Thursday, 22 January 2015

Do you know what Nemesis means? A Horus Heresy review


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

After the horrors of Istvaan V, Horus declares outright war against the Imperium. In the shadows of the Emperor's Palace, powerful figures convene. Their plan is to send a team of assassins to execute the arch-traitor Horus and end the war for the galaxy of mankind before it's even begun. But what they cannot know is that another assassin is abroad already, with his sights firmly set on killing the Emperor.

What the book is really about?

I can't hear the word "nemesis" without thinking of Bricktop's speech about "Nemesis" from Snatch. And I think it accurate describes what a Nemesis is :)

This book is an interesting one and I can see it being quite polarizing. I for one, like the ideas on concepts explored in the book, and I’m a sucker for procedural crime dramas and “dirty dozen/oceans 11” style team missions.

At its core, it is about an assassination plot, organized by the master of Assassins (Aka grumpy old man Malcador the Sigilite), aimed directly at Horus. Now the different assassin orders have all tried and failed to kill Horus, so the plan is to assemble the Voltron of assassinations, one member from each of the six clades (orders of Assassins).

The main story focusses on assembling this strike team of specialist assassins and then their arrival on the planet of Dagonet, a world that has special significance to Horus. After arriving on world, they discover the planet has almost fully gone over to Horus, so decide to become a G.I Joe strike force and prolong the civil war to the point that the Sons of Horus turn up, and when they do, they will gank Horus.

It’s actually a pretty good plan, and it was cool to see the Assassins using their skills as terrorist guerrilla types. I’ll go into more detail about the different clades later, but I really like the diversity shown in the team, they are all assassins, but their training, ideology and methods of operation could not be more different. That creates dramatic tension and allows the characters to explore their own foibles.

The secondary plot revolves around a pair of local coppers on a world near Dragonet investigating a serial killer with occult trimmings. James Swallow excels at writing horror and visceral details, and his descriptions of the crime scenes are excellent. As a dude who watches WAY TOO MANY forensic shows on TV (While I paint, I have documentaries or old sci-fi on, forensic shows are the most watched), I felt like he did his research and portrayed the investigation well.

The reveal of who the killer is was a nice twist, but I can see how that changeover could put off people who have grown attached to the investigators. In a way, it’s like “from Dusk til Dawn”, you start off watching a suspenseful crime thriller and then the tone rapidly changes in one scene. Thankfully from my point of view, it went from crime show, to Assassination quest, as opposed to slapstick horror in a vampire titty bar. (Have I mentioned how much that particular changeover disappointed me?)

Anyway, through the secondary plot we discover the Theoge, an imperial cult and it’s connections to a Rogue Trader who has a “warrant of trade” signed by the Emperor, complete with his blood. Our Serial killer, the shapeshifting, demonskin wearing, flesh and brain eating “Spear” desires nothing more than nomming down this drop of blood in order to attune to the Emperor, and possibly kill him.


So, as our heroes are preparing to gank Horus, Spear arrives and tries to hunt down the droplet of imperial deliciousness. The last chapters of the book can only be described as a cluster-fuck for everyone involved. No one, and I mean NO ONE, gets a happy ending or achieves what they wanted to.

The Assassins are wiped out, most of them by Spear himself. Spear gets his drop of “the red-red-Kroovy”, and then gets ganked by the assassination squad….. eventually….. but only after he eats some of them. Horus escapes the assassination attempt, but his body double, one of his Captains, gets killed with a SHIP LANCE, the people of Dagonet die in a ritual slaughter or bombardment, and finally…. the Assassin masters get unmasked by Rogal Dorn and told off by the Emperor.

What a mess, but it makes for great drama.

The Hero-Protagonist – Eristede Kell & Jenniker Soalm

Ok, look at the list of Assassin clades……. Of the 4 widely known ones, one has no soul, one has no self-control, and one has no face. It’s pretty easy to see why they put the Vindicare in control. He’s calm, professional and meticulous…… or at least hes meant to be.

Eristede is a pro’s pro, but the powers that be completely scupper him from being professional right from the get go. They assign him a Venenum (poisoner) Assassin, who just so happens to be his estranged kid sister.

