Whether you’ve been reading Warhammer 40,000 fiction for years, or are a relative tyro, you are familiar with the Space Marines. These legendary, genetically-enhanced super-soldiers turn the battle in their favor just by showing up; cutting swathes through their enemies with martial and strategic prowess. All Space Marines; Loyalist or Traitor/Chaos, can trace their roots to a Founding Chapter. Each Founding Chapter, in turn, was comprised of Astartes who were the gene-children of a Primarch; that Primarch being a son of the God Emperor of Mankind. Recently, The Black Library began a novella series dedicated to these demigods; hence, The Horus Heresy Primarchs series was born. Today, I review Konrad Curze: The Night Haunter by Guy Haley. This is the story of the Primarch of the VIII Legion, the Night Lords. Note: this is Book 12 in the Primarchs series (each book, of course, is a standalone tome, allowing you to pick and choose as interests you).
Before we start reviewing the book itself, let’s talk a bit about Primarchs, Founding Chapters, and old 40K lore. Suffice to say, over the past few decades, the lore has grown, been fleshed out, and developed a lot. Looking back on the original concepts for the Founding Chapters, you basically have “Historical Military Faction X….in Space”. Substitute any famous faction for X – Romans, Vikings, Mongols, etc. It was cool at the time; it’s near comedic in retrospect, and it’s a testimonial to the work that’s been done to create the rich, canonic lore we have today.
But what about the Night Lords? Well, you know that extra quiet kid from High School, who wore all black and sat in the back? Remember his doodles in his notebooks? All lightning, skulls, curved, talon-edged bat-wings? Wicked claws and swords? Yeah, the Night Lords were his contribution to the lore. They are the epitome of all those drawings. They are the terror in the night, they are badder than bad.
All jokes aside, the Night Lords are a faction which rules, fights, and subjugates via terror. Their Primarch, Konrad Curze, embodies all of the tenets in spades. Named for Joseph Conrad, as well as legendary antagonist Kurtz, he possesses a true heart of darkness. He is also conflicted, self-loathing, and absolutely mad. In harnessing all of these myriad personality traits (disorders?), Haley has presented us with an utterly fascinating, and overall excellent character study of the madman, his last moments, and some snapshots of what made him who he was.
First, the blurb
Of all the Emperor’s immortal sons, the primarchs, it is Konrad Curze whose legend is the darkest. Born in the shadows of Nostramo, a world of murderers, thieves and worse, is it any surprise that he became the figure of dread known only as the Night Haunter? Heed now the tragic story of the creature Konrad Curze, master of the Night Lords Legion, of how he became a monster and a weapon of terror. He who once served the Imperium saw the truth in a maddening universe and the hypocrisy of a loveless father, and embraced the only thing that made any sense – darkness. From the blood-soaked gutters of his hiveworld upbringing, to the last days of his ill-fated existence, Curze is a primarch like no other and his tale is one to chill the very bone…
Quick note: The Primarchs novellas don’t follow strict structural guidelines; hence, they are not all ‘histories’ of the Primarchs. Different authors have chosen to focus on battles, histories, etc., stressing instances which they felt best illustrate the character of the Primarch in question.
The overarching storyline for Haley’s Curze story focuses on Curze’s last days; living in an emotional exile of sorts on the planet Tsagualsa, awaiting the arrival of the Callidus assassin M’Shen (if you are new to 40K, this is not a spoiler: Curze’s assassination is common knowledge). During this period of waiting, he delivers a testimonial of sorts; recounting his life, absolving himself of the atrocities committed by his own hands, and laying the blame for his ails and miseries squarely at the feet of his father, the Emperor of Mankind. These scenes are brilliant, and showcase Haley having a great time writing for this twisted demigod. The motif of “Daddy issues” often comes up when dealing with Primarchs; instead of trying to buck the trend, Haley gleefully picks up the ball and runs like Hell with it. In this scenes, Haley paints Curze as a nightmarish Hamlet; who, instead of regaling a skull with his self-pitying soliloquies, has crafted an effigy of his own father to voice his complaints to. An effigy of his father, comprised entirely of parts cobbled from collected bodies. A literal Corpse-Emperor.
Over the course of decrying his absentee father, and attempting to validate his past actions as righteous, we are treated to a series of vignettes which showcase the real Curze (Spoiler: he’s not righteous; he’s a sadistic madman). Among these are the final days of the crew of the ship which discovered the stasis coffin that Sanguinius had placed Curze in (this, in the end, provided Curze with a ride to Tsagualsa, and his rendezvous with destiny). Other vignettes show glimpses of Curze on Nostramo, his acts in punishing Legion members guilty of acting outside of acceptable parameters of terror, and the rise of a gang-led governmental coup on Nostramo; which would have grave ramifications for the Night Haunter’s adoptive world. Finally, as these storylines play out; we also witness another trend playing out; the degradation of the overall quality of Night Lords Legion stock; exacerbated by the withering quality of aspirants provided for elevation to the level of Astartes.
