Master of Mankind's greatest strengths and failings come down to its author. Yes, that's an obvious statement and true of every book, but it's a point which is truly exemplified here.
What the novel offers readers is a glimpse into the raging war throughout the beginnings of the Imperial Webway, a look into the Custodian Guard, and even an examination of the Emperor himself. Even without the Titan battles, the Mechanicus storylines and flashbacks to past eras, all of these are weighty events which could have crushed a weaker narrative or less skilled author. The fact he was able to keep each of them balanced against one another, with each narrative thread remaining distinct and without clashing against others, is a testament to Aaron Dembski-Bowden's skill as a writer. Few could have managed to examine them in such a fascinating light either, or given them the sense of grandeur they required to press home their importance.
That said, and there is a "but" here, as much as it amplifies his strengths it amplifies a few irritating points of his writing. Especially writing set in this universe. We'll get to that later on though.
To start with the positive points, as expected the story has a very narrow and concise focus placed upon the war in the Webway. This shouldn't be too much of a surprise for anyone familiar with the Night Lords trilogy, or even Betrayer, but it's especially evident here. Given the opportunity to fully explore the Imperial Palace, and the variety of locations on hand, the book's focus could have easily wavered and become distracted by secondary details, robbing the reader of this one moment to see the conflict beneath the seat of Imperial power. Instead, while we are granted brief moments of insight into the wider world, much of it is directly worked into and about the war itself.
Such points are especially evident when it comes to the Imperial Knights involved and the presence of a lone Blood Angel, both of which could have easily seemed obtrusively tacked on points to the story, but instead they enhance the tale and grant a few moments of insight per page. It's rarely ever enough to give the full picture of course, but the moments granted are enough to give an impression of the deeper world about them.
As you can imagine, the book instead puts a vast amount of time into examining three things above all else - The Emperor's personal guards, the Emperor himself, and the Imperial Webway. There is also Arkhan Land to a lesser degree, who serves as the major Mechanicus presence in the book, but much of his involvement comes down to fleshing out his own personality over seriously getting into the meat of things. While each of these points isn't delved into with the depth and detail one might expect from what was done to the Legions, it nevertheless sheds a great deal of light on the subject.
The Custodes in particular are seen to be oddly limited at first, lacking many of the internal traditions and individual distinction you would expect, until the novel begins adding some surprising subtleties to their roles. Through the eyes of a few distinct characters, the reader begins to see what separates them from both astartes and humans alike, and how they are more than just a marine on more 'roids. Individualistic but united, insular but ever aware of the universe, each is as much a reflection of the Emperor himself as the astartes are their primarch. The odd unity they can manage despite their individuality is a key part of the story's core themes, and unlike past outings it is rarely presented as a major failing.
Choice is a key part of the tale, along with consequences. While this has been true throughout the Heresy, Master of Mankind approaches it in a myriad of ways, from examining the inevitability of certain hard decisions to the unpredictability of the future. Throughout its pages we see almost every aspect of it introduced, brought up and considered, but without the definitive or singular focus of other tales. It's far more subtle, far more varied than the likes of Aurelian and the importance is placed more upon the here-and-now rather than how far reaching the results of a decision might be. We have already seen that, and when the novel does need to bring up such moments, it does so with more indirect reminders, such as the Emperor's decisions surrounding Angron. We have already seen the results firsthand, so it remains an effective and atmospheric addition to the book without limiting its focus.
Of course, many people will be picking this up to learn about the Big E himself. He's on the cover, he's in the title and he's the head honcho of this Imperium. People are eager to know more about him, and Dembski-Bowden delivers. While wisely keeping a number of key facts to himself, and keeping readers guessing, the book offers further insight into the Emperor's past life. We see in it reflections of his actions on Terra, his moments leading the Thunder Warriors and even a fleeting look into his earliest days. While little is commented upon when it comes to his personal origins or even his true nature, we see enough to know more of his methods, ideas and mental state than ever before. He's less the God here than he is the man, albeit a powerful one and ever the master architect of humanity's future. A few age old questions are even answered, at least to a limited degree, balancing out certain aspects of his character.
The battles, when the book stops to wholly focus upon them, are well told, but that's to be expected at this point. While he lacks the sheer punch of McNeill's works or Abnett's sheer attention to detail, the thematic and emotive qualities of Dembski-Bowden's books cannot be denied. More-so than anyone else, he will always seek to use the battles as an extension or final point to his themes, often using them to resolve major character arcs or shifts; blending them directly into the moment rather than breaking them up during and after a conflict.
