REVIEW: The Buried Dagger by James Swallow

After well over a hundred novels, novellas, short stories, and audio installments, The Buried Dagger brings the Black Library’s flagship series, The Horus Heresy, to a close…of sorts. Yes, there is no way that a review of the final book in the HH would be complete without some commentary on the state of the series in general, and the fact that this last book is by no means the ‘end’. As we all now, a few months ago, BL announced that a new series would be introduced to cover the climactic battle for the very salvation of the Imperium–The Siege of Terra. Siege of Terra was proclaimed to be a lean and mean, focused 8 book series dedicated to telling the story that the HH should have told, had it not been subjected to sprawl and bloat. Of course, it has also already been announced that the core Siege of Terra novels will be ‘enriched’ by a slew of ancillary novellas; with, I’m sure, more short stories and audiobooks in the works as well.

One of the points to all this is that, no matter what, The Buried Dagger is predestined to suffer somewhat simply due to the fact that it is such an odd choice of subject matter–being a chronicle of Mortarion’s embracing of Nurgle’s ‘Gift’–to ‘close’ the series out with. It seems to me that the HH should begin and end with the traitor named in the title; ergo, it should not end until we see the traitor Warmaster dead at the mortally wounded Emperor’s feet. It also reminds us what happens when what should have been a focused series becomes the very antithesis of such. We’ve seen author(s) stating that the sprawl was a good thing–allowing us to view the multitudinous parallel storylines transpiring during the HH–and, while this is true in theory, would not the wisest choice have been to simply create a Warhammer 30,000 novel line from the get-go, so we might see those stories, while allowing the Heresy to stay on track? I believe so; but I am also acutely aware of the brand value associated with the Horus Heresy name. Yes, one can never avoid the business side of business.

With that rant, I mean observation out of the way, it’s time to get to the review of The Buried Dagger. Just to mention, before getting into it, I have not read every Horus Heresy book or story, so I’m sure some of the Easter Eggs may have flown over my head. The short take of this book is that it is very well done; I am aware that many in the fanbase have, ah, varying opinions on James Swallow. I’ve always enjoyed his writing style, and think he’s in fine form here; although, of course, there’s some issues throughout. Let’s take a look at the blurb, and then the book itself.

For long years, the Horus Heresy has ground on. Now, the Death Guard have been sent to begin the final battle. But Mortarion and his sons must face their gravest challenge first – for Nurgle has claimed them as his own, and he will not be denied…

The skies darken over Terra as the final battle for the Throne looms ever closer… As the Traitor primarchs muster to the Warmaster’s banner, it is Mortarion who is sent ahead as the vanguard of the Traitor forces. But as he and his warriors make way, they become lost in the warp and stricken by a terrible plague. Once thought of as unbreakable, the legendary Death Guard are brought to their knees. To save his Legion, Mortarion must strike a most terrible bargain that will damn his sons for eternity. Meanwhile, in the cloisters of Holy Terra, a plot is afoot to create sedition and carnage in advance of Horus’s armies. Taking matters into his own hands, Malcador the Sigillite seeks to put a stop to any insurrection but discovers a plot that he will need all of his cunning and battle-craft to overcome.

We can break The Buried Dagger down into two core storylines: Mortarion’s story, and what’s happening on Terra, in these final days before the armadas of the Warmaster arrive. Examining Mortarion’s tale, which is the core arc of The Buried Dagger, we see that it is woven of two elements: the immeasurable amount of time Mortarion and the Death Guard spend in the limbo of the Warp, and the chronicle of the young Reaper of Men on his adopted homeworld Babarus.

The story opens with the brutally efficient cleansing of a random planet by the Death Guard, upon orders from the Warmaster. At the resolution, Mortarion is given his marching orders to lead the attack on the Palace at Terra. After a fated rendezvous with Typhon, his first Captain and longtime friend, the ships of the Death Guard enter the Warp…and remain.

Meanwhile, on Terra, Malcador and Dorn make their last minute defensive preparations; preparing the planet for the onslaught to come. However, into this hectic schedule, a mystery had arisen, which takes the efforts of the Sigillite’s dedicated Knights-Errant to solve. The discovery of numerous fallen Sisters of Silence; found in states of distress, babbling incoherently in violation of their vows. Further confounding matters, all of these lost Sisters have long been recorded as dead. The race to unravel the mystery runs Nathaniel Garro and the rest of the Knights afoul of the Ruinous Powers of Chaos at every turn. This gives the reader a good perspective of the pervasive state of unrest already palpable on Terra…well before the arrival of Horus’ ships.

So, do these three storylines (Mortarion then, Mortarion now, and the Terra arc) come together in a satisfying confluence? At the risk of sounding terribly ambiguous, I’d say yes…and no. While each aspect is well-written, the blending of them is not so seamless, leading to an experience more akin to having two novellas and a short story jammed together.

Mortarion Then

Possibly the best arc of the book, Swallow paints a sympathetic portrait of the sullen young Reaper. We see the blighted, brutal world of Barbarus, the cruel, twisted Overlords who rule over it; and, in the midst of this perennial misery, the foundling Mortarion, who is little more than a killing tool, earning the endless derision of his Overlord stepfather.

