Friday, May 04, 2012

“The Primarchs” edited by Christian Dunn (Black Library)

Dunn-PrimarchsFour Tales of the Primarchs

Created in the Emperor’s own image, the Primarchs had long thought themselves to be princes of the universe and masters of their own destiny – they led the Space Marine Legions in glorious conquest of the galaxy, and no enemy of the Imperium could stand against them. However, even amongst this legendary brotherhood, the seeds of dissent had been sown long before the treacherous Warmaster Horus declared his grand heresy.

In this highly-anticipated anthology, we are presented with four stories of the Primarchs. We see the rifts within and between the two sides, traitors and loyalists. Each story looks at the psychologies and psychoses of the Primarchs, how those close to them perceive them, and how they consider different events.

Overall, this is a superb anthology, and I really hope Black Library release at least a couple more similar anthologies in the future, looking at some of the other Primarchs. This certainly lived up to my expectations.

“The Reflection Crack’d” by Graham McNeill

While the Emperor’s Children descend into debauchery, Fulgrim’s closest allies plot against him to purge the Legion of the daemonic influence which has begun to plague their ranks.

This story is largely from the perspective of Lucius, the Emperor’s Children’s leading blademaster. It offers a nice glimpse into his mind, his sense of superiority, his disdain for his peers and superiors and even his Primarch. He is a perfect guide to the slow devolution of the Emperor’s Children, and I thought this story was a great return to the Legion, showing how their descent into depravity continued after the events of Fulgrim (also by McNeill). The majority of the Legion is now almost completely self-involved and single-mindedly pursuing their own pleasures and excesses, but there are a few high-level champions of the Legion – Lucius especially – who are convinced that Fulgrim is no longer who they thought him to be, that he may have been possessed. This novella follows Lucius’s attempts to get to the bottom of who Fulgrim is, and things do not develop as one might expect.

McNeill shows us the extent of the Emperor’s Children’s surrender to debauchery and self-absorption. There is a brutality to their depravity, one that is even more ugly than the baser savagery of the World Eaters or the diseased horror of the Death Guard.

“Once so rigid and unbending, the Emperor's Children adhered to the old [command] structure in lieu of anything better, but even that was breaking down as its warriors put their own desires and whims above those of the Legion.”

There are a few prescient moments when Lucius wonders how long the legion can hold together. Captains, squads, and individual warriors are breaking off on their own and forming their own warbands, consumed by their selfish agendas and hedonistic quests.

The battle and combat scenes, of which there are many, are always gripping and different – Lucius is, after all, obsessed with perfecting his skills as a swordmaster. I imagine it would make him dull company, but to read about him and his hubris is interesting.

McNeill writes with great prose, save the occasional unnecessary flourish. The author does have a tendency to write the occasional frustrating line – almost always in the first couple of pages of his fiction. Usually it’s not a big deal, but there will be one sentence or phrase that is unnecessarily florid. In this case, it is “gutted piscine lifeforms”. Why not just say “fish”?

Graham McNeill is a superb author, and one of my favourites currently writing for Black Library. Every one of his Horus Heresy novels and stories has been superb (the only one I’ve yet to read is Mechanicum, which I do own, so I’ll read as soon as I have a moment). I’m very glad that we’ll be seeing more from him in the coming year, too.

Gripping and engaging, this is a superb start to the anthology.

Also on CR: Interview with Graham McNeill


“Feat of Iron” by Nick Kyme

During the Great Crusade, Ferrus Manus finds himself lost on a xenos-held world. With destiny racing to meet him, will he reign in his aggression long enough to heed its warning?

Set during the Great Crusade, the Iron hands are chasing after some undefined objective on a dusty desert world. The Eldar attack, and the full force of the Iron Hands war machine is unleashed against the aliens. In the thick of the battle, however, Ferrus Manus is separated from his Legion, and forced to confront daemons (metaphorical and, as it turns out, literal) he did not even know he had.

The Primarch is an intriguing character, and I thought it interesting to see how the Primarch’s and Legion’s beliefs in the weakness of the flesh shapes their conduct and impression of the Imperial forces they are allied with. There is an arrogance about Ferrus, a vanity that perhaps should not be surprising for the brother closest to Fulgrim? Sometimes it appears as if this is the result of a deep-seated self-consciousness, a fear that he and his Legion will be upstaged by his brother Primarchs and the other Legions. I particularly enjoyed that Kyme delves into Ferrus’s psyche, offering a glimpse at his motivations.

