Thursday, 19 February 2015

Propsero Burns - Not the 13th Warrior - A Horus Heresy review

Disclaimer

Spoilers abound in these posts, if you haven’t read the books and will get upset by finding out what happens just stop.

This is also not a recap, if you want a recap go to Lexicanium.

What The Black Library says about the book


The Emperor is enraged. Primarch Magnus the Red of the Thousand Sons Legion has made a terrible mistake that endangers the very safety of Terra. With no other choice, the Emperor charges Leman Russ, Primarch of the Space Wolves, with the apprehension of his brother from the Thousand Sons' home world of Prospero. This planet of sorcerers will not be easy to overcome, but Russ and his Space Wolves are not easily deterred. With wrath in his heart, Russ is determined to bring Magnus to justice and bring about the fall of Prospero

What the book is really about?


Wet Leopard Growls……

I like this book, but this phrase, and variations on this phrase are so overused I wanted to scream at Dan Abnett until my throat was a dry hyena squawk.

Oh, it’s also the 13th Warrior in SPACE!!!!!!!!!!!

Let me put this out there right now, but I think the Space Wolves are cheesy as all hell. While other chapters have interesting quirks and traits, the Space Wolves are, and have always been, a caricature of Vikings…….. IN SPACE!!!!!

Now, my pet hates out of the way, this is actually an exceptionally good book with some real highlights, great characters and a complicated plot that covers hundreds of years and some important events in the heresy.

Unfortunately, most of those events were covered incredibly well in “A Thousand Sons”, but backed into a corner of telling a story about events we’ve already seen, Abnett uses some excellent literary tools to turn what could have been a pile of Space Viking fan-fiction, into a compelling narrative.

We start off with the mystery of Kasper Hawser, an old man who has crashed in the lowlands of Fenris. Why did he get shot down, why try to visit Fenris, why attempt to chronical the Space Wolves without permission, who is Kasper Hawser and how does he know how to speak the languages of Fenris.

This book is an onion, with one layer of the mystery being pulled apart piece by piece: The mystery is complex and best of all, the conclusions are not obvious.

The start of the book alternates between flashbacks of Kaspers past and him being dragged around Fenris by a group of warriors from the village he crashed in, being chased down by their neighbours. On Fenris it seems, a crashed escape pod is a “bad star”, which is a terrible omen that must be murdered most viciously.


Kasper is revealed to be an old man, and a great antiquarian who has built a great department in charge of recovering and storing history and knowledge, an incredibly admirable goal. He claims to have come to Fenris as a last hurrah, one last voyage of discovery and research in his twilight years.

Just before Kasper and his warrior friends are murdered by angry locals, a Space Wolf, called “Bear”, turns up and murders them back, saving Kasper and the warriors. Kasper is taken to The Fang and put into deep sleep.

And here is where the first major changeover in the story happens. Kasper is rebuilt by the wolves, his body is reconditioned to be that of a 30 year old Olympian. Oh, and they keep him “on ice” for several decades while they do this and decide what to do with him.

Kasper discovers he can speak all of the Space Wolf languages, something that raises a bunch of big furry eyebrows. But his language skills have tells that show they are not innate, but programmed. For example, he can’t really tell what language he’s listening too easily, and he occasionally uses gothic standard words, especially for animal names……. Like “Bear”.

And here is where the book starts to really make the Space Wolves into interesting characters. By placing an outsider into the legion, and giving him the role of skald (A storyteller with unlimited access), Kasper can explore anything, and because he knows little, exposition is handled in a believable manner.

Kapser is told, in no uncertain terms, that they think he is a spy and that his motives might not be his own. But the Space Wolves have a philosophy, that if someone wants to spy on you, you tell the spy exactly how much you’re going to crush your enemies.

Over the next few campaigns we see the Space Wolves demonstrate a mix of professionalism and brutalism. And through Kasper’s eyes we see that the Wolves are feral, brutal warriors….. but also calculating and methodical. I really liked this juxtaposition of concept.

