I only really read Horus Rising cos one day I opened the Warhammer 40k wiki and spent a wonderful three hours of my life barely making a dent in the lore. I got obsessed pretty quickly and wanted to read the stories set in this world while also getting a more substantial grounding in the extensive lore of the 40k universe. I wasn’t expecting much in terms of quality, probably just a run of the mill, cookie-cutter military SF story with some cut-out characters shooting aliens with blasters superimposed on top of a bunch of clumsy exposition that was nonetheless still a fun time. What I actually got though, was a really fucking good book!
There are many possible starting points to get stuck into 40k stories (there are literally hundreds of books over multiple series), but I thought The Horus Heresy series sounded like the best place for me, as it tells the story of how the raging interstellar war of man vs man, man vs aliens and all the other crazy science fantasy conflicts of the main timeline actually came to be. Horus Rising is set during The Great Crusade, 10,000 years before the ‘main’ conflict of the 40th millennium and we follow the story mainly from the view point of Garviel Loken, captain of the 10th Company of the Luna Wolves Space Marines Legion, during their conquest of heathen worlds, whether they are human planets who reject the authority of the Emperor of Mankind, or alien worlds who are regarded as a subhuman threat and annihilated without pause for thought.
The world of Warhammer is grimdark in a way I’ve not really encountered before. The empire Loken serves is a dystopian and fascistic military dictatorship that justifies is existence and conquest of others by way of an ideology based on the rejection of superstition and religion and a belief in the genetic superiority of humanity. Abnett doesn’t preach or even really tell you how he thinks you should feel about this civilisation, he simply presents it, unflinchingly and in comprehensive but forensic detail, with all its warts and contradictions and atrocities. And atrocities abound. Loken is a very human character, who has deep reservations about the morality of the genocides (yes, plural) he’s ordered to take part in. I can’t say I really rooted for him, even though I saw his complications as a human being in a culture designed to indoctrinate him, but I was impressed by his capacity for critical thinking even while he was entrenched in a totalitarian system and a military bureaucracy you’d think would crush a lot of that out of him. But the reason his questions aren’t entirely squashed under the jackboot of militarism is why we have a story here…
What’s kind of cool about telling a story over a fifty-nine (yes, 59 and counting) book series is that it really gives the author space to delve into the subtleties and slow pace of change, even while telling fast-paced individual stories with a ton of action. So in this first instalment we’re introduced to Warmaster Horus who, in 40k lore, is the Primarch who leads a breakaway faction of space marine chapters to make civil war on the Imperium. And so peppered throughout this story, baked into its very foundations in fact, is are the first seeds of the ‘heresy’ of Warmaster Horus. But it’s so slight, so subtle and handled with such a deft touch that you can never really doubt Horus’ loyalty to the Emperor at this point, though you can definitely see the holes and contradictions in the official ideology and power structure of the Imperium that cause the break and the rift to widen. But while all that is slowly bubbling away in the background, we get the adrenaline-pumping action of devastating planetary bombardments, electromagnetic storms and murderous ‘megarachnids’ doing battle with invading space marines.
I feel like I’ve done a disservice to Abnett by neglecting to talk enough about the characters at this point because, for a book based so much in big ideas and tasked with imparting the knowledge of so much lore, the characters are genuinely impressive. I kind of expected hordes of indistinguishable space marines to make up the bulk of the cast and, while there certainly are a lot of soldiers, they’re far from indistinguishable. Loken himself is a mess of contradictions, a leading soldier in a genocidal army that he’s committed to even while harbouring serious doubts. Then there is Tarik Torgaddon, full of humour but a seriously skilled warrior; Horus Aximand (or ‘Little Horus), the wise and rational advisor; and Iterator Kyril Sindermann, a gifted speaker and staunch believe in the secular society and ideals of the Imperium. On top of that we have Ignace Karkasy and Euphrati Keeler, two ‘remembrancers’, basically official propagandists approved by the Council of Terra to provide the ‘official narrative’ on behalf of the Imperium while entrenched with the military during their campaigns. What I liked about these two was their resistance to the expectations of their own role. The military hierarchy knows what purpose they’re supposed to serve and does everything it can to keep the reality of war from them. It reminded me a lot of the period when we had ’embedded’ journalists traveling with the American and British armies in Iraq, basically pumping out pro-war propaganda every night on the news and presenting it as a neutral take on the invasion, rather than playing their part in a propaganda war.
I feel like this has been one of my more rambly reviews that hasn’t really got much to the heart of why this book is so good. If you want a much better review that comprehensively does that I’d def recommend this review by Stephen that I saw on Goodreads. It conveys much better and much more succinctly than I have why this is such a great military SF book. Nevertheless, I am absolutely sold on reading more books in this series and looking forward to sinking a lot more of my time into the Warhammer universe; I even started painting the minis 😉
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