A chance meeting with a clever halfbreed (half Overlord, half “lesser”, or human) youth named Calas Typhon sets the Reaper on a new moral trajectory–instead of being an unappreciated tool, he would set to map his own destiny. This leads the young Mortarion to become a leader of men, a leader of armies, and finally, it delivers him to the two hated paternal entities in his life.

In my opinion, one of Swallow’s greatest strengths is his worldbuilding, and he is in top form here. The Barbarus he crafts is thoroughly bleak and literally toxic; permeated throughout with cruelty, utterly bereft of love and kindness.

The action scenes throughout are well done as well; showing the young Reaper honing his killing craft, allowing the reader to see him first pick up his signature weapon; the scythe, with which he harvests lives wholesale.

The scenes with Calas Typhon are done well; allowing us to see the calculating youth who, under the guise of friendship, has been leading Mortarion down the road to Damnation from the moment their paths first crossed.

Perhaps the only fault one could find with this segment of The Buried Dagger would be in some stilted dialogue; and that’s an issue that runs throughout the entirety of the novel. Nothing dreadful, but it’s not the greatest.

However, an issue (but not necessarily a problem) that presents itself is this–the chronicle of Mortarion’s youth is arguably the longest thread in The Buried Dagger. We are yet to see the Mortarion Primarch novella; it seems to me that the existence of this portion of the book will make that novella redundant. Plus, it remains to be seen as to whether the author of that book will be able to match the quality of the chronicle presented in The Buried Dagger.

Events on Terra

Well, a lot of your enjoyment of this arc is contingent on your feelings for Swallow’s pet character, Nathaniel Garro (and I’ve seen quite different opinions across the board on him). The entire subplot involving the ‘found’ Sisters was quite compelling, and tied deftly into a larger plot involving the hand of Horus himself.

Again, world-building here is a highlight. There are some dynamic setpieces upon which the action takes place; and copious amounts of blood are spilled. Of note is a segment which unfolds against the backdrop of a tropical graveyard of ships (the seafaring type, not the space variety). With toxic flies humming Nurgle’s dark message under a morbid canopy of dangling corpses, it sets a truly grim stage for the action.

The scenes on Terra are also extremely action-heavy. Swallow is a capable writer of action; although neither as dynamic nor flamboyant of some of the other BL authors. While these scenes excite, I can’t help but think some of the hack and slash word count might have been better utilized on describing some of the more advanced defenses and countermeasures which Dorn was overseeing.

Also, the Terra scenes allow us to witness the ‘next step’ for the Knights-Errant; something which long-time fans have been waiting for. While we all know what was coming, there was a twist or two which did surprise me here.

Mortarion Now

Honestly, what should have been the best section, the glorious payoff, was a bit of a letdown. There just wasn’t enough here; and what there was, it lacked in conveying the true stakes, and sense of loss.

Being adrift in the Warp should have served as prime, fertile ground for atmospheric scene-building. Seriously, of all the Chaos gods in the Warhammer mythos, Nurgle has to be the most fun to write about. An author has carte blanche to slather every page, every paragraph, with foetid rot, pus, sickly-sweet corpse aromas, and ever-present buzzing insects. Now, we do get this, but to a degree. There should have been much, much more. Where Mortarion finds himself, his entire Legion decaying around him; some by choice, some against their will, while agonizing over the decision to forfeit his very soul, this was Ground Zero for Grandfather Nurgle. Each page should have been an uncomfortable, stomach-churning experience for the reader; soaked in foulness, drowned in the inherently wrong. The horror of the surroundings should have been trumped only by the horror of what Mortarion was wagering, what he was compelled to place on the line. What he had been flirting with in the dark hours, what thoughts he had entertained as they danced maniacally in the periphery.

Instead of Mortarion being coaxed by Nurgle, instead of this utter pragmatist weighing the pros and cons, we simply get Typhon’s rebirth, some more action scenes, and the acceptance of the Gift as a foregone conclusion. Yes, there are some effective, genuinely scary moments; but the horror should have been pervasive throughout. So, what should have been the thesis of the book comes off as a bit of a rushed afterthought.

Final Thoughts

Again, in The Buried Dagger, three ‘independent’, well-written stories did not necessarily come together to form a singular, effective narrative. Many scenes, while enjoyable, could have been truncated, or altogether eliminated, to add to key areas which were lacking. While I won’t say that the novel feels rushed; I will say that there is definite padding taking place, stretching out scenes with flashbacks within flashbacks; interspersing overlong action scenes where more pertinent action is required.

I guess, in the end, for a warrior of Mortarion’s magnitude, I expected a greater war within for the sake of his very soul. Instead, it all came down to taking a handout from grandpa to help kill your absentee father because you’re pissed he offed your abusive stepfather before you could.

In closing, The Buried Dagger is a good book, and a fine episodic installment in The Horus Heresy. As a ‘close’ for the HH; well we’ve already established that it’s getting a re-name rather than a ‘close’ for the time being. So, while The Buried Dagger is a good book on its own, it will forever remain a mystery why Black Library chose to end their cash cow at this narrative juncture.

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Anthony Giordano

Anthony Giordano was born and raised in NYC, and has been lost, adrift in the Warp (aka Upstate New York) for close to a decade. He reads, he reviews, he writes.