Fear To Tread by James Swallow – Advance Review [Shadowhawk]


Shadowhawk reviews the latest Horus Heresy novel, by New York Times Bestseller and long-time genre writer, James Swallow as he tackles the noble warriors of the Ninth Legiones Astartes, the Blood Angels.

“Fear To Tread is the definitive Blood Angels novel, and without a doubt the best Horus Heresy story yet told.~The Founding Fields

Blood Angels, Blood Angels, Blood Angels. They are tied at the moment alongside the White Scars and the Iron Warriors for the least amount of appearances in the Horus Heresy so far. The Khan and his sons are rumoured to be getting either a novel or a novella next year, while the sons of Olympia will be featuring in Graham McNeill’s next, Angel Exterminatus, alongside the Emperor’s Children and the novel may be coming out as soon as mid-Fall this year. But, the Blood Angels have been one of the three legions who we’ve seen in the Horus Heresy since the earliest days, for they had quite a decent appearance in Horus Rising, although under rather tragic circumstances. Since then, there has been precious little on them, and the wait for the Ninth Legion to get their own prominent story has been long overdue. What complicates matters is that they only have two major events of note as far as I can tell: Signus Prime, which marks the first fall of Sanguinius, and the Siege of Terra with its terrible conclusion which leaves the legion without its father.

As you can tell, in an event as epic in scope as the Horus Heresy which defines the entire mythology of the Warhammer 40,000 setting and which is the greatest event in the in-setting history, expectations from the Blood Angels for their own novel are going to be quite high. Any author who writes them (and that novel) has a lot to live up to: the nobility of the Blood Angels, the terrible twin curses that the legion’s descendants suffer from, the betrayals at Signus Prime, the epicness of the Siege of Terra and Sanguinius’ role in it that people have been visualising in their minds for years now. Plus the fact that this is a New York Times Bestselling series now, with several entries on the list. Unlike any of the other Horus Heresy novels to date, except for Gav Thorpe’s Deliverance Lost which deals with the Raven Guard, my expectations for Jim’s latest outing were really high. I’ve been a fan of the Blood Angels ever since I first picked up Deus Encarmine, the first Blood Angels 40k novel, also by Jim. If there’s any Blood Angels fiction out there, I’ve pretty much read it all, outside of some really old material.

Once I got done with Fear To Tread, I asked myself one question: Did Jim deliver on the inherent promise of the novel and was I wowed by the end of it? I got a rather simple answer: This novel is Heresy gold. There are a few things that I thought could have been more epic but that’s a minor issue because the author has already raised the bar quite high on his own.

Where to begin really? The brotherly intimacy of Horus and Sanguinius and watching as the former betrays the latter? The gut-wrenching moment of Sanguinius’ first fall to the Bloodthirster Ka’Bandha and the subsequent, but momentary, devolution of the legion? The coldness of the legion’s descent into the madness of the Red Thirst, the more debilitating of it’s two genetic curses? The sacrifices made by some of the key characters of the novel? The breath-taking moments when Sanguinius stands together in the same room as Sanguinary Guard Commander Azkaellon and First Captain Raldoron? The Primarch’s dedication to his sons and the legion? The moment when he realises that his most beloved brother, the one he trusted above all others, has betrayed him so deeply? The legion’s horror at what it encounters in the Signus system? The clash between the Blood Angels and the daemonic armies of Ka’Bandha and Kyriss?

There’s just too much in this novel that deserves praise and I’m not even sure that my review could even do it justice. Going into this review, one thing that persists in the back of my mind is how to justify to you, the reader of my review, that you need to get this book pronto. I’m a James Swallow fan, big time. I’ve read the majority of his work for Black Library and I’ve loved it, barring some issues with his second Horus Heresy novelNemesis which caused me to put it down mid-way. I’ve listened to his Judge Dredd audios (published by Big Finish and principally voiced by the awesome Toby Longworth) and I’ve loved them. It is almost a given that if he puts anything out, I’m going to love it. Goes without saying that he’s one of the best Black Library authors for me. But how to condense that down so I don’t appear the “lovestruck” fanboi who can’t see his favourite author do no wrong?

I don’t know. All I can tell you is that if you loved Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s The First Heretic, Graham McNeill’s The Outcast Dead, Gav Thorpe’s Deliverance Lost, Dan Abnett’s Know No Fear and the recent Primarchs anthology, then you are going to love this too. Each of the prior books has consistently set a high standard for Horus Heresy novels, each is better than the last and that is saying something since they are all excellent.

