Broken upon the anvil
THIS one is for completists, but to stick that phrase on one of Black Library’s Horus Heresy novels seems somewhat redundant. For one thing, fans who are into this series would mostly have gone all out to get hold of every piece of HH fiction out there – from novels to anthologies to short fiction to audio dramas.
And probably stopping just short of shelling out 75 quid for the limited-edition, leatherbound graphic novel Macragge’s Honour, thank you very much.
For another thing, it’s unlikely at this stage in the series – 27 books and counting – that anyone but a completist would be following the saga.
So here we have Book 26, recently out in trade paperback format after its “collector’s edition” hardcover publication late last year. It is also “for completists” in yet another sense – we just gotta have it, regardless of the quality. It’s as all-consuming as Pokemon!
Sadly, Vulkan Lives isn’t a very rewarding entry, and may leave ardent fans with a distinct feeling of dissatisfaction at the end.
For a quick recap, the Horus Heresy is a galaxy-wide civil war raging in the 31st
millennium (that’s about 29,000 years from now). The Imperium of Man, led by its powerful immortal Emperor, is in flames after half of his “sons”, almost-as-powerful genetically-engineered demigods known as primarchs, rebelled. The traitors’ leader is the primarch named Horus, hence the series’ title.
It’s a prequel to the hugely popular Warhammer 40,000 – which started out as a
tabletop wargame in the late 1980s and expanded into books, comics, videogames and even a direct-to-video animated feature.
Vulkan Lives is the story of two of those primarchs, one a loyal son and the other a traitor. Vulkan, the faithful one, is leader and gene-sire of the Salamanders chapter of Space Marines, genetically-enhanced warriors created by the Emperor to help him achieve his dreams of empire.
The Salamanders, together with fellow loyalist chapters the Iron Hands and
Raven Guard, were almost annihilated by Horus’ treachery at the outset of the Heresy, and this book deals with Vulkan’s fate immediately after that massacre on the planet Isstvan V (described briefly in HH Book 5, Fulgrim; in the novella Scorched Earth, also by Kyme; and in this book).
Vulkan is captured by Konrad Curze, a traitor primarch and leader of the Night Lords chapter. He is shackled, humiliated and tortured by his nuttier-than-a-pecan-pie brother who intends to break his mind and body, or kill Vulkan in the process, just because the primarch’s nobility ... offends him.
It turns out that he does kill Vulkan – only to make an astonishing discovery about the true nature of the Salamanders’ master.
As their little sibling drama plays out, Kyme intercuts it with the story of an archaeological dig on a faraway planet. Say what? Yep, a dig for some sort of artefact – but it’s no ordinary piece of history.
Several parties are after it: traitor Space Marines, a rag-tag group of loyalist survivors from Isstvan V, and an immortal named John Grammaticus who readers would have met earlier in the series.
What exactly this has to do with Vulkan and his own troubles of the moment is actually so basic that any mention of it could be construed as a major spoiler; so I’ll refrain from saying more.
But this scramble for the artefact is somewhat slapdash, lacking the customary urgency of a typical page-turning Black Library confrontation between loyalist and traitor Marines. The surviving loyalists are so devoid of character that it becomes a chore trying to tell them apart – not that it matters much anyway. The traitors are clearly the more interesting group here.
This is surprising because Kyme, the only Black Library writer writing on the Salamanders, has done much better with them, namely, in the Tome Of Fire trilogy.
Over in wherever-it-is that Curze has Vulkan imprisoned, however, it’s the other way around. As “godlike” as Vulkan is revealed to be, he actually becomes the more interesting and more clearly defined character. The crap that happens to him here and in the next book is intriguing, given that Tome Of Fire indicates he was with his legion till some time after the Heresy.
On the other hand, Curze (whose Night Lords were the central figures of some pretty kick-butt books from Aaron Dembski-Bowden) soon becomes a wearisome, petulant spoiled brat whose incessant whining is quite grating.
If you can recall that scene in Star Trek VI with the Klingon villain yammering on and spouting Shakespeare over the comms and Dr McCoy saying “I’d give good money if he’d shut up”, well, that’s how I felt reading the passages where Curze keeps taunting Vulkan. Come on – this is the Night Haunter, whose acts of butchery performed in silence and darkness frightened an entire planet of murderous scum into submission.
The one compelling reason to finish this was because I read somewhere that the next HH book, Dan Abnett’s The Unremembered Empire, is a direct sequel to this one (while also drawing together threads from various other HH tales).
By the end, I really felt that this was something of a non-starter, possibly the weakest of all the series’ primach-centric stories. A good thing Abnett’s follow-up makes up for this one, but that’s another review for another day.