This is best seen throughout the climactic battle, and no matter the scale of the engagement, every shot, punch or stab carries with it a sheer weight and impact few books can match. Really, the finale is easily one of the best since Helsreach, and retains three of the best last-second twists of any Black Library book. Also, yes, there are a lot of surprise twists, but surprisingly they manage to be presented without feeling as if they have piled up in one place or are at risk of overwhelming the reader.
Between these elements, you're left with a fantastic book, an incredible one which pushes the boundaries and delivers points about the universe no other series could hope to make. Unfortunately though, it's far from perfect, and this is where that aforementioned "but" finally swings into play. For, while this book is excellent, it is also deeply flawed in a number of places.
The first one to note is that the core story is incredibly stretched out. Many of Dembski-Bowden's main stories will stick to simple and direct core plots as a basis for stories.
In Blood Reaver we had Night Lords looking to repair a ship, joining a strike against a stronghold, betraying their alliance and escaping.
In Betrayer we had the Shadow Crusade attacking one stronghold, flying elsewhere and then performing a climactic battle.
In Helsreach, we had the Black Templars joining up with problematic allies, defending the hive, slowly losing it, and then managing to hold the city during the finale.
Other authors perform similar acts, but whereas they will often look to spice it up with some world changing event or element unique to the canon, Dembski-Bowden uses drama and conversation to flesh them out. So, while Seventh Retribution (and many Ben Counter stories, for that matter) would deal with something which could reshape the setting itself by introducing something wholly new or twisting an old idea; Soul Hunter works to make itself stand out thanks to character dynamics, drama and a complex web of personal character arcs. One is extrospective in terms of the canon, the other highly introspective.
Such a style has always been what has helped make this author stand out, but in Master of Mankind it sadly doesn't quite work. Much of that is down to the characters and style of figures involved, who lack the more humanely flawed or outright corrupted qualities he tends to work best with. Bereft of those traits,the Custodes, Sisters and many others seem oddly lifeless on an individual level. They're competently written and conceptually interesting for sure, but many lacked that same connection his Traitor characters benefited from. It's down to presentation and style, and perhaps even a few thematic qualities, but there's something to be said when I can still clearly remember the names of Betrayer's tertiary characters, but no Custodian besides Ra - AKA a primary character the book follows more than anyone else.
The character aspect itself might have been a minor problem were it not for how it seems to have effected other aspects as well. While the book's structure is as dynamic, varied and chaotic (please, that's not a pun) as past books, it manages to seem somewhat disjointed by comparison. Despite the seemingly overstretched nature of the core tale, events never seemed to fully link up properly, with the flashbacks and side elements never adding to the kind of expected cohesive work you might expect. Much of this is down to the pacing and presentation, with some of the flashbacks and historical qualities robbing necessary details from the actual war itself. As such, the actual progress of the conflict seems to massively jump around; with the book going from "we're struggling to hold the line" to "we're doomed!" at the drop of a hat.
Another quite pressing issue is actually the location itself. Warhammer is a setting with countless weird, wonderful and downright unsettling locations, where Napoleonic aesthetics and attires can blend with Neolithic terrors and far future creations. Whether it's a stable, civilized world or a festering tomb of a planet bowing to the Ruinous Powers, it can always stand out. The Webway here, though? It's practically unremarkable. While a few comments are offered surrounding the architecture of its former masters, and a few interesting Imperial perspectives upon the downfall of the Eldar Empire, the Webway almost seems mundane.
There's nothing truly alien about it, little which seems unsettling, unreal or even otherworldly, and many of those there just react with a dulled "Oh, we're fighting here now" attitude. Even those who are late arrivals to the war, or lack the extreme discipline of the Custodes, fail to show anything besides mild interest, and it's a major disappointment for so unique a battlefield.
However, perhaps the biggest problem overall is the Emperor himself, and how certain events are presented surrounding him. Dembski-Bowden is an excellent writer, he has a view of Warhammer 40,000 which allows him to craft tales of unparalleled quality and scope, and even add twists few would have ever expected. However, he seems to be very adamant in sticking to a few key viewpoints over all others, and never wavering from them in the slightest.
