The clue is in the title. Book forty-one of Black Library’s colossal Horus Heresy series, Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s The Master of Mankind brings The Emperor front and centre. Set five years after Magnus the Red’s intrusion into the Great Work it sees the forces of the Imperium losing the webway war against the endless hordes of daemons and traitors pouring in. Even the combined might of the Custodes, Sisters of Silence and the Mechanicum isn’t enough to avoid being them pushed ever further backwards, as long as The Emperor remains away from the front lines. Meanwhile something stalks the fringes of the conflict, unseen.
First of all, this is not from The Emperor’s perspective. Sensibly, Dembski-Bowden avoids shedding too much light on His inner thoughts, instead showing Him and His actions through various other viewpoints. In fact The Emperor isn’t actually ‘on screen’ as such for that much of the story, and when He is it’s in unexpected but fascinating forms. We watch through the eyes of Custodes, Sisters and various Mechanicum adepts, among others, and learn about His plans and decisions through observation and dialogue, much of which is deliberately ambiguous. Some of what we learn is genuinely revelatory (and occasionally pretty harrowing), but remember this – we’re only getting one person’s viewpoint each time…
Narratively it’s a pretty straightforward story, although it might not appear so for large chunks of the book. It’s also genuinely bleak, especially once you hit the end and realise what it’s all been building towards. This isn’t a happy story – we’re seeing ground-down characters who have spent the last five years in constant, gruelling battle. The pacing contributes to a sense of weight as well, deliberately building things up slowly and only showing parts of the whole for much of the time. It works well, but does contribute to an occasional feeling of density to the book, at least until it gets really explosive towards the end.
For a book ostensibly about The Emperor it’s interesting that by the end He’s just as cryptic a figure as ever, in fact potentially more so. It’s fascinating though, and the insight we get, however ambiguous, is absolutely worthwhile. On its own that might not have been enough, but the cast of characters is artfully drawn, the contrasting Custodes/Astartes/Mechanicum mindsets proving a particular highlight, and there’s just enough of a balance between the different elements of the book to keep you reading, excited for what’s coming next. If you’re after a grand reveal of the Big E’s inner workings then you’ll be disappointed, but if you want an endlessly interesting look at one of the most crucial but (previously) poorly-understood elements of the Heresy, you’re in for a treat.