Friday, 13 January 2017

Black Legion: Talon of Horus by Aaron Dembski-Bowden (Warhammer 40,000 Book Review)

This really is long overdue. As a book which was release over a year ago, Talon of Horus really deserved to be covered and analysed to make its greatness clear to others: This is arguably the best book in the entirety of Black Library. Even as someone who holds numerous series in high regard, even as someone who places the Eisenhorn trilogy as one of the best character pieces in science fiction, this one beats the lot of them. That might sound like the sort of comment to leave at the very end of a review, but in all honesty, this is one of the few novels where I am left with little to offer besides praise.

There are three very important reasons this is being covered here and now: 
Firstly, past reviews of Dembski-Bowden's works might have seemed negative to some. While they have never failed to score extremely high marks and recommended them, the fact they highlighted the flaws far more than other reviews might have made this seem backhanded. As such, this seemed necessary to prove that - while I might personally disagree with some of his depictions of characters or reviews on the setting - he is a supremely talented writer. 
In addition to this, Talon of Horus is important to two recent releases. The book's paperback release is one, and the other is Fall of Cadia, which will likely tie in heavily to certain themes first established here. So, to gain some further insight into how Abaddon is to be written, it's well worth taking a look into this one.
Finally, well, I have yet to finish the other small pile of books I need to get through. Though, if you want a short recommendation immediately: Grab Fabius Bile: Primogenitor by Josh Reynolds, as it's definitely one of the best books to come out this winter.

So, with that done, on with the review.


The story here is an odd one as it starts at a point many other authors would usually skip: The Slave Wars. This is an era after the Horus Heresy where the Traitor Legions had fled inside the Eye of Terror, lurking there and quietly fighting one another, and have yet to unite under a Black Crusade. Many warriors have become apathetic with the old goals of the legion, and countless forces have fractured into petty warbands, or descended into infighting. Yet, among these some old bonds of friendship still stand, even between the legions.

Following the seemingly total defeat of the Sons of Horus, and the theft of their primarch's body by the Emperor's Children, Captain Falkus Kibre summons the few allies he has left. His requests are answered by Iskandar Khayon of the Thousand Sons and Lheorvine Ukris of the World Eaters, each exiles of their own legions. Their target is simple: Hunt down and find the Vengeful Spirit, and use it to take revenge.

Things are rarely simple in the Empire of the Eye however, and a lost warrior of Horus' legion will unite them on a blood-soaked path which will reshape the very galaxy itself. This is not the end of the Sons of Horus, it is the beginning of the Black Legion.

The Good:

This is, in many years, the definitive way to depict Chaos from traitor's perspective. While such things have been done in the past with the likes of the Word Bearers trilogy, Ahriman, Iron Warriors, and even this author's own Night Lords books, this is a very different beast. It delves deep into the theories behind Chaos, the nature on how it links into others and the very way in which it affects life. 

Often the book will pause momentarily to set up examples on how mutations are formed by Chaos, the nature of daemons, how they manifest, or even the more tumultuous elements within the Eye. Even without that, it frequently works a number of key pointers into the story which makes the astartes characters both oddly sociable and infinitely more alien. From their old loyalties to the treatment of their servants, the book breaks away from the familiar aspects of the Traitor Legions and almost starts over. Rather than merely being traitorous Imperials, it tries to set them up as an entirely new culture, with a vastly different view of the universe from the Imperium. One which is so vastly different at times that even the odd moments of humanity make the characters seem all the stranger because of it.

It should go without saying that the character interactions here are a strong point of the book. It's a given by this point, anyone who has seen this author's past works can attest to that, and once again this is used to express points in the universe. From the legions themselves to the possible future, Talon of Horus uses their secrets and confrontations to gradually peel away at the universe and dissect a cornerstone of the setting. In this case this theme is one of brotherhood in all its forms. An odd choice to be sure given the typically fractious nature of Chaos Warbands, but thanks to both the point in the timeline and the characters involved, it works perfectly. Just far enough on from the Heresy for it to be only referred to as a long lost event, but not yet far enough along to allow some of the more rampant corruption to take hold, it explores the impact the legions' failure had. Specifically how beings with an intense loyalty written into their very genetic code react to being all but abandoned by their primarchs, and how those who have waged war without their lives respond to losing that singular direction (not to mention the wars themselves).

Obviously such a varied theme requires a varied number of characters, and between the Thousand Sons, World Eaters, Word Bearers and even a few oddities among them, there is plenty to work with. However, what is notable is how the book treats them. True, many are argumentative and even prone to outright conflict, but each is an idealised version of their legion. Iskandar proves to be far more level headed and focused than many of his legion, even if he is prone to remarks of self-superiority and momentary self-pity. Lheor might as well be considered a one-man apology for the legion's depiction in Betrayer, while still reflecting their innate failings. Others such as an Emperor's Children marine, Telemachus, retains an emphasis upon beauty and perfection rather than outright addiction, but still reflects their stylised nature and borderline suicidal arrogance.

