Sunday, April 10, 2011

“Age of Darkness” edited by Christian Dunn (Black Library)


A new chapter in the epic Horus Heresy history

After the betrayal at Isstvan V, Horus begins his campaign against the Emperor, a galaxy-wide war that can lead only to Terra. But the road to the final confrontation between father and son is a long one – seven years filled with secrecy and silence, plans and foundations being formed across distant stars. An unknown history is about to be unveiled as light is shed on the darkest years of the Horus Heresy.

Age of Darkness collects nine short stories written by the creme-de-la-creme of Black Library’s Warhammer 40,000 and Horus Heresy authors. Set in the dark time between the betrayal on Isstvan V and the siege of Terra, this volume sheds some light on previously-uncovered age in the history of the conflict, from a multitude of angles and perspectives. It’s a diverse collection of well-written stories, and definitely a must for fans of the series.

As usual with collections, I’ll deal with each story individually, before offering some overall thoughts.

“Rules of Engagement” by Graham McNeill

Roboute Guilliman, master tactician and Primarch of the Ultramarines, has put the finishing touches to his great work – the Codex Astartes, the tome that will show his Ultramarines how to deal with any tactical situation, no matter the foe. As the Horus Heresy reaches Ultramar, Captain Ventanus of the “Troublesome Fourth” Company must test the strictures of the Codex against the one foe his Primarch never expected to face: other Space Marines, and Warmaster Horus himself, perhaps the only being (save the Emperor) with a greater gift for strategy and war than Guilliman.

This story really gives us a sense of the Ultramarine mind-set, and their methods of war – “an elegantly and perfectly designed killing machine”. The story’s made up of engagements the Ultramarines are put through, as they test their Primarch’s strategems against other legions. There’s a bit of a surprise in the story, which had me confused until the end (which, actually, still didn’t entirely explain why a certain enemy was chosen). There’s a nice bit on the last couple pages, which shows that even the loyalists aren’t immune to arrogance and hubris, understated as it may be. This was a fast-paced and interesting story, and a solid opening for the anthology.

[CR’s review of A Thousand Sons]

“Liar’s Due” by James Swallow

News has reached Town Forty-Four, on the tranquil agri-world of Virger-Mos II: Terra has fallen, the Emperor is dead and the Imperium belongs to the traitor Warmaster Horus. As the people of Forty-Four struggle to deal with this revelation and the rest of the planet falls into anarchy, young Leon Kyyter begins to doubt the news, along with a stranger from Terra, a remembrancer with an odd tattoo and a hidden agenda...

An outsider has come to this community on the edges of the Imperium, and takes advantage of local parochialism, playing with their fears, and stirring up a boat-load of trouble trouble. Leon, the Astartes fanboy, spends his free time dreaming of great battles and heroic actions; his father, unimpressed by his son’s fancies, is disappointed that he’s so interested in an Imperium that doesn’t care one way or another about their backwater, edge-of-the-universe agri-world. It’s quite a tragic and poignant tale, in its way, tapping into smalltown resentments that can so easily be twisted and taken advantage of. It’s good. There’s an echo of Pulp Fiction’s structural approach, as we jump to points in the past at well-spaced intervals that fill in some background. It’s a nice change in style and pace to McNeill’s opener. Swallow’s first Horus Heresy novel – Flight of the Eisenstein – was a solid tale (Garro is a great protagonist), but there’s no question that he has grown as an author, ably shown by this short story and the excellent Nemesis (which also took an unorthodox approach to the Horus Heresy setting). I must make time to read his other work (I’m particularly looking forward to the re-release of his Sisters of Battle novel and its new sequel).

[CR’s review of Nemesis]

“Forgotten Sons” by Nick Kyme

The planet Bastion must decide whether to remain loyal to the Emperor, or side with the rebel Horus. The Warmaster’s case is presented by an iterator, a master of persuasion, and hinges on the Ultramarines’ extreme response to open Emperor worship on Monarchia. To argue its case, the Imperium has sent two Space Marines, Heka’tan (a Salamander) and Arcadese (an old Ultramarines veteran). The Astartes must set aside their warlike natures and attempt to be diplomats, or risk losing the world to Horus’s growing rebellion. As the two sides state their cases, a nefarious plan is already in motion to ensure that the loyalists fail in their task...

