40K: Master of Mankind Review

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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.



The Highlights

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

  • Alpharius

    Rogal Dorn has always been described as “very human” among the Primarchs, something you see in his interactions with Astartes and humans when he isn’t being an overbearing d-nozzle to his brothers.

    The Last Remembrancer short story, the Iron Cage incident, the upheaval over the Codex and eventual eternal penitence crusade for a chunk of his Legion, were all side-effects of his emotional break-down over what the Imperium had become.

    • ZeeLobby

      Yeah. I like him as a character. Lightning Tower is still one of my favorite shorts.

      • Shawn

        Where is that story Zee, The Primarchs?

      • Jim Collins

        I always hated Dorn, until they started fleshing him out. He’s a loyal soldier and son. Seems like he’s only a douchcanoe to other primarchs, but it’s in line with his core being.

        • ZeeLobby

          Yeah. I mean he was very close and loyall to his adopted father, so it makes sense that he approaches the emperor with the same familiarity, and explains why he always approaches his brothers as a bunch of knuckleheads, many of whom didn’t have a close familial bond on their home worlds.

          • Jim Collins

            It’s also a good contrast from Guilliman, who has his own damn empire and has some distance from the emperor I read into at least.

    • Shawn

      Huh, now that’s a bit of interesting information I didn’t know. I was under the impression that all Primarchs were aloof, and only the space wolf and salamanders showed any compassion or understanding to mankind.

      • kingcobra668

        Well, that’s just like most of the current generations understanding of the chaos Gods. Red, blue, pink and green. Completely superficial.

        • euansmith

          I like Black Chaos Ranger the bestest.

        • nurglitch

          I think the newest Codex Chaos Daemons probably has the most nuanced and broad presentation of the Dark Powers yet.

      • Alpharius

        Space Wolves do not show any compassion or understanding to mankind, they only respect bravery in combat and nothing else. So like in Battle for the Fang they treat all their serfs like garbage until some of them acquit themselves well in the defense of the Fang and the Wolves tell them they aren’t such useless mortals after all.

        Salamanders see humans as children to be sheltered and shepherded.

        I am not saying Dorn was a super jovial guy, but he had more friends among humans (like Voss..I think that was the remembrancer’s name) than he did among the Primarchs. Guilliman also was very intuitive when it came to his soldiers and the humans that serve them. Basically the Primarchs that came from stable homes with parents turned out decent dudes. The ones that were left to their own devices turned out broken caricatures of the worst aspects of humanity.

        • matty199

          Lol russ raised by his carjng wolf parents

          • Alpharius

            I’m sure they at least kept his fanny nice and clean. Mortarion’s planet never even heard of toilet paper, that’s why he was so obsessed with noxious ordnance, it was the only thing that could overwhelm the smell of his and his Legion’s nether regions.

        • Sonic tooth

          Youre spot on about the wolves. Nothing iv read about them yet shows them as compassionate or caring to mankind. I dont understandcwhy theyre percieved as being such “good guys”. What about corax? I thought he was supposed to be “for the people:? Maybe im wrong

          • Alpharius

            I mean, sure? He’s for the people because he led them out of slavery, and culled his Legion of the Terran marines who had a mean streak. He was able to interact normally with the folks who were sent along with him to work on the Primarch project, so he seems a pretty down-to-earth dude as well.

            Wolves I assume are being perceived as “good guys” due to being the original Mary Sue Marine +1s after Andy Chamber’s garbage 2nd edition codex. That’s where they were portrayed as the beer-guzzling, partying, jovial guys, and we had just the barest outline of the Armageddon event where they defended humans against the big bad Inquisition. But again, they merely defended them because the humans had earned their respect through bravery in combat. Their defense of those humans actually caused far more casualties than they prevented because the Inquisition ended up having to cauterize the infection they spread (read blow up several stations and settlements and small moons).

            Space Wolves are not “good guys”. They are stubborn simpletons who treat every issue as black and white. On the positive hand, this means they are pretty damn loyal to the Imperium and don’t fall for Chaos trickery (except maybe that one pack). On the negative hand, they are frequently hypocritical and cause more harm than good to the Imperium they are supposed to be serving.

            Kharn said they should have been called the Space Dogs instead of Wolves due to their behavior in 30K. In 40K, the are basically Space Mules.

        • Hannoveraner

          Corax also came from a stable home and tunred out as decent guy.

          • Alpharius

            He is a somewhat decent guy (for the only Primarch to literally cry anyway), yes, but I would not describe his home as that. He was a mythical figure who led a planet-wide guerilla resistance, stability was the last thing they had. His sons also display an overbearing arrogance towards humans, like that Captain that almost ignored a human’s premonition/warning about Istvaan, and almost damning Corax and the remainder of the Legion to extinction.

            But yes, he follows the Primarch rule of nurture > nature. When they had a positive parental figure in their life (with a possible exception of Perturabo, who was born a dick), they all turned out alright dudes. Guilliman had both a father who taught him right and a mother who took care of him (he even kept her blanky), and he turned out best of all. I can’t recall if Horus had a human papa?

          • Hannoveraner

            He almost ignored the warning about Istavaan because it was a dream!

            Horus had the emperor. They found each other pretty soon.

          • Alpharius

            Worst father ever, clearly.

      • Hannoveraner

        Raven Guard?

  • georgelabour

    Titan battles in the webway?


  • euansmith

    That was a solid review; I wish some professional reviewers could do as well. Some don’t seem to know the difference between a review and a synopsis.

  • orionburn

    I’m way behind in the HH series. I may have to just pick this up and then go back and play catch up.

  • SilentPony

    Its okay characterization of the Emperor, but only further proved the Emperor is a massive dick and liar.
    First he only refers to the Primarchs by their numbers, never names and openly doesn’t care about them.
    Second all those “flashbacks” he keeps showing dudes, when asked if any of that was true or if he’s lying, the Emperor just shrugged.
    Third when asked why the Primarch’s don’t have failsafes or how the Emperor didn’t foresee the Heresy, he’s all “D’oh well, them’s the breaks”
    Fourth, without spoiling too much, what he does with the big daemon and his Custodian was dickish on a whole new level.

    • nurglitch

      ADB has been telling stories about how the Primarchs and the Astartes are coming to terms with their status as living weapons, rather than people, for quite some time. That’s kind of the point of the First Heretic, that they realize they’re not only sacrificing themselves for something but that they’re being lied to about that sacrifice. Betrayer, in particular, is not just a bromance between Kharn and Argal Tal, but a commentary about sacrifice and the perception of it. And the Talon of Horus is Abaddon picking up those weapons and wielding them with new purpose. I rather like his vision of 40k and trans-humanity.

      • Sephyr

        Well said. I greatly admire ADB for picking up two of the most ‘silly’ primarch (Religious Fanatic Man and Angry Punchy Man!) and making them the most relatable, tragic, human figures across the lore. Me has a way of weaving the main theme of each book nicely without beating you in the face with it.

        And yeah, Betrayer is still his guitar solo. The void battle above Nuceria at the end may be the best space war chapter I’ve ever read, period. We need more Captain Lotara.

  • nurglitch

    I felt like Arkhan Land was the everyman. I particularly like his scholarship on monkeys. That felt like a well-deserved poke at fandom. In particular though I really liked the Afterword.