Monday, 5 January 2015

A Thousand Sons - Horus Heresy Book 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

Censured at the Council of Nikea for his flagrant use of sorcery, Magnus the Red and his Thousand Sons Legion retreat to their homeworld of Prospero to continue their use of the arcane arts in secret. But when the ill-fated primarch foresees the treachery of Warmaster Horus and warns the Emperor with the very powers he was forbidden to use, the Master of Mankind dispatches fellow primarch Leman Russ to attack Prospero itself. But Magnus has seen more than the betrayal of Horus and the witnessed revelations will change the fate of his fallen Legion, and its primarch, forever.

What the book is really about?

Damn, these book blurbs really like to give away the plot don’t they?

Ok, a lot happens in this book and some of it takes too long to develop, while other bits are rushed.

We start on the planet of Aghoru, a hot planet that has human inhabitants who wear masks all the time, and sort of worship a giant elder monument thingy that houses a GREAT EVIL. And for the first 3rd of the book, we get slowly introduced to the characters, the legion, the Space Wolves and Magnus.

Long story short, Space wolves turn up to demand Magnus join Russ in the crusade, Magnus wants to explore the temple, chaos awakes, mayhem eschews, and the Space Wolves see the Thousand sons cut loose with PSIPOWERZ when they think Magnus has fallen.

It’s a bit slowly paced to start and it took me a while to get into it. By the end of the Aghoru story arc I was feeling very “meh” about the book. But it picks up a lot after the initial arc, which really could have been tightened up a bit.

Part two of the book has the Thousand Sons, Space Wolves and Word Bearers engaged in a total war of extermination against an avian humanoid species. There’s some good action in here and a great stand-off between Primarchs.

The middle of the book is the double act of Emperor as stage performer. First, the victory procession at Ullanor, and then the Trial of Magnus at Nikea. I wish the Trial was a little more involved, Magnus got some great lines but it was all a bit clipped. I think 40 pages of padding from Aghoru could have been ripped out and replaced with more coverage of one of the seminal events of the Heresy.

It’s almost as though McNeill panicked a little at having to write a courtroom drama, so he had the protagonist collapse during the trial so he could hand wave it. A little disappointed at that, but I more than forgave him for what followed.

The battle of Prospero was awesome and epic, it swung back and forth, different characters had major impacts on the proceedings and it was a great read. It had everything an over the top battle in the Heresy needs; psychically controlled titans, magics aplenty, the Wulfen, two Primarchs going at it, custodes, sisters, guardsmen, hand to hand, orbital bombardments, the whole nine freaking yards.

But despite the great action scenes at the end, the single best part of this book is that it explains who the Thousand Sons are, What they believe, and why they fell. And it tells the story in a way that makes the Thousand Sons believable and real.

The Hero-Protagonist - Ahriman

Well Holy cow.

They finally made an established chaos character in the 40k universe something other than a moustache twirling villain (Tython, Bile) or a mindless buffoon (Abaddon, Lucius, Ben counters book 3 Kharn).

Ahriman is the classic “Warrior-scholar” type. He fights when he needs to and is an instrument of war, but deep down, he’d probably rather be reading books and indulging in his hobby of viticulture.

I really liked his interactions with Wyrdmake, the rune priest of the Space Wolves. It was nice for once to see a traitor legion on the receiving end of a personal betrayal. What starts as a friendly exchange of ideas between legions ends in massive betrayal of trust and revenge. You also feel that Ahriman is quite justified in his final acts against Wyrdmake as well.

The other things I found appealing about Ahriman was his interaction with the remembrancer Lumeul, his personal story about the flesh change and his twin, and his insecurities about his power. Ahriman felt flawed and….. human really. A lot of characters in this universe come across as caricatures and supermen, but for all of Ahriman’s baddassery, he really is just a guy committed to his legion and paranoid that he will become a monster. I’m quite interested to read more about him after this.

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

Again, the Remembrancers are great human characters and all four of them are solid, interesting characters. It’s also nice to see lesser psykers and how normal people deal with psychic phenomenon in the 30k universe.

Lumuel, while clearly riffing on Karkasy from book one, is an engaging fellow. His personal growth in the story is immense, and he goes from a lazy gadfly to become a quite heroic character towards the end.

Camille and Kallista both go through horrible story arcs that show the dangers of psychic powers, and poor Kallimakus is the victim of horrific abuse and the hands of Magnus.

These four characters tell a very personal story of horror, and there are some truly creepy, tense and sad moments in their story. The exchange between Lumeul and Ahriman over Kallista’s fate at the end truly shows how far Lumeul has come, and how far Ahriman will go. It’s a great part of the book.

There are a lot of questions remaining for these characters and I hope they pop up again.

MVP – Phosis T’Kar

This may seem like a strange choice, but let me explain. I really liked the different captains within the Thousand Sons and their various fates. Ulthizaar the telepath had some great character exchanges with Ahriman, and his final fate was sad. Khalophis literally goes out in a blaze of glory while being a colossal engine of destruction; Maat pulls through the battle but is a shell of what he was at the end.

All of the captains have a bit of character, except Auramagma, who’s mostly defined through the fact that Ahriman doesn’t like him.

But Phosis T’kar wins the MVP for the single best death scene in the series so far. It’s a poignant moment that sums up everything about the Thousand Sons and their fall. It’s the final moment of realization that all of the power they have accumulated is for nothing, and all it has done is cost them their souls.

