Disclaimer: I know almost nothing about Warhammer 40k other than what I have seen at cons and peeking in the windows of Games Workshop stores. Here’s me learning.
Heading into Book 2 of the Horus Heresy series. Book 1 (my review here) had Horus Rising. This one promised more “grim darkness” from the Warhammer 40k universe (technically: 30k universe for these prologue books). Amazon reviews promised… a worse read than book 1?
Spoilers to follow.
What I Expected:
The first book let me down a bit. It had all these crazed space marines on the front and then spent most of its pages trying to convince me that it wasn’t the kind of book its cover wanted me to think it was. I didn’t hate it, but if that was the best of the lot then I figured I’d be in for some trouble. I expected that this second book would be a little truer to its colors.
But let’s take a minute and all say: why does this cover look like a Star Wars book? Was that intentional?
I imagine there will be talks of HERESY in this one and those usually have to do with FALSE GODS. The heresy takes root. I’ll expect a bit more plotting going on in the backgrounds of this one as well.
What I Liked:
False Gods felt like a much smaller and narrower narrative than the first book. In some ways, that worked. The plot generally follows a treachery from Erebus (shifty bad guy Astartes space marine warrior with secret decoder tattoos on his head) who guides Horus the Warmaster to a spooky planet and moon (named Davin and Davin’s Moon respectively… Hmm.). Erebus gets Horus all wrapped up in some Chaos stuff, gets reborn (as we would expect someone named Horus to do), and then heads off to cause some mischief and set up the next book.
McNeill seemed most comfortable when he was writing action sequences, and that took up the chunk of “Part 2” of the novel where Horus’s forces explore that previously mentioned spooky moon.
Giant battling mechs, swarms of undead, a diseased swamp, and a ghost-filled derelict all featured heavily and were handled well. The “spaceship as haunted house” vibes of the exploration of the derelict “Glory of Terra” ship weren’t anywhere near on par with the best in that subgenre but were a solid entry. Why the whole thing came down to another slow staircase climb and sword fight, I don’t know (learn a lesson folks!).
What I Didn’t:
Hoo boy. There was a definite drop off in talent here compared to the first book when it comes to all of those pieces of the book in between battles. The plotting and mystery and dialogue were all just a lot closer to sophisticated fan fiction (maybe that’s what this all really is??) than a proper novel.
Let’s start with our boy Horus the Warmaster. The whole first book was supposed to convince us of how awesome he is. How wise. How friendly. How savvy at politics. And how absolutely immortal he is. In False Gods we see him being duped by grade school level treachery here. Erebus: “Oh hey this guy lightyears away totally insulted you! Ohhhh what a shaaaaame it would be if you went and killed him. But wayyyy too risky for a God like youuuu. I bet you’d never do that!” Horus: “Whaaaat! Stop the fleet. I’m going to smack that guy with my bare hand!”
Leading a full on assault — with no recon at all — because one guy said another guy insulted you is… well, dumb at best? Suicidal at worst. (It was worst case scenario here.) If Horus has been falling for this weak tea his whole life, then how has he made it this far? How did he even make it off of “Holy Terra” (Earth) alive??
In addition to being a “walk on a rake and get smacked in the nose” sort of guy the whole book, Horus fully embraces the whole Saturday morning cartoon evil villain thing. Honestly, I was surprised McNeill didn’t give him a cat and goatee to stroke while making his diabolical plans (one of which was: walk into someone’s apartment and kill them — genius level work there, Warmaster!).
More than Abnett in Book 1, McNeill also shows that he has clearly never heard a woman or a librarian speak before. There’s a lot to cringe about in his descriptions of Sadie, Petronella, and Sindermann’s thinking and in their dialogue. After a jelly armed demon appears in a library after Sindermann translates Erebus’s head tattoos and burns a bunch of classic literature (yes, you read that right), Sindermann spends the next few days trying to rewrite the books that were destroyed. My question for Mr. McNeill: You’re telling me that this galaxy-spanning high tech empire of man keeps all of its classic Terra (Earth) literature on a… space flying warship at the edge of the empire? Y’all don’t have backups somewhere??
The saddest failing here though is that the whole book kind of throws out the good will that was built up about the “Mournival” (war council) and all of the world building around what Astartes stand for in the first book. The four characters that spent all of the last book bonding with each other almost immediately threw that out the window in this book. By the end, they’re happy to have each other killed without much of a raised eyebrow. And all of the creepy fanatical talk of purity and hating religion and superstition and xenos and all that? Whoop. Right out the window too.
Again I ask, if they were so ready to throw out all of their morals and culture — why did it take until the end of the Crusade for that to happen? Surely this must not have been the first “stress test” for the team. But here, everything just immediately and irreparably falls apart.
One more thing before ending this rant: All of Part 3 of the book was devoted to how dumbfounded everyone was that a primarch (super SUPER soldier) like the Warmaster could die. People in tears! Riots! Conspiracies! Then McNeill goes and shows us another primarch get buried and “die” under some rubble in Part 4 and the characters collectively shrug. Surprising no one (except these poor, poor confused characters) he pops up out of the rubble just a few minutes later. Just one more example of these weird inconsistencies in character actions.
What Stuck Out:
The Dead Space-like haunted house spaceship definitely felt memorable. I’d love to see that as a battle map in a future game.
The subplot about the Emperor’s divinity struck a chord too. Seeing the remembrance Keeler go full Exorcist and zap a Warp creature back into Chaos with nothing but an eagle medallion was one of the better moments of the novel.
Book 2 was definitely more of what I expected when I first picked up a Warhammer novel. I hope that the quality picks up elsewhere in the series and that the series can find its footing in combining the horror-themed action of its “grimdark” world with more consistent plotting and characters.