During this time, Kasper engages with the Rune-priest psykers of the Space Wolves, and they discover he has supressed memories and has had encounters with the Thousand Sons and a chaos cult in the past. The wolves come to the conclusion that the Thousand Sons programmed him and sent him to be a spy. Oh, and crazy warp stuff happens to one of the rune-priests who gets into Kasper’s mind.

This is reinforced at the council of Nikea when “Amon” from the thousand sons makes contact with them. What’s interesting here is that this encounter is what tips the Emperor’s hand into ruling against Magnus, as one of his own custodes gets mind whammied by “Amon” using name magic.

The council also has some great scenes with big names, and Kasper’s perspective of being in the presence of multiple Primarchs is quite hilarious: Poor guy.

The book concludes with arguable the best section of prose in the entire Horus Heresy series to date. Kasper tells the story of the invasion of Prospero in the form of a fireside retelling to the Space Wolves. It’s a fantastic use of the characters position of Skald to tell a story that had already been told in “A thousand sons” in a new and compelling way.

The final reveal is that the thing that programmed him was not the Thousand Sons, but a warp entity that wanted to set the wolves against the Thousand Sons. The rationale being that these two legions represented great threats, the Emperor’s sorcerers and the Emperor’s shock troops.
In the end, the Wolves prosecute a campaign of butchery on a false premise. It’s a good tragic story

The Hero-Protagonist – Kasper Hawser


The Original Kasper Hauser
Dan Abnett clearly enjoys writing humans more than he does Space Marines. Kapser is a very fleshed out character, with quirks aplenty. If anything, too much time is spent exploring his back story, and some of the tales about the good old days reclaiming artefacts in old terra do drag on a bit, especially as he likes to interject these flashbacks in the middle of other actions scenes.

This is especially true at the start of the book, and I felt that the constant flashbacks took me out of the action and didn’t let me settle into a good reading pace until a good way into the book. It seems a trait with Abnett, start slow and build to a great finish.

That said, Kapsers dawning revelation that he is a sock-puppet for a malevolent force is played out very well. And his interactions with the Space Wolves are priceless at times. It’s the classic tale of a “civilized” man dropped into a horde of barbarians and having no clue how to act, and finding out his “civilized” ways are looked on with heaps of scorn.

His loyalty to the Wolves also grows over time, and the finale fireside tale shows just how far he has come in becoming part of their culture.

Oh, and if you want some additional back story, go read the Wikipedia page on the real Kaspar Hauser.

Why are their humans in my book about super-powered Space Marines?


Not much to say here, the main character is a human.

But the strength of having human characters in a book about Space Marines is that you can identify with them easier. Humans have fears, frailty and mortality, whereas Space Marines tend towards heroic, tragic and epic portrayals more.

As I’ve mentioned before, the whole Horus Heresy is akin to the “war in heaven”, with Marines representing the angels. Angels and Astartes, by their nature, are inhuman, so we have more difficulty relating to them than we do a regular human being. A human also allows for believable exposition to occur on Legion rites and practices. It’s harder to tell a story about something everyone knows, than it is to have an unknowing observer being told about it.

Now this can be overcooked, and by no means do I suggest that all the books should have human as protagonists. But in this case, as an introduction to the legion, I thought it was the right choice to focus on a human lead.


MVP – The Rune-Priests


I really liked the exploration of the shamanic ways of the Space Wolves, and how each of the Shamans had a different character and style.

If I was to choose one character, it would be Longfang. The scene with him and Kasper, as Longfang is bleeding out was expertly told, and I loved the false frailty he shows to Kasper to keep him second guessing.

This book has no “weak characters” though, all the Wolves have some character.

Worst Character – Bear


Bear is the only character in the Horus Heresy that appears in the 40k universe from the Imperium side (except the Emperor…. Lol).

