Thursday, December 19, 2013

Nemesis (Horus Heresy Book 13) Review

Next up in the Horus Heresy Series is Nemesis, by James Swallow. Ever since Flight of the Eisenstein, I have looked forward to reading more of his work. Listening to the Garro Audio dramas he wrote were fun, but I didn't get the same feeling from them as his novel. This novel focuses on the Officio Assassinorum and agents of its five clades: Eversor, Callidus, Culexus, Venenum, Vanus, and Vindicare.

As with recent reviews, I will put the spoiler alert here: below the jump I will not hold back details I think are relevant for discussion.

So, a little background, I have always been a fan of infiltration/impossible mission stories (who isn't?), Dirty Dozen as an example, as well as Gav Thorpe's Last Chancers novels (though I haven't read the third). As such, the premise of a group of the best each assassinorum clade had to offer teaming up to try to kill Horus sounded like a great read to me.

And yet, for whatever reason, I dragged my way through the book. In part I believe that was circumstances, with holidays interrupting reading time as well as me just needing a bit of a break from reading. That said, while I liked the characters and the writing, I found myself wondering what the point was.

By that, I mean the ending is more or less known - they do not kill Horus. They fail in their mission. And while their efforts and trials, as well as the evil Spear's efforts and sinister plots and manipulation (from who else but Erebus?), I felt like there was something missing.

The characters were interesting, as is key in any impossible odds story, and I was a little sad as each of them died. However, it was the ending that struck home; that is where this book, for me, went from just entertaining to having impact for the entire storyline of the Horus Heresy.

The big scenes started when the conclave of assassin masters are meeting with Malcador, the master of assassins, and discussing the failure of the mission. Rogal Dorn manages to track the movements of some of the conclave, possibly the head of the Custodes, Valdor, who was in on the initial plot, if grudgingly. Dorn objects to shadowy and sinister dealings, and in the ensuing arguments, Dorn phrases part of his argument based on how he sees the War:
'This war,' Dorn went on, sparing Malcador a glance, 'is a fight not just for the material, for worlds and for the hearts of men. We are in battle for ideals. At stake are the very best of the Imperium's ultimate principles. Values of pride, nobility, honor and fealty. How can a veiled killer understand the meaning of such words?'
This statement summarizes his primary issue with the idea of Assassins, that they inherently go against the grain of what a man of honor thinks is important. However Valdor counters with the expected response, that they cannot afford to be picky in how they win if they hope to preserve the Imperium:
Valdor found his voice once more. 'Your brother will beat us, Lord Dorn. He will win this war unless we match him blow-for-blow. We cannot, we must not be afraid to make the difficult choices, the hardest decisions! Horus Lupercal will not hesitate-'
Dorn's response is to nearly come to blows with Valdor, which draws out the hidden presence in the corner, none other than the Emperor himself. It's always interesting when the Emperor appears in these novels, and even more so when he speaks, which is extremely rare. However, in this instance he has a bit to say.
'We cannot lose sight of what we  are and what we aspire to be; but we cannot forget that we face the greatest enemy and the darkest challenge.' In the depths of his father's eyes, Dorn saw something no one else could have perceived, so transient and fleeting it barely registered. He saw sorrow, deep and unending, and his heart ached with an empathy only a son could know.
We are left to wonder the true cause of the Emperor's sorrow, as he continues by dictating that the Officio Assassinorum become recognized as an official entity. Could it be at betrayal of a favored son, or something beyond the obvious, something that only he can know with his foresight, about what is to come to pass.

Following this scene, we are given a counterpoint as Erebus finds the remains of the daemon assassin he had set to kill the Emperor. After a Son of Horus brings Erebus the skeletal remains, all that the assassins left, Horus comes to find Erebus, dismissing his son.
Erebus fancied he saw a scrap of apprehension in the warrior's eyes; more than just the usual respect or his primarch. A fear, perhaps, of consequences that would come if he was seen to disobey, even in the slightest degree.
We are lead to believe Erebus enjoys seeing this discord in the Sons of Horus, which seem to be sown by the Assassin's attempt on Horus's life.
Suddenly, he was thinking of Luc Sedirae. Outspoken Sedirae, whose challenges to the Warmaster's orders, while trivial, had grown to become constant after the progression from Isstvan. Some had said he was in line to fill the vacant place in the Mournival, that his contentious manner was of need to one as powerful as Horus. After all, what other reason could there have been for the Warmaster to grant Sedirae the honor of wearing his mantle?
Of course, it was the mantle which lead the assassins to believe Sedirae was Horus, and kill him. This move shows not only Horus's cunning and seemingly inexplicable foresight, but also his ruthlessness. In the first two books of the series, Horus initially welcomed Loken's presence on the Mournival as a naysayer, as someone who would speak the truth, even when it wasn't always appealing. While Sedirae is never shown as being as honest and honorable as Loken, the fact that he is more or less killed for naysaying marks how far Horus has changed.

Interestingly, when Horus confronts Erebus, he tells him "You will not use such tactics again in the persecution of this conflict." This is an interesting counterpoint to the Emperor ordering that his assassins come to light, but still operate to the benefit of the Imperium. Erebus, fortunately for us, asks Horus for an explanation:
'Assassins are a tool of the weak, Erebus. The fearful. They are not a means to end conflicts, only to prolong them.' He paused, his gaze briefly turning inward. 'This war will end only when I look my father in the eyes. When he sees the truth I will make clear to him, he will know I am right. He will join me in that understanding.'
Erebus felt a thrill of dark power. 'And if the Emperor does not?'
Horus's gaze became cold. Then I - and I alone - will kill him.'
We could say that this future is what the Emperor sees, which Dorn understands as causing him great sorrow. However, Horus's statements about assassins is not wrong; he is directly describing what happens in the book - the Imperium's assassins, in their goal to get a shot at Horus, prolong an insurrection that would have taken days into a matter of months, forcing Horus to bring his forces to bear to claim the world. As Horus walks away at the end of the book, every man, woman, and child who survived the conflict, the bombardment from orbit that was the Sons of Horus' response to the assassination of Luc Sedirae, are sacrificed in an explosion shaped in a circle with eight points.

While Horus is clearly evil, and unflinching in his brutality, he is not wholly to blame for the deaths of everyone on the planet. Had the assassins not picked that as their place to make their attempt on Horus, there never would have been a need for the Sons of Horus to come anywhere near the planet.

So, what I like about these stories, is that they continue to show the depth of this conflict and the characters involved. There is no black and white, only varying shades of Grey