When I first became aware of Games Workshop's plans for the Horus Heresy range, I greeted the news with some degree of apprehension. The planned assortment of art books, collectible card games and accompanying novels visit an era in the wonderfully wicked Warhammer universe that had hitherto been shrouded with veils of mystery and couched in legend. These were the days when the Emperor of Mankind walked amongst the stars and the Great Crusade liberated all of humanity from foul aliens and oppressive tyrants. My initial response to the announcement of the Horus Heresy series was simple - 'Heresy!'. It would be an act of sacrilege to make graven images and scrawl little yarns about these sacred times. How could a Primarch of the Astartes, a demi-god in battle-plate, fit comfortably within the pages of a modern novel? By letting Dan Abnett write the novel, that's how.
Horus Rising is the first of a trilogy of books that catalogues the final days of the Great Crusade, and the infamous rebellion of Horus against his own father, the Emperor of Mankind. It is set 28,000 years in the future, 10,000 years before most of the other Games Workshop science fiction stories. A familiarity with Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000 universe is pretty desirable before reading this book - take a look at the company's website for a flavour of the horrors to come in the far future. Horus Rising inverts many of the preconceptions that fan-boys like myself have of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, with in-jokes and foreshadowing aplenty to get the sci-fi Forums jangling. The most notable revelation is that religion was banned under the Emperor's rule, yet all Warhammer 40,000 fans know that he was revered as a god after his death. It would seem that denying one's divinity is not sufficient to stop the inexorable rise of worship. And paradoxically, though religion is banned in these glorious days, the theme of faith resonates far truer in this book than in most other Warhammer fiction. Martial force may triumph on the field of battle, but 'hearts and minds' cannot be crushed so easily.
The Dramatis Personae at the start of the book reads like a who's who of Warhammer 40,000, and I noticed with some excitement before reading the novel that Primarch Sanguinius, First Chaplain Erebus, and Lucius of the Emperor's Children would be making 'guest appearances'. Horus himself is a charismatic presence, the Warmaster who dominates every page of text that he is in. Yet as an immortal Primarch he is too big, too immensely big for the reader to identify with, so we have Captain Loken as our guide through the novel, a straight up-and-down everyman figure who possesses a fundamental decency and reassuringly simple innocence.
But the book is more than a celebrity showcase to satisfy the fan-boys. There is real story, character and themes here, amongst the discharge of boltgun shells and laser fire. The book is undoubtedly and unashamedly the first act in a tragedy. Warhammer artists skilled more with paint and easel than word-processors shy away from the post-modern and are drawn to past glories of the gothic and baroque. So too, no doubt, will this trilogy run - reading more like a Greek tragedy than a post-Tolkien heroic quest. The concepts of loyalty and duty feature strongly in Horus Rising - knightly loyalties that the Space Marines have to their oaths, their legions, and their Emperor. These Space Marines are grand figures, single-minded and determined. Yet by the end of the novel the loyalties become unravelled, as doubt and reality assail their superlative qualities.
Others have added their superlative praises for this book. Make no mistake, these praises are deserved. Dan Abnett really is the master of Warhammer fiction. 'For the Warmaster!'