Sunday, 31 January 2010

Pretty Disappointed with the Horus Heresy

I promised a less picture-intensive blog and here it is.

I've spent the last 3 months or so (among other things) devouring the BL Horus Heresy series and my general sense is one of disappointment. Don't get me wrong, the first four books in the series are great reads with lots of action - especially Galaxy in Flames and Fulgrim - but after Fulgrim I really got the sense that they were dragging the series out (although I appreciate that they are trying to do 'meanwhile at this time' and cover the history of the other Legions). Leaving that to one side, my general gripes with the series are:

1. Two Dimensional Characters (to say the least). I appreciate that the audience for these books isn't going to want pages and pages of existential discussions of the sort that you would find in a Dostoyevsky novel, but some actual character depth would be nice. In the series characters are very much painted as 'good' and 'bad' with little or no shading or exploration of motivations (the nearest that you get to this is the decline of Fulgrim, but this could have been explored a lot more). Arguably the worst sin of the entire series is that you do not get any real exploration of Horus and his motivations for switching sides. The scene where he becomes corrupted by Erebus, falls and then essentially sets the Imperium on a crash-course for implosion is handled in (correct me if I'm wrong) just a one chapter. Even then, the way that it is described is pretty superficial: another blogger described it well when he said it was like he was getting sold a used car rather than betraying all his principles, his father etc.

2. The Covers. I know that this is not a major issue, but why is it that the cover image of each book invariably has nothing to do with the contents of the book itself?

3. Back of a napkin/beer-mat plots. Once you get past the first books in the series, the plots become to feel like they have been sketched out on the back of a beer-mat and then passed on to the author with a request to 'spin this out to 150k words'. Two of the books in the series: Flight of the Eisenstein and Battle for the Abyss are nearly the same story - a chase through the warp. Arguably the worst two books for this, though, are Legion and Mechanicum. Again, I appreciate the respect in which Dan Abnett is held around the 40Kverse, but I defy anyone to not be able to summarise the plot of Legion in one sentence (my attempt would be: through a long and convoluted series of events, a member of an underground Cabal finally manages to tell the Alpha Legion about how the Horus Heresy will unfold). Equally the general narrative of Mechanicum is interesting, but it feels like the author realised that he was about 50k words short and so put the whole plot about the serpent in there for padding. I may ultimately be wrong on this, but I don't think a serpent trapped on Mars will be a defining motif of the series if it ever ends.

4. The Dark Angels Books. I don't think that I am saying anything too controversial when I say that the two Dark Angels books in the series are perhaps its weakest elements. Apart from the desire to draaaaaaaag the story out, I cannot for the life of me think of any reason why Descent of Angels, Fallen Angels and whatever the next book in the Dark Angels series could not have been done as one 400 page book. The first two books could easily have been made into one book and told the same story without the padding (and don't get me started on having a lead character who is called, at least when I speed-read it, Lionel).

5. When will we leave the Istvaan system? I know that the more books BL can sell, the more money they make, but, really, it would be great if they could move the main action from Istvaan back towards Terra (come on, guys, its been almost 6 books now!)

My only hope is that once the series is over, BL publishes a decent (say, 1,000 page) synopsis of the whole story with none of the padding.


  1. I finished reading the opening trilogy of the Horus Heresy books, and found myself quite addicted throughout book one – knowing how it all pans out eventually in the big picture, I was very excited to see how it happened on a person by person basis. Everything was rosy up to the point that Horus was injured and taken to Davin.

    I too was quite underwhelmed by the "turning to the darkside" explanation as, during his daemon world dreaming, Horus seemed very suspicious of Erebus throughout the confrontation with Magnus. The whole thing seemed as if he'd gotten out of bed on the wrong side and came out of the temple with a complete change in attitude. I did not particularly enjoy the rest of the storyline as a lot of individuals' decisions seemed out of character. Everything changed very radically, very quickly. Rather than sympathise with Horus, as I thought I might, I had lost all interest in him.

  2. yeah, its a real shame as - aside from the fact that the whole heresy hinges on him - he should be a real tragic figure. His 'temptation' should have been a centre-piece of the series.

