Friday, 19 February 2010
‘A Thousand Sons’ – Graham McNeill (Black Library)
Once upon a time, the galaxy spanning anarchy of the Horus Heresy was little more than the occasional battle report in ‘White Dwarf’ magazine decorated with a couple of paragraphs of story here and there to spice things up. At least that’s how it looked to me at the time and I was left wondering just what had happened in all the gaps in between. It took a few years but it was almost as if the Black Library had somehow heard my unspoken cry and decided to set things straight once and for all...
The ‘Horus Heresy’ series has set out to tell the definitive tale of just how the Imperium of Man turned on itself all those millennia ago (or ‘all those millennia still to come in the future’, depends how you look at it really). On the whole, it’s done a remarkable job and is now pretty much the Black Library’s flagship series. My reading of the series has been fragmented to say the least, I’m getting there though! Out of all the books I’ve read though, it’s Graham McNeill’s work that has stood out here (although Dan Abnett edges him in terms of books written for the Black Library overall) so when I got a chance to read ‘A Thousand Sons’ I had a feeling I’d be in for a bit of a treat.
I got that treat although this is a book that I think will be more of a treat to the long term fan...
The Great Crusade is at it’s height and the ‘Thousand Sons’ Space Marine Legion are amongst it’s most loyal advocates; their quest for knowledge tempered only by their loyalty to the Emperor. This quest for knowledge has led them into the realms of the arcane and as such, they are viewed with suspicion not only by the other legions but also by the general populace. The ‘Thousand Sons’ Primarch, Magnus the Red, is summoned to the planet of Nikaea to answer charges of sorcery and is forbidden to dabble in these arts anymore. However, a vision of the future warns Magnus of Horus’ growing treachery, what is he to do?
Magnus’ choice will lay waste to a planet, his legion will be doomed by choices that he made a long time ago...
Graham McNeill has written a beautifully detailed account of the ‘Thousand Sons’ Legion before the Heresy took place. Nothing is missing here; the Legion’s home world, structure and beliefs are dealt with at great length, providing a world that the reader can immerse themselves in at every level.
While McNeill certainly does well in this regard, the fact that this world building is so very specific (which of course it would be, given the nature of the book) makes this more of a book for gamers using a ‘Thousand Sons’ force who want to add a little more authenticity to their play. If I’m anything to go by, fans of the Warhammer 40K setting will also get a lot out of a book that adds another rich layer to a universe already brimming with rich detail. ‘A Thousand Sons’ is however perhaps not the most accessible of books for the casual fan who may feel that they’re getting a little too much information thrown at them all at once...
Give it a chance though. As the book progresses, McNeill does move away from the world building/scene setting to give his reader a tale of tragedy that should move a few hearts. Imagine giving your all for the cause only to be hunted down for something that was totally not of your making? That’s the scenario McNeill lays out for the Thousand Sons in a long and inexorable slide towards a finale that is as poignant as it is explosive.
One of the things that I’ve found interesting about this series is the way that different authors approach the question of making the books a compelling read when the eventual outcomes are never in doubt (which they aren’t, all fans will know how the story ends). McNeill solves this problem by making ‘A Thousand Sons’ a tale of stark contrasts that grip the reader as well as springing genuine surprises on the reader at all the right moments. The way it all becomes clear at the very end (as to what is going on) is quite superb.
McNeill takes a good long look at the relationship between the Marines of the Thousand Sons and the human ‘Remembrancers’ that follow them and record their deeds. While some of the differences are obvious (the marines are physically and mentally tougher) it’s interesting to see that in some respect, ‘weak’ humans can still have a lot to teach their superhuman counterparts. McNeill sets the Thousand Sons up as new in the universe and unsure of their purpose other than to fight for the Emperor and gain knowledge at the same time. There’s something very childlike about this, especially when you look at the Remembrancers and the more adult way that they conduct themselves.
If the Thousand Sons marines come across as childlike then Magnus, the Primarch, is even more so, especially when you see him wield his considerable powers with precious little thought for the consequences. Here is a man with godlike powers but no sense of how to use them appropriately in an unforgiving universe. All he has is the same need for approval from the Emperor that all the other Primarchs have; this makes his ultimate fate all the more tragic as he did all the wrong things for all the right reasons.
The biggest contrast of all is the one between the Thousand Sons and Space Wolves legions; one side the manifestation of the Emperor’s wisdom and the other the manifestation of his unbridled rage in battle. This contrast will be further explored in Dan Abnett’s ‘Prospero Burns’ but McNeill gives us much to be going on with in the meantime with two legions that are unable to resolve their fundamental differences but must still fight together... for now. It’s a master class in how two such differing legions can fight together but it’s also a melting pot of tension that you know will boil over sooner rather than later.
When the end finally comes, McNeill defines ‘apocalyptic’ on a scale not seen since Ben Counter razed Istvaan III. When Space Marines turn on each other you know there can only be one conclusion; McNeill gives us this conclusion in the most earth shattering manner possible and it’s well worth the price of entry!
The ending is appropriately sombre and hints at a future that long term fans will appreciate more than the casual reader. All is not dust yet... but it soon will be.
Like I said, ‘A Thousand Sons’ is certainly one of the less accessible books in the series. Fans will love it but the casual reader might get bogged down in the detail. Once I found my way through the minutiae though, ‘A Thousand Sons’ personified all that is good about the ‘Horus Heresy’ books. I’m looking forward to reading more.
Eight and Three Quarters out of Ten