This is where it all started, back in 2006 – Horus Rising by Dan Abnett, the first novel in Black Library’s ever-growing Horus Heresy series. It’s the start of the 31st millennium, and the Great Crusade is almost complete. A year after the Triumph at Ullanor, after the Emperor returned to Terra, the newly-elevated Warmaster Horus commands the 63rd Expeditionary Fleet and his Luna Wolves in the continuation of the Crusade and the promulgation of the Imperial Truth. Along their path are set two long-lost human civilisations, each wildly different, who react to being reunited with the rest of humanity in contrasting ways. Hope is still preeminent, but change is in the air.
With a dramatis personae stretching to forty-two named characters, some familiar (to a point) from 40k but most brand new, there’s a lot to take in here even for experienced 40k fans. Not to mention the opening sucker punch, the famous “I was there the day…” line, which in itself is a notice to the reader saying ‘this is new, forget everything you think you know’. We’re introduced to the characters who are going to shape the story of this series early on – Captain Loken of the Luna Wolves’ 10th Company, honest and unbending, the rising star within the Legion. The senior Captains of the Legion – Abaddon, Torgaddon, ‘Little Horus’ Aximand. The remembrancers – Euphrati Keeler, Ignace Karkasy, Mersadie Oliton. Horus himself – powerful, otherworldly, inspiring.
The journey they go on, especially Loken, is a very human one, despite the Heresy being a conflict caused fundamentally by the Astartes. Unlike 40k though, this portrays Heresy-era Space Marines as far more human – changed for sure, elevated perhaps, but closer to humanity overall than they are 10,000 years later. Loken’s emotions, his psychological reactions to what’s going on around him, are fascinating to watch. Things which would be commonplace in 40k – Chaos, fratricide, internal conflict – are utterly new and alien to him, while things he finds unremarkable, like the deployment of hundreds of Space Marines or conversations with Abaddon, seem incredible to us. Of course some things are remarkable however you look at them – scenes with primarchs, for example!
Abnett has a knack for adding depth and real vibrancy to his characters, and here manages to show us characters we think we already understand in a completely new light. By beginning his story at a time when the Imperium was more innocent, before the rot had set in, he takes characters like Abaddon and Horus – the baddest of bad guys – and paints them as heroes, makes us admire them. It’s typical now for 40k ‘villains’ to be conflicted, shades-of-grey characters, but back in 2006 that was much less common. What Horus Rising did…does…is remind us that there are two sides to every story, that this whole episode is the biggest, grandest tragedy you could imagine. By the end of this book we love Horus the way his sons do. We see the strength and the nobility in these characters, and the possibilities that lie tantalisingly out of reach…and we know that it’s all going to be lost.
No-one would have believed back in 2006 that the Heresy would grow to be the behemoth it is today; looking back though, Horus Rising clearly and beautifully set the tone and laid the groundwork for what was to come. So much is fresh and new here, compared to 40k as it was – unfettered by 10,000 years of stagnation we see an Imperium still full of hope, and on a truly grand scale. The Legions, the Great Crusade, the sheer volume of characters and the dynamic, jaw-dropping presence of the primarchs, it all serves to mark this as the start of something that hadn’t been seen before.
Dan Abnett was the perfect choice for this story, and he delivered in spades. Horus Rising is one of those books that simply changed the face of Black Library. There’s far too much to cover without stretching for pages or giving the plot away, but suffice to say this is a brilliantly written, gripping story in itself, while also clearly the start of something huge. We should remember as well that it was written alongside False Gods by Graham McNeill and Galaxy in Flames by Ben Counter, and works best read as part of that opening trilogy. If you’re a 40k fan and you haven’t read this, you owe it to yourself to check it out. If you’ve read it before…it’s always worth re-reading, even if only to remind yourself of how it all began.