40K Book Review: Angel Exterminatus

The Iron Warriors and Emperor’s Children seek to tilt the balance of power in the Warmaster’s favor.  Let’s take a closer look at the latest in the Horus Heresy series from Black Library.

a review by augustmanifesto

In a harsh and uncaring galaxy, the pursuit of victory turns the virtues of trust and affection into liabilities that must be supplanted by brutality and cold logic. Or, at least, this is the central trope that propels Angel Exterminatus as Graham McNeill thrusts the Iron Warriors to center stage for their first full-length appearance in the Horus Heresy series. The story chronicles the Iron Warriors and Emperor’s Children Legiones Astartes during the early years of the Horus Heresy as they seek a weapon of exotic power that promises to tip the scales of war in their favor. But with the bonds of blood and fealty no longer sufficient to ensure a common cause, the two legions must manage a delicate balance of intersecting and diverging self-interests in order to ensure victory over the False Emperor and to improve their respective positions in the hierarchy of traitorous forces. These pursuits bring each legion and primarch into the darkest corners of the galaxy – and of their inner selves.

For all its strengths – which are considerable – the crowning accomplishment of Angel Exterminatus is that it reinvigorates a series that has struggled to integrate disparate subplot into a well-connected whole. On this score, Graham McNeill turns a new page and begins to ossify a narrative backbone that connects the early works in the Horus Heresy series to its more recent turns. In so doing, Angel Exterminatus seamlessly picks up and furthers major plot lines from Deliverance Lost, The Crimson Fist, and Fulgrim, among others, by tying together loose ends and laying the foundations for a new phase of conflict and intrigue for the series. In a playful move, McNeill even takes the opportunity make the work a prequel to his stories in Iron Warriors: The Omnibus, creating some interesting connective tissue between the 30,000 and 40,000 settings.

All of this is good news for those who have eagerly anticipated the full-length arrival of the Iron Warriors. Graham McNeill builds a satisfying window into the temperament of the legion and its paranoid, brutal and mathematical temperament.  While a legionary anthropology is not undertaken to the extent seen in Prospero Burns, the culture of the Iron Warriors feels like a character of its own as the mantra of “iron within, iron without” is forged into a tangible way of doing business throughout the story. For example, by occasionally featuring the politics and organization of the legion, McNeill builds a sense of authenticity that most readers will appreciate and of which other authors in the series should take note.

At the heart bringing the Iron Warriors to life is explicating Lord Perturabo himself. And on this front McNeil succeeds for the most part, delivering a depth that makes Angel Exterminatus to the Iron Warriors what Horus Rising and False Gods were to the Black Legion. Throughout the story, Perturabo exudes the mental temperament of a game-theoretician while establishing himself as a force of nature when pitted against enemy fortifications (guess who?) and brother-primarch’s alike. Angel Exterminatus also begins to unearth the deepest internal conflicts within Perturabo. As the reader pieces together insights into the mind of the primarch, an internal contradiction takes shape that explains both his last remaining bit of humanity and his decision to side with Warmaster Horus.

Yet, there are some glaring missed opportunities. For example, the reader is left wanting more story on Perturabo’s troubled history beyond the glances permitted, especially regarding his dissatisfaction with his brothers and the Emperor. Perhaps this was a deliberate choice made by Graham McNeill to either defer that content for another work or to prevent the guarded, misunderstood Primarch from becoming too transparent. Nonetheless, the absence prevents the novel from reaching the same heights as, say, McNeill’s previous work in A Thousand Sons which along with Legion set the bar for explaining why a primarch would turn against his brothers. Nor does the reader get the impression that McNeil fully capitalized on the depth and power of Perturabo’s intellect despite making clear the primarch’s mind was among his unique traits that differentiated him from his fellows. Finally, the story is without a definitely clear protagonist as McNeill struggles to make his apparent choice of protagonist – Perturabo – into a sympathetic character.

Despite these shortcomings, McNeill demonstrates his command as a writer by getting his points across without resorting to excessive heavy-handedness or gimmicks.  As is typical of this author, the quality of writing is towards the top of what the series has to offer. Moreover, the progression of the plot is evenly paced, flowing naturally and sparing the reader from clunky plot movements and forced climaxes which have debilitated other works in the series.  

All in all, Angel Exterminatus earns 3 stars. If you are in the market for a novel that advances the plot of the Heresy and passes the threshold into respectable fiction, this is for you.

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