Horus Heresy: The Damnation of Pythos by David Annandale – Book Review [Bellarius]
With e-books being sold and hardbacks ready for release in the coming week, Bellarius delivers his verdict of David Annandale’s The Damnation of Pythos.
“An excellent tale encompassing everything great about the dark days of the Horus Heresy.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
Of all the legions in the Horus Heresy series, the ones who keep getting the short end of the stick are the Iron Hands. With its legionaries often stuck playing second fiddle to a book’s true protagonists, with no character study of Ferrus Manus in sight, and even the Death Guard having been offered more time in the limelight of late, this book is the one which finally corrects that. Despite the lack of Ferrus, it was more than worth the wait. However, what makes this one truly interesting is its focus upon aspect all too often overlooked in Warhammer. A genre which is key to the franchise but is far too often brushed aside in many tales: Horror.
Set in the aftermath of the Drop Site Massacre, the book follows the surviving astartes of the Shattered Legions. Having been scattered to the winds and reduced to guerrilla tactics, few survived the great betrayal and they now fight in the name of retribution. However, the scars of that nightmare conflict remain fresh and the Iron Hands of the Veritas Ferrum find their hatred directed as much at their fellow survivors from the Salamanders and Raven Guard as their arch foes. However, as they enter the Pandorax system, none among them truly realise that true damnation awaits them on the world of Pythos…
Now, as you might guess from the title this is not a book which will have a happy ending. Few Horus Heresy tales truly have anything more than a bittersweet victory for the loyalists, but this one proves to be particularly dark right from the beginning. Much of this comes down to the Iron Hands themselves, but it’s also due to the situation we find them in. Those found on-board the ship have begun taking their first steps towards their incarnation, with their hatred of weakness intensified to new heights in the face of their failure at Isstvan V. While some legionaries, such as Sergeant Galba, are unnerved by this, many including Captain Atticus have wholeheartedly embraced the strength of the machine over flesh, and have begun to obsessively remove it. While still in its early stages, there are obvious shades of what they will become present and the same cold logic is on display,yet they have not fully controlled their hatred as of yet.
It’s this which is the book’s core focus and to Annandale’s credit, the depiction is very evenly handed. It’s presented as a potential failing, discussed as a flaw by many, and strange parallels are even drawn with the traitor legions. At the same time however, there are multiple situations where their new attitude and machine strength allow them to survive and endure far longer than any others would. It’s discussed further in the Afterward, but that’s the point here: It’s a discussion, an exploration. Unlike other works (hello, Codex: Clan Raukaan) the reader is not relentlessly beaten over the head about how wrong the Iron Hands are in this, how much they are betraying Ferrus or trying to systematically destroy their entire lore. Rather than preaching any message, it’s explored with points presented for and against this being a failing, and the reader is left to ultimately decide how to regard this change.
However, this subject ties into another theme, one of faith. Save for, perhaps, the Iron Warriors, the Iron Hands are the most logically driven and down-to-earth of the astartes, sticking to pure fact over all else. Even among their serfs however, there are the whispers of the Lectitio Divinitatus and we see again positive and negative elements of this aspect. While the very reasons the Emperor wished for the destruction of all organised religion is evident, the reader is shown just how necessary such faith is to humanity’s survival. Overall (despite one early line resembling a certain Life of Brian joke) it’s certainly better considered and handled than many other interpretations, and it helps to build upon the mounting theme of the book’s horror.
The very nature of Pythos ignores all basic logic, from its wildlife to the very way in which physics operates. Having no true comprehension of Chaos or the truth behind the Warp, the Iron Hands and their allies attempt to adapt as best they can but it’s against a force they have been taught does not exist. The astartes simply refuse to accept anything they see, and this negative impact of the Imperial Truth proves to be a fascinating angle, arising even when they are fighting kaiju sized wildlife.
Speaking of said wildlife, much of the combat here is against non-traitor forces. While the Emperor’s Children do show up for a fight, much of the book is focused upon driving back and holding the line against Warp corrupted forces on the world. While Pythos is not yet an outright daemon world, it is heavily influenced by Chaos to the point where everything on the planet is attempting to kill the Iron Hands. This is likely to be a major make or break point given reception of the likes of Fear to Tread, and the lack of an enemy with a true face or speaking role does make the book occasionally feel directionless. It doesn’t help that the pacing never slows down enough to truly spend time outlining the alien nature of the world or the sheer scale of the saurians, leaving some points feeling underwhelming despite their obvious impact and power.
Annandale’s writing style may well be another problem for some readers. As previously discussed in Stormseer he plays well with describing general methods of war, tactics and the destruction of scenes, along with specific moments in battle. However, it doesn’t hold up as well when it comes to building an image of individual people racing through combat when following certain figures. As such those used to the more traditional writings of other authors may feel some events are underplayed or a little hard to follow at times. Combined with the way exchanges of dialogue are structured as if it were a script and the use of onomatopoeia, and the story reads as if it would be better suited as an audio book.
The final problems surround some of the characters themselves and certain facts. While the book does produce some intelligent details such as why the Iron Hands do not return to Terra following Ferrus’ death, scenes do seem to treat Isstvan V if most of the legion was there rather than just Ferrus and his Morlock elite and a few other issues. What’s more is that, while the characters feel more like true Iron Hands than the crew of the Sisypheum, they do not stand out as well. Many of them feel far more like examples of character types or personified ideas rather than true characters.
Despite this, overall The Damnation of Pythos is a very solid read. Right from the beginning it maintains a tight focus, fast pace and excellent combat, eventually culminating in a fantastically dark ending. The Iron Hands are treated with respect and intelligence despite its horror theme, and no army truly suffers here. Those let down by Vengeful Spirit, or wanting a more legion focused book with far less primarchs and a lot more Prince of Darkness, should definitely give this one a look.