far from required reading to understand the heresy, but none the less remains a fantastic telling of the battle. Seek this one out if you can find it and feel nostalgic for the days of Third Edition 40K, but don’t expect a lost epic on par with A Thousand Sons.