  3. I have been hesitant to read past the first four books. They're generally pretty good, sometimes excellent, but I don't think the BL's range has quite enough consistency for me to look forward to the others.

    The sudden downfall of Horus definitely could have been much more dramatic. I guess the elements are all there, but it came across as if all of a sudden a switch flipped and he was a bad dude. I really expected a more protracted period of him being torn and acting more indirectly, inching toward the Heresy rather than jumping in---ignoring more and more orders over time, making bad calls, etc. This was disappointing as coming out of the first book one of my first thoughts was "Horus is amazing! This is an excellent tragedy!" I was so stoked by the scene after the anatheme is stolen of Horus screaming, railing that this is not how things should go---at that point he's really one of very very few diplomats in the 40k (er... 30k) universe, with a real sense of majesty, destiny, and a better future. That was very compelling. Then, next book, all of that is wasted and blown away and he becomes a pretty flat villian.

    The series shouldn't have switched authors there, _False Gods_ is definitely the weakest of the first four, caveat the pretty good dream sequences with Horus. I really liked the use here and there of the wording from the standard 40k boilerplate, etc., about the endless bureaucracy and so on. That did a good job of complementing the diplomatic Horus and highlighting that the world was not always so bleak. _Galaxy in Flames_ was better, but _Flight of the Eisenstein_ really picked it up. I think that was at least as strong as _Horus Rising_, and I was very pleased by both, so I'm reluctant to tarnish that with more books...

  4. Wow, it's interesting just how much different people like different books.

    I though Horus Rising was great, False Gods pretty bad (Horus didn't just have a bad reason to go bad, he seemed to have no reason to go bad) and the Galaxy in Flames was terrible. No characterisation at all, and not even any tactics.

    Eistenstein I though was even worse - Garro was identical to Loken but with a different weapon, and none of the other characters were distinguishable from each other.

    I thought Fulgrim was more intersting, simply for the events it covered. I found the writing quite annoying though.

    The two Dark Angels' books are actually two of the best, I think. They're mostly much better written than others (Ben Counter's for example). They're seemingly unrelated to the rest of the plot, but that's the point. The Heresy (like all civil wars) was lots of different conflicts bursting into violence at the same time.

    I liked Legion, as at least we had more characters and a bit of intrigue, even if the ending was unconvincing.

    Abyss was the worst of them all - no characterisation, no sense to any of the plot and no tension at all.

    Mechanicum was okay. I still find the writing very annoying, but at least he writes about inherently interesting subjects.

    The mix of short stories was, well, a mix. I liked Abnett's a lot, and the Space Wolf one, the World Eaters' one. The Dark Angels' one was okay. The Word Bearers one and the Last Church were both awful. (The last church thinks it's clever but all of the ideas are sub-GCSE cod-philosophy.)

    Still, seeing as we all know how it ends, it's not like we need to read the last in the series to tell us.

    I hope they keep bringing out lots more, covering lots of different parts of the Heresy. I just wish they'd stick with the (in my opinion) better writers.


  5. You need to add a #6 - the Emperor is totally idiotic and unsympathetic. Hard to feel that the guys rebelling are the bad guys when the object of their hatred is a tool.

    I rather enjoyed Mechanicum and Eisenstein, the first due to it being a different look at the Heresy (no marines!). The second as I liked Garro - he was smart, and didn't weep all the time whenever he saw a primarch (I'm looking at you Loken).

    That's something that bugged me - the Captains, who are leaders of massive numbers of troops and some of the top tiers of Legion command, being suprised and awed when their Primarch talks to them...
    Shouldn't they be used to it being his subordinates? That's why I liked Garro I think - his shock came at being picked out for special mention by Mortarion, and he wasn't afraid to tell Dorn where to shove it. Also, no weeping.

  6. I'm not sure how much of the other background info of 40k you are aware of, but as a person who has devoured the background of 40k for years I found Legion and Mechanicum to be two of the best in the Horus Heresey series.

