Horus Heresy: Vengeful Spirit by Graham McNeill – Book Review [Bellarius]
Returning to the ongoing Horus Heresy series, Bellarius gives his analysis on Graham McNeill’s Vengeful Spirit.
“Dozens of potentially great ideas and characters, none of which can be fully realised thanks to the overstuffed plot.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
It’s hard not to notice the growing trend in the last several books of the Horus Heresy. While showing no signs of halting the ongoing exploration of the Imperium’s last days as a semi-benevolent empire and the war which destroyed all, there has definitely been a big push to streamline and interlink the universe. Rather than the episodic or semi-individual stories we had previously, many novels now serve as a continuation for countless short tales and other books. We saw this with Betrayer, Scars and Unremembered Empire, even Vulkan Lives to a lesser degree, and that continues here. Unfortunately, despite Graham McNeill being an incredibly talented writer when it comes to weaving countless sub-plots and a broad focus, Vengeful Spirit collapses under the weight of the author’s ambition.
Set sometime after the events of Scars and Angel Exterminatus, the books sees focus returning to the Sons of Horus once more. Having allowed the legions of his brothers to do most of the work and remaining on the sidelines for some time, Horus leads both his legion and the Death Guard in a seemingly pointless assault on the world of Molech. Heavily defended by a vast warfleet, Imperial Knights, companies of astartes from other legions and millions of Imperial Army troops, it will be a costly victory at best. However, Horus remains convinced something vital to his war effort remains buried on the world. Something long left out of sight of the galaxy, so potent that the Emperor wiped his sons’ very minds to hide it…
Now, despite that opening let this be made clear: There are good story moments and good concepts here. Unlike some of the unmitigated disasters we have seen before, Vengeful Spirit is less a terrible story than it is just too many tales fitted into one book. Even with its vastly bulked out size, there’s just too much going on and there are only brief moments or glimpses of good ideas which are really able to flourish here.
The most obvious among these are the the Sons of Horus themselves and their primarch, who are given some much needed attention. Focused primarily upon setting the scene for the series and fleshing out the initial beginnings of the Heresy, the Luna Wolves lacked the same attention and exploration as some other legions, and many points were never quite followed up on. The apparent lack of lasting impact of Isstvan III, very little attention truly played splitting of the Mournival, and Horus having his switch flipped from good to evil were among the flaws. Many of these are more closely addressed here and we do start to see more signs of the old legion slipping further into darkness even as it reflects a little more upon their history. The ongoing changes within the legion and its leaders remains a core focus and the story pushes figures like Abaddon a little further down the path towards damnation.
Horus also benefits here as we see more of his original personality shine through at times. While the initial trilogy made his corruption appear far too rapid, with a seemingly total personality change at times, here there are indicators that some of him remains. A few old warrior attitudes and ideas remain present, and it’s just enough to show that Horus is still the Warmaster the series began with.
These are the two elements which work best in the story’s favour, but beyond it the book starts to have serious problems. Take the Death Guard and Mortarion for example. This is the first story we have had them as a major supporting force in since Galaxy in Flames, and the revelations of Scars. Despite this though, they’re barely present and feel more like additional muscle for armies than true characters, disappearing into the background for long periods at a time. The same goes for Fulgrim, yes he’s in this, who is supposedly an important figure but is barely seen. It’s no hyperbole to say that there are enough characters and stories in this book to fill up not only a second novel but another short story anthology, and it’s just too much by the end. Unlike Warriors of Ultramar or Priests of Mars, it doesn’t emphasise the scale of events but just leaves the reader wondering “Wait, who was that again?” What makes this even worse is that this book tries to follow on from the Garro audio dramas, but fails to make use of the wide assortment of figures or their personal histories due to their limited focus.
These flaws would be enough to cause Vengeful Spirit problems, but then you have the lack of payoff to many critical story points. A few too many obstacles feel too easily overcome and we never see a crucial part of what drew Horus to the planet in the first place, nor the ultimate fates of many major characters. So often events have a titanic build-up, only for the focus to completely skip the outcome or skim over it to try and develop some other story element. For all the monumental developments going on, many subplots and themes are so underdeveloped that they end up feeling like lifeless padding despite the obvious potential behind them. Admittedly the cartoony elements are overt even by Warhammer’s standards, with the name of Aximand’s weapon “Mourn It All”, the grotesque wound of one new addition to the legion’s Mournival and Tormageddon being almost worthy of a parody.
Sadly, this is one to be skipped at the end of the day, or bought as paperback if you are truly determined to get it. It’s a sign of how horribly wrong Unremembered Empire could have gone and while the quality of prose is up to standard, that doesn’t matter when the subject matter so badly mishandled. Spend your time and money catching up on any of this series’ installments you missed, chances are they’ll be better than this one.