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With one more book released under the Horus Heresy logo, Bellarius analyses Dan Abnett’s Unremembered Empire.
“Abnett proves once more why he is the master of writing M31 Ultramarines.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
As a brief aside before we begin, I’ll freely admit I went into this in the worst of minds. To the old canon of the Horus Heresy, the Ultramarines involvement was over. They had fought at Calth, been given extended focus thanks to Lorgar and Angron’s crusade, and were trapped at Macragge. Beyond short stories the series should have been done with them, as the reason for their later strength was that they escaped the worst of the fighting. Diverting nearly the entire series to Macragge felt less like a true story development and more an effort to keep the spotlight on Games Workshop’s personal mascots than let them become side-lined. Something not helped by the continual shilling of the legion in other novels, keeping them in nothing but a superior-to-all light.
Thankfully for us, Unremembered Empire proves to be anything but an excuse to try and have the Ultramarines show off again; and is an excellent novel.
With the Ruinstorm created by Lorgar to isolate the five hundred worlds of Ultramar, the legion finds itself unable to contact the Imperium at large. Bloodied, beaten but unbowed, Guilliman enacts a desperate move to try and unite what’s left of any loyalist forces and prepare for the worst. Terra could be gone, he could be the last primarch alive, and for all he knows the remnants surrounding Maccrage could be all that is left. The Imperium is over. The Imperium Secundus begins.
To make it clear, Unremembered Empire serves as a nexus point within the Horus Heresy series. With so many books tying into it, many characters arriving from other stories, it serves to connect many distant and unrelated tales. The extremely large ensemble of figures listed in the opening pages is proof of this yet it’s not as bad a point as many would think.
Usually having so many elements introduced would lead to continuity lockout, a point Angel Exterminatus suffered from with the Emperor’s Children, or being extremely overstuffed yet it is handled with care. The book hasn’t been written to purely suit those who read preceding tales or relying upon knowledge of them. Instead they are re-introduced in a manner satisfactory for the story. Going in-depth enough to satisfy a reader’s understanding but not letting exposition get in the way of storytelling. Even minor continuity nods help to smooth this over without much emphasis being placed on them, such as the re-use of “Shakespire” when referring to the Great Playwright’s works. Furthermore, while many characters are present, the focus is kept on a small handful and uses the others as representations of the story’s core theme. They become involved only when necessary, more as a force than as individuals and to represent a major idea within the novel: Unity even in the face of Chaos.
Rather than being exclusively about the Ultramarines, it would be more accurate to say this book is about loyalists. Scattered forces arrive at Macragge after Guilliman activates a desperate contingency allowing for many vessels to re-emerge from the Warp around the planet. Imperial Fists, Raven Guard, White Scars, Iron Hands, Salamanders, Dark Angels and even one or two figures from traitor legions all make an appearance as a result, all of who are treated with dignity. Rather than effectively having God Mode on as we saw in Betrayer (with a few hundred of Guilliman’s astartes butchering thousands of traitors with ease, building better fortifications than Dorn, Guilliman himself fighting Angron and Lorgar to at least a standstill, and only being defeated as a result of sheer attrition), these are actual Ultramarines. By-the-book soldiers, with no weaknesses but lacking many of the specialist strengths of their brothers. They are just as prone to losses, just as prone to death, but their discipline, control and strategic pragmatism is never forgotten. This is especially clear when Alexis Polux outlines the flaws in Macragge’s defences, which have been built to preserve the world and for open combat rather than full security. No force is treated as innately superior, but instead strategic differences and greater understandings are highlighted.
The story as a whole gives reason as to why there would be greater unity behind Guilliman following the Heresy. It really serves as a prelude to the implementation of the chapters and the scouring, showing the shattered legions becoming used to following him in their efforts to defend the Imperium Secondus. Each of them works as a much more closely united force in small numbers and combines their strengths in ways otherwise rarely seen as divisions of legions. Their willing service to Guilliman is more out of mutual unity than deferring completely to him as their spiritual liege.
Speaking of Guilliman, we see far more into his mind than before and get a true impression of the primarch. Both with his strengths and weaknesses as a leader, he is shown to be an interesting figure and the book does a lot to foreshadow his future potential. Not only exploring his role as a major figure within the Imperium Secundus, but managing to humanise him to a great degree and showing him to be a sympathetic figure. That said, Abentt does go a bit far with his humanisation, to the point where some of Guilliman’s more superhuman elements do seem lost in comparison to other primarchs. There just isn’t enough of an opportunity to truly show off some of his strengths, and as a result he does feel somewhat lacking, especially in comparison to a nightmarish whirlwind of death who arrives on the planet.
Yes, we’re getting onto the weaknesses now. While it has a great first two thirds, the final act of Unremembered Empire is weak by comparison both in the writing department and as a tie-up to events. Much like Priests of Mars, this is very much Unremembered Empire: Part One and lacks closure to its events, instead seemingly relying upon sequels to finish things off. Something definitely not helped with the writing quality seemingly diminishing to the point where aforementioned nightmarish figure is described as “creepy” rather than with Abnett’s usually strong descriptions. Many characters feel as if they’re being driven by snark than personal backgrounds and a few frustrating bits of new canon are added at the last second. Namely one major player in the story strolling in and out of the Warp without protection or defences of any kind.
When new elements are introduced in this final act, they feel rushed or underdeveloped as a result. Lacking in both emphasis and build-up, and almost feeling lazy in execution when they are implemented as a last second development. While there are only one or two of these thankfully, the arrival of one major character the book advertises and the use of a prominent device in a new way both feel underwhelming. A major disappointment given how streamlined and well executed many previous elements were in spite of the book’s heavy continuity with other sources. Furthermore, the blurb on the back of the book does lie, as a major question it asks is dealt with very early on, removing an interesting possibility which could have been explored.
For all its problems, Unremembered Empire is a definite success. It’s one of the best books to involve the Ultramarines in recent years and, even given a problematic ending, still manages to be entertaining. If you have enjoyed the series thus far, and are willing to accept a troubled conclusion, it’s still a must buy. It serves as an excellent sequel to Know No Fear and is definitely a period in the Heresy which needs to be expanded upon more alongside the war outside Ultramar.