It was a nice piece of fan service to include him, and a reasonably clever ploy to hide his name for the book using Kasper’s inability to know animal names. But, in case you didn’t know, “bear” is Bjorn the fell-handed, and we get to see how his hand became so “fell”.

Unfortunately, after all his screen time, all I really know about Bjorn is that he’s a quiet, determined and devoted sort of guy. I feel I should know more about him after this book, but I feel he’s still quite a distant character.

He’s not a bad character by any means, but I feel that after this book where he featured prominently, I should know him better.  


Get to know your Legion – The Rout


The first redeeming feature of the Space Wolves in this book, is that they hate the name Space Wolves!
Cliche Vikings

This is good, because I’ve always found the name Space Wolves to be freaking stupid. Especially with the Luna Wolves out there as well, a name I find even sillier as they aren’t wolf like at all, unlike the Space Wolves.

I like that they call themselves “The Rout”, it’s a simple brutalist name that conjures up images of slaughter.

We also explore the nature of the Space Wolves as warriors bound to an ancient culture, but with incredibly modern goals and techniques. Abnett does this incredibly well, allowing us to see the Rout as being something more than just “norse beserkers”.

I also really like that the Rout get off on stories that scare them, old fire-side tales of witchcraft and maleficaria.


Get to know your Primarch – Leman Russ


Well played Dan Abnett, you successfully made a Primarch that could have been a caricature into something deep and complicated.

Russ isn't a Norse berserker, he just dresses that way :)

One of the highlights of the book is when one of the Custodes calls him out on it. He basically says “look, I know you Leman, you don’t have to play the act with me”.

It’s a great moment; you see that Russ is far from being a beserker, and that his whole persona is a calculated effort to make his opponents fearful.

Again, this is Abnett doing his best to create depth to a character that could have been a caricature in the hands of a lesser author.

I can only imagine what Ben Counter would have done with him.

“RARR, I IZ LEMAN RUSS, I AM ALSO THOR”

Why the Emperor is a giant douche



This is a redemptive book for the Emperor, it explains the decision at Nikea a lot more, and also highlights just how long the conspiracy to bring Magnus and Russ into open conflict had gone on.

Some of the Emperor’s actions leave you scratching your head, but in this case, the reasons for the Nikea decision and the invasion of Prospero are put in terms that make the Emperor seem a lot less of a douche.

Moustache twirling evil-bastard award – The Evil thing.


I thought the reveal of the evil one was a little overcooked, and that it had been drawn out a bit too much. There are only so many times on can read the same recurring dream before shouting “get on with it”.

And while it’s final scene was a cool reveal, and it’s explanations for how it’s scheme worked were good, it did feel a little like a bond villain explaining his entire scheme right before being killed.

The exposition was too long I felt, too “Ahahahaha, now I will tell you the plan as your doomed”.

I would have preferred if he had said less, and that Kasper, the Rune Priests, and Russ had put it all together afterwards.

Quirky reveals and other coolness


The big reveals in this book are the long plan by Chaos to throw the Wolves and Thousands sons together. And while we knew that was the case from “A thousand sons” and other sources, the depth and detail of their plan is revealed here.

The other point that is raised that I’d like to discuss is the concept of each Legion having a role, and that when the Emperor designed the Primarchs, he made them fit specific designs.

The idea that Russ was built as his “executioner”, the dude that would always be there to do the dirty jobs is a fascinating one. And the reveal that Russ and the Wolves had been on the “lets go smash a legion” roundabout before was interesting as well.

It made me wonder what the other Primarchs roles were planned to be. Some are obvious, Dorn is a builder, Gulliaman a ruler, Horus a warleader and Magnus the psyker.

But some of the Primarchs, I wonder what their role was intended to be?

The writing – technical review and evaluation


Dan Abnett is a quality writer. And while his books are sometimes hard to get in to, the always finish strongly and the world building he does is excellent.

