After having put it off for years, I’ve finally read the eleventh book in the Horus Heresy series, Fallen Angels.
I’m a bit out of sync, then, as the previous novel that I’d read was the 28th entry in the series, Scars! Fallen Angels is a direct sequel to the sixth book, Descent of Angels, a novel that I have grown to dislike so much since I first read it back in the day, that I have projected that dislike onto its sequel without really much thought. However, after discussing it with Dave of wordaholicsanonymous fame, I decided to go for it and see what I’ve missed.
As it turns out, Fallen Angels isn’t all that bad. It’s not a great novel – I’m not about to start evangelising about it to you all – but it certainly holds a place within the chronology of the Heresy, and much like Dave says in his review, this book makes so much more sense of the last one. It’s a fact that doesn’t make me like Descent of Angels any more (a book that requires a sequel to make sense of it?) but I can at least let go some of that annoyance with the earlier entry!
Fallen Angels has two storylines, as we once again follow Zahariel and Nemiel on their progress with the Dark Angels Legion. Zahariel is among the space marines exiled to Caliban with Luther, after the events during the Compliance of Sarosh (where Luther kinda conspired to kill the Lion) while Nemiel is in the thick of things with the primarch himself, as news of Horus’ rebellion spreads and the Dark Angels are given the task of denying the traitors access to the Forge World of Diamat, close to the Isstvan system. We’re sort of behind the times in this book then, in that the dropsite massacre hasn’t yet come to pass, but Mars has already fallen so we’re following on from the ninth book. If ever there was a novel in this series that shows how skewed the timeline is when you try to read these books in order, surely Fallen Angels is it!
I’ll be discussing spoilers from here out, so be warned!
On Caliban, Zahariel learns of the rebellion against the rule of Luther, led by some former knightly masters who see the Imperium as slave-masters and are trying to restore their freedom. Zahariel is a staunch Imperialist, but is dismayed to see the rifts forming between those Caliban natives and the marines (and others) imported from Terra, and even more dismayed when he sees Luther seemingly begin to sympathise with the rebels. Investigating possible rebel activity in the old Northwilds, he discovers a foul rite that has taken place, bringing immense worms into existence and feeding off the life-energy of humans. He learns that this was merely a test for a much larger ritual that seems to be formented by Terrans, and so Luther and the Dark Angels descend on the ritual site, only Luther seems to want to bind to his will the creature that these sorcerers have seemingly brought forth from the Warp, using Zahariel’s powers as a Librarian to do so. The creature dissipates and Zahariel effectively dies for five minutes, but is brought back to life by the Master of Caliban, who later on promises he’ll be better-prepared next time…
Meanwhile on Diamat, Nemiel is leading a landing party against the traitors in an effort to take back the Forge World, but the Dark Angels soon discover that the Forge has fallen and its leader, Magos Archoi, is actually in league with the Dark Mechanicum. The extent of the Magos’ treachery is cunningly played out as the Warmaster’s reinforcements arrive, as Horus is intent on retrieving some Titan siege-guns he had the Forge World make for him around fifty years earlier. The Dark Angels are able to use a Dreadnought in their party to operate one of these siege guns and deflect the Sons of Horus from their objective, but the epilogue is just dripping with irony as the Lion hands over control of the weapons to none other than Perturabo.
I’m weird. I wanted to not like this book, as I wanted to feel somewhat vindicated for my dislike of Descent of Angels all these years. While I didn’t end up loving it, I actually enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. There were maybe two chapters that were outstanding for me, both of them in the Diamat storyline, where we see some fairly brutal city fighting that felt incredibly cinematic and really well-executed: the rush to rescue the Dreadnought drop pod after landing on the world, and then the defence of the Forge against the landing of the Sons of Horus. There was something really visceral in the writing here, where you could really picture the bombed-out cityscape, with the Dark Angels running through the ruins covered in dust… really very well done, that!
The Caliban storyline felt like a pretty slow-burn, as the intrigue was explored around the divisions between Terrans and Calibanites, something that felt entirely natural following on from the earlier book, and I suppose something that keeps up the theme of several novels that have dealt with those kinds of divisions. We saw it with the White Scars as well, and I’m sure there are plenty of other instances where the “native” troops feel themselves much more special than their Terran fellows, as they are (in their own minds) closer to the Primarch. Here, though, it is only part of a much larger conspiracy that begins to set the wheels in motion for Luther’s betrayal of the Lion, and provides that whole foundation for the Dark Angels being divided into the Fallen (Luther’s followers who fell to Chaos alongside him) and the Unforgiven (those Legionaries who stood with the Lion).
However, this book subtly posed the question of the Lion’s loyalty by bringing up the idea that he may have understood the wild beasts of Caliban to be linked to the Warp, and by insisting on hunting them to extinction, it then leaves the people of Caliban open to the Warp taint, as they had previously shunned those areas because of the beasts.
As I said, the book does provide some degree of legitimacy for having a sword and sorcery novel in what is otherwise a fairly hard sci-fi setting, and while I did end up enjoying this book more than I’d expected, it’s not exactly in my top five from the series so far. If nothing else, though, I’m glad to have finally made the time to read it!