The momentum from Horus Rising carried me through the first third of Graham McNeill’s False Gods. The novel hits the ground running, jumping immediately into another unheard-of risk to the burgeoning Imperium of Man – rebellion. One of the planetary governors left by Horus, Eugan Temba, has betrayed him, falling under the sway of the tribes that live on the moon of Davin. McNeill wastes no time dropping the Sons of Horus on Davin’s Moon, where they confront forces of Chaos for the first time – undead corpses animated by Temba. Their voice communications are haunted by another voice, but in a cute twist, this is an actual transmission – from Temba’s crashed flagship.
The Luna Wolves fight their way to the ship, and Horus elects to enter the ship himself, while half the Sons of Horus wait outside to hold off the undead horde. While the combat sequences against the undead are well-written, it often feels like busy work, as the real task is taking place inside the ship.
Horus confronts Temba and takes a mortal wound – from a xeno weapon that’s theft had been the impetus for the war in Horus Rising. This is, by my reckoning at least, the first chapter where Horus has been the narrator. I’m torn – on the one hand, it was interesting to see McNeil try to envision the thoughts of a primarch, and Horus most of all. On the other, it does remove a little of the mystery about him. No longer is he a figure from afar because we’ve seen things directly from his point of view. The weapon was stolen by Erebus, a Word Bearer Marine who has been slinking around for several chapters being generally noxious and placed in the hands of the mutated Temba.
Horus Rising was so compelling for me, as someone who already knows the outcome of events, but here it feels limiting. I would much prefer to be ignorant as to the ultimate fate of Horus – but, knowing what I know, it’s obvious that he survives. The middle part of the book is devoted to Horus’ recovery. The Lodge elects to send him to a temple to be healed by occult magic, without input from Loken or Torgaddon. I liked McNeill’s Torgaddon more than Abnett’s – it might just be because of how the plot has progressed, but he was trying less constantly to be funny and, thus, became more of a well-rounded character. We get more characterisation of Abaddon as well, the oldest member of the Mournival, Horus’ informal advisory council. Here, the cracks in the Imperium are played out on a small scale, and by midway through False Gods, the Mournival is fractured, possibly beyond any hope of repair.
There’s an extended sequence of Horus in what at first seems like a dream, but we later learn is a vision of the future. Erebus has also been inserted into the dream and disguised as one of Horus’ old comrades, shows him the future of the Imperium. They visit a shrine-world, showing the worship of the Emperor – but not Horus. They then visit the Emperor’s secret laboratory under the Himalayas where the primarchs themselves were built.
While Horus’ horrified reactions to the future of the 40k-universe are amusing for veterans, I felt like I would have appreciated this extended sequence more if I knew nothing about 40,000. Horus’ decision to betray the Emperor is seen as a huge, momentous occasion – which it is, within the novel. But as a reader who’s already aware of it, too much time was devoted to the dream-sequence.
Much more interesting is the first manifestation, directly, of the Emperor’s divine will. A remembrancer named Euphrati Keeler encounters a Chaos beast that was accidentally summoned on board the flagship, and she directly channels the Emperor, banishing the beast into the Warp. The slow emergence and development of the Cult of the Emperor throughout the novel is a highlight; it delivers for old fans of 40k in a way the Horus storyline doesn’t. It doesn’t show what we know to happen – it shows what we don’t know, further building the foundations of the universe.
The book ends with Horus attacking another civilisation of mankind that bears a remarkable resemblance to the Imperium – because they have ancient manufacturing technology that Horus covets. Horus convenes his trusted advisors and announces his intentions to overthrow the Emperor.
I enjoyed False Gods, but in many ways, it suffers from the middle-novel syndrome that often captures trilogies. Threads of the plot are resolved, new threads are opened – but there’s not a huge sense of payoff at the end of it. Which is understandable – the best middle novels in trilogies are the ones that focus on building character and the world, spinning enough plates so that when the end-game comes, everything can harmonise properly. In that respect, False Gods succeeds. I only wish there’d been more worldbuilding beyond building towards Horus’ (for 40K readers, at least) inevitable betrayal.