The clue is in the title really – ‘Damnation of Pythos’. Not salvation, damnation. Given David Annandale’s love of horror films and monsters it should come as no surprise to find that his first novel in the Horus Heresy series is somewhat on the bleak side. For the 30th novel in this every-growing series we find ourselves back with the Iron Hands in the aftermath of Isstvan V and the Dropsite Massacre, with the loss of Ferrus Manus still fresh and raw in their minds.
Leading on directly from the events of the audio drama ‘Veritas Ferrum’, we find Captain Durrun Atticus and his 111th company of Iron Hands, along with a handful of Raven Guard and Salamanders, as they approach the Pandorax system and the titular planet Pythos. Given the clue in the title, and the monsters on the (brilliant) cover, it’s safe to say the Space Marines don’t have everything their way on this particular planet.
In contrast to previous Primarch-heavy novels, here the focus is very much on how the Iron Hands cope without their Primarch. We see Atticus, his human flesh almost entirely replaced by the machine, having fully embraced the Iron Hands’ battle cry of ‘the flesh is weak’, and dealing with his anger and grief through the application of cold logic. As events progress and different pressures build up on both the Iron Hands and the other legionaries, as well as un-augmented humans, we start to question whether Atticus’ approach is really appropriate. Annandale builds tension through contrasting Atticus with the viewpoint of a much less augmented Iron Hand and also one of the legion serfs, and we see the ways in which a careful application of fear and manipulation can affect even the strongest of wills.
There is plenty of action to be had here, with dinosaur-style monsters being the least of the Iron Hands’ worries, but more than anything this book is about psychology, and the way in which the Imperium of the 31st millennium is changing for everyone involved, and moving that bit further towards the grim darkness of the 41st millennium. It doesn’t feel as though this is moving the timeline forward in the way that some of the later novels have been doing, but what it does is flesh out some of what was happening away from the spotlight, and provide a timely reminder that events happening at this point are going to resonate deeply through 10,000 years of the Imperium. Don’t come here looking for a happy ending, as you won’t find one. In true Black Library style however, the darker and grimmer things get…the more interesting they become.