Worst Character – Yatiri

Ok, most of the characters in the book are alright, some are pretty good even. However, I’m giving this award to Yatiri as representative of a boring race of primitives who took up WAY too much of the book.

The thing that annoyed me most about them is the mask idea. Oh wow, a society that hides behind masks and never takes them off. That might be cool if they hadn’t done the exact same thing only a few books earlier, on Sarosh with Descent of Angels.

185 pages…… should have been a lot less.

Get to know your Legion – The Thousand sons

I think this is the high point of the book. McNeill took a tricky legion and made them interesting, unique and somewhat believable. Sure, he relied on WAY too many things to do with the number nine, but all in all, the Legion is well described and well detailed.

You have the planet of Prospero, and its past is explained in detailed. You also have the five cults of the legion spelled out and their origin story. I like that the psykers are specialized into traditions, biokenesis, telepathy, augury, telekenetics and pyromaniacs. It creates a nice feel and stops everyone being “just another psyker”.

It also creates rivalries and competition within the Legion, and marks out individual characters by their power displays. I think the cults were a great inclusion, and anyone doing a Thousand Sons army would profit from including them conceptually in unit design.

I also really like how the Thousand Sons gene flaw was handled. Lets face it, many Legions have some horrible downsides, the Red-Thirst, Becoming Wolfen, Rages, being a boring boring person (Sorry Ultramarine fans, but it’s true, that’s their geneflaw…. Deal with it!).

But none of them are quite as horrific as the flesh change. It’s described in great detail, and you can feel the fear across the Legion at the prospect of it. It’s yet another thing that drives the Thousand Sons to know everything.

I also like the mental discipline of the enumerations, even if I think it was a little overused. Despite occasionally going hogwild with the psychic powers, they are a discipline Legion, which provides nice contrast to the Space Wolves.

Oh, and I love that the Thousand Sons casually use warp entities and their power without realizing exactly what they are doing. These guys were so very very doomed with that attitude.

PS, when they finally get around to making legion models, they will be awesome, but perhaps not as awesome as these.

Get to know your Primarch – Magnus the Red.

Well he’s no 21st Century Schizoid man, that’s for sure. An obscure reference to say the least, but I couldn’t help but listen to “the court of the Crimson King” by progressive rock Legends King Crimson while typing this review, as every time they called him the Crimson King that track would pop into my head.

Magnus is done quite well. He swings between cocksure arrogance and pragmatic level-headedness but never goes into the caricature level. His fall is well telegraphed, but it’s a classic story, the story of Icarus or the cliché that “the road to ruin starts with good intentions”.

Magnus means well, but he’s fucked from day one. Seriously, I don’t know what Magnus could have done to escape his fate, he has amazing psychic powers, and his body is essentially a visage. So why expect him to sit and behave like a normal boy.

Faced with his legions flaw, he dooms himself to save them. And then, when he finds out about the heresy he tries to save the day with his forbidden powers, but in the process, muffs everything up.

But what else would he have done? Sat down and let the heresy happen? Not warned the Emperor? Magnus gets boxed in and his loyalty destroys him. Poor bastard.

Why the Emperor is a giant douche

This book is a big one for the Emperor acting on maximum nozzle.

Magnus was doomed with a dad like this. Magnus was a kid with special needs and needed a lot more parenting than the others. Anyone who can casually throw off their skin and fly around the warp needs some good solid parenting about what is in the warp.

And when Magnus solved the gene-flaw in the Thousand Sons, did the Emperor not think “how the heck did he do that, perhaps I will press him for answers”.

Then he punishes Magnus at Nikea for being himself.

And finally, although it’s not covered in this book in great detail, he builds a life support astropathic prison for Magnus to be entombed in…….. That golden throne wasn’t built for the Emperor you know. Someone with massive psychic powers was going to be imprisoned for all time in there, and you can bet the Emperor had Magnus lined up for the gig.

Moustache twirling evil-bastard award – Mortarion

Mortarion is pretty painfully written in this, and I get that it’s from the perspective of the Thousand Sons. But he just comes across as a giant ham who wants to sneakily smack down Magnus. 

Quirky reveals and other coolness

Well, this book has a few of them, so time to add in a new category for the reviews.

One – The name “a thousand sons” and how they were called that before they shrank to a Thousand. The Emperor knew what was coming? So did that mean he knew Magnus would barter his soul to save them?

Two – There are no wolves on Fenris. This whole little story piece was wonderfully creepy, and painted the Space Wolves as being something far more sinister and dark than simple tribal beserkers.

Three- Leman Russ and the façade. At one point Ahriman sees through Leman Russ’s façade and see that it’s mostly for show. Again, this makes the Space Wolves a lot darker and sinister than their normal portrayal and I loved it. Russ plays the mindless beserker, but is so much more.

Four – It’s all part of a master plan. The whole Space Wolves – Thousand Sons conflict is set off by pro-heresy factions who want to take out two of the most formidable loyal legions. It’s pretty clever really.

The writing – technical review and evaluation

At 558 pages, this is a solid sized book and it covers a lot of ground. I’m not gonna lie, I think this is Graham McNeill’s best work and it’s a great contribution to the Horus Heresy. This is a book that could easily have been messed up, and a Legion that could have turned out terribly in the story. And while the book has its flaws, it’s a solid read.

This book gets a “must read if reading the series” rating. 

 *disclaimer, borrowed art is borrowed. 

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