Sunday, 21 December 2014

Fallen expectations – A Horus Heresy Review

What The Black Library says about the book

With news of Horus’s treachery spreading across the galaxy, the Great Crusade grinds to a halt as the primarchs and their Legions decide where their loyalty lies – with the Emperor, or with the rebel Warmaster. The Dark Angels, too, face a time of testing, both among the stars and on their home world Caliban. Luther, once Lion El’Jonson’s trusted second-in-command, now languishes as an exile in all but name while his master struggles to thwart the traitors’ advance upon the forge world Diamat. But an ancient evil gathers its strength beneath the surface of Caliban, and the First Legion will soon be thrust into a deadly conflict where all that they know will be cast into doubt.

What the book is really about?

I tried to like this novel, and I sort of do. But it is not a novel.

It’s two related novellas alternating chapters, nothing more and nothing less. The real problem is that the A Story is quite interesting, while the B story is pretty much filler.

The sad thing is the B Story is the one that features the Primarch.

Story A – Caliban in Crisis

In short, the A story focuses on the protagonists from “Descent of Angels”, Zahariel. Now a fully-fledged librarian and the right hand man of Luther. Zahariel. Luther and a large group of other Dark Angels have been sent from the fleet back to Caliban in a state of exile. Nominally, they are put in charge of improving recruitment and traingin for the Legion, but the reality sets in that they have been banished. Hence the book title, Fallen Angels.

The story rockets ahead 53 years from when they were exiled, and we find Caliban a changed world. The forests are gone, having been replaced with Imperial industry and cities. In response to these changes, rebellion and dissent has been spreading across Caliban. Luther, as champion of the Caliban people has done little to supress the rebellions and he cannot bring himself to wage war on his own people.

I like how this change is presented, and the rationale of the rebellion is totally logical. The Imperium is a curse to the people of Caliban, they completely destroy Caliban’s way of life, their culture and traditions. It’s such a rapid and extreme example of colonialism and cultural imperialism. Simply put, the people of Caliban have a perfectly justified belief that their way of life is being destroyed, because it is.

The way the Rebellion unfolds is clever and well done (even if some of the rebels are a bit thick at times). There are some great climatic moments as well as the doom of Caliban rapidly approaches. And the final reveal and twists are quite well executed. If this was a stand-alone novella, I would think quite highly of it.

Story B – Nemiel and Johnson faff do nothing of importance.

Ok, this isn’t a bad story. It’s problem is that it’s a largely meaningless story. The final scene, intended as a “M. Night Shyamalan” style “what-a-twist” just kills the story. And I mean, it kills it deader than Elvis.

To summarise what goes on, Johnson, after finding out Horus has rebelled has a brilliant idea. He decides to hit a forge world that can supply Horus, and to get his hands on some secret weapons that could be used for great effect during the heresy.

He “somehow” defeats a larger fleet with….. look, I have a Master’s degree in Strategic Studies and I still don’t really get what Brilliant thing he does to win the Space Battle. So let’s just say he “Primarchs” the Space Battle and lands his troops in the forge.

After a few encounters, the baddies are defeated, but Horus’s dudes will be back. Nemiel does some detective work with his squad, there are betrayals, and a marine vs marine fight, where Johnson kills no named Sons of Horus.

Then, after securing the Siege Weapons he hands them over to his Brother Primarch….. Perturabo of the Iron Warriors. So the whole story resulted in sod all happening. Which is exactly my issue (well, one of many) with Battle for the Abyss.

And the story isn’t bad.  Nemiel and his squad are quite well depicted, and the actions scenes are reasonably well done. It’s just that the other story is far more interesting and actually has stuff happen in it.

The Hero-Protagonist?

Zahariel returns from Descent of Angels and is the Protagonist for Story A. Zahariel is still a wonderfully flawed character, but this time he is more certain and defined with his actions. Considering how much Luther loses the plot in this story, he pretty much is the only person keeping a level head. He has to make horrible decisions and he does them well. I also love how you are left with some questions about him at the end. Is he corrupted, or is he the only man on Caliban still loyal?

His story is one of love left to die through lack of attention. He wants to serve the Primarch and the Emperor, but 53 years of being ignored would really wear you down.

Nemiel has grown awesomely in 53 years away from Zahariel. Clearly, the need to compete with his psychically advantaged cousin has driven him to succeed greatly. He’s basically a model marine and has become a Chaplain. Now, in the Heresy, the Chaplains are the guys who keep morale up by being awesome and hardcore, not by being preachers. And Nemiel is suitably hardcore in this book. I also love how he puts his Primarch on the spot and challenges him. Very few characters in the Heresy books openly challenge their Primarch like Nemiel does, and that trait endears him to me.

Random note: So it turns out Astelan, the dude from the slightly forgettable short story in Tales of Heresy is a supporting character in this book. Somehow, on first reading, I completely missed that.

Why are there humans in my book about Super powered Space Marines

The human characters in the story are a little weak and two dimensional. With the exception of the two knights of Caliban, they are bordering on cliché. Magos Bosk is the self-important bureaucrat, Lord Thuriel a pompous noble, Governor Kullik, a hardass grizzled veteran.

