You look tired, Big E. How about you sit for a while? Take a look at ADB’s latest Horus Heresy novel.
Master of Mankind
Sometimes the worst thing you can do to a character is to explain him too much. It happened to Hannibal Lecter; as an unknowable, brilliant psychopath given life by Anthony Hopkins, he was endlessly intriguing and became the go-to example of psychopath for decades. Once the sequels and prequels came around and started detailing his childhood, youth, first date and favorite brand of mustard, far less people cared about the bizarre nazi-trolled sister-complexed samurai Gary Stu that was left.
Thankfully, this is not what happens in this book. There are nice bits of context regarding the pivotal figure of the Imperium, and plenty of inferences and hints leading to more discussion fodder. There are no spoilers in this review, so if it feels a bit vague, I can only apologize. Let’s get to the story.
It’s the early phase of the endgame. Everyone on Terra knows that Horus and his allies will reach the system, and that entire loyal sectors are being razed or cut off. Hordes of refugees crowd almost every building except for the most secret sanctums of the Emperor and his inner circle. And yet, that is not the main concern on the Big E’s mind. The Imperial Webway is being swarmed by enemy forces to a ruinous degree, and with each day the very thing that motivated and justified every drop of blood, sweat or tears along the Emperor’s path comes close to turning into ashes.
This book is the story of the extreme measures one will take to salvage their dreams, and the toll they reap.
What Doesn’t Work
The main flaw of the Master of Mankind is not in the telling of its story, but the framing of its POV characters. They are not bad characters, mind. They are just uniformly unfeeling, uncaring, undoubting to the point of sterility. When every last personal narrative is so deeply transhuman/inhuman, it gets dry really fast. There’s also very little tension, as what real sparks can you get between the camps of “Really devoted to the Emperor” and “Really REALLY devoted to the Emperor”? Even when some actual conflict appears in the story, it just sort of coalesces and drops, with little impact on the actual plot. When Rogal freaking Dorn is the emotion-driven bleeding heart in your cast, you know you’ve gone too far, my son.
I am hard-pressed to name a single difference in personality across all the featured Custodes; they are all stalwart, undefeatable warriors of ultimate loyalty and arrogance – and nothing more. One is said to be the angry scrapper of the bunch, but it’s merely an informed attribute. It never shows in the story even as window dressing. Which is rather odd, as they are presented sneering at the Legiones Astartes as being mass-produced, samey tools compared to their very refined, highly individualized selves. The Mechanicum has a bit more color to it, and it was nice to see many of its recent units and creations from supplements feature in the story.
The closest thing the book has to a grounding Everyman figure to give the other factions context is the Imperial Knight scion Jaya, who is nice enough, but enters the story too late and has a middling contribution to the resolution, at best. The Blood Angel envoy to Terra, Zephon, is also very good, but again, almost a footnote. Here’s hoping characters like these will see better use in coming stories. when we are dealing with a ‘prequel’ series in which the larger outcome of events is known a priori, we really need to be hooked by the personalities and elements of each chapter, and there’s little to grab onto here.
Now that I spent three paragraphs dumping on a book by one of my favorite authors, let’s talk about the things it gets just right. ADB does a great job of fleshing out the sheer scale and ambition of the Imperium and the conflict tearing through it, even as he makes it clear that the Big E has even greater plans in store, and all morality and ethics just may never be able to stretch enough to cover it. It’s a cool, elegant way to do Grimdark; not by reveling in the cruelty and tragedy but by making it a requisite of ultimate posthuman ideals that just might be worth it.
The battle scenes are also lavish, particularly because even though the story takes place during a savage siege against unending odds, actual description of engagements are kept neat and on-point so they retain their vim. Mostly, Again, the Custodes end up a bit repetitive: lots of spear-twirling and beheading a World Eater each time they blink. But the Titan battles more than make up for it.
The parts featuring the Emperor himself are a great bit, granted. This is what the book had to deliver above all, and the fare is there. It’s particularly interesting to follow the ‘real’ events surrounding his person and realize just what will be lionized, amplified and even twisted by propaganda and folklore in the future, as well as the forms it takes. This is an aspect that will likely be expanded in the coming titles, and I for one will enjoy more of it.
There are also a lot of tie-ins, big and small, with other events of 40K lore, both from previous Heresy books and the distant future; some from ADB’s other books, but also from other works, and they never feel like cheap cameos. Instead, it’s about the disparate events of this universe finally gathering together as the final hour draws near, and the repercussions that will stretch unto the millennia. There is a strong feel here that the Horus Heresy is at its peak, with the resolution drawing closer faster and faster, with far more elements in play than we knew before from the existing material.
Readers will also find strong references from other sci-fi and geek lore. Those who like Frank Herbert’s Dune series will find definite overtones of ‘God Emperor of Dune’ to the Emperor’s ambitions and worldview, and Marvel Comics fans will also catch a vibe of Adam Warlock‘s cold logic of necessity from the Infinity Gauntlet series.
I don’t envy the responsibility Aaron Dembski-Bowden shouldered here. This is a risky book to write, with the strong fandoms associated, the byzantine amount of connecting and contradicting lore, and there is a really tricky balancing act between revealing too much and killing the mystique and showing too little and giving everyone the feel that their time is being wasted (ask former fans of the Lost series how that goes). He managed to deliver, but I for one will be glad when the focus shifts to other factions and theaters.
As Khorne would say, what this story lacks is blood. But not spraying all over the battlefield (plenty of that, and it’s good), but real, red blood inside the veins of its main characters to help you feel engaged.
Final Score: 7/10