Wednesday, 31 August 2011

‘The Outcast Dead’ – Graham McNeill (Black Library)

And it was only the other day that I was going on about how much I was looking forward to reading ‘The Outcast Dead’... Thanks to the wonder that is post scheduling, a copy of ‘The Outcast Dead’ actually arrived after that post went up! I couldn’t have timed it any better if I’d tried :o)

Every series has its ‘down points’ and Black Library’s ‘Horus Heresy’ series is no different; I still haven’t dared read ‘Fallen Angels’ after having to give up on ‘Descent of Angels’ halfway through. On the whole though, the series has been an amazing ride through the defining moment in the history of Warhammer 40K’s Imperium of Man.  This is very much down to the fact that ff you’re one of the Black Library’s ‘big guns’ then you’ve probably already contributed to this series. Graham McNeill has already made a name for himself with his ‘Ultramarines’ series (amongst others, I’m thinking of the ‘Sigmar’ books here) and has also made his mark on the ‘Horus Heresy’ series with books like ‘A Thousand Sons’, ‘Mechanicum’ and ‘False Gods’. So... A new book in a series that I will always make time for that is written by a writer who has proved to be one of the mainstays of the ‘Horus Heresy’ books. You can’t go wrong here... can you? Of course you can’t, Graham McNeill turns in another ‘must read’ moment in an Empire’s fall...

Astropath Kai Zulane is having a very bad day. You would have thought that it couldn’t get any worse than being one of only two survivors of a catastrophic encounter, in the Warp, that claimed an entire ship and left Kai unable to use his psychic powers. Unless Kai can master those powers once more he is fit only for psychic kindling in the Hollow Mountain.
It can get a lot worse though. As the Heresy burns throughout the galaxy, Kai suddenly (and through no fault of his own) finds himself in possession of a secret that both sides would kill for. It’s a secret hidden so deeply in his psyche that not even Kai knows what is. All he knows is that seven of the most deadly men on Terra have broken out of the most fearsome prison on the planet in order to take him to their master. The forces of the Imperium are in pursuit though, will the renegades make it off the planet or will they fail at the last? Does any of it even matter...?

Like I said earlier, I know that I’m in for a good read when I see Graham McNeill’s name on the cover of a ‘Horus Heresy’ book and that record remains unblemished with ‘The Outcast Dead’. That’s not to say that the book is perfect but it was close enough for me not to put it down (apart from that moment when the baby was crying) until I was done. The nature of this book means that it’s very difficult to avoid spoilers, I’ll try my best though...

One of my chief complaints about the ‘Horus Heresy’ series, as a whole, is that pretty much everyone reading it knows how it ends. I’m talking about the gamers mostly but anyone with a passing knowledge of the internet can do a quick Google search and see how it plays out. The big question then is how to keep things fresh and interesting in the meantime? Other authors have tackled this question in a number of ways but this time round, McNeill takes my original complaint and makes it the centrepiece of the plot. Characters in ‘The Outcast Dead’ have to ask themselves what they can do about a person they know is carrying information pivotal to the outcome of the civil war. The answer is simple, get to him before the other side does...

The outcome is a race against time with both sides trying to get their hands on a secret so secret that not even the carrier knows what it is (you can probably guess it though and it’s a good one). McNeill really ramps things up by making it clear just what the stakes are as well; most people who discover the secret have a nasty habit of dying through not being able to handle its sheer immensity and Kai Zulane is the only one who’s still alive. Nothing less than the fate of an entire galaxy rests on what is in his head, stakes don’t get a lot higher than that! McNeill gives ensuing events a pace that is appropriate to what is ultimately at stake here; things move very quickly but not so fast that you can’t keep up. McNeill has a great concept on display here and he wants to be sure that you make the most of it. It’s not just the chase though as elements of the Imperium’s earliest history make an appearance that adds another layer of detail to an already richly layered background (the Petitioner’s City adds a level of squalor that contrasts nicely with the Emperor’s Palace) . I think long term fans will get the most out of these moments but they’re worth the price of entry nevertheless.Add a healthy dose of paranoia (no-one really knows who to trust) and you’ve got a plot that captures the imagination and refuses to let go.

