Monday, 13 April 2015

The Outcast dead (Dud) - 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

The galaxy is burning. The Emperor’s loyal primarchs prepare to do battle with Warmaster Horus and his turncoat Legions on the black sand of Isstvan. Such dark times herald new and yet more terrible things still to come, and when Astropath Kai Zulane unwittingly learns a secret that threatens to tip the balance of the war, he is forced to flee for his life. Alongside a mysterious band of renegades, he plunges into the deadly underworld of Terra itself, hunted like a criminal by those he once trusted. In the face of betrayal, Kai must decide where his own loyalties lie and whether some truths should be buried forever.

What the book is really about?

Um….. yeah that’s a really good question.

This book took me forever to read, I found it quite unengaging. It wasn’t “OMG THIS SUCKS” bad or anything, but I found I just didn’t care about the story much, and more than a few times I was left a bit confused.

First off, the book feels like multiple short story ideas that were bound, kicking and screaming, to a central “Johnny Mnemonic” plot line about a guy with secrets in his head that everyone wants.

I was initially excited to see more of Terra, to learn about the City of Sight, the navigators, and how the communications networks of the Imperium worked. I thought the world building in the story was pretty good, and it was nice to see these parts of the setting get a spotlight, but the central narrative didn’t really do it justice.

Events happened in a weird order, and I’m still confused about certain aspects of the story. In this Story, Magnus arrives on Terra after the events of Istvaan to provide the Emperor with his warning about Horus.

“Hey Dad, I bent time and space to give you a warning about events that have already happened!”.

“Thanks son, cheers for ruining every psyker on earth and blinding us, you knob”

The outcast dead, the group of marines from traitor legions, also seems to have been imprisoned before these warnings arrive, especially the Thousand Son. I found this aspect of the book annoying.

So if anyone can explain the timeline of this book to me better, I’m all ears.

Anyway, we have a prison break led by a vanilla band of traitors who appear as caricatures of their legion. I.e, world eaters angry, Emperors Child is a pretty perfectionist, death guard dude is tough, and the Thousand Son is a Mary Sue, super awesome psyker who is awesome. It was hard to love these guys, and asides from Atharva, I didn’t care for them a jot. And the only reason I was engaged by Atharva was that he had agency, unlike most of the characters in the story.

Also in the prison is the Kai Zulane, who during the early part of the books is established as a broken man who was the astropath on a ship lost in the warp. And while he struggles to deal with his PTSD, he is being retrained to be an astropath and deal with his issues. Not long after he arrives at the City of Sight, Magnus does his thing, and in the chaotic wake of that event, his mentor receives a massive vision that burns her out, but not before she buries the content of the vision deep inside Kai’s Psyche. Kai is taken prisoner and sent to the same prison as the Outcast dead, who then break him out.

Now, this leads to some of the more interesting parts of the story, as Kai deals with his grief and self-loathing within his dreamscapes. The interrogation scenes are quite clever and they do a good job of showing how mindscapes work and how psykers interact in them.

So the Outcasts escape because Arthava is a Mary Sue who can overpower the minds of ……. Well, pretty much anyone. I really didn’t like that he was good at all the psyker disciplines of the Thousand sons, it seemed to cheapen the “cults” idea McNeill introduced in his last book. Ah well, at least he has a plan.

They escape to the “petitioners city”, a slum of the edge of the Imperial palace ruled over by a gang…… pursued by a very slow moving imperial force that seems to take a lot of time to do anything. We meander through encounters until the final battle in, what is essentially a temple dedicated to mourning and death.

Oh, and it turns out the gang is run by the former commander of the Thunder Warriors who was at the Emperor’s right hand when he conquered Terra, and that his right hand man is also a Thunder Warrior. They want marine gene-seed as they are dying, but what really confused me is that the Thunder Warrior henchman kills two marines without breaking a sweat.

This introduces the idea that the Thunder Warriors were more badass than Space Marines, although with limited life spans. I can’t say that this sat well with me at all. I figured they would be good, but the Thunder Warrior does better in a stand up fight than the Custodes does later on in the same novel. I figured they should have been a match for the Astartes, but making them tougher than a custodes?

The final battle is…… terrible.

Multiple forces converge on the building, but for all intents and purposes the writer loses track of that and it ends up being about two specific fights and a demon thing appearing and killing mooks until it gets “Deus exed” by a Primarch turning up. The Thunder Warriors arrive with a big announcement, but aren’t mentioned in the fight narrative. I guess the author was trying to be clever so he could do his last page reveal, but it just bugged me that characters were “on-screen” and then suddenly “off-screen” without anyone making a remark about it. No one went, “what the fudge happened to those Thunder Warriors”

In the end, Kai comes to terms with his PTSD, gives the Emperor the message via a dream scape, and then commit suicide. The outcast dead are dead, and nothing of any real consequence happens.

The Hero-Protagonist McGuffin – Kai Zulane

Kai is presented through the story as the main character, but the reality is that he isn’t anything more than a plot device. Arthava is the one calling all the shots and making all the action happen.

Now in other books, this can work. Kasper Hawser is a McGuffin in the role of protagonist as well, but I feel like he’s making his own decisions within that framework. Kai wombles from one drama to another without being able to decide what he wants to do.
Now from a character point of view, he’s interesting enough, as we explore his experiences on the Argo, what life as an astropath is like, how he deals with the vision and his predicament. But he makes precisely one decision in the whole story, and that is to kill himself.

