SPOILER ALERT: make sure you’ve read Legion by Dan Abnett before reading this novella!
Originally released alongside three other Horus Heresy novellas in the New York Times bestselling The Primarchs anthology, The Serpent Beneath by Rob Sanders is a tale of tangled loyalties as the Alpha Legion goes up against…the Alpha Legion. Fearing a security breach at a secret Legion installation, Omegon and a small group of Legionaries infiltrate the mysterious Tenebrae 9-50 array in order to plug the leak, permanently. In true XXth Legion fashion however, things aren’t quite what they seem – plenty of surprises await Omegon and his men during the course of the mission.
The Alpha Legion are a complicated lot and it can be tricky to keep track of all their twists and turns, a fact which Sanders openly plays upon with this novella. Omegon keeps his motives hidden throughout, the slowly unfolding events gradually filling in the blanks but always with a hint that things aren’t quite what they seem – as you’d expect, really. Some of those events link in with other stories – for example Chris Wraight’s Scars, released eight (!) books later – while the whole thing just emphasises the labyrinthine plotting that we now associate with the XXth Legion. Since being published we’ve seen the Alpha Legion crop up in all sorts of areas, but when this was first released it was quite an eye-opener, much as Legion was!
Narratively it’s a sharp, clever tale with a nice blend of action and intrigue, covering more than just the infiltration of the Tenebrae array. We get to see Omegon and co. in a range of circumstances which show off the skills and methods of the Alpha Legion really nicely, the different settings in the first quarter or so of the novella helping give a sense of scale to the story before the action starts hotting up. Sanders gives the characters, Omegon especially, a strong sense of Legion identity in their ultra-rational, calculating personalities – these are cold even for the Alpha Legion, men prepared to find ‘victory over everything else’, who can maintain an impassive appreciation for the skill of their opponents even as they slaughter them.
This is the Alpha Legion in microcosm, essentially. Legion introduced us to the essence of the Legion, while later stories like The Harrowing or The Seventh Serpent showed certain aspects of them, but here we get pretty much everything. They’re one of the biggest overall surprises of the Horus Heresy series so far, occasionally over-used, but in Sanders’ hands here they’re a fascinating, enigmatic aspect of the series. You might end up scratching your head more by the end of this story than you were at the start, the questions it poses equally exasperating and intriguing, but it’s worth it for the satisfaction of the payoff, despite the remaining mysteries.