That said, I don’t think this is his best work. It’s better than most of the books in the series, but Wet Leopard growls, jerky pacing at times, the comparison to the 13th warrior and over-focus on the human protagonists backstory do hamper this book in my mind.

It’s still a good book, but I feel it’s not as good as Legion for example.

This book gets a “Read it, if you are reading the series, and consider reading it even if you don’t” rating.

 *disclaimer, borrowed art is borrowed. 












13 comments:

  1. If the Primarchs were all designed to fulfill a role as some sort of grand collective that conquers and rules the galaxy, what happens when the Emporer starts knocking them off? Already 2 of them have gone, so if Magnus had been killed by Leman Rus, that's a third one, and what's more, the one who's meant to sit on the Golden Throne and do Astronomicon duty forever.

    It's a bit like making the parts to a car, and then throwing away the fuel tank, passenger seat and rear-view mirrors because they angered you. Might be hard to drive the car afterwards.

    Seems like poor design and follow through for a godlike being of pure awesomeness. Though he is also a giant douche, so there is that....

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    1. Makes you wonder if the first two to die were the guys charged with "solving conflict" and "figuring out the truth" :)

      The Emperor's grand plan has so many flaws in it

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  2. This is still my favourite heresy book, with a beautiful vocabulary and a series attempt to understand history-making and even narratology in this far future setting. Interestingly, it works very well as an audio book, with its digressions and focus on dissonant sounds and objects. I loved the look at Kasper as an antiquarian, and also the nods to Abnett's inquisitor fiction too. You can see several of the gestational ideas of 'Pariah' especially here.

    I agree, sometimes the editing feels off. I wish there was more on these smart wolves. Whilst I think 'Scars' and 'Betrayer' especially has done good to follow up on this, as well as a few short stories (one by ADB about wolves sent to Terra, for example, to be featured again in 'Master of Mankind'), nothing has caught the astounding beauty and strangeness of the Rout in this book.

    I also love the term vlka fenryka. And that leopard growl. It's such an overt step away from 'wolfishness'. Maybe it gets repetitive - but that is a deliberate narrative device - the embedded programming in Kasper. I do wish other authors would use this and other 'non-wolfish' descriptions (like the embossed and knotted leather masks). So gorgeous. So antiquarian.

    Also loved the section where the Army calls in the Legions, and cannot stand the Rout. And the ways in which Tra assert their authority.

    Bear gets a lot of development in subsequent Vlka appearances - Chris Wraight has taken him on. I prefer how Wraight writes Scars (& primarchs) over Wolves, tbh!

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    1. Great points, the Vlka Fenryka is also a great name for the Wolves, but it feels quite "formal". I love the simplicity of "The Rout" a little more.

      As I said in the review, i think this is at time the best writing in the whole heresy, but to me it feels like a flawed masterpiece.

      I've ranked it pretty high and rated it well, but the book, for all it's brilliance and the quality of it's prose, just left me a little off-base at times. Purely personal opinion though and I totally understand why you love the book.

      Looking forward to seeing more of Bear and getting to know him better. And your right, that scene where the army is cast aside, kasper gets into a scrap and they use the station as a weapon was very good.

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    2. Yes, definitely flawed masterpiece - but certainly, alongside 'Pariah' and 'Salvation's Reach', my favourite of Abnett's ''mature'' writing. Maybe 'Know No Fear' too. The world-building in this feels like trial runs for how he stretched and twisted what was possible in both 'P' and 'S's R'. Gorgeous work.

      Yes, 'the Rout' is wonderfully effective too. I wish the game world paid more heed to this layered portrait sometimes. And moved away from 'Wolf-this' and 'Fang-that' :D

      Thanks, as always, for your fun and considerate reviews. can't wait for KnF, Betrayer and the more recent books & stories. The HH has fragmented, but in some ways, to its betterment. How will you consider all the short stories? Will you read the fluff in the FW books too? Also will you work on a chronology of everything?