Every chase must come to an end though; if they don’t then things run the risk of getting boring without a resolution. McNeill gets this as well and punctuates the plot with moments where backs are against the wall and there is no way out except to fight. McNeill has already proved himself to be more than adept at throwing gene-enhanced humans up against everything (including each other) and the resulting scenes here pack all the punch you would expect from a Warhammer 40K novel.
There is a more thoughtful air to it as well though as we see Zulane’s treatment at the hands of Imperial authorities who fight to remain true to the Emperor’s vision whilst facing the demands of war at the same time. The interrogation scenes are harrowing but also a testament to the strength in Zulane’s character. If you’re anything like me then you’ll be rooting for him too. There is a real shade of grey to ‘The Outcast Dead’, especially when we see the treatment of Marines deemed to be traitors only by the actions of their brothers. Neither side comes out of this looking good and that’s the way war goes...

I only have the one complaint and this could equally well be applied to the series as a whole. There is so much going on that there is the constant need to put it all in context of the wider struggle. Constant referring back to events already covered makes the series drag and it can make ‘The Outcast Dead’ drag a little as well. We’re more than a few books in now and I really want to feel like things are moving forward, we already know that certain events have happened. ‘The Outcast Dead’ being placed in context like this made for an unwelcome counterpoint to a plot that tore ahead in other respects.

It’s a relatively minor complaint though as McNeill comes up trumps again with a tale that shows the more covert side of the Heresy as well as the more squalid side of the Imperial dream. Another highly recommended tale from one of the Black Library’s top authors.

Nine and a Half out of Ten

10 comments:

Nick Sharps said...

I'm so jealous you've already gotten to read this. The Outcast Dead looks amazing, I can't wait.

Graeme Flory said...

I'm totally biased (big fan and all that)but, despite the issue of bringing it all into context, it is an amazing read. No doubt about it :o)

tmastgrave said...

I'm a big fan of the Warhammer 40K history. That being said, honestly I think that the Horus Heresy series has started to drag on. I'd really like it to come to a conclusion, but that's just me. I've like some of the books, others I've avoided. All in all though, it's just gotten too long for me.

Anonymous said...

We know how the Heresy ends, its how we get there thats the interesting part. Trust me when I say this series is going to be going on for a while yet. There is still a long way to go, we are only just entering the second phase of the war ("The Age of Darkness"), we have a seven year period to cover before we even reach Terra. I for one am excited abouth this, as we know nothing of this period, what was going on for those seven years between Istvaan and Terra? A lot of questions to be answered.

Anonymous said...

I was interested in the Horus Heresy books until I read the first few and realized that the Heresy isn't a story -- it's a setting. If they would have told the story of the Heresy in 10 books or so I'd have been up for it. But not an endless series of books like this.

Simon said...

It's a strange and patchy series, actually its not really a series more a collection of novels in the same setting. The first three books form one arc but to be honest books two and three are disappointing after the excellent Horus Rising. I try and avoid the more extreme gamey/bolter porn ones but there's an element of that in most of them, still if you like pulp SF they're good enough...

Anonymous said...

Absolutely love the series and im only up to Fulgrim. Keep up the good work Black Library

Anonymous said...

I must have read a different book...completely incoherent plot, no well defined characters and a ending that made the whole thing pointless. It almost seems like the series is being drawn out by BB to rake in the cash and I doubt I will read another after the disappointment of Legion, The first heretic and Age of Darkness. All the things I loved about novels such as Mechanicum, Flight of the Eisenstein was completely lacking here...and as for the last page of text WTF.

Kodanshi said...

I cannot believe one of the Anonymous disliked The First Heretic. What the — ! That book, for me, raised the bar for the Horus Heresy as a whole. Which ones do you like in the series?

Anonymous said...

i do agree with anon about the first heretic, it's abit disappointment and since it's about the word bearer, it raises the bar of expectation even higher.or maybe it's just me that felt word bearer deserve a much deeper story than 1st heretic. for me the best was always fulgrim and horus rising, one for a wonderful portrayal of fulgrim fall and one that set the tone of this wonderful series