Sunday, 26 June 2016

Horus Heresy: Angels of Caliban by Gav Thorpe (Book Review)

It's a difficult thing to predict when a nightmare tale will truly end. At every twist and turn, every new flip of a coin, the narrative might take pause to put a far darker spin upon things, or unveil some new horror no one could have predicted. That said, of late there has been an apparent push to start edging towards the Horus Heresy's end and the climactic Siege of Terra. After the White Scars finally returned to humanity's cradle and so many short stories were collected into single volumes, plots are slowly being tied up and ended. Now it seems the biggest of them is being closed off - The Unremembered Empire. Already reeling from the pyrrhic events of Sotha, Guilliman's Imperium Secundus is hard pressed thanks to distrust among brothers and enemies within their walls. Its days are numbered, and with events on Caliban spiraling out of control, a reckoning between old foes may be the war which finally shatters the kingdom once and for all.

Like many of the recent books, Angels of Caliban is less the tale of a single legion than it is several heroes spread across the Legiones Astartes. As such, it takes the time to give greater insight into the Death Guard, Ultramarines, Blood Angels and the humans serving the Imperium during this era. Even when it does place its focus upon the Dark Angels themselves, time is taken to cover the divides and smaller cultures present within the legions. This not only offers the book the sort of scale such a massive event truly needs, but encapsulates a real sense of legacy among its forces. Rather than merely having certain warriors reflecting nostalgically about the early days of the Great Crusade, we're given flashes of insight and brief moments to emphasise how different that era truly was. It's easy to forget just how much the galaxy has changed since this series started; but when older warriors discuss the reasons for the First Legion lacking so many Tech-Priests, the formations of the Orders or old friendships among the primarchs, it enhances that sense of age far more than many a novel from this series.

Flashbacks to earlier days do arise from time to time, only further enhancing this sense of age. After almost thirty books, a brief glimpse back into the days where Horus was loyal is practically surreal. Seeing him behaving in his boisterous, jovial and bellowing manner is almost shocking after all this time, and Thorpe goes out of his way to emphasise the elements the primarch has lost since that age. Equally, many figures picked out for such sections tend to be those reshaped by the war, with an extended segment within Typhon's head offering some much needed insight into the future host of the Destroyer Hive. While certainly praiseworthy, what makes these segments stand out is how well each is always tied back into the core plot rather than being left to meander for most of the book. While they offer a welcome glimpse into a more hopeful past, their ultimate role is to emphasise the long standing divide between Luthor and the Lion. Like many elements within the story, such moments are short but very satisfying, serving as effective reminders without ever feeling overly repetitive or out of place.

Where the book truly tends to shine, however, is when the primarchs are gathered in one place. For someone whose works have involved little of their rivalries or relationships, Thrope handles their actions with a deft hand. While they're certainly verbose and oddly blunt at times, there's always an element of humanity to their actions through the larger-than-life behaviour. We were given a brief glimpse of this in one of Deliverance Lost's better moments, the brief reunion between Corax and Dorn, and here it truly shines. This is especially clear during the closing chapter of the book, which still hits the reader like a hammer despite knowing the revelation the loyalists uncover long before they were even aware of it.

Unfortunately, the larger-than-life aspects of the tale are a hindrance as much as an asset. While he can write astartes, primarchs, daemons and the like with ease, Thorpe seems to have difficulty writing normal humans when they're about, or sticking to simpler plot devices. The few human characters here never sound as if they're normal folks among giants, and even the astartes themselves push suspension of disbelief a little too hard with their overtly clipped exchanges at times. This is only further hurt by the fact that several key events within the story can only work thanks to supreme idiocy upon the part of one character or another, especially on Caliban. We literally have a warrior forget that he is speaking to a turncoat who murdered several of his closest brothers and betrayed him in the space of five seconds, before hanging onto his every word. Moments like this are so jarring they break the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere the book so expertly sets up, and bring it to near ruin more than once.

A further failing is that there is very little in the way of explanations or updates from smaller works. A number of audio dramas and short tales helped to explore the Dark Angels' role in this war, and without reading all of them you'll be completely lost as to what is going on. Both Zahariel and Astelan suffer badly from this thanks to a very abrupt introduction; meaning even completion may want to take a refresher course on the lore before getting into this latest book. Even if you were to do so however, you might notice that certain personality quirks don't quite line up with prior depictions, and that several characters seem to have jumped over a few steps on the road to treachery.

There is also the matter of combat to be considered and how it is presented here. While certainly not bad by any means, more than a few eagle eyed readers might quickly pick up on the fact that it only works in certain bits. For example, the opening chapters in the Imperium Secundus feature some fantastically overt battles, including a full scale planetary assault by the Deathwing. It's certainly entertaining and will quickly get you hooked, but you might also notice that much of it follows only a single character. Many of the best moments are reserved for one-on-one duels and there are few points where the characters wade fully into multi-man-melees. There's also rarely a point where the book truly emphasises the scale or pressing conflict of two armies wading into battle against one another, and it often relies purely upon statistics or numbers to back this up. Compared with the likes of Armatura and the prior two novels, this is a definite step down in terms of big scale combat, and this can leave readers understandably disappointed.

For all these flaws however, there's no denying that Angels of Caliban is still a worthwhile read. Thanks to both its strong character driven moments and broad scope, there's no denying that the bad is well worth stomaching for the good and its importance in the series as a whole is undeniable. This said, those who have had difficulty with Thorpe's prose in the past will likely be left tearing their hair out at this one, so take the time to read a few extracts before grabbing it.

Verdict: 6.3/10

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