Kyme manages to cram an awful lot of character into such a short space, and I really started to like Arcadese – with his grizzled and gruff manner – and Heka’tan, the noble yet troubled Salamander, still recovering from the death of his Primarch on Isstvan V. Their differing styles are interestingly juxtaposed, but the bond that forms between them feels genuine and unforced. As they struggle with their task and the forces aligned against them, we get to really respect and feel for them. The ending is tragic, too, which I don’t mind admitting I was rather sad when I read it. Overall, a very good story indeed. If you haven’t read Kyme’s Salamander series (which, I sadly haven’t), then this story will really make you want to.

“The Last Remembrancer” by John French

In a secret fortress on the dark side of Titan, Imperial Fists Primarch Rogal Dorn and former Sons of Horus Iacton Qruze (who we last met in Flight of the Eisenstein) meet with a prisoner: Solomon Voss, the last remembrancer. Voss has quite a tale to tell, of heroes and monsters, of honour and treachery, of his time at the side of the Warmaster. And he has a message for Dorn. Can he be trusted? Can he be allowed to live?

In this story – which I think could easily have been much, much longer – we hear tell of Horus and his Legion’s fall from grace, their adoption of brutality as a core characteristic. Dorn is conflicted over what he hears from Voss, his long-held beliefs challenged by what Voss suggests and reports. Ultimately, Dorn must make a choice about what he cherishes more – the Imperium he helped create, or the perceived truth of what that Imperium stands for. The story was quite poignant, and had a lot of potential to be so much more. Perhaps not novel-length, but certainly a good three or four times longer: it would have been nice to know a little more about Voss’s experiences at Horus’s side, what he saw, perhaps something of a chronicle of the Warmaster and his legion’s continued fall from grace. (Perhaps this is the subject of a forthcoming volume, which is why there wasn’t any more detail.) The story adds another layer to our understanding of the non-battlefront Imperium, the more shadowy aspects of the Great Crusade. (In some ways, the prison on Titan is the Imperium’s equivalent of Guantanamo Bay – with far exaggerated brutality and despair, of course.) A great introduction to the work of this author, who I think could very well be one to watch.

[For an early taster of the book, “The Last Remembrancer” is included in Hammer & Bolter Issue 7]

“Rebirth” by Chris Wraight

Captain Kalliston of the Thousand Sons has returned to Prospero, in the aftermath of the Space Wolves’ invasion. Taken captive in the shattered ruins of his homeworld, he is tortured and interrogated by an unseen foe. Kalliston plays a dangerous game to get his captor to reveal himself, certain he knows who it is. But the truth is very different – and far more dangerous – than he thinks, and the more he learns, he realises that he’s in far more danger than he could possibly have imagined...

This story takes the rivalry and animosity between the Thousand Sons and other legions to an intimate, more personal level. The perspective is split between the interrogation and also planetfall and afterwards (through the eyes of one of Kalliston’s squad). Kalliston and his captor voice their suspicions and criticisms of the other, vocally sparring, in a display of considerable mistrust and lack of understanding – it is tragic, given their nominally being (at one time at least) on the same side, fighting for the good of mankind. The Thousand Son pours his disappointment of the Wolves into the dark interrogation chamber, but the more he learns, the more he realises he has made one very grave mistake in his assumptions, which offers up both a surprise for the character and also for the reader (I won’t spoil it, but Wraight does some very interesting things with the captor and Kalliston’s back-and-forth with him). We see yet more of the tragedy of the Thousand Sons’ fall.

“They came for you because they believed you had turned. We come for you because we know that you didn’t. Not truly. Not reliably.”

This was a solid, interesting story. The pace was slower, but the story was no less tense because of this. I’m eager to read Wraight’s Battle of the Fang, the third novel to focus on the Thousand Sons-Space Wolves conflict. (It’s on my shelf already, but not published for a while, so I’ll keep it in reserve for a couple weeks or so.) Really liked this story and Wraight’s writing.

“The Face of Treachery” by Gav Thorpe

The Raven Guard have arrived at Isstvan V to rescue Corax and other survivors of the treacherous Dropsite Massacre, but the traitor legions still encircle the world. As starships clash, and the life of a Primarch hangs in the balance, the key to victory lies in the hands of one Space Marine in the rebel fleet, who is not what he appears.