“Ferrus was remarkable and on Medusa he was a king of kings. None could match him. But when his father came and brought him to seventeen remarkable brothers, he realised his place. Unlike Vulcan who had accepted his place gladly and humbly, Ferrus railed. Was he not the equal of his siblings? When faced with the glory of Horus, the majesty of Sanguinius, or even Rogal Dorn’s solidity, it was easy to believe that some sons would wait in the wings while the chosen few enacted their father’s grand plan for the galaxy.

“He wasn’t vain; he merely wanted to be acknowledged.”

When Ferrus is spirited away by the Eldar, he is sent through a series of bizarre, nightmarish scenarios. I must admit I found these scenes just a little frustrating – no doubt intentional, as Ferrus himself also finds them extremely frustrating and vague – the obscurity of the visions he sees leaves me unsurprised that the Eldar’s plans had little impact on his actions. Although, it is possible that I’ve missed something, not being as steeped in the lore of the Horus Heresy as the author and probably many of the readers. I just think that, if the Eldar really wanted people to heed their warnings, it would probably help if their “lessons” weren’t so cryptic.

Parallel to Ferrus’s ordeal, we follow a handful of Iron Hands left to conduct their original campaign, while also attempting to relocate and save their Primarch. Through the eyes and thoughts of Desaan and Santar – both stoic, focused leaders of the Iron Hands – we examine the strict, inflexible ethos of the Iron Hands. Henricos, a newly elevated sergeant, offers a very good contrast to Legion orthodoxy – he is not fully convinced of the Legion’s “flesh is weak” creed, and at that time only has one augmetic (a hand), a fact that makes Desaan and Santar hold him in low regard. There comes a point in the story, though, when his lack of cybernetic augmentation provides the solution to an especially devastating Eldar weapon that seems to target the Iron Hands specifically. Despite his superior’s inflexibility and distaste for ideologically impure strategies, anything that might suggest the flesh is not completely weak, Henricos’s success shows that the Legion’s rigid adherence to their creed is short-sighted.

Kyme writes very good combat scenes – those in the sandstorm are particularly intense – and his prose is fluid and well-crafted throughout. If I’m honest, though, this is not Kyme’s best work, but it is still a very good, moody portrayal of the Iron Hands and their taciturn Primarch. And I would really like to know how the Primarch’s arms became living metal...

A good story, and one that should definitely please fans who like the more surreal and introspective elements of Warhammer 40,000.

Also on CR: Interview with Nick Kyme


“The Lion” by Gav Thorpe

Fighting a daemonic incursion within their fleet, the Dark Angels stumble into a conflict between the Iron Hands and Death Guard. Which side will they choose in the coming battle?

This novella picks up soon after “Savage Weapons”, a short story in the Age of Darkness anthology by Aaron Dembski-Bowden, in which the Lion and Night Haunter duke it out in an intense duel.

The Death Guard have gone back to Perditus, a planet they brought into compliance with the Dark Angels, and to which both Legions swore never to return. The Lion voices some cryptic comments about the type of research that was done at this planet’s facilities, and decides to abandon (or, at least, suspend) the Dark Angels’ campaign against the Night Lords and pursue the Death Guard.

En route to Perditus, the Dark Angels discover they have a tail – a mysterious ship is ghosting them through the warp, despite course shifts and evasive manoeuvres – tracking them in a realm through which it should be impossible to track another ship. The Dark Angels decide to stand and fight their pursuers (and their infernal allies), before continuing on to their confrontation with the Death Guard and Iron Hands (who have also arrived at Perditus and are engaged in conflict with the Death Guard).

This is another great story from Thorpe, who is just getting better and better. True, the earlier void-travel scenes could have been contracted and streamlined a bit (there was just a touch of over-description and -writing, I thought), but when the Dark Angels finally face off against their pursuers and the enemy unleash their secret weapon... Well, it gets very cool and brutal – the claustrophobia of battle in the corridors of a battle ship, against an enemy utterly unfamiliar and terrifying… it’s really very good.