Now, no one is requiring him to be unbiased or even to re-write his ideas to try and wholly incorporate the views of other writers. Nor is this likely done out of sheer favouritism (see the works of Karen Traviss for an actual example of that) as his stories seem to be there to explore the universe rather than simply stamp down his views. In his opinion, what makes the story more interesting is to have a more anti-Imperial approach to things, where Chaos will always win no matter what. This can work for a single series or novel, but without that room left for other writers to build upon the universe it can cause problems.
For starters, it makes everything fairly boring. If only one side has ever been winning, without anything ever stopping or coming close to halting it, what's the point in getting invested in it? Really, as doomed as humanity seemed to be in A Song of Ice and Fire and even the Lovecraft Mythos, there were always ways around that single loss subject. In the former's case, there's still enough hope that humanity's old foe might be beaten, while the latter was helped by its genre conventions and without the need for an ongoing saga. Even the likes of Battlestar Galactica, a series about survival when all hope was lost, avoided saying "The Cylons will lose in the long run" as it would rob all investment from the viewer.
Most times Dembski-Bowden has gotten away with this sort of single-minded approach has been helped by the story being set in late M41 or through the use of unreliable narration. By having and Imperial side here backing up that one viewpoint, with possible no opportunity to consider alternative depictions, it limits the story. You no longer have those questions, that suspension of disbelief, you're just waiting around until you see, yes, Chaos wins and that's that. Well, how predictable, I guess I was invested in the wrong side.
This isn't simply to say Chaos is wholly positive in this writer's eyes (as we have an very abrupt paragraph in here to remind us of how Khorne's warriors are more a threat to themselves than an enemy, and how the World Eaters are complete failures) nor the Imperium wholly negative (As Betrayer's Ultramarines embrace their worst qualities in being simply better than everyone at everything, and will never lose save for extreme circumstances). Yet, as each story always sticks to that single defining view of each faction saying "this is right, there are no exceptions, no alternative views on the subject" and going from there, this can become a problem in a story about a figures who are supposed to be very ambiguous. As such, despite his incredibly well-written nature, the Emperor is unfortunately where the book stumbles most.
The book repeatedly reinforces how flawed, failing and mortal he is time and time again, likely as a subversion to the mysticism behind him. Yet, because it keeps hammering in weaknesses and shortcomings, because it keeps focusing upon his more negative traits while avoiding the potentially more hopeful themes, it becomes as infuriating as it is interesting. The interpretation here is of a narrow minded extremist who was always going to fail, and who would do anything to see his dreams brought to fruition.
According to this, the Emperor viewed his sons as nothing more than weapons, would sacrifice anyone and anything for his personal benefit, and was even more flawed than Magnus the Red. There's no room left here for the greater being other books suggested might exist, or even the more sympathetic man briefly seen in The Outcast Dead. If this book is to be believed, the Emperor was simply a tyrant seeking ultimate control, who failed and took down everyone with him. In trying to further explore the Emperor's ideas, despite keeping his history and certain qualities hidden, it ends up making him far less interesting as a character.
In many ways, the depiction of the Emperor and his Custodians here is very much akin to Angron and the World Eaters in Betrayer. In the name of character examination, Dembski-Bowden focused primarily upon their flaws and failings, enhancing them and exaggerating them. The problem is that, like there, he took it to a point where the story outright ignores many of their strengths and failed to ever balance out this problem, meaning we're left with a very singular, very narrow, depiction of a force who are just outright failures within the setting. Much as I do genuinely praise the effort, forethought and work put into such a dynamic story, this failing above all else ultimately leaves an unsatisfying quality to the tale.
On the whole Master of Mankind is a solid entry into the Horus Heresy series and a great read, but it's oddly almost in spite of itself. Speaking personally, much as I did enjoy the ideas and concepts introduced, so much here worked against the story that I was always left with the sense of almost disliking the fact I was engaged by it.
It is in many ways akin to the stories of Geoff Johns at DC Comics, especially when it comes to big events. The likes of Blackest Night and Infinity Crisis both hinge upon infuriating, and often extremely negative, trends but the sheer direction and talent behind them helps it pull through. For some that's arguably the highest praise possible, that someone can take a widely derided story element or aspect and make it work despite a reader's inherent opposition for them; but personally it always made me feel that this was a great story, but one which could have been reworked to be a high point for the entire franchise.
Should you get it? Most definitely, as it's a tale which manages to even outshine the winning streak we've had since Pharos, but just be sure you don't completely buy into the hype.
Verdict: 7.7 out of 10