The pacing of this novel is excellent. All the heart-felt, soft moments rub right against the clashing, brutal action scenes and the combination is a heady mix of emotions. It starts just a little too slow but by the time that it ends, it’s an unstoppable behemoth, like the Juggernaut, aka Cain Marko of Marvel Universe. If Know No Fear was like watching a train wreck happen in slow motion, one that you desperately want to prevent but can’t because “dammit but you can’t reach into the novel and tell the characters to wake up and sound the alarms and kill all those damn traitors”, then Fear To Tread is the slow-twisting knife in the guts that you don’t realise is even there. Almost. Yes, I just quoted The Dark Knight Rises in a Warhammer 40,000 book review. It fits the situation. And no, that knife is not too slow. The manipulation of the legion by the Word Bearers, by Erebus and Horus, and even by Malcador the Sigillite and Leman Russ, is just way too heart-breaking. Dan Abnett did it in his book by giving us the widest look at the betrayal event in an approach that is rather unique in 40k fiction. Jim does it more traditionally but the full impact is still there and it hits you like a sledgehammer.

Jim also finishes it in great style, where a character gets his long overdue just rewards for being such a damn bastard of a character. He’s one of those that you love to hate, and in that context, I love him a lot. Then there’s the added layer of mystery attached to the Primarch characters: Sanguinius, Horus and a certain blue-y Primarch. As the Horus Heresy has unfolded in the last year and a half, it has become apparent that the writing and editorial team are set to take the larger narrative to places that the fans never even saw coming. Groundwork for such things was laid down with Dan Abnett’s excellent Legion and it continues in Fear To Tread, passing by way of the Age of Darkness and Primarchs anthologies. I can’t help but recall one of most quintessential 40k quotes: “everything you have been told is a lie”. That sums it all up nice and proper. Jim gives us the battle of Signus Prime that we have all been waiting for ever since Horus Rising was released the world over. And then he adds things here and there, bit by bit, until the narrative isn’t just about that fateful clash between Sanguinius and Ka’Bandha, but so much more.

Threads of loyalties everywhere are fraying and the people who have the scissors to cut them are the High Lords of Terra, the rumoured title of the Heresy team (that may or may not be correct). To everybody who is going to be picking up this novel: be prepared to be challenged because you are not going to be looking at the Heresy the same way anymore. Again.

One of the neatest touches in the novel is how Sanguinius and the Blood Angels deal with the Edict of Nikaea, the one which forbade any warrior of the Legiones Astartes from training in and employing psychic powers. The Emperor’s controversial decision is truly tested to its limit in this novel, as the events therein come at the heel of Primarch Magnus of the Thousand Sons breaking this very edict in the most spectacular manner imaginable (covered in A Thousand Sons and The Outcast Dead, both by Graham McNeill). And that’s all I can on the matter, other than: Mkani Kano is my favourite Blood Angels psyker ever, almost on par with Mephiston, the Lord of Death.

And in closing, while I loved seeing Azkaellon, and Raldoron, the Blood Angel who ultimately steals the show is Amit, Captain of the Fifth Company, also known as the Flesh Tearer. For those who don’t know, Amit is also the first Chapter Master of the Flesh Tearers, one of the Second Founding successor chapters of the Blood Angels legion. Him, I want to see more of, possibly while he dukes it out with Kharn and Argel Tal at the Siege of Terra and gives those two filthy traitors a run for their money.

There’s a lot more that I could say on this novel. Start to finish, this is full of the awesomeness that defines the Horus Heresy. And seeing Sanguinius in pure, unadulterated action against Ka’Bandha, the lord of Bloodthirsters, is just pure joy. Reading those fight scenes reminds me of one of the scenes from the Justice League Unlimited TV show in which Superman beats the hell out of Darkseid, prefacing it by saying (paraphrasing here): “Always I have to hold myself back because the villains and people around me cannot handle the amount of hurt I can dish out. But you can handle it, can’t you?” And then Superman lets loose in one of the most epic clashes between him and Darkseid. That’s how I felt upon reading those scenes in the novel.

In the end, all I really want to say is: Thank you, Jim, for giving the Blood Angels the novel they deserved and needed; for writing what is quite possibly your best Warhammer work to date and for giving me such an amazing experience. My love of the Blood Angels and Sanguinius has been renewed.

Rating: 10/10

Shadowhawk is a regular contributor to TFF. A resident of Dubai, Shadowhawk reads, reads and reads. His opinions are always clear and concise. His articles always worth reading.