In this story, we learn more about Lion El’Johnson and his inner conflict over the future role and tactics of the Dark Angels. As with most of the other Primarchs we’ve spent time with in the Horus Heresy series, he is quite self-involved and arrogant. We also see a side of Lion that I’d not at all expected, when he metes out a particularly harsh punishment after a high-ranking legionnaire questions one of his orders. It’s no wonder his allegiance was uncertain, given his temper, pride and – as we see here – almost tyrannical enforcement of his own superiority and authority. The case in question involves the Lion’s decision to ignore the Edict of Nikaea, which as an order from the Emperor should supercede anything the Primarch may order. However, the other party’s insistence on rigidly following the letter of the law, irrespective of the situation at hand, nicely foreshadows the future inflexibility of Imperial law.

As with Ferrus Manus in the previous novella, we read of the insecurities of another Primarch. These insecurities are born of arrogance and the need to be the best, something the Primarchs all found relatively easy on their homeworlds. However, once they reunited among their brothers, their glamour paled from luminous and unique to one-of-twenty with some nevertheless more equal than others. In the case of the Lion, his entourage when he eventually alights on Perditus is pompous and excessive – with standard bearers shouting his “many titles... through their external address systems”, they and their Primarch keen to impress on their audience that they are in the presence of not only a Primarch, but that of the First Legion (which, as far as I can tell, doesn’t actually mean anything...).

There were a couple of confusing moments in the story. For example:

“The words were spoken with scorn yet they lit a spark of hope in the Lion’s breast – the creature spoke of the Emperor in the present tense. It thought that the Master of Mankind still lived.”

Um… Why did Lion believe the Emperor might be dead? This confused me, and made me wonder about the timing and whether or not I’ve been paying proper attention to the Horus Heresy story...

Another niggle – at one point, there’s an 11-line paragraph that is just a list of weapons. This has no impact, doesn’t add to the story and kind of bothered me – Thorpe should be beyond this sort of rookie authorial mistake.

Once the Dark Angels arrive on Perditus, they find the Death Guard, led by first captain and Nurgle-devotee Typhon, locked in battle with the Iron Hands (who really get a drubbing in this book…). The latter are employing some sophisticated, warp-powered technology left over from the planet’s original culture, while Typhon indulges in his renewed psychic ability (Mortarion forbid psykers to use their powers in the Death Guard, long before the Edict of Nikaea) with the aid of “the Father”, his new patron. Despite polite and civilised negotiation, Typhon is unwilling to cede the planet and its riches to the loyalists, and the Dark Angel Primarch is forced to bring down the wrath of the First Legion. A great battle ensues.

It is still quite beyond me why Thorpe wasn’t asked to write the Dark Angels’ Horus Heresy story from the beginning – he clearly knows the Legion inside and out, and has a great feel for their character and nuances that were not apparent in the disappointing Descent of Angels (which was one of my first DNF books – sad to say, I never read Mike Lee’s follow-up, because I didn’t think I’d follow it). I remember Thorpe has always been attached to the Dark Angels in some way, even back in his early years working on White Dwarf magazine. I wouldn’t be against Black Library having him write a do-over, to properly establish the Dark Angels.

With an interesting ending, this is a great novella that adds to the overall Horus Heresy history nicely. It is a story that will please Dark Angels and Horus Heresy fans alike.

As with the previous story, though, I think we’re starting to get into the time when more-obscure references will start creeping into the stories. I hope the authors asked to write future Horus Heresy fiction keep in mind not all of their readers will be wholly versed in the lore.

Also on CR: Interview with Gav Thorpe


“The Serpent Beneath” by Rob Sanders

When a leak is detected at the covert Tenebrae installation, Omegon assembles an elite team of operatives to undertake a top secret mission – to infiltrate the Alpha Legion itself!

I really liked this story, which brings the book to a fantastic close. It gives us a great sense of the Alpha Legion character and ethos. It also has a brilliant, intriguing premise: How do you infiltrate a Legion of exceptional spies and infiltrators? And what if that Legion is your own...? This is a very intriguing proposition, one Omegon and his captains eagerly take on.

“You need legionnaires, then, who can infiltrate an Alpha Legion base and will not question the order to kill their brothers. Many of whom they will know to be innocent.”


