The fictional universe of Warhammer 40,000 has always intrigued me. It’s bombastic and self-aware in ways that most sci-fi I’ve read isn’t. It’s a universe of constant misery and suffering. Humanity isn’t even the ‘good guys’, by all accounts. It coined the term ‘grimdark’, which has since been coopted by mainstream criticism and becoming its own ‘genre’ of fantasy. Game of Thrones is often described as such.
Here it is in its original context:
To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruelest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be relearned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.
Hell of an opening statement.
I’ve read my way around the edges. I’ve read Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghosts, about the Imperial Guard, the functional equivalent of the Army in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, and also Eisenhorn, who is an Inquisitor, responsible for investigating heresy and ‘xeno’ threats to the Imperium of Man. I’ve watched some painfully long YouTube videos and read some intricate wiki pages. Warhammer 40,000 has a lot of moving pieces – not least because each moving piece is reflected in a product you can buy, paint, and play a wargame with.
Horus Rising is set in the 40k universe, but 10,000 years in the past. Which might make you think that it would be a good (to borrow a tortured marketing phrase) “onboarding” moment, a jumping-off point. And it does that well, but the true glee in Horus Rising is how Abnett slowly begins laying the dominoes for the eventual future of the fictional universe. A reader approaching 40K for the first time misses these small moments and would take less away from the experience.
Horus Rising opens with a scene-setting exposition dump that is typical of most of the Warhammer books I’ve read. I’m torn on these scene-setting passages. I often think that a book should be able to do the work of world building and scene setting within the narrative itself and that it’s lazy to simply write a few paragraphs of backstory. On the other, I recognise that the author doesn’t want to waste pages letting narrative details unfold organically when an expository paragraph would be simpler. It works here, I think, although that might be because I’m used to it in 40K fiction.
The first act introduces us to Horus. He’s a primarch, one of the Emperor’s ‘children’, genetically engineered to peak physical and mental fitness. He’s also the Warmaster – the Emperor has returned to Terra and left Horus in charge of the entire Crusade. He also leads a Legion of Space Marines called, at this time, the Luna Wolves. We’re also introduced to the remembrancers – civilians who are gifted in the arts who accompany the Expeditions to catalogue their work.
Their work is simple. They expand outwards into uncharted space. They encounter three things – empty worlds ripe for plunder or settlement, worlds inhabited by aliens here called ‘xenos’, or worlds inhabited by branches of humanity that had been separated from Terra. They secure the empty worlds and eliminate the xenos, intelligent or otherwise. The latter problem is more slippery, though. Some of the separated worlds are happy to be inducted into the Imperium. Some are cowed by the Imperium’s strength. Others aren’t too keen on these secular crusaders showing up, declaring all religion a lie, burning their temples and demanding they accept reunification.
This is where Horus Rising opens. The Expedition encounters a belt of worlds unified under one man, calling himself ‘The Emperor’, who demands they swear fealty to his Imperium. The irony is palpable, and that’s an underlying theme throughout the text. The Emperor demands secularism; but already a cult of personality has developed, who read from the ‘Lectio Divinitatus’ which extolls the Emperor as a god. A remembrancer walks among the conquered, and no longer feels inspired – he realises the frailty of the Imperium.
In the tail of the first act, the leader of the Tenth Company, Loken, quashes the last pocket of resistance – but at a cost. He witnesses one of his loyal soldiers kill another Marine, which is meant to be impossible. Further impossible is how his flesh twists and distends into a foul, daemonic creature, that takes many men to bring down. There are no such things as daemons – except there are, as Loken learns from Horus. It’s kept secret, but the warp, the dimension humanity’s fleets use to travel faster-than-light, is filled with malicious creatures. It’s kept a secret to not scare the civilians and dishearten the troops. Another secret that festers within the Imperium of Man.
Horus Rising continues in this fashion. We learn more about the universe of 30K, and surrounding that are chapters of Space Marines in combat. The prose is compelling – Abnett’s action is short, punchy, and gore-filled. Heads are ripped off and gouts of blood spread. It’s grimdark, after all. But it contrasts nicely with the political manoeuvring and intrigue in the slower-paced chapters, and it kept me barreling through the novel – even going so far as to put it on my phone, to continue reading.
Horus Rising forms a trilogy, with False Gods and Galaxy in Flames. But while there’s no ‘final resolution’, I didn’t walk away unsatisfied. For new readers to Warhammer, Horus Rising is intriguing. There’s the sense that something isn’t quite right in this utopian version of humanity. But it’s also, technically, ‘Golden-Age’ sci-fi, where things are on the upswing – something that rarely happens in sci-fi these days. It’s pre-apocalyptic, or maybe just apocalyptic. It’s also compelling military sci-fi in itself, and Abnett is a master at writing military scenes that draw me in, with the right sense of pace and the right weightiness. For 40K aficionados, Horus Rising reinforces the grand tragedy of the Imperium of Man and reveals a human dimension to characters that had previously been relegated to history books.
Worth reading if you like soft military sci-fi, or have any interest at all in Warhammer 40,000.