Also, you simply don’t care about the prophecy he has in his brain as we know the outcome of the Horus Heresy. A mysterious prophecy locked in someone’s brain could be a compelling story, but not when we already know the story. It’s like that BS “he is the chosen one who will bring balance to the force” junk from the Star Wars prequels, we all knew he was going to be Darth Vader, so who cares about the prophecy.

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

A lot of human NPC’s in this one. Nagasena is interesting enough as the straight and honest hunter of rogues, but WAY too much effort is made “japanizing” him. It’s the year 30,000, someone is unlikely to be so damned 18th century Samurai at this point in time. And yeah, i get that it’s what his character is meant to be, doesn’t mean it’s isn’t stupid. Can anyone recall meeting someone claiming to enact the rituals and language of Ur?

Roxanne is interesting for the brief moments she is in the book, her story of a noble navigator working in the slums after the Argo incident is compelling and would have been a good short story. But I feel that she is drowned out by the sheer number of characters and threads in this book.

The same goes for Athena and Hiriko, who fade away as the book progresses, Evander, who’s arc seems to go nowhere as he kills himself, Palladis, who dies an anti-climatic death.

So many characters, but none of them really make you feel for them much.

MVP – Arthava

Without this character, there is no story. Still, he’s a bit of an archetype, the super-clever Thousand Son who is 10 times more powerful than a normal space marine. But at least he drives the story along, with Arthava, nothing would have happened.  

He's still pretty bland though. 

Worst Character – The Outcast Dead

Well, we had an opportunity to have some tight writing about a group of cut-off marines from traitor legions. There was plenty of space to explore these characters and develop some neat quirks. Asides from the friendship between the Death Guard and the Emperor’s children marine, they seemed really really bland.

You’ll notice I’m referring to their characters by Legion, as I didn’t get attached to them enough to call them by name.

The entire story could have been done solely with Arthava breaking out and finding Kai. That may have been better as it would have allowed for tighter writing and the two characters exploring what it means to be a psyker.

Yep, I actually think “the outcast dead” would have worked better without the outcast dead. Or that these characters should have been in a totally different story.

Get to know your Legion – The Astropaths

Well, we don’t get to know a Legion in this book, but we do get some insight into the Astropaths and the City of Sight. This is the major redeeming feature of this book as the plot and action isn’t great.  

We get to explore how astropaths send messages, and how it’s entirely in imagery and symbols. I really like that idea, and how messages need to be interpreted to be understood. It makes it so much more difficult and technical than Morse code or a phone call from outer space, and WAY more difficult than the communications tech in say Star Wars or Star Trek.

I also liked the idea of Astropaths having massive piles of symbols and writings from their visions, it really made it feel like a “mystic art” rather than a simple exchange of information.

And as disappointing as Evanders plot arc ended up being, I also really like the idea of the “bleed”, where message fragments and subtexts end up and a second layer of interpreters sift for themes and concepts.

I wish the book had examined this more as opposed to the rail-road action sequences later on.

Get to know your Primarch – Rogal Dorn

Dorn turns up, but that’s about it. It seems Dorn turns up a lot in books. Can’t say we saw anything new about him asides he can kill a marine with a headshot. But we probably knew that any way.

Why the Emperor is a giant douche

Thanks for unlocking the secret message in your brain Kai, no one can know this, only winning move is not to play.

Kai kills himself.

Thanks Emperor dude, you could have intervened and saved the guy, let him live out his life inside your inner sanctum or mindlocked him and said to Dorn “dude is off limits”.

But nope, you got what you wanted and then he killed himself to protect you. What a douche.

Moustache twirling evil-bastard award – Golovka

Golovka is such a clumsy and awkwardly written character. I get that he’s a fascist bully boy, but the scene with the apothecary in the petitioners city is just cartoon villainy. Lazy cartoon villainy that made every other character around him lazily participate in what is essentially a war crime. I guess we were supposed to feel something at his act, but all I felt was “wow, that’s some lazy writing”.

Quirky reveals and other coolness

Probably the most interesting things revealed in this book are around Psykers on Terra.

In particular, we’ve always been told that Magnus turning up on Terra made the Emperor lose his marbles at him. What we didn't know is that it blew the minds of many psykers and rendered Terra essentially blind for a period of time. The guys arrival was like a psionic nuclear shockwave that destabilised Terra. That really makes the Emperor’s decision to sanction him a lot more logical.

We also get lots of hushed fears about the Hollow Mountain and what happens to psykers who fail.

Oh and we get all that information about Thunder Warriors being badass, I still think that was unnecessary and detracted from the story as a whole.  

The writing – technical review and evaluation

Oh Graham, you took a giant step forward with “A Thousand Sons” only to take a giant step backwards with this book.

Too many bland characters, a McGuffin concept that you just don’t care about, and a messy and anti-climactic finale, mark this book as average at best.

My conclusions are that a series of short stories would have been better. One about what happens at the City of Sight around Istvaan and Magnus’s arrival. A dirty dozen story about the Outcast dead trying to escape Terra. And a tight two person story about Arthava rescuing an oracle and trying to bring him to Magnus. Pulling all these threads together into one story simply left us with a bit of a mess.

This book gets a “Read it for the fluff, but don’t feel you need to read this book at all” rating.

 *disclaimer, borrowed art is borrowed. 

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