A squad of ideal Alpha Legion Astartes are currently on assignment on a dark, ork-infested world, only they are not there to hunt the greenskins – rather, they have been deployed to hamper the White Scars forces also there. After a minor, ingenious scuffle with a squad of the Khan’s men, they are called away and sent to collect an untrained, unusually powerful psyker, who has been dodging the attentions and hunting squads of the Silent Sisters in an abandoned hive city. When the Alpha Legionnaires finally catch up with her, we get one of the best action-scenes in the book.

The Alpha Legion are one of the most fascinating of the original twenty Legiones Astartes. They have two Primarchs, they are obsessed with secrecy, and excel at covert warfare – espionage, assassination, and so forth. They have their own agenda, as well as that of the other Traitors. I can’t remember if the Alpha Legion’s plans (or, at least, the root of their motives) were explained in Legion or not, but I would certainly like to know more about their background and especially the Primarchs’ history. Of course, that could ruin the attraction of the Alpha Legion...

The story has a lot of great action scenes (frantic and intense, fast-paced and brutal), as well as a very good description of the Legionnaires’ infiltration of the Tenebrae outpost – the scenes of action alternate with earlier preparations and the planning session, which was a narrative device that could have gone wrong, but Sanders deftly pulls it off. There’s good dialogue throughout, and an excellent flow to the story. There’s also a very good ending, too, leaving some questions unanswered and a few more hints of tension among the traitor ranks.

Sanders just keeps getting better with each new piece of fiction. Among the best Horus Heresy short stories I've read.

Also on CR: Interview with Rob Sanders


As with all Horus Heresy novels, there is an element of expected reader knowledge that is becoming rather considerable – this is, after all, book 20 in the series, and it doesn’t just include references to past Heresy novels and short stories. I think there are references to events and things that will be recognisable to WH40k devotees, but even having read most of the series and plenty of other fiction in the setting, some of the allusions went a bit over my head. That’s not to say my enjoyment of the four novellas contained herein was diminished to any great degree, but I did have to take a moment to figure out what a character or passage was referring to on a couple of occasions.

Overall, though, these four stories are entertaining, engaging, nuanced and very well crafted. A lot of the content was not what I had expected, which is great. Most important of all, however, is the fact that these four novellas add to the Horus Heresy lore and history – in terms of details and events, but also in terms of adding nuance to the Primarchs and a handful of famous Astartes, too.

This is a must-read for fans of the series in general, and the Emperor’s Children, Iron Hands, Dark Angels and Alpha Legion in particular.


The full Cover Art

The Horus Heresy Series: Horus Rising, False Gods, Galaxy in Flames, Flight of the Eisenstein, Fulgrim, Descent of Angels, Legion, Battle for the Abyss, Mechanicum, Tales of Heresy, Fallen Angels, A Thousand Sons, Nemesis, The First Heretic, Prospero Burns, Age of Darkness, The Outcast Dead, Deliverance Lost, Know No Fear, The Primarchs, Fear to Tread (09/2012), Shadows of Treachery (10/2012)


  1. Have to say though was disappointed that theDark Angel story was just a reprint of a already published story

    1. In Hammer & Bolter, "The Lion" was specifically billed as a serialisation of the story to appear in this book, though...

  2. I found this to be one of the HH books I enjoyed the least. I suspect because I was reading it whilst writing my final year dissertation. Still I found it quite frustrating as it dropped tiny clues to so many questions that the overall feel of the book was confused. The Action sequences felt a little bland and the conflicts they were describing seemed mostly irrelevant to the course of the story. (especially Feat of Iron where I just wanted to get back to Ferrus Manus meeting with the Eldar which was rather abrupt.)

    That said it did have its good moments; particularly the seeming hint at the Lost Legions being present in Ultramar. Hoping that some questions will start to be answered soon. I am fine with mystery but if nothing ever gets explained I will start banging my head on the desk

  3. The reference to the Lion's belief the Emperor was dead was internal to the Dark Angel story. Near the beginning of that short story, it mentions that his fleet haven't been able to locate the Astronomican that the Emperor projects, and their fears that this is due to the Emperor being dead. Hence, he is pleased when Typhon makes his comment.

    1. It wasn't Typhon that made the comment about the Emperor still being alive, but I see where it comes from, now. Thank you. :)