They aren’t bad characters, but they aren’t exactly interesting either.

MVP – Sergeant Kohl and his squad

One of the paradoxes of this book is that the characters in the meaningless story are written better than the characters in the story of substance. Zahariel is quite good in the main plot, but the supporting cast of Luther, Cypher and others are pretty flat.

Sergeant Kohl is just a character that made me laugh. He just has a dead pan style of black comedy that appeals to me. A few lines from him, and other members of the squad and I had their characters down. The squad made the action scenes of the B story interesting enough to read and stay interested in, even if the plot didn’t feel like it was doing much.

I think every writer of military fiction should watch the first half of Aliens. James Cameron does an amazing job of introducing the marines, and within a line or two of dialogue you know that squad and you feel for them. That film is the benchmark for me of creating an ensemble squad of characters in a short amount of time. And the dialogue is some of the most quotable material in all of fiction.

Someone doesn't like the cornbread

Worst Character – Luther

Honestly, this should be Lion El’Johnson but I’ll cover him later on.

Luther is just pants. This is another example of the Horus Heresy book’s tendency to “tell but not show” why people are awesome. We are continually told that Luther was “the most awesome dude ever, and if Johnson wasn’t around he would have done the most awesome things ever”, yet he is portrayed as indecisive and nervous.  

The book makes Zahariel the awesome dude that actually did everything. Luther just seems to sit around, brooding and delegating the major task to Zahariel. And when an actual decision needs to be made towards the end of the book, he is indecisive and panicked.

Get to know your Legion – The Dark Angels

There are two types of Dark Angels in this book; the ones with Nemiel and Johnson, who are your regular baddass astartes, and the ones on Caliban, who are a bunch of jilted sadassess.

Nemiel’s story shows that the Dark Angels have mostly lost their “knightly” origins and have settled into the business of warfare like a regular space marine. I didn’t feel that the legion had much character though, without the knightly aspect to the Dark Angels, they are remarkably generic.

The dudes left on Caliban are just sad.

Get to know your Primarch – Lion’el R’chie

The Primarch of the Dark Angels is duller than dishwater, and frankly, I don’t get him as a character. I guess the authors of the two Dark Angels books tried to make him mysterious, but they ended up making him vague.

Like his father he suffers from the “I AM SO SMART THAT I WON’T TELL YOU WHY I DO STUFF” syndrome. I really liked it when Nemiel called him on this, and Johnson was all indignant about being called on his BS.

His practice of sending problems back to Caliban and forgetting about them is utterly brainless. It’s like the office clerk who gets behind on paperwork, so hides it in their desk so no one can see until they go on leave and someone has to cover for them (yes, I saw this happen once).

And finally, we see him get conned by one of his brothers. The Lion might be a master strategist and a combat machine, but he is a terrible judge of character.  

Why the Emperor is a giant douche

Well, not the Emperor himself this time, but his policies. Compliance sucks, it really does. Can you imagine having your whole way of life destroyed, your towns and cities replaced with massive hives and your friends and family being forced to work “quotas” in large industrial complexes while a bunch of pompous foreigners sit around living a life of luxury and cracking the whip.

It’s the kind of brutalist colonization and colonial exploitation one would expect in the Belgian Congo. Any resistance is brutally crushed. For the “saviour of mankind” his policies are very inhuman.

Moustache twirling evil-bastard award – Magos Archoi

I like the Magos Archoi plot twist, it homages Mechanicum and he manages to pull a Primarchs pants down. I like how, because they are barely human, most people find them impossible to read or understand. And given Johnsons inability to judge character it’s hardly surprising he gets duped.

While I love his trick with the torpedoes, I absolutely loathe how Johnson’s fleet bombards a forge off the planet in one fell swoop. I always thought a major forge would be a little tougher than that.

I’d also like to mention Cypher as it’s worth noting that he isn’t really a villain as such. They reveal who he is, his motivations and why he was made Cypher. If anything, it makes Johnson into a bigger fool than he already was. “ok dude, here are all my secret books of evil, um….. I’m going away for 50 years, behave”

The writing – technical review and evaluation

Mike Lee writes reasonably well, and I think he excels during action sequences. His description of the horror under Caliban is quite well written and I can’t really fault the writing in general.

The plot is what kills this book….. It’s just a bit lacking.

Dark Angel fans haven’t had a lot to cheer about during the Heresy books to date. I hope this story picks up a bit in its 3rd chapter.

This book gets a “Read it if you have the time, but it’s not critical to the series” rating. 

1 comment:

  1. You know, its weird how Caliban is the only Primarch Planet that has this problem. All of the others are left relatively alone. Prospero is allowed to stay a city of psychers, Colchis can still worship, The 500 Worlds of Ultramar-its in the name, Fenrisians are still ignorant to the truth of the Galaxy, and even the planets that were changed either welcomed it, or didn't protest. Barbarus was able to thrive, as were Cthonia, and Nostramo. Olympia only rebelled cause Lorgar's spies tricked the Olympians. Even Nuceria was left to its own. So why did the First Legion's home get ravaged?


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