Each is almost a lost dreamer of times past - even if they actively deny it - showing what their kin can become in the wake of the Heresy, and just what sort of marine would be drawn to the Black Legion's banners. Given the long journey, character interactions and drama between these groups becomes a surprisingly essential aspect to the plot, shedding further light upon the nature of astartes in the Eye. While they are highly individual and certainly unique among their kind, their interactions can also be seen as something of a representation of the wider legions at first, joining in a tense and extremely cautious alliance to attain a single goal. It helps on occasion to view the book in this regard, as much an internal story as a representation of the changing nature of the legions, especially once they encounter Abaddon himself.

After the primarchs, any mere astartes leading them as Warmaster might have seemed like a step down. In the eyes of many fans, he is someone who simply lacks the skill or qualities of a demi-god forged to lead the astartes, and merely the best choice they have. At first this even looks to be turning into this, as the Abaddon they eventually find is apparently little more than a shadow of his former self. However, it becomes clear in time what what he lacks in power, he more than makes up for in charisma and leadership, which leads to many of the book's most interesting scenes. While the moments building up to this encounter were undeniably powerful, the moments with the future Warmaster are easily the book's greatest scenes. Despite his apparent decrepit state, it quickly becomes clear that there is a level of strategic cunning and sheer brilliance that has been born of his time in the Eye, and a vision for a new path. While attempting to fully describe many of these scenes wouldn't do this justice, I will simply leave the following as a sign of what to expect from these moments

“The Long War, Khayon. The Long War. Not a petty rebellion swallowed by Horus’s pride and his hunger for the Terran Throne. A war for the future of mankind. Horus would have sold the species to the Pantheon for the chance to sit on the Golden Throne for a single heartbeat. We cannot allow ourselves to be used the way he was. The Powers exist and we can’t pretend otherwise, but nor can we allow a sacred duty to devolve into such weakness, as Horus did.”

“A new Legion,” he concluded, surprising several of the others with the offer. “Forged as we desire, not as slaves to the Emperor’s will and cast in the image of his flawed primarchs. Bound together by loyalty and ambition, not nostalgia and desperation. Untainted by the past,’ he said at last. “No longer the sons of failed fathers.”

Now, you might have noted that thus far we have focused largely upon the more introspective moments and character pieces over the bolter porn. Well, there's a reason for that: There just isn't very much of it. It was never written to have this directly in mind, but what little we do get is both excellently depicted and incredibly well placed. With an explosive opening aboard a derelict ship to a void battle like few others, just as you start to wonder if this is a Warhammer novel some bit of satisfying violence will kick in. While never so much as to drown out the character moments, it's enough to easily put it on par with the likes of the Night Lords books, and it never sticks with a single idea for too long. It's the Looper approach to things really, retaining just enough action to hook people in but using the character drama to keep them going.

The Bad:

This is one of the exceptionally few times you will see these words written on this website: I have little to nothing to actually criticise. In fact, the few criticisms which can be genuinely leveled at this book are so minor that in most articles, they would be ignored entirely.

The big reason for this is the framing device of the actual book: The interrogation of Iskandar Khayon. Set long into the future, close to the Thirteenth Black Crusade's beginning, the former Thousand Son has been captured by the Inquisition is undergoing interrogation. As it progresses, he hands over information quite willingly, correcting every statement and going into great detail. Why? Because he was sent there to deliver a message: To tell them that the Imperium is about to fall, the Emperor is already dead, and that they have no hope for the future.

How does this help? For starters, it means that everything Iskandar brings up is immediately in question. No matter how well detailed, no matter how intricate his story elements are, the simple fact is that he has been sent to effectively demoralize them, turning him into an incredibly unreliable narrator. As such, the story can weave in and out of the expected tropes and seemingly impossible twists without it breaking the tale, and permits Dembski-Bowden to really cut loose. 

Previous reviews have noted that he has extremely strong, and very singular, views on how the universe should be and allows little room for anything besides them. As such, by adding this factor into the story, it permits him to enter his own world and version of Warhammer 40,000 without it disrupting any other tale. So, when he claims that an avatar of the Emperor shows up, speaking with a billion screaming souls he has consumed, or a near totally benign deamon shows up, it's hard to hold it against the book. Unlike other stories, it could just be down to Iskandar throwing in a massive fib to see if he can get away with it.

Keep in mind that this sort of thing has been present in many past stories as well, either overtly or as an undercurrent. Both Dan Abnett and Graham McNeill have admitted to toning down the Imperium's more dystopian aspects to benefit their stories, regarding them as boring. In addition to this, books like Simon Spurrier's Lord of the Night threw the depiction of a major character into question - Konrad Curze himself - and left it up to the reader to decide which was truly right. So, taking this one step further here, and so masterfully pulling off this possible tale of lies and truths, is absolutely perfect for this setting. It even helps to bypass the old issue of the Index Astartes being rendered irrelevant, suggesting that either the novel or the original article could be false, rather than simply displacing the previous work.

