Sunday, 28 August 2016

Praetorian of Dorn by John French (Horus Heresy Book Review)


Given the Horus Heresy's sheer scale, it was inevitable that certain figures tend to slip through the cracks. Oh, you get retcons to explain away certain ideas, changes to the lore to suit others or even full novels later on, but in many cases certain aspects are conspicuously absent. In this particular case, authors seem to have this habit of playing favourites with certain legions, focusing upon certain ones while others have lacked a true novel to themselves. As such, Imperial Fists supporters were initially elated to see Dorn on the front cover and hoped for a true novel exploring the legion. If you're one of those fans, this might not be the novel you're expecting though.

Holding their ground on Terra, the veterans of the VIIth continue to construct their defences against the impending traitor threat. With Mars still blockaded and the Sol System under threat, the cradle of humanity has been secured by their long vigil. However, traitor elements have already arrived in strength, and soon inflict more damage than Dorn or Malcador himself could ever predict. With the Alpha Legion inflicting untold damage across the planet, many wonder if even the Praetorian himself can truly guard Terra's gates for much longer.

So, this is less a solo Imperial Fists novel than one following the Alpha Legion and their shadow war with the Fists. While this is sure to put off some readers  thanks to the XXth's overexposure in a few novels and their relentless "all your base are belong to us" invincibility. However, Praetorian of Dorn manages to correct many long standing issues, both with the legions and the novel formats themselves. Much of this is down to the author for this book, John French, and the subjects he's most familiar with. 

While sadly overlooked compared with the likes of Aaron Dembski-Bowden and Dan Abnett, French is one of Black Library's most reliable authors and displays a clear understanding of how to use flaws or failure; something which was a prominent theme in his Ahriman trilogy. However, despite this he never repeats Betrayer's mistake of examining or exaggerating these flaws until they are a non-threatening joke of an army; never losing sight of what made them such an effective force in the first place. Oh the Alpha Legion breach the Fists' defences easily enough and unleash a blistering sequence of diversionary tactics, but the Fists quickly recover quickly enough and even turn this act against them. This keeps the reader guessing who might come out worse from this fight, and a few surprising deaths helps to reinforce this uncertainty. Really, there are some big name characters who meet their end here, and you won't see it coming until the very end.

What's more interesting however, is how the book is structured. Even more so than many of the bigger and bulkier tomes, this proves to be a story of stories, weaving a very complex and layered multi-story arc. From the very beginning, we have a broad spectrum of individual tales across the Sol System, from the slums to a cargo vessel, setting things up for the expected diverse series of stories. Or we do, at least until there is a remarkable bait and switch which perfectly reflects Alpha Legion tactics. Equally, at first the Fists themselves are shown only following a single narrative thread which seems ready to fail, only for it to immediately override many of the others, countering and blocking them as they come up against it. The very narrative structure of the book is worked and woven to reflect their tactical doctrines, even as it explores themes of pride, duty, stagnation and paranoia. It's something which is hard to truly pick up upon at first, but it's a subtle edge which makes the book stand out all the more. Especially when it starts to shift to reflect their own innate failings and shifting tactics.

So, we've spoken a great deal about the story structure and how it presents its forces, but what about the world and its characters? Well, it's a John French novel. As such, it relies upon upon certain detailed actions and building a very distinct atmosphere than the sorts of lengthy, world building, descriptions you might expect. This is sure to be a make or break point for many readers, as many locations can seem oddly nebulous or indistinct at times, and it lacks some of the vivid imagery which other authors have long since mastered. However, the book overcomes this thanks to its complex and diverse protagonists and how it presents them. Rather than a single hero, we follow a single figure from each legion, each following a more unconventional approach to what we would expect. 

Neither is your common or garden example from either legion, or even the pinnacle of what they are capable of, and this allows them to reflect upon some of the stranger aspects of the VII and XX. Through their eyes we see a different shade of the forces we're used to, which goes a long way to adding more life to these legions, but also to the characters themselves. We often see them in conflict or communication with the upper echelons of their respective forces, and in playing off one another the reader is given a better sense of where they stand. Even if that were not enough, we also have some quite extensive flashbacks to their lives, from their initiation to rising through the ranks. While each is extensive, practically a brilliant short story in their own right, French manages to prevent them bringing the narrative to a screeching halt by placing them during lulls in the action or where a time-skip is needed. It's one of an exceptionally small number of novels which can truly pull off this stunt.

Best all of all however, Praetorian of Dorn reflects one of the best ways to truly depict a protagonist. We never see things through Dorn's eyes, we never fully get inside his head until quite late on, and for the most part we see him through others. Oh, we learn details about him and his personality, but it gives him an edge of mystery. It's that aspect of separation which can make a character all the more engaging when done well, especially when they're shown to be so much more powerful than the average human. It's one reason why, until Paul Cornell's excellent works, we never saw inside the Doctor's head in Doctor Who.

Oddly enough, Praetorian of Dorn's problems lie more in its length and focus more than anything else. While offering an extremely strong middle, much of the start proves to be oddly chaotic at first, and the reader is dropped into a bewildering forest of separate sub-plots all at once. While they are quickly sorted out, it can leave a reader confused for the first fifty pages, or forced to go back and re-try the book's opening segments more than once. What's more, the final few chapters seem oddly sparse, almost rushed in how they were presented. While featuring some very interesting twists - and one of the best duels the series has had to date - the events about them were dragged out, almost to the point of padding in some places.

Many of the human characters also suffer in the presence of the astartes, and French's style of writing sadly rarely favoured them. While the man can certainly nail the ultra-disciplined and controlled approach of the astartes, and even highly trained operatives, it does not work half as well with the Imperium's more common denizens. Even then, a few secondary characters who leave a big impact by founding certain later chapters seem to have been boiled down to their bare essentials at times. They're not so much the men who might forge these armies as amalgamations of their best qualities, and this is only occasionally offset by some quite memorable conversations.

However, the big one which is likely to stand out more than anything else is how surprisingly small scale the whole book can seem. While this is certainly a shadow war, the massive opening strike and sheer immensity of some of the initial terror attacks never seemed to resonate within the book. Despite the Alpha Legion using relatively small teams, they unleash an assault so large that, at first, the Imperial Fists believe that the Warmaster's invasion has started early. However, so little is done to truly reflect upon this, or depict the damage in detail, that their efforts lack the narrative punch they definitely need. It makes man events outside of direct combat almost ineffectual when it comes down to it.

Still, while it is hindered by a few obvious flaws, Praetorian of Dorn is still a definite success. As the latest in a winning streak of great novels for this franchise, what we get marches the story further along, provides some shocking twists, a few new details, but isn't afraid to try something new. Even if you're not a fan of the Fists or are perhaps even a little jaded when it comes to the Alphas, this is still highly recommended and proof French definitely needs to be commissioned for more novels in this series. So long as he's kept far away from Perturabo, it seems there is little he can do wrong.


Verdict: 7.4 out of 10

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