Let’s look at the elements bit by bit:
Haley maintains a tight dramatis personae here. This is almost entirely a one-man show, as it should be.
And, I simply cannot emphasize enough how well Haley ‘gets’ Curze, and delivers in his presentation. Haley captures the look, the physicality, the motions, the madness, the tenuous sanity, the rage, the sorrow, even the fear, of this most troubled Primarch. He sets up the plausible argument that yes, perhaps Curze was truly a victim of being a creature of pre-ordained design; and then, we will see an example reminding us of the natural, gleeful malice upon which his cruelties are predicated. Curze’s ‘punishments’ are meted out in the name of a justice, which by his own admission, omits the critical aspect of mercy. Of humanity. And that is because neither are present in his emotional palette.
Konrad Curze is a lethal madman living at the intersection of petulance and depravity, and Haley delivered this with a ribbon on top.
There are cameo appearances by key Night Lords, including fan-favorite Talos. Some decent page time is meted out to First Captain Sevatar, as well as Chapter Equerry Shang. Sevatar makes for a great, stalwart servant of his Primarch, and there is some well-orchestrated friction between him and Shang.
In each of the vignettes, we are treated to memorable human characters. This is a specialty of Haley’s; to flesh out these characters, even though they might only serve insignificant parts in the overall narrative. The best example of this is Elver, serving on the Sheldroon, the freighter which discovers Curze’s drifting sarcophagus. His presence in the novel is bolstered by a detailed backstory, and fully realized character arc. There are primary players in full length novels that do not get this level of authorial investment. But this has always been one of Haley’s strengths; a vivid imagination and the skill to realize it on paper.
Plus, I’m sure he’s aware of the importance of fleshing the characters out quickly. Any human who crosses paths with Curze tends to have their lifespan truncate drastically as a result.
Here we arrive at Haley’s other great strength; worldbuilding. See, Haley is not just a great tie-in fiction author, he’s a sharp, savvy sci-fi author in general. You can really see this in effect when he’s discussing the mechanics of space travel. Most authors treat it as either seafaring vessels, or fighter planes, but in space. Haley truly delves into the physics, theoretics, and all that other scientific stuff which just whizzes over my head.
In the Curze novella, there are a lot of rich backgrounds which are brought to robust life courtesy of his deft keystrokes. The dark, hateful, crime-ridden avenues of Nostramo, where life is less than cheap and taken without a second thought. The filthy, poorly maintained Sheldroon; whose filthy sump tanks have become festering biomes. Desolate Tsagualsa, and the gruesome fortress in which Curze verbally meanders through his last days; decorated with the deft touch of an artisanal sadist. Floors festooned with mosaics of tooth, walls of living, moaning victims, stretched out and stitched together, wailing for an eternity.
The lore of the Night Lords is filled with such macabre window-dressing. Instead of trying to downplay it; Haley again embraces the visceral decor, treating readers to the sights and smells, reminding us that some organs have those stubborn, crunchy-chewy bits.
So, if there’s one complaint that I have about Haley, in general, it’s that I’m not a huge fan of his action scenes. Luckily, there are not many action scenes in this book. The few that are present are done fairly well. However, if you need a little more bolter action in your Warhammer offerings, consider this a fair warning. The crux of this novella is charting Curze’s descent into absolute madness, not mulching xenos.
Again, stellar. This is a short work, but Haley makes his words count. He lays down a bunch of threads, and makes sure to tie them all up by close. He employs a rich, vibrant, intelligent vocabulary, which is something I’ve always appreciated from him.
Pacing is great; no slow, stalling bits. Nothing rushed, either.
This is one of the most enjoyable, satisfying books I’ve read from The Black Library in a while. You can tell that Guy Haley was having a lot of fun writing this book; and that’s good, because when the author’s having fun then usually the readers will too.
Instead of reducing Konrad Curze to a moustache-twirling, cartoon villain; or, potentially worse, a too-cool-for-school misunderstood anti-hero, Haley embraced and explored the madness eating the man. The Primarch of the VIII Legion was a natural dichotomy; both a victim of circumstances (of birth, etc.) beyond his control, and a complicit perpetrator of the atrocities for which he was so rightfully loathed.
Thus was the legacy of Konrad Curze, Primarch of the VIII Legion, and, also, The Night Haunter.