Beyond the fact that Talon of Horus is built up to effectively break a lot of basic rules and get away with it, we also have the journey itself. Now, despite the title we do not see the beginnings of a Black Crusade. Hell, Abaddon himself doesn't show up until the reader is quite a way through the story, and barring one exception no force from the Imperium ever bothers to put in an appearance. For many, such a seemingly non-start with a remarkably slow burn could have been seen as a failure, but here it works. Why? Because it is still about the foundation of the legion, and its very nature explores why it was so needed.

The slow burn is used to explore the characters who will become a core part of the new legion, the minds who helped shape it, and the sorts of marines who would flock to its banner. The long search for the Vengeful Spirit even takes time to question the nature of the Warp according to Iskandar, and present a vastly different version of the Eye than one might expect. Every moment, every passage, either works towards showing an almost completely reworked setting based upon the views of a loyal follower of Chaos, or sewing the seeds for the Black Legion's rise to power. 

It's akin to Horus Rising in this aspect, and the enthralling characters combined with a positive (but still visibly flawed) take on each legion's representative offsets any dissatisfaction at the lack of apparent progress. Plus, just when you think the book might start to close without substantiating any major step forwards, it takes the time to show the major assault which established Abaddon as a major power within the Eye; so you can't say that it isn't important to the Legion's history.

There are still a few failings which could be held against this book, such as a couple of questionable uses of the Rubricae or the fact the voiceless Word Bearer is simply there as a MacGuffin. However, as stated before, these are things so minor that they would be typically ignored in just about any other work. It would be wrong to hold them against this one purely because there are no greater sins it commits.

So, yes, this is the rare example of a novel which all but completely sidesteps its own odd flaws or even turns them into assets. 

The Verdict

This review honestly doesn't do the book justice. Despite attempting to write this several times, there is simply so much to this novel which cannot be easily expressed, even if we were to delve head long into spoiler territory. It's easily one of the most unique books of the past decade from Warhammer 40,000, and most definitely a new benchmark for the entire franchise. Even if you are opposed to Chaos, even if you dislike this man's other works, you owe it to yourself to give this one a shot. Honestly, no matter the format this is most definitely a book which needs to be read by any 40,000 fan invested in this setting.

Verdict: 10 out of 10


  1. The only thing I have to add to this (aside from I really need to read this book) is that the cover makes a hilarious fantasy/reality comparison if you look at the image of the 'Eye of Terror' codex and compare it to the cover of 'Talon of Horus'.

    Eye of Terror cover being the fantasy, Talon of Horus being the reality of course.

    1. Heh, that is entirely true, and it's certainly interesting to contrast the two. Gotta admit, i'm personally more of a fan of the classic Eye of Terror cover, but the sheer detail of the Talon of Horus design still manages to be horrifying in its own way. It's that odd element where it looks real enough to be disturbing rather than laughable, which is always a risk with this sort of thing.

  2. You're kinda glossing over the ridiculous special snowflake Dark Eldar companion that was both a Scourge and an Incubus. You know the one that was actually an immensely draining body-puppet frankenstein because she and Khaon tried to fight Zarakynel while looting a dead Craftworld?

    You also don't seem to take issue with Khaon not only saying that he knew better than Ahriman and tried to stop the Rubric from being cast, or that he apparently survived being left behind on Prospero because he just had to be the unknown rider that was apparently at every major Legion event without ever previously being mentioned.

    Or that Khaon's tutelary was actually an insanely powerful daemon companion that loves him the whole time he was fighting the Great Crusade and she's also super secret BFFs with his Dark Eldar.

    Or that ADB implies that all the spikes and horns on all chaos forces' armor is just the Warp mutating it that way and none of them really made the conscious decision to modify their wargear because that'd allow other people agency in what ADB seems to view as his canon.

    But I guess all that could just be 'fibs' huh?

    1. Exactly. Normally I would take serious issue with those, but given the nature of this book i'm tempted to actually accept them as signs that this cannot be taken at face value. At first I was incredibly tempted to rip this book a new one over a daemon which was openly benign, openly loyal and retained none of the negative aspects of the book. However, after seriously considering this, I think the fact it opposes the canon and emphasizes that Khaon is likely throwing in lies helps to enhance it. If anything, I think it's something 40K could use more of.

      Take for example First Heretic. Now, that's a fantastic book, arguably one of the best in the Black Library but it retained the problem of effectively saying "This is true, this is the complete truth, none of this is lies." So, when it started hammering down repeatedly on how Chaos was the only way, that Chaos would always win, and that the Emperor was a complete failure and a moron, it seriously detracted from the experience. It seemed to be saying "This is my canon, this is truth now, if you disagree with this you're supporting the wrong side" and produced some rather aweful "fans" who seemed to turn that message into a personal crusade to attack anyone who disagreed with it.

      By focusing and enhancing the fact that this is a very unreliable narrator, ADB is free to explore his stories without it risking screwing over people as before.

      Please don't get me wrong, I do take issue with his views when it tries to alter the canon to fit them or reshapes history in order to suit them (See my Master of Mankind review for that). However, using them to cite how any part of a book could be lies? That i'm actually fine with. Sure, it might be ridiculous and it might break the canon in places, but oddly enough by doing so it limits the "Chaos is the only true way, the Imperium is backwards, failing and wrong" message which usually harms his works.