    I say this not as the best written, as I will admit Legion was enjoyable but not as good as the first three until it got to the end. Where it picks up there is taking the Alpha Legion and changing their motivations. It was astounding to me. I'd always thought of them as a chaos legion, same as the rest. Looking at the existing fluff scattered across various old codexes and chapter approved articles, I found nothing that would not fit in with the Alpha legion still working "for" the emperor to this (well, 40,000) day!

    Then there's Mechanicum, the trapped serpent being in reference to the C'tan Void Dragon. Again, the casual reader will not know this, but as an avid fan of 40k background material I absolutely lapped this up.

    And as for the books regarding the Dark Angels, yes I'd have liked them to settle it in one book, or even two. But among my group of 40k gamers there's been an argument raging for years over whether Lion or Luther was the bad guy in the history of the unforgiven legion. This is going to be our answer... and they're stringing it out, tantalising us, toying with us... the payoff had better be worth it! :oD Personally I reckon they're gonna stump us by having both men turn to darkness, but in different ways, both leading men who believe the opposition have fallen to darkness. Only time will tell on that one.

    All in all I'm thoroughly enjoying the Horus Heresey series of books, and while I look forward to the march on terra, I also somewhat dread it - as it will seem the end of a thoroughly enjoyable series is in view.

  7. I found the same opinion of Legion. When you take it apart, what you end up with is a lot of fluff and action that has little or nothing to do with the central plot theme - "why the Alpha Legion do what they do" - with an ending that was predictable regardless of already knowing the basic end result. I give props for the actual reason behind why the Alphas left, but a 10,000 man (or whatever their mysterious number is) legion defecting by a reason given from a group of aliens seems...weaksmoke, regardless of the reason. The book overall was just not worth it and I thought it made the Alpha Legion seem like a joke. Are you or aren't you Space Marines? The whole story was a major pain for me to get through as by the end of the first few chapters, I wanted to toss it and move on.

    Abyss was weak and seemed like a filler book. I'm not sure what the point of it was, but someone obviously took a book from the box, changed a few aspects of the 40k timeline, and shoved it into the 30k's. Go figure.

    I'd concur that the first three or four are the strongest of the lot, however, I still question Horus' reasoning. The fact no one seemed to pick up on Erebus' obvious motivation would seem to defy the fact these are supposedly humanity's greatest warriors. You'd think they would have been smart enough to pick up at least a bit more than 1/10th of the Luna Wolves v. the Sons of Horus factions. But oh well.

    Mechanicum was interesting if only as an illustration of what Mars is like during this whole thing. I figured it made a good background story and fit in to about the same level as Abyss.

    Descent of Angel could just as easily been edited, but the question is, would the story have suffered without the extensive background? I didn't like the book and despised the "tacked-on" bit of Crusading by the end, but I can see why the background was done. Fallen Angels was better and I have to say I see more reason why Luther would rebel than Horus would. Lion El Johnson (or Lyyn he heh) comes off like a major prick, as bad as the Emperor. But I guess, stature requires a distance from the many, so it could be understandable. Whatever the case, as others here have mentioned, if the payoff isn't worth it, the whole trilogy will be black eye.

    Fulgrim was just plain bad. I'm sorry but the whole justification aspect just reaks of forced plot. He has little or no reason to rebel other than "everyone else is doing it" and the painting that talks to him - maybe he wasn't right in the head since the beginning, but jeez, c'mon. Outside of the characters already established by the first three books, the characters move along without any provocation and little development other than when Fulgrim wastes the Iron Hands. Even then, he "dies" and basically morphs into your typical Chaos baddie that could have come off the copy machine. Major bummer.

    Overall, I'd say the series is very good, at least as good as other long road series I have read. It has some serious weakpoints, but I can let those slide.

    What I can't let slide though is the feeling that they've lost their way and are grasping at plots/motives/filler to keep expanding the series. It will end sooner or later and prolonging it without each book having some relevance to the first four is going to hurt it overall. They've spent the last three or four pretty far from Istvaan. Move the story along, get us out of Istvaan and get the rebellion going. If the series coninuesand just jumps from Istvaan to Terra without at least some coverage of the wars and steady pushback of the Imperial Loyalists, then the series will come off as a waste in my humble opinion.