First, let's be clear that this collection of seven short stories IS about the Horus Heresy, contrary to what a number of other reviewers have mentioned, but it is also MUCH more than that. It also provides background to it, something that is often lacking from the "mainstream" HH novels. So, some of the stories are about the Emperor's Crusade, pre-Heresy, while at least one (and one of the very best of them - The Last Church) is even "Pre-Crusade".
Second, I guess we all have our personal preferences about which stories are "the best ones". I also have mine, of course. Also, some stories are weaker, or rather not as well told than others. However, I did not find that any of them was obviously "bad". Rather, they range between ok stories to incredingly good ones, and this is why I'll gice this book four stars.
The two I found to be "the best" are Blood Games and The Last Church. A number of other reviewers have also included these two in their "hit parade", so there might be something more here than just my personal preferences. I appreciated these two the most, but for very different reasons. In part, I liked them so much because they were among the most original of the seven. Then, there are the specifics of each story, and what they show us of the Empire's universe.
Blood Games is set on Terra, at a time when the planet is preparing to defend itself against the Horus invasion. Specifically, the story is built arounf the Custodes' training and preparations to protect the Emperor - not very surprising since they are his Lifeguard. The story's title relates to the live case studies and training that they come up with to check and test the Emperor's security, with some of the best among the Custodes being tasked with trying to penetrate the Custodes' defenses and attempt to assassinate the Emperor, while all Imperial forces are hunting them and trying to catch them. However, at some point, the drill becomes the real thing, but I will say no more to avoid spoiling the story...
The Last Church is also set on Terra, a few years after the Emperor has finally won the Unification Wars, but before the Primarchs are created and the Crusade is launched. It is built around the last church of the last religion still practised on Earth, and it is essentially a dialogue between this church's last priest and a strange visitor calling himself "Revelation".
Both stories are superbly told. I can understand why some may feel disappointed, or even cheated, because they do not include the same kind of free-for-all shoot outs that you get accustomed to find in WArhammer 40K or HH novels. However, both other rare insights into the Empire's and the Emperor's history by offering glimpses of the "Pre-Unification" times. In Blood Games, some of Terra's states (Brazil,in particular) are part of the Empire as vassal states (a bit like the Mechanicum on Mars) and we are told about some the past of some of the characters. In The Last Church, it is the Emperor's past itself that is revealed, alongside the reasons for getting rid of all religions and places of worship.
Of the two, The Last Church is perhaps the most difficult to grasp because its relevance to the or or to the Empire during 40 k is not immediately obvious. It is however there. It is very powerful and has two strands to it:
- one is the explanation it provides for the Emperor banning all religions, including his own cult and even if this leads to publicly humiliating one of his sons (Lorgar) and his Legion (the Word Bearers) and destroying the whole population of a planet tainted by this Legion's unauthorized cult of the Emperor (see The First Heretic). Given the role played by Lorgar's legion and by Erebus, among others, in the birth of the HH, this is certainly relevant
- the second point is cruel and bitter irony. The Emperor banned all religions from Earth because a) he wanted to promote science and reason instead of blind faith and fanatism and b) because he had experienced at first hand the ravages brought by faiths to Earth and Mankind over the centuries and, in particular, during the Unification Wars. However, as we start to learn in the first HH books and we see throughout the 40k universe, none of the Emperor's efforts were enough to stop an official religion based on the worship of the Emperor (and All his Saints) to develop over time, with all of its own superstitions and fanatism. Think of the role of the Remembrancers or, much latter on, that of the Ecclesiarchy, and you will see how relevant this story is to the world 30 and 40 k worlds.
Anyway, both of these stories have very much whetted my appetite. I am aware that we probably have a dozen books to go before we reach the battle of Terra and the following purge of the HH, and perhaps another dozen to deal with these two episodes. However, another strand would be to start telling the tale of the Unification Wars for which numerous novels could also be written. I very much hope to see this one day, in addition of all the rest, of course.