Continuing with my Horus Heresy review series, the next book is the first to not follow Space Marines directly (though Legion has arguably very little directly following the Alpha Legion), instead focusing on events on Mars. As a result, the subject matter was fresh and new and interesting. With this book, and I believe going forward, after the jump I'm going to be less cautious about spoilers, so be forewarned. I am open to input whether this or the previous format is preferred. The reason I'm leaning to this new format is partly out of inspiration from listening to the After Ullanor podcasts, but also because I am worried that non-spoiler reviews are getting a little repetitive and vague.
In summary, the book follows several story lines of characters on Mars. The protagonist is arguably Dalia, a simple scribe who has incredibly memory and intuitive skills, and is not of the Mechanicum. Other minor (sort-of and only by comparison) story arcs follow the Legio Tempestus (Titans - sweeet!), a group of Knights, and a few Mechanicum Adepts. The arc of the story shows the triumphs and potential of the 30k Mechanicum, their fall, and a bit of why technology in 40k is the way it is.
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One tremendous strength of the book is the characters, who are deep and complex. Even the more peripheral characters are fleshed out and have motives that may or may not always be clear, but exist. That is, you believe that the characters by and large have reasons for acting the way they do, even when you're not sure what side they're on. One of the main Adepts, Zeth, strikes me as a prime example, in that she is largely good, but at times is clearly more interested in her own goals than what is right in the eyes of Dalia - the truly good character of the novel.
Small events carry the plot along while tension builds, ramping up significantly once the Emissary from Horus arrives with Horus's pact, which quickly unleashes dark forces and establishes the Dark Mechanicum in a position of extreme strength.
I really enjoyed the book because of its hints and explanations of the state of humanity during the Heresy and what lays beyond. These were scattered throughout and had good coverage of hints of where humanity has been, where it is, and where it is going. These are, of course, successful because they are couched in an exciting and engaging story with dynamic, likable, and interesting characters.
Of the hints I mention, in particular I picked out a few moments of significance, not so much to the plot as to the back story as a whole stood out
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One was a discussion between Malcador and Rogal Dorn on Terra, where Dorn mentions that while he has (or thinks he has) 13 Legions at his disposal to crush the four under the Warmaster's command, he wishes he had 15. Malcador shuns him, saying something along the lines of "don't even joke about that." For one, the scene stuck out because it is clearly a tease about the two lost legions. That said, the math is a bit off and one legion is being omitted and I'm not sure which or why. My guess would be that Dorn is not counting on the Thousand Sons because they are being censured, though it could also be the Ultramarines because they are out of reach at Calth. At this point in the series and the novel, the exact timing of events aren't obvious beyond that they take place after Istvaan III and Book 4, Flight of the Eisenstein, but before Istvaan V (or at least word of it reaches Segmentum Solar).
Another moment of significance was also the conclusion of one story arc and showed interaction between the Emperor and The Dragon. The Dragon is a being of immense power introduced in the novel, which is the essential form and origin of dragons in mythology. The emperor confronts the Dragon (in our past) as a Knight in Shining Armor and defeats the beast, then imprisons it on Mars. The two are linked and only together can provide for humanity's future.
While not fully explained or clear, there are a few important notes to make from the interaction. The Emperor has a long view for doing what needs to be done to preserve humanity. This of course brings into question how much he is in control of events and allowing them to occur for some unknowable reasons. His divinity/near-omnipotence is displayed in this arc because of the nature of the Dragon - which is said to be an influence on how the Mechanicum is able to make the technological advances they have to bring humanity across the galaxy. This indicates that the Emperor imprisoned the Dragon on Mars over 20,000 years before its influence would bear fruit.
Finally, what provides Dalia her powers is of interest, in particular as it could relate to other characters with fairly mysterious powers, namely Euphrati Keeler and Nathaniel Garro. Earlier in the series, we saw evidence of Keeler in particular exerting real power that was clearly not psychic in nature, but originating from somewhere else. This ability to seemingly see beyond the present to some degree strikes me as similar to Dalia's ability to intuit and make leaps of faith (for lack of a better term and yes, pun intended). At the end it is revealed that she was chosen in some form by the Emperor to be a Guardian of the Dragon, which is what grants or necesitates her near-miraculous abilities.