It's been some time since we have last had a truly out-and-out traitorous book. With the developments surrounding the Imperium Secundus, the push towards the Siege of Terra and the gathering of forces, a few elements have been left by the wayside. Many among the traitors' ranks are still unaccounted for, and seem to have been left to their own devices. This is true of the Thousand Sons more than any other force as, in its full spectacle, A Thousand Sons managed to tell their entire story within a single volume. In what remains one of the series' greatest releases, it told the reader everything of the Sons' rise and fall, meaning you might be left wondering what else is there to tell. A lot, as it turns out.
The Crimson King examines what happened to the legion in the wake of its arrival on the Planet of Sorcerers, and the gathering of its remnants. Magnus' faustian pact is known to many, and the legion itself is ravaged with the flesh change once more, but their story is not over. Magnus himself wants little to nothing to do with the ongoing conflict, and busies himself with desperately attempting to restore their lost repository of knowledge. Unfortunately, even this is denied to him. Robbed of much of his power, he is slowly fading with every passing effort. Now, it falls to the Sons to rescue him, no matter the cost.
A major positive in favour of The Crimson King is how it tries to simply follow on from the past story. While there are a few shout-outs and references to larger events, you could easily go right from A Thousand Sons to this without the need to read anything between them. A few elements do arise and a number of characters previously isolated from events do appear, but in the vast majority of cases you quickly get the gist of things within the book. It's something always worth citing as a major strength in any long running series, and an indication that the writers involved have not become so wrapped up within their own story that it is no longer accessible to casual readers. Even without that though, the book does a surprisingly good job of filling in certain details for itself, giving you just enough to keep going and even reminding you of a few critical elements which might have been forgotten in the intervening years.
The characters prove to be a major driving point in the story as ever, and you start to finally see where the Thousand Sons might become their more malevolent selves. While A Thousand Sons set up their fall, the fault largely lay with Magnus himself and few to no characters displayed any indication of falling to Chaotic influences. Here however, you start to slowly understand how even those so badly burned by Chaos as the Sons could be gradually pushed into its service. Ignoring how psychic powers were core to their very culture, even accepting that the Sons' own thirst for knowledge led them to damnation, you quickly see how they are all but addicted to knowledge. Even caution only tempers this by so much, and Ahriman's opening scenes quickly make it clear that they are far from above using their own powers to attain their goals, even with the risks it incurs.
The desperation of the situation has altered the legion as a whole, but much like the Iron Warriors in Angel Exterminatus, you can still see elements of their loyal selves in their actions. It is simply tainted with bitterness and desperation now, and even with their best efforts it is clear just how easily even the best of them can fall prey to the worst of temptations. While the story is hardly subtle when it comes to this point - and Ahriman carrying the Book of Magnus is enough of a reminder on its own - many of the core elements are well executed enough that it's hard not to enjoy it. The subject of daemons and attempts to fight fate in particular stand out as some of the story's highlights, and moments both during and between the major battles return to the same points time and time again. Just as soon as you think you have made your mind up on one subject, something will be added to quickly change it, hooking you until the end.
The battles themselves are what you would expect from McNeill by now - Big, bloody, fast and excellently told, but props need to be given to his presentation of psychic combat. It seems that this book was an excuse for the author to truly cut loose and play with a few ideas, so with have psychic powers being used for any number of things over time, from trying to predict the future of a medical operation to altering the senses. Plus it's used to show off their power with body horror which would leave John Carpenter applauding the descriptions. As psychic powers rip men inside out, mutations plague many marines and warriors are cut in twain, the book always makes it clear just how visceral each fight truly is. No matter which side is winning, the actual blows will always be among the most satisfyingly brutal of the series so far.