I totally get why they do this for dramatic reasons, but the tense relationship constantly undermines his authority and makes him second guess things. Which is good as all of these Assassin characters could have ended up as caricatures. And while Eristede isn’t the deepest character in the world, we get to understand his motivation for becoming an assassin, the emotional walls he has put up, and the unreconciled issues he has around his family.

Jenniker on the other hand, is a very different character. I wish they had focussed a little more on her murdering people, as most of that happens off screen and it would have been nice to see the capabilities of a Venenum in more detail. What sets her apart from the other Assassins is that she has faith. Jenniker is a member of the Imperial Cult, and her actions are similar to Keeler, in that she becomes one of the first people “called to action” as a servant of the Emperor as God.

Her story arc is quite simple but contains interesting character development. She has the competing drivers of mission, family and faith to deal with, and her decision to follow her Faith turns out to be the correct choice for the Imperium.

I really liked the family elements to this story, but adding in something as humanizing as a kid-sister/big-brother relationship, the writer added something that cannot exist in an astartes focussed book, Intergender familial ties, and it was nice to see that aspect explored.

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

Well, there are a few humans in this story, the cops for one and the resistance on Dagonet for the other. Josef Sabrat, the main police character has a particularly horrible story arc, and is final fate is pretty damned gruesome. It’s a bit of a shyamalan plot twist, and I can see how it would rankle readers who grew attached to him. It’s a little bit of a pity as the investigation story as developing nicely until we hit “WHAT A TWIST” territory.

As for the guerrilla’s, we don’t see much of them, but they are adequately portrayed. Oddly, the most memorable depiction of a human character in the book is a throw-away character who gets ganked by the Assassins 2 minutes after we meet him. But in those handful of pages from his perspective, you really develop a strong dislike for him. I’m talking about Goeda Rufin, the self-important jackass base commander character, such a dislikeable prat.

MVP – Assassination Voltron

I liked the Assassins, I thought their interactions were a good mix of dramatic and humorous. While each of them had to play archetype for their clade, the author explores this in a good way. This could easily have been a hack job like Battle for the Abyss, but Swallow decided to give us a little more than cliché here.

Tariel, the Vanus Infocyte was an interesting addition to the Warhammer universe, as I had not seen anything about the Vanus Assassins before this book. The idea of an imperial assassin who is a pudding in close combat was nice. I love his method of operation, hack everything, steal all knowledge you can, and use it your advantage. I also liked all his cyber animals and the fact he was a big steaming coward at heart.

Koyne was probably the blandest of the Assassins, but as a Callidus, that’s probably not surprising. While the character was a blank slate for the most part, where the authour excelled was in viscerally describing the use of polymorphine and the unsettling nature of having a shapeshifter around.

Iota was another interesting portrayal of a character. Being a vat born pariah, she could hardly have had a normal life growing up. What’s great is that her emotional distance and immaturity leaks through frequently. The discussion about whether a pariah can have a soul was quite sad in a way, and her death was one of the more horrific in the books.

And finally, the main man, the Garrantine. I love this guy, a single minded rage-killer who spends his whole time on the edge of a murderous frenzy. That sounds like a terribly boring character, but Swallow does a fine job of giving him some great “gallows humour” moments.

Worst Character – Spear

You’re gonna have to indulge me here because I like a lot of Spear. I think the way he’s described is great, I think his action scenes are great, and the horror scenes he’s involved with are great.

I guess I just don’t get why he’s the way he is. It’s a little bit of “he was born bad, so he’s bad” and the little hand-wave around Erebus torturing him didn’t come close to explaining his motivations. I dunno, might just be me but I found the character interesting to read about, but I didn’t “get him”.

But I think the issue is that his motivations are not his own. He’s a powerful entity, cut lose to complete a mission, but his motivations and goals are Erebus’s. And that robbed the character of his agency for me, which was something that left the character a bit flat.

Get to know your Legion – The Officio Assassinorum

Silly masks and parlour games….. honestly, the scenes with the Assassin bosses felt like a really bad Live-roleplaying game where everyone is playing an archetype. Eversor is angry…… GRRRRR.

