Monday, April 18, 2011

Horus Rising by Dan Abnett - Book Review

Horus Rising by Dan Abnett is the opening fusillade of The Horus Heresy series by publisher Black Library. It is deafening. The Horus Heresy is a new series of books designed to document the events leading up to and immediately after The Horus Heresy. This is a pivotal moment in the Warhammer 40K canon. As such, The Horus Heresy series is a “premium” product; replete with lavish cover art and edition specific foil accents. More importantly, the Black Library has deployed its elite writers to man the literary canons in a campaign designed for nothing less than shock and awe.

As an opening gambit, Horus Rising is a resounding success. Dan Abnett has crafted a surprisingly deft narrative that allows him to explore the motivations of the characters central to The Horus Heresy series and critically, to allow subsequent writers to hook into this narrative and continue the story. Thematically, Horus Rising captures the joy and grandeur of the Great Crusade while revealing the subtle seeds of subversive Chaos taking root in the hearts of the Emperor’s beloved Sons, the Primarchs.

The narrative structure of this book is Dan Abnett’s true success. While Dan has a reputation for writing amazing combat scenes, I think his other skills are often under appreciated. Designing the narrative for Horus Rising had to be an immensely difficult task. Foremost, it is the first in a planned inter-series trilogy with each book written by a different author. So, Mr. Abnett had to design a book with a plot and characters open ended enough to allow his fellow Black Library writers room to be creative while also maintaining the narrative force of Horus Rising. The force of his story was especially critical since this is the first book of The Horus Heresy series. A weak story would jeopardize the future of a critical piece of intellectual property.


The next hurdle was humanizing figures who are decidedly super-human. Why is this important? Because the central story of the Heresy is a very human one. It is a tragedy, one caused by such everyday emotions as jealousy and pride. But, these emotions are the very antithesis of the Astartes. The Astartes were engineered to be more than human, to not have such human flaws. They are a brotherhood. They are the Emperor’s Angels of Death. They know no fear.

The means to this end, the humanizing of the machine, was quite brilliant. Rather than focus solely on Horus and the Primarchs, Dan Abnett uses a foil. The foil being a experienced but still raw Space Marine by the name of Garviel Loken. Garviel’s character is raw in the sense that he has not yet formed an identify beyond that which is stamped onto each Marine during their training. His ideals are abstracted without a grounding in reality.

Abnett carries this technique even further, creating yet another layer in the narrative. While a Space Marine is more human than a Primarch, for a Marine was once human and a Primarch was never human, a Marine is still something more than human. As such, Garviel himself has a foil, or rather an assortment of foils; the human Remembrancers serving to document the Great Crusade’s glory for future generations. Each of these humans’ interactions with Garviel provide a glimpse into his pysche. Each of these humans provide Garviel the anchor he needs to ground himself to the true purpose of the Great Crusade; to serve.

As the novel progresses, you bear witness to Garviel’s personal growth. This growth is idealized for Garviel represents not just the purity of the Emperor’s purpose but the purity of his Chapter. Garviel is a paragon, the archetype. The plot is the antagonist, throwing up hurdles that are not just physical battles but mental. Garviel’s ideals are challenged and with each challenge overcome, his ideals are strengthened.
It is with this technique that you see the brilliance in Abnett’s narrative. Garviel’s idealized growth serves to perfectly illuminate the slow perversion of Horus. Where as Garviel walks a straight path in the Light of the Emperor, Horus strays from the path into Darkness. For every test that Garviel faces and is triumphant, Horus fails.

It is by this narrative tension that the full impact of the Heresy and its very human repercussions are laid upon the reader. As you watch Garviel grow, experience his love of his Primarch and his Chapter, you witness these things being slowly ripped away from him by forces unknown. You sympathize with Garviel’s character and feel his pain and frustration. As Garviel’s character is betrayed, you experience not only his pain, but the metaphorical pain of the Emperor and all that it represents; the betrayal of humanity.

In conclusion, Horus Rising is a resounding success. The Black Library could not have asked for a better start to The Horus Heresy series. Dan Abnett delivers not only his awesome trademark action sequences but weaves a complex narrative that operates flawlessly on many levels. The thematic tone is pitch perfect. The only negative to this review is that there will be no happy ending to this book nor any that follow. At best they are bitter sweet.

To read Horus Rising is to watch humanity’s hopes, nobility and its heroes be slowly snuffed out by the blackest betrayal. I found myself rooting for Garviel even though I knew the results already. Foolish I know, “...for in the grim dark future there is only war.”

Review Copy: Self-Purchased
Mass Market Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: Games Workshop; Anv edition (March 29, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1849701121
ISBN-13: 978-1849701129
Amazon US: Horus Rising by Dan Abnett

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