Horus Heresy: Pharos by Guy Haley – Book Review [Bellarius]
Returning to the Imperium Secundus and the events of the Horus Heresy, Bellarius offers a few brief thoughts on this latest addition to the series.
“This is the kind of book the Horus Heresy needs more of.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
Much like David Annandale, Guy Haley is proving to be one of those authors my opinion has gradually shifted on. Despite the utter contempt I held towards Death of Integrity, his surprising success with Baneblade and later Valedor proved that he was a reliable author in his own right, capable of forging great stories. Now, with Pharos, we have some of his best work to date and a great spin on several major legions.
The story here focuses upon the Imperium Secundus once again and the world of Sotha, the lynchpin to Guilliman’s new empire. Cut off from the outside world, loyalist forces seek to utilise the xenos beacon installation in order to seek out the remaining loyalists and expand their sphere of influence past the Ruinstorm. Yet, even as they take their first steps towards truly controlling the facility, Pharos has gained undue attention. Arriving in force, the Night Lords legion seeks to break the loyalist hold on the world and take the facility for their own ends…
After several novellas and a multitude of anthologies, readers were getting understandably antsy that the story was slowly grinding to a halt as authors sought to expand upon this era. While this was by no means an entirely bad thing, and introduced many fantastic new tales and ideas, the lack of visible progression for several years was understandably infuriating. Those same readers will be happy to know that Pharos sets the wheels in motion once more, and begins to gradually push things towards the battle of Terra.
While the focus is still placed squarely upon the Imperium Secundus, many focal elements tie into the wider war in the galaxy and tying up certain plot threads. This is worthy of note as Haley manages to achieve this, alongside tying into multiple short-stories, while making the work relatively self contained. While it certainly benefits from reading many of those works, unlike Vengeful Spirit the story never feels overstuffed or creaking under its own weight. After several such books suffering from those difficulties, it’s a very welcome change to see an author carefully handle these elements while ensuring the story remains relatively streamlined.
A big part of what helps make this book surprisingly accessible is its new ensemble of characters. While several prominent figures are carried over from past books, the vast bulk of the Night Lords and prominent Ultramarines are relatively new, most having only briefly featured in one of Haley’s prior short stories. This offers them far less baggage to work with, but Haley nevertheless manages to make them extremely compelling, especially the contrasting nature of the Night Lords themselves. Each manages to reflect a different aspect of the legion, but retains their own identity without risking turning into a shadow of First Claw. Furthermore, their individual arcs within this book have a distinct beginning and ending with little left to carry on elsewhere, allowing this to more easily serve as a point for someone to jump back onto the series without compromising the Horus Heresy’s typically high quality storytelling.
The actual contrast between many of the characters is remarkably striking, and allows for fantastically introspective and contrasting moments, especially between Dantioch and the traitor legions. These moments are rare, but they’re added in just enough to keep you engaged and reading without it ever seeming as if one side is too familiar with the other. It’s one of the best examples of balancing these elements with internal character dynamics since Storm of Iron. Even when the story can’t resort to that, the methods they develop to fight one another are enough to keep you reading. As a small aside, it’s also worthy of mentioning that Haley has the Night Lords lose without them seeming overly weak. Thanks to their most interesting stories stemming from their flaws, more than a few Night Lords tales have them being routed by more disciplined legions, often the Ultramarines or their successors in particular. While that corruption is evident, they still hit hard and pull off multiple victories which help prove just why they’re such a terrifying force to behold.
The action in question is most definitely tempered in Haley’s style. It lacks some of the bombastic, punchy lines and descriptions of other long serving authors but there’s a grace to this simplicity. It’s a nice change of pace with the story offering just enough general descriptive information to allow the reader to build a general image in their head and focusing upon the core combat. This might sound a little like what has been criticised of Gav Thorpe in the past, but there’s a broader spectrum to events. Even when he is pinning down fighting to a key event or engagement, it’s never limited to just a few characters and rarely loses any sense of scale. It’s a big improvement over several such problems found within Death of Integrity, and allows for far smoother transitions between combat scenes than you’d normally find in the average Black Library release.
A few older issues do sadly hang over the story, some of which are emblematic of his overall style. For starters, the dialogue and sentence structure of his characters is oddly skewed and almost clipped in a few ways, shortened to very brief statements. This is most evident with the Ultramarines themselves, especially the theoretical/practical elements which have become such a key part of them in recent years, but even dialogue from mortal characters does not flow quite so well as with other authors. While he can certainly nail rough around the edges or easy going figures and posthuman super-soldiers, there seems to be little middle-ground between the two.
What’s more, Haley’s take on certain characters fails to really gel with certain other depictions. Much like McNeill’s take of a reluctant and introspective Perturabo contrasted with John French’s homicidal madman of a primarch, several characters here are the antithesis of their previous depictions. This is most evident when Dantioch makes his first appearance, behaving in an oddly enthusiastic and upbeat manner for a dying Iron Warrior and Polux has a few similar moments alongside this. While there are very few which stand out besides these two, the fact both are such core characters in this book only makes the shift all the more noticeable and oddly jarring. Plus, it doesn’t help that Haley still has this habit of dropping the occasional massive plot-shifting bombshell in the wrong place or underplaying it until it lacks substantial impact.
For all its problems though, Pharos remains a very entertaining read and an excellent return to form for the Horus Heresy series. Those of you who fell behind or stopped paying these books your full attention around Unremembered Empire, now is the time to get back into this franchise. Definitely give this one a good look, but just be mindful that it’s not entirely perfect.