This story felt very much like a bridge from the events of Isstvan V to what I assume will be covered in Thorpe’s first Horus Heresy novel, Deliverance Lost. It’s a solid story, but I thought there wasn’t that much to it, really. Events moved very quickly, but there was quite a lot of description, which meant after finishing, it was clear that not a whole lot actually happened – maybe some detail on the ground conflict would have been nice? Definitely felt like a transition, rather than a stand-alone, but it does bode well for Thorpe’s novel.

“Little Horus” by Dan Abnett

“Little” Horus Aximand, member of the Warmaster’s inner circle, is uneasy about the direction that the Sons of Horus have taken. As he leads the Warmaster’s forces in their attempt to bring the mausoleums of Dwell under their sway, he must face the planet’s native forces, Space Marines of the Iron Hands legion, and also his own doubts. As battle rages with his erstwhile brothers, Little Horus faces a challenge that will change his life forever, if it doesn’t end it altogether.

As can be expected from Abnett, the action sequences are superb (and there’s a lot of action in this tale, presented in all its gory and breathless wonder). The story’s not the author’s best, and some of the narrative devices didn’t quite work as well as they might have in a longer piece (the use of repetition was too close together, so at one point it felt like a printing mistake). It’s nice to see a little more about Little Horus Aximand, but there’s not as much character development in this story as Kyme managed in his contribution to the book (although, if you’ve read the first three novels of the Horus Heresy series, you’ll already be familiar with Little Horus). It’s a brisk tale, certainly, but not the best in the book, nor the deepest. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was disappointed, but Abnett’s definitely written better shorts.

[CR’s review of Horus Rising & Prospero Burns]

“The Iron Within” by Rob Sanders

Years ago, the Iron Warriors left Barabaras Dantioch, a crippled warsmith, on the world of Lesser Damantyne. Now, having declared their allegiance to the traitor Horus, they have returned. As the planet’s garrison prepares for war, Dantioch must choose between loyalty to his legion or to the Emperor.

Rob Sanders’s Redemption Corps took me pleasantly by surprise last year, with its tight plotting, solid story and great characters – and I’ve been eager to read more of his work ever since (I am particularly eager to read his next novel, Atlas Infernal).

This is easily one of the best stories in the anthology, and also one of the best in both Horus Heresy collections. The story offers up a dilemma for the loyal Iron Warriors, in the face of their beloved Primarch’s treacherous allegiance, and overtures from their brother Astartes. The world Sanders creates for his story is grim; its surface lethal to basically everything, the Astartes are forced to build in the labyrinthine catacombs below. Focussed on the Iron Warriors, things quickly and unsurprisingly evolve into siege warfare, and Sanders ably evokes the brutal and bloody conflict in the corridors and plazas of the Iron Warriors’ stronghold. The action is intense, claustrophobic and brilliantly written, the characters very-well developed in such a short space, and the story never lets up in pace. It is at the same time a story of loyalty put to the test, and also friendship, and what warriors will do for those who fight alongside them. I enjoyed this story a very great deal. Certainly an author to watch in the coming years, and one of Black Library’s best ‘new blood’ additions to their authorial ranks.

[For an early taster of the book, “The Iron Within” is included in Hammer & Bolter Issue 5]

“Savage Weapons” by Aaron Dembski-Bowden

For two years, the Dark Angels have battled the Night Lords on the worlds of the Aegis sector, back-and-forth, and they are no closer to victory. When the Night Haunter, Primarch of the Night Lords, issues a challenge, his brother-primarch Lion’El Johnson descends to an abandoned, desolate world for a final confrontation.

Aaron Dembski-Bowden is fast becoming my favourite Black Library author, and his skill at writing is unquestioned when you read this story – it’s not the shortest or longest, but I certainly read it the quickest, so fluid were his prose and pacing. He utilises some of the same narrative devices as Abnett (repetition with subtle changes to indicate passage of time and changed circumstances, but maintaining a sense of continuity), better deployed and spaced, but still not as well suited to short stories as to longer pieces. The author brings both the Lion and Night Haunter vividly to life on the page, and the animosity between their legions is palpable. Similar in upbringing, but opposites in style, the two primarchs clash over the Night Lords’ siding with Horus, and the traitor’s incomprehension as to why the Dark Angels won’t do the same. It’s an interesting story, closing the anthology with one of the bloodiest and inelegant duels I’ve ever read. The portrayal of the Night Lords is different to that in Aaron’s Night Lords novels (Soul Hunter and the soon-to-be-reviewed Blood Reaver), which I thought was an interesting approach, too. This story has also made me want to read the second Dark Angels novel, Fallen Angels, which I skipped when it was release in 2009.

