Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Thousand Sons (Horus Heresy Book 12) Review

Marching right along in the Horus Heresy review series, next up is Book 12, A Thousand Sons. This book begins to touch on the one Horus Heresy storyline I'd read before embarking on this journey; Prospero Burns. I'd known from just a background and discussion perspective that the story of the Thousand Sons was a tragic one. Unlike other fallen legions, as has been hinted at in previous books in the series, and False Gods in particular, Magnus and the Thousand Sons are not part of the Heresy exactly. As a reminder, Magnus is the one who tries to stop Erebus when Horus is sick and prevent his turning.

As with recent reviews, I'll put the spoiler alert here, because I will not hide from them if I want to discuss them after the jump. You've been warned.

Now, first and foremost, this is a classic Heroic Tragedy, with the hero having a tragic flaw that leads to his downfall. In this case, with the Hero being Magnus (more so than Ahriman, the arguable narrator and protagonist), his fatal tragic flaw is his pride; Magnus is so self confident and sure of himself that he believes himself immune to the prevarications of daemons and the Chaos gods, and as such, reacts poorly to the Edict of Nikea, where the emperor forbids continued use and expansion of Psychic abilities. 

Magnus's downfall is all the more tragic because of his devotion to his father and his personal insight. He seals his fate by trying to get a warning to his father, unwittingly undoing the work of the Emperor on the Golden Throne. Of course, while shown as a tragedy, there is a certain question there if he has saved himself from an ill-fate. Magnus realizes that he has undone the Emperor's work which was intended for Magnus. That said, knowing what little we do about the Golden Throne, it seems more of a prison than a blessing to bestow upon Magnus. As a loving and loyal son, Magnus would have submitted to being more or less entombed in the Golden Throne for the entirety of his remaining days, but it seems hardly a fit fate for someone of Magnus's talents. 

Something I liked about this book, which is similar to what I liked about Legion, is that the "fallen" legion doesn't display any particularly evil tendencies. The Thousand Sons' actions are noble - they pursue knowledge and seek to defend their planet, their brothers, themselves, and the Imperium. They do not commit treachery willfully and are victims of circumstance as well as sharing a part of their Primarch's tragic flaw of hubris. In the end, as is hinted in the prologue, their circumstances and fall bring about their total destruction at the hands of Ahriman, who damns them by trying to save them. 

For the prologue and epilogue to resonate, we have to know the very basic 40k Thousand Sons lore that outside of their sorcerers, the remnants of their legion are dust animating their power armor, and are mindless. Because of Ahriman's flaw of pride, he remains stuck on his intentions; his intentions were good, so he cannot accept that the result was for ill. This novel adds the wrinkle to this that I didn't know; the entire legion were psykers touched by Tzeentch, hence their curse of changing flesh. Only the very strongest of these psykers were able to hold off the changes of Tzeentch and maintain themselves whole during Ahriman's purge. Exactly what the nature of that purging spell conducted by Ahriman was is not told here, but it is clearly another layer of treachery by the daemons of the warp.

Chandler might not like to hear this, but this book does an excellent job of showing the horror that the Space Wolves are capable of. By extension however, we get a glimpse of the horror of a Loyalist Legion's assault on a planet to bring it into compliance. This seems to be a running theme of the novels, particularly the better ones - that the lines of good and evil are unclear, and that the Imperium does not shy away from brutal, unappealing tactics to ensure its future. This is something I really like from this series - multiple sides of a conflict are shown, with both having some level empathy and understanding. That of course has a limit - it's hard to say anyone would approve of virus-bombing Istvaan. That said, it's not like the Arch Traitor Horus developed those weapons - instead they were an option available to him as a crusader for the "good" of mankind.

Similarly, the Iterators and Emperor (indirectly) preach pragmatism and dismiss and insult religiosity. However, so often throughout the novels, religious belief can be used for good. And then there are the Word Bearers who develop new religions, sinking roots in other legions and turning them traitor. And at the same time, the hero who accepts faith, such as Garro, is counterbalanced by the hero who unequivocally rejects it, like Loken.

Throughout the series, the novels written by McNeill and Abnett are generally some of the best, with the deepest treatment of themes of ambiguous good, evil, and truth. While they can include your typical 40k "Bolter Porn," these novels achieve a lot more than that and are genuinely good books with complete, flawed and interesting characters, conflicts of interest beyond conflicts of battle, and questions of human nature and humanity.

I've gotten a little off track from this book specifically, but A Thousand Sons contain these themes, and they are executed with great skill. This novel was very similar in tone to the opening trilogy in that the ending is more or less known, but the reader is still allowed to hope that somehow, someway, maybe things will turn out for the best. However, the novel also takes the ambiguity of good and evil a bit further in that Magnus accepts the destruction of Prospero and his legion as a just fate; evil is not allowed to triumph over the hero, the hero sees evil in himself and allows that part of him to be defeated.

Magnus's acceptance of their fate is counterbalanced by Ahriman's rejection. While before Magnus realized his flaw, Ahriman repeatedly stated the opinion that his Primarch may have been over confident, Magnus is later able to accept that he has fallen, while Ahriman has not. Ahriman's continued struggle against the justice meted out by Primarch and Emperor turn him traitor in some regard, and lead to the Legion's true fall.