At last, some seven books after “Know No Fear”, the Horus Heresy saga seems to be moving forward, but only by half a pace, with this book being centred on the “Five Hundred Worlds of Ultramar” and their Primarch Roboute Guilliman.
Unfortunately, Dan Abnett’s attempt to bring together a number of loose ends is not, in my view, entirely successful. More generally, there are a number of inconsistencies or tensions across the book, although there are also a number of good pieces and nice touches as well, and I will begin with these.
One nice and amusing touch right at the beginning are the apparitions, with references to and a quotation from “Amulet, Prince Demark”, authored by the dramaturge Shakespire. Another nice bit of context is “Magna Macragge Civitas”, the huge capital city of the planet of the same name, and of Ultramar more generally. Both the text and the map of the city show that Abnett has largely drawn his inspiration from Constantinople and the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Empire.
A third interesting idea was that of a mysterious alien device that acts as an alternative beacon to the Astronomican and manages to pierce through the Chaos storms and draws all sorts of refugees and loyalists to Macragge. It is in part through this device that Abnett manages to bring together a number of the loose ends that I mentioned.
Another interesting feature is that this book allows for a number of insights into Guilliman’s personality which were simply not possible (and not done) in “Know No Fear”, given the battle report format that the author had chosen for that book. So we get some idea as to how Guilliman was trained to be a ruler and a warlord by his human predecessor and by a very interesting character who plays the role of a foster mother. If the point was to show Guilliman as essentially human, and attempting to overcome “human weaknesses” (his emotions) through self-control, then I will admit that Abnett has been quite successful here, even if this is perhaps not quite what readers have become to expect from a “super-human” Primarch.
Unfortunately, this is perhaps where problems started to arise. As noted by another reviewer, the fact that a whole hit-squad of barely disguised enemy Space Marines manages to enter Guilliman’s without being challenged beggars belief. It also is somewhat at odds with the portrait of Guilliman as the ultimate tactician and strategist. Maybe this extraordinary lapse of elementary security can be explained away to some extent by one of Guilliman’s “breakdowns” since it is he who allows them in and expressly prevents his own security from doing its job. Maybe his “semi-godly” status explains why his security does not insist in running even the most elementary checks on his “visitors”, although this is not very credible.
Anyway, as a result, you are treated to a quite superb fight in a confined room between a Primarch and ten Space Marines. In fact, the book contains a somewhat “symmetrical” scene further on when another Primarch gets to fight another squad of Space Marines from another Legion. I could not help having the impression that Dan Abnett rather liked this feature and therefore decided on a repeat. One problem, however, is that this second feature, and the roaming of this second Primarch across the locked-down fortress and palace more generally, puts the Ultramarines in a rather bad light once again. Their security measures look rather inept, given the easiness with which the intruding Primarch avoids them.
Another point is that this books has a concentration of Primarchs – five of which only one is among the “Traitors” and, to some extent, it also tends to concentrate on them. The pieces showing the rather ambivalent relationship between Lion of the Dark Angels and Roboute of the Ultramarines are possibly among the better sections of this volume. However, “Vulkan’s comeback” is not fully convincing. A bit like in the previous volume of the HH series, Dan Abnett seems to have trouble in deciding – once and for all – whether “Vulkan Lives” or not.
The last scenes of the book, with a third “loyalist” Legion and its Primarch arriving, are suitably impressive and grandiose, just like the arrival of the Dark Angels. Here again, Dan Abnett tends to double up his effects.
So I liked a number of features in this volume, and I liked the way in which Dan Abnett managed to bring a number of loose ends together. Thanks to this book, we essentially end up with having three “loyalist” Legions plus elements of most other “loyalist” Legions all gathered at Macragge, all more or less ready to move to Terra’s rescue. However, it was a bit of a pity that all of these Space Marines (a thousand according to the book) never really take centre stage, with the exception of the leader of a group of Scars, whose reason for being on Macragge is somewhat unclear, and a pack of Space Wolves whose role seems to be to prevent Guilliman into becoming a second Horus.
Nevertheless, and as a number of other reviewers, I did not find the plot entirely plausible. The fact that Terra was inaccessible and the Astronomican cannot be seen anymore creates uncertainty. It does not imply that the planet has fallen and the Emperor is dead, neither does it imply the need for a new Regent of the Empire or even a “Second” Empire. More specifically, there were a number of instances (mentioned above) which stretched credulity and goodwill to breaking point.
Three stars for a book that was a bit of a “mixed bag” for me.