[CR’s review of The First Heretic]

Age of Darkness, for me, is a better collection than the previous Horus Heresy anthology (Tales of Heresy). All of the authors have risen ably to the task of writing shorter tales of the age, and each was a tightly-plotted story that could stand on its own, but benefits from being part of this collection. That being said, I think each and every one of them could have been much longer – I actually think the collection could have been split in two (at least), and each author given more room to explore their chosen subjects further. The Horus Heresy is such a rich setting, with considerable scope for exploration, expansion and invention, and these stories certainly tap into this possibility, but I do wish there was more. I do, however, have an admitted and considerable preference for novel-length stories over short stories.

I want to take a moment to address the apparent growing number of naysayers and critics of the series as a whole: I’ve seen many complaints that the series is going on too long, that Black Library are just gouging fans by writing more and more volumes and novels based in the time, rather than offering any proper conclusions or getting to the final conflict on Terra. I am not one of these critics. The series as a whole has grown and improved on all fronts: the quality of writing – always strong, in fact – has improved, with each author clearly pulling out all the stops and delivering some of their best work to date. That they’re expanding the scope of the novels beyond just the core Legions and actors is also welcome, as it fleshes out the overall Warhammer 40,000 canon, and this should be welcomed by all fans of the setting.

Thorpe-DeliveranceLostThere are lesser-known Astartes legions who have yet to feature prominently (which, thankfully, will be somewhat addressed by Gav Thorpe’s upcoming Deliverance Lost, left), and I for one would like to see novels based on most, if not all, of the various legions and factions who took part in the Crusade and Heresy. It seems to me that the World Eaters, White Scars and Salamanders feature only in Horus Heresy short-fiction, for example (the latter getting quite a kicking in this volume), while they actually offer rather a lot of scope for potential full-length novels. (The same could be said for the two mysterious ‘lost’ Primarchs, which I vaguely remember mention of in an old/early edition of Codex: Chaos Marines, when they still included lots of background and history in the books.)

The Horus Heresy defined the universe, and I think the Black Library team of authors and project managers should make sure they do it as well as possible, which is exactly what they’ve done thus far (Descent of Angels and Battle for the Abyss have been the only two disappointments thus far). I’m one of those readers who, while eager to see how the final conflict is written and handled, is not in any particular hurry to get there. If the authors working on the project keep producing fiction of this quality, then I’ll be a very happy reader.

The stand out stories came from authors I wasn’t expecting to dominate the collection, but Rob Sanders and John French both wrote very impressive contributions. Overall, this is a great anthology of Horus Heresy stories, and a must-read for fans of both the series and military sci-fi in general.

The Horus Heresy series continues with The Outcast Dead (November 2011) and Deliverance Lost (January 2012).

Also Try: Aaron Dembski-Bowden, Soul Hunter; Rob Sanders, Redemption Corps; Dan Abnett, Gaunt’s Ghosts series; Nick Kyme’s Salamander series (Salamander, Firedrake, Nocturne); Andy Hoare, Savage Scars

[As a side-note: who do you think should write the final book? It would have a nice symmetry if Dan Abnett wrote it, after writing the first; but part of me is also leaning towards really wanting Aaron Dembski-Bowden to write it. Leave your thoughts in the comment string, if you wish.]


  1. I think its to early to tell, whilst Abnett already has a string of novels both in the HH series and both versions of warhammer at large, Dembski-Bowden is still a, in comparison, fairly new author.

    The final confrontation between Horus and the Emperor is a huge event that needs to be handled just right else there'll be legions of irate fans. I think Dembski-Bowden needs more time to grow as an author and display (although signs look promising) that he can treat an event of such magnitude in 40k lore properly.

  2. for the final book? Hmmm dan Abnett or Graham McNeil. As for something I'd like to see since I'm just starting in the Warhammer Universe..more of the Alpha Legion run by the twins Alpharius and Omegon

  3. They will write it together, like Abnett and Macneill did

    Why not make it an threesome including D-B?

  4. I love ADB's style of writing and was floored by Soul Hunter, so either him or Dan Abnett. Actually I hope there will be two books on the final Siege of Terra, might like the thousands sons and prospero burns. One could be from the perspective of the Imperial Fists and the other Sons of Horus