There also seems to have been a concerted effort to correct a few past perceived mistakes, both in regards to certain armies and characters. While he might have seen his fair share of successes, there is no denying Lucius tended to end up worse in McNeill's books. Yet here he's back to full strength, and happily dueling his way up the ranks, one warrior at a time, even using his trademark whip to easily overcome a few powerful foes. The loyalists meanwhile have the benefit of a much more traditional depiction of the Space Wolves (because, as welcome as stereotype breaking depictions are, sometimes you just need the fun of a boisterous space viking who can back up his boasts) but also the Ultramarines. The latter in particular proves to be one of the best quietly badass figures we have seen in a while. A former Chief Librarian turned Knight Errant, Dio Promus lacks the more overt pushes and glorification you would expect, but nevertheless shows off the best of his legion's capabilities. By the book in the best way, carefully tactical, pragmatically using the abilities of others as needed while being a powerhouse in his own right, he serves as the Sons' main threat for much of the book. The opening chapters sell it so well that, upon encountering two of the best swordsmen in the legion, he is able to force them into retreat with a casual threat.
Naturally, there is a very tragic end to all of this. Unfortunately it is next to impossible to explain without spoiling almost the entire book, so I will simply say that it was very satisfying. It lacked the direct nature and sheer impact of A Thousand Sons' finale but it nevertheless proved to be a fantastic next step on their way to damnation. Especially when it came to using many seemingly unchanged elements or more positive qualities of the Sons against them during their final hours before they performed an unthinkable act.
If there is a major negative to be found here, it stems largely from the introduction. While many key elements are explained, outlined and even expressed through descriptions, it lacks the proper build-up or lead-in you would expect. Honestly, upon reading it for the first time i almost thought that there was a chapter missing due to the abrupt nature of the start, and the lack of coverage for certain key elements. While fans of the audio dramas will know why Lucius is with the Thousand Sons, his presence can be extremely perplexing at first, and the attempt at a cold open just doesn't work. It evens out quickly, but even after having re-read it several times, there is a distinct lack of key information.
Another definite problem is how, while you can see how Chaos itself and even element of Prospero's burning have impacted the legion, it lacks much of the scarring you would expect. Oh it was a traumatic event, but the book treats it as having had less of an impact upon the Sons than the Drop Site Massacre did upon the shattered legions. This is almost certainly in part the fault of a time-skip, but even accounting for that it just lacks much of the punch you would expect for such a tale. The Sons lost everything after all, but they are persevering and surviving, almost treating the burning of Prospero as a setback at points.
The more obvious nature of the book also hurts a few plot elements which were treated as major twists. They weren't. There's one or two you can see coming from whole chapters away due to some heavy foreshadowing. While the actual execution might have been enjoyable, waiting for it to take place simply meant it lacked much of the plot relevance it was obviously supposed to have. This in turn also hurts the Sons, as it's always painful to read any book where any supposedly smart man can't see the answers before him, but all the more so when this should have been taught to them from past pains.
Finally, the biggest bugbear stems from Magnus himself oddly enough. He takes a back seat in this story, and while that is certainly fine given his more prominent role in past books, there are times when he seems far more like a story device than a true character. He's there to be reacted to and create the key event which pushes the plot along, and while his conversation with Lorgar is one of the book's most enjoyable bits, it's certainly not up to scratch with what we have seen before. Having legionaries stepping out from under the primarchs' shadows is often a good thing, but that doesn't mean it should come at the cost of the primarchs themselves.
Overall, this is a very solid read. Definitely flawed in places and there will be sections you will want to skip, but still enjoyable. There's no denying this could have been a much more well rounded tale with a little more time, and the awkward opening hurts it more than anything else, but once the ball gets rolling it proves to be another success story. If you enjoyed the likes of The Outcast Dead or Scars, where you knew something critical was wrong but could still have some fun with the tale and all its tidbits of lore, this is definitely one of you. Otherwise, pick it up softback but don't shill out for the hard cover publications.
Oh, and for those wondering, yes there is a Stephen King shout out, only it's not to the story you're thinking of.
Verdict: 6.8 out of 10