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    3. For simplicities sake, i'm going to stick to the Short story compilations and just review books in order, I've already done "tales of heresy", so you can see the format i'll use for shorter stories.

      Not sure what to do with "the Primarchs" as that looks like 4 Novellas.

      As for the Forge World books? Perhaps, but I don't own any as of yet.

      And the Pariah and Salvations reach books seem to be 40k, which is outside my self-imposed scope of the Horus Heresy.

      Plus i just prefer reading the heresy to 40k itself.

      Reading a short story compilation now, Age of Darkness, so far is a bit ho-hum

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    4. Oh yes, I wouldn't recommend putting Pariah or SR into this reread. Those are different - but I definitely think Abnett's recent work has been far more fascinating in writerly scope than his earlier work (but less about the ideas of his earlier Ghosts books and Eisenhorn/Ravenor - which isn't bad, but there is some kind of an evolution that has happened over the 16 years he's been writing the former series).

      As for what you read, sticking by books kind of helps - but there will be some odd moments. 'Scars' (HH28) was written after the limited edition novella, 'Brotherhood of the Sun', but that was only published in wide-release as part of 'Legacies of Betrayal'. But 'Scars' will loose a lot of its meaning without having read 'BoS' first. This is the same with other limited edition books.

      It would be good if there was a chronological chart of each legion's stories too, just so you can avoid problematic moments like 'Brotherhood of the Storm' after 'Scars'. There might be others.

      'Age of Darkness' is a mix, but I think 'Rebirth', 'Little Horus', 'The Iron Within', 'The Last Remembrancer' and 'Savage Weapons' are all valuable.

      Keep up the good work, this has been fun and entertaining and often thought-provoking :D

      I wonder if you could ever do comparative close-reading analysis of how different authors/books do certain same things (depictions of the big E, how battle works, bad writing, race, female characters, etc...it might make for fun mischief :D )

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    5. I've already hit one issue with timing with the short stories. A short story in age of darkness, the first one about the codex astartes, takes place after "know no fear".

      I consider that incredibly bad editing by whoever put that book together.

      Comparative close readings? Wow, that's a blast from the past. I haven't done one of those since I did some English papers at university. It could be very interesting and i'll keep the idea in mind.

      It would be great if someone compiled a "reading order" guide. But what I will do is when i review a short story, i'll mention if it is out of sequence. Probably with some grumbling and swear words at the lazy editing required to do that.

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    6. I started work on charts on B&C at http://www.bolterandchainsword.com/topic/296947-chronological-reading-order and Tymell at https://rateyourmusic.com/list/Tymell/the_horus_heresy_series__a_reading_guide/

      Both are incomplete. I was working on a spreadsheet, however, with a seperate page for each Legion. Will get back on it.



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  3. Nice review. The book made me think about the Space Wolves in a much different way, which it think is one of its key strengths. I probably would have personally put it a couple of spaces higher, but it's down to personal preference.

    The scene of the wolves descending silently down into the space station still gives me goosebumps.

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    1. Wet Leopard growls Andy..... that and the "homages" are why i ranked it lower than his other two books.

      That scene s pretty cool though

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  4. "Wet leopard growls" indeed! I recall that in this book. This book I enjoyed thoroughly, your review almost as much, haha.

    Seriously though, this book ought to be called "A Documentary about the Vlka Fenryka, with a short addendum about the sacking of Prospero". Or words to that effect. The Wolves in particular did come across more deeply than their usual portrayal of drunken Vikings shooting and surfing down bannisters.

    Incidentally, in Know No Fear and, especially, The Unremembered Empire, Abnett seems to have an obsession with labelling everything 'transhuman' all the time.

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    1. I quite like Transhuman as a term, because Marines do not have normal human drives or motivations, so writing them as normal people wouldn't work.

      I thought, as an intro book to a legion it was supurb, wet leopard growls aside :) Not his best, but thats a high bar. it's still better than most of the series.

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