The Horus Heresy series is an interesting challenge for a publishing company let alone a writer. It is the attempt to explain how the “Golden Age” of humanity under the Emperor transformed from a mythological utopia of advanced technology to a horrifying fascist Dark Age where humanity is under constant threat of extinction.
What would have been an impressive trilogy or even seven book series became controversial as it blossomed into a fifty-six book series that became the basis for Black Library from January 2011 to its planned finish in April 2020. It is a monumental task to keep track of all these plotlines, ideas, and concepts. The fact it is all pre-ordained to end up in one place makes it harder rather than simpler.
All journeys begin with a first step as the Star Wars Prequels taught us, though, and I was one of the first to pick up a copy of Horus Rising (the first book in the series as well as its title) when it came out. Written by Dan Abnett, Horus Rising remains one of my all-time favorite books in the Warhammer 40K universe (technically Warhammer 30K right now). If you are averse to gushing praise, then this is not the review for you. I have some issues with many of the other volumes in the series and its dizzying side but none of that affects the story here.
The premise is the Emperor of Mankind has launched the Great Crusade to reconquer all human space from where most of them ventured out into the great unknown. The Emperor has retired for reasons unknown and appointed his favored son/clone Horus Lupercal as the new Warmaster. Horus’ legion of Space Marines, the Lunar Wolves, are ecstatic about this but Horus himself is troubled as he wonders why the Emperor has seemingly abandoned them.
The real protagonist of the series is Garviel Loken, who is a recently promoted “from the ranks” Space Marine (which is a bit of a lie since they’re all incredibly powerful super-soldiers infused with the Emperor’s gene seed). Garviel has more compassion than your typical Space Marine, which is to say he has any, and expresses his doubts when they exterminate the local (false) Emperor of Mankind’s forces before subjugating the entire planet.
Slowly, but surely, Garviel starts to see the rot which is afflicting the Imperium. Far from a Golden Age, it is already a fascist tyranny that has substituted blind obedience for all other philosophies. Religion is punishable by death, which has just resulted in people starting to worship the Emperor instead. It is also conquest-minded Empire that destroys tyrannies and utopias alike. Many fans have assumed the Emperor returning would be the start of a utopia for humanity but it’s clear in this book that he was closer to Stalin than Jesus (despite some hints in-canon of being the latter).
This is most illustrated by the Imperium discovering the Interex, which is a fascinating empire that shows what it might have been like if the human race was governed by someone other than an insane bloody-handed tyrant who is (unfortunately) the smartest man in the universe. A Star Trek-esque utopia, it has learned about the dangers of Chaos and making alliances with races like the Eldar. In the end, the Imperium’s complete ignorance about the former as well as passionate hatred of the latter helps result in a totally unnecessary war.
As much as I like Horus, I have to say that Garviel is one of my all-time favorite Warhammer 40K characters and he’s probably one of the best in the setting. Having grown up in a world where brainwashing is common but not all-encompassing, he’s still in a good position to question the morality of the things he does. He’s also someone who has never encountered Chaos before so when he finally meets his first daemon, he’s genuinely horrified by what it is. I liked his relationship to the ordinary human characters, mere mortals as they may be, too. He’s as far above them as the Primarchs are above the Space Marines yet doesn’t disdain them. I think he’s the kind of moral but tainted character that grimdark fans will respond to.
A lot of the book is building up for the later installments of the series, but you can pretty much guess how a lot of it will go down. Horus is arrogant, prideful, and seemingly a master politician as well as a strategist but is secretly terrified of acting on his own. He’s also grossly ignorant of a lot of fundamentals on how the universe works while suspicious the Emperor is not (and he’s not). He’s thus vulnerable to manipulation and having his worldview challenged. The fact he’s already a fascist and war monger just means his fall is more a natural consequence than a tragedy.
Horus Rising is a strong book for treating the Warhammer 40K setting seriously with good characters, foreshadowing, and conflicts. It’s all set up for future books but the look into the past of the Imperium and its “glory days” paints a dark picture and shows that there never was a chance that it wouldn’t be corrupted by Chaos. Indeed, if it hadn’t been, it might have been worse because the Imperium under the Emperor was probably every bit as bad in its own way.
Buy Horus Rising by Dan Abnett