However, the actual assassins make up for the tomfoolery on Terra. I did cringe a little when everyone got given their “new toys”: which just happened to be the standard kits for those characters in 40k. I guess we were supposed to be awed with


But I was simply…… well yeah, he’s a vindicare, of course he has an Exitus rifle. Bet the Callidus gets a neural shredder as well….. oh yeah, there it is.

Get to know your Primarch – Rogal Dorn

Dorn is a big boring goon in this book and I kinda like Dorn. To me, Dorn is one of the saner Primarchs. Sure, he occasionally tortures himself, and he’s pretty inflexible at times, but deep down he’s a soldier, he knows who is boss is, and he knows he is bred to fight. In a lot of ways, he’s like Stannis Baratheon from AGOT in that he’s not a loveable person, but he is in the right and will not give up on that fact.

But I still found him a little bland in this book, or at least I did at the start. Once his motivations were explained, that attempting to kill Horus would just result in an escalation of civilian casualties and carnage, I appreciated him more. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Dorn, especially as the war darkens and the Emperor gets more isolated.

I want to see his thoughts when he realizes he’s pretty much alone defending Terra, and that the Emperor himself isn’t do much to aid the situation. I also expect the interactions between Sanguinius, the Khan and him to be interesting as well.

Why the Emperor is a giant douche

Chalk up another book for the Emperor not being that bad. Sure, he’s turned a blind eye to countless assassinations before, but when they finally overstep by attacking Horus he does what any senior manager in a modern business would do…….

He conducts a governance review! Yep, so instead of having the Assassin Clade leadership in the shadows he makes them a part of the government and gives them an oversight committee. It’s a practical decision and not at all douchey!

Moustache twirling evil-bastard award –Erebus

Erebus…….  Would we even have a Horus Heresy without this guy….. or any stories for that matter. I get it, he’s the guy that kicked this whole thing off, but here’s something I want to emphasise.

Not all plots have to involve him, he’s already been super-successful evil guy, he’s doesn’t have to be behind EVERYTHING. I’d really have preferred if Spear had his own motivations as I mentioned earlier.

Heck, Spearcould have been deployed by the Alpha Legion or Xenos, He may have been the result of an experiment by the Mechanicum or Thousand Sons. He could have been 100% self-motivated by the idea of achieving apotheosis by consuming the Emperor.

Any of these ideas may have been better than having the villain being Erebus…… again.

Quirky reveals and other coolness

Malcador the sigilite, right hand of the Emperor, is also the master of assassins. I don’t know about anyone else, but Malcador is a character I am very suspicious of. We don’t really know a lot about him and he seems to have a bucket load of power.

Luc Sidrae, Captain of the 13th company of the Sons of Horus gets killed in this book. And it’s alluded to that Horus knew an attack was coming and knowingly sacrificed him. I hope more about this is revealed later, and I suspect it will be. (Don’t tell me the details if it has been, I’m still only up to this book)

Battle for the Abyss gets mentioned as Koyne is in the process of assassinating one of the guys behind the construction of the furious abyss. As bad as that book is, I like tie ins like this that make the stories more interconnected. It makes the setting feel more real and organically changing.

The writing – technical review and evaluation

James Swallow is a good writer, he excels at describing horror and the warp, and is arguably the best writer in the collection for doing a horror story. He also has some flashes of brilliance with characters, but overall, he’s a little inconsistent.

He is solidly in the 2nd tier of HH writers behind Abnett and ADB. While he lacks some of the brilliance of those two, he can still write very well and I will always pick up one of his books thinking it should be reasonably good.

This book gets a “You can skip this one, but it’s still a good read” rating.

 *disclaimer, borrowed art is borrowed. 


  1. Come on. The true MVP can only be Yosef Sabrat.
    The man tormented a Black Pariah, gave it PTSD, and distracted the beast, leading to its demise.
    And all as a DEAD man.

  2. Come on. The real MVP has to be Yosef Sabrat. The man torments the Black Pariah SPear like no one else. He is more of a threat to the bad guy's plans then the assasins, and unlike the Assassins(or any one else in this series of genocidal superhumans), he is a decent human being


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...