I’ve been continuing the Heresy this week, with book eight in the series from Black Library: Battle for the Abyss! This book was fairly interesting, though also really quite sad. But let’s talk story first – and please beware, I will be talking spoilers!
The book is the first since Fulgrim to actually continue the story of the Heresy, though rather than returning to any of the Legions we have already been introduced to, we’ve moved to two that are new to the series but, arguably, two of the biggest Legions involved in the Heresy. First of all, the Ultramarines finally make it into the story in a big way, and secondly, we have the original heretics, the Word Bearers. I know First Chaplain Erebus plays a significant role in turning Horus traitor in the first three novels, but we finally get to meet his Legion, and they’re all as crazy as he is…
The book begins with the enormous starship Furious Abyss being launched from orbit around Saturn, with the mission to destroy Macragge. Encountering and destroying an Ultramarines ship at the beginning of its maiden voyage leads to a rag-tag coalition of Astartes from four different Legions following the immense ship into the Warp – World Eaters, Space Wolves, a Thousand Son, and a small band of Ultramarines, led by Captain Cestus. The main part of the book is therefore a short battle, then a chase into the Warp, before another short battle during a stopover, before a second chase into the Warp and a concluding pitched battle above Macragge. I actually thought I was going to be annoyed by this structure, as it seemed to be really narrow in focus, but given the large canvas of characters, it makes for a pretty interesting story!
I’ve mentioned it before, but something I enjoy a lot about these novels is discovering how each Legion is different from the others, despite essentially being a collection of Space Marines. While we don’t really get a lot of that with the Ultramarines, enough is sketched in – along with details of the Space Wolves and Thousand Sons – while the Word Bearers are investigated quite closely.
I’m not a huge Space Wolves fan, and the World Eaters are frankly boring, but something I was hugely interested by was the Thousand Sons lore we get along the way here. The XV Legion, the Thousand Sons are essentially a Legion of psykers, censured under the Edict of Nikea that forbade the use of psykers in battle, and so regarded with some suspicion by their brother Astartes. Mhotep, the lone warrior we follow, says he wishes to re-establish a measure of trust with his comrades, but as the story moves along he is forced to use his psychic ability to save his battle brothers time and again, while being regarded with hostility at best. It’s a deeply sad tale, and I find it interesting when we see the wider lore of the Thousand Sons essentially wanting to be a Loyalist Legion, but being shunned by the rest of the Astartes. Mhotep is a new favourite character of mine, not only because he’s like some kind of Jedi badass, but because of the stoic manner in which he accepts his brothers.
The Ultramarines come across a little, well, boring here. Despite having Cestus as something of the central character of the story, we don’t seem to get a lot of information about them, which is a little symptomatic of the Warhammer universe at large – Ultramarines are so often equated with generic Space Marines that it takes a very specific writer to really make them interesting (that writer is, more often than not, Graham McNeill).
At any rate, the book feels a little like a slog at times, but the conclusion is just epic! The loyalist band manage to board the Furious Abyss and, after all manner of horrible things happening, destroy the leviathan by blowing its main reactor. I thought it was quite poignant to see the marines whittled down until we had just the captains of the Ultramarines, Space Wolves and World Eaters left, and seeing the three of them work together to destroy the Word Bearer’s plans – knowing the World Eaters are a Traitor Legion – was really intriguing. I believe we get to see more of these types, such as Nathaniel Garro and Garviel Loken, marines who refuse to turn traitor along with the rest of their Legion, so that should be good!
Unfortunately, I felt incredibly bummed-out after finishing this novel. I warned you about spoilers, so don’t blame me when I tell you this: everybody dies in this book. All of the main characters. Some of them quite awfully, as well. Brynngar, the Space Wolf, jumps into the reactor. Skraal, the World Eater, is stabbed through the eye lens (that happens a few times, actually). Cestus kills the Word Bearer admiral, Zadkiel, only to bleed out from several wounds he received during the final battle. However, the saddest of all, for me, was the death of Mhotep, who gave his life to keep the Word Bearer’s Warp-spawned demon Wsoric on the material plane long enough that it was weakened, enabling him to stuff a grenade inside the demon’s body. He dies saving the Imperium from the predations of the Warp-spawn, but nobody he has encountered during the course of the novel is remotely grateful for his intercession. Just so sad!
You should definitely read this if you’re interested in the Horus Heresy, because it’s a great character-study of the different Legions, and sets up the climactic Battle of Calth between the Word Bearers and Ultramarines, famous – among other things – from the recent Horus Heresy boxed game. It’s a bit of a slog, and definitely something of a downer, but it’s one of those books you read for the small things…