Some might note we're a little late to the game with this one. Well, there are a few reasons for that, the most relevant of which is re-reading this tome a few times over to really examine its strengths and innate qualities. You see, Chris Wraight's works seem to be akin to a joke or well timed gag in that they need a rapport with the reader right from the start. There needs to be a kind of innate understanding with them to get it firing on all cylinders, and when that isn't the case it can have hits, but they can always seem to be a little off from person to person. Just look at the reception of Wrath of Iron to see how divisive this can be. With that in mind though, Path of Heaven hits it out of the park, and proves to be one of Wraight's best works since Battle of the Fang.
Set four years after the events of Scars, the Legio V is waging a desperate and costly war against the bulk of the traitor legions. With three legions crippled, three more trapped at Macragge and the Imperial Fists refusing to move from Terra, they alone stand in the way of Horus' ambitions. They have fought well, but every second the traitors have been delayed by has been bought with loyalist blood. Now, blooded and drained by the constant warfare, they fight to fulfill the Khan's oath to be there at Terra when the final battle is waged before the Emperor's gates...
This was a bold book to be sure as it several ideas right from the start, any one of which could have easily torpedoed the whole book. Along with the massive time-skip to bring the legion up to date with the rest of the universe, it pulled a complete twist, going right from the victorious and surprisingly hopeful ending of Scars right into a depressing, shattering war. Many characters have seen sudden shifts in that time, others have passed on into short stories and some are even outright dead from the start. However, Wraight handles this magnificently by starting with the enemy. First showing the legion and events of the war from the eyes of the Emperor's Children, we gradually learn of the White Scars' victories, how they have held the line against four major legions and the toll they have taken. It builds them up so, that even upon learning of how the enemy forces have adapted to their tactics, we clearly see how they have had such a massive impact over the past years.
By starting with victories, it makes it clear from the last book that the White Scars and their decision did have a massive impact upon the conflict. It reminds readers of past events, of what took place without citing them exactly, and eases them into the book while still making the shocking reveal of the legion's dilapidated state. Even then, after this and losing a battle, the book takes the time to clearly depict the legion fighting hard and pressing the other legions back as they are losing, showing just why they had those victories. As such, when the reader sees the Scars losing, hears of their losses and reads of characters near broken by the constant fighting, it makes it clear just why they are now taking such losses. As such, when a prominent character from the past book drops dead, one mission fails and another is only a partial success, it never feels as if the legion is simply being whaled upon by the author.
The explosive opening serves several roles besides offering the reader several major conflicts right out of the starting gate. While we see boarding actions on a fleet, champions dueling and a massive orbital invasion rivaling that of Betrayer's best moments, it gives us a clear and present view of each major character and the author's take upon them. Many legions tend to shift depending upon who is writing them either in major or subtle ways, and Wraight is no different in this regard, especially when it comes to the Emperor's Children.
While Nick Kyme and Graham McNeill have both done (mostly) fantastic jobs depicting the Legio III up until now, the former tended to best work with very isolated individual tales while the latter unfortunately went through their entire development in just a scant few years. Wraight's work here takes a very different approach, but it proves to be no less engaging than past authors. He depicts them embrace their corruption, wholly aware of it and the blessing of Chaos even as they lose themselves, yet retaining an odd fatalistic professionalism which focuses upon the best aspects of their glory seeking, perfectionist side. It's a welcome change of pace to be sure, and even allows Eidolon some much needed character development. The same goes for Mortarion as well, who gets more development in a single book than what we have seen throughout almost the entire Heresy. While the action is big, bombastic and explosive, actions remains intact, the book never forgets that the innate character drama is what really gives it life.
The Scars themselves hold up fairly well in addition to this, especially when it comes to Shiban Khan, who serves as key focal points of the story. We see mostly how the war has changed the legion through them, and it's most keenly felt in Shiban's case, given how massively it has wracked his body. While Yesugei returns once more as his usual awesome self, the Chief Librarian's role is largely present to help augment that of Arvida, the last surviving Thousand Sons' loyalist. While this is hardly a bad thing to be sure, the Arvida is clearly the prominent character of their storyline, with his fate and loyalties hanging in the balance, limiting Yesugei to more of a supporting role than past tales. Well, save for one rather final moment between them anyway. It's akin to that of Dantioch and Pollux from the more Ultramar focused stories, and it does help to offer a great deal of closure on certain long suspected subjects involving the Thousand Sons in M41.
Still, the book is hardly completely perfect, and there are a few irritating sticking points which stand out within the tale. The foremost among them is that, as with many of Wraight's books, there's a long wait during the second act. There's an innate element which seems to be true across the board, as much for him as Aaron Dembski-Bowden, in that their books tend to feature massive, heart pumping openings but a very quiet or generally slow middle. Both try to fill this with minor skirmishes and pathos, but its effectiveness does vary quite heavily. In this case, the middle part is certainly engaging, but there's no denying it's a surprising step down from the start, thanks largely to how certain plots seem to keep spinning their wheels. It doesn't keep up the momentum from the first, part, and what could be a quiet moment starts to be dragged out after only a short amount of time.
In a rather surprising twist, Scars itself is almost forgotten by the book and the crux of its drama is extremely toned down. Save for a single - largely background - storyline, the actual mass civil war and conflict is rarely taken into account or fully acknowledged. While some would argue that four years would be enough to forget this, this was not only a mass betrayal by an ally (something unthinkable at these times) but by those within their own legion. It seems strange to simply think that it could be so subdued and almost pointless in the face of new battles.
Jaghatai Khan himself is also an odd on here. More distant than many of his contemporaries, we don't see too much of him at all throughout the book, and much of what we know is told only through second hand information. While (barring a few exceptionally well written passages) it's usually best to keep out of a primarch's inner thoughts, we really learn very little at all of him here. He seems to be affected by the same exhaustion as the rest of his legion, certainly, but beyond that we get alarmingly little to expand upon his role or even much time in the spotlight at all.
Finally, the finale is odd to say the least, as it certainly offers as explosive and dramatic a battle as any fan of M31 would want, yet a few storylines seem forced shut. It's not so much that they're left dangling as brought to a very abrupt halt without much warning, as if to close them off rather than leave them for future books. This is hardly a bad thing given the sheer number of short stories surrounding this era, but it's still disappointing to see certain ones come to an abrupt end rather than a natural one.
Despite a few problems though, The Path of Heaven is a definite success and an engaging read, focusing upon the war beyond Ultramar once again. It offers just about everything a fan of the White Scars would want and plenty of elements on the Warmaster's side as well, and any Death Guard fan is sure to have some fun seeing Mortarion get some time in the limelight. If you're trying to get back into the series, or just want to see that extra step towards the Siege of Terra, be sure to pick this one up.