Josh Reynolds’ novel Fulgrim: The Palatine Phoenix makes it four traitor-to-be primarchs in a row in Black Library’s The Horus Heresy Primarchs series. For this, the sixth book in the series, we see the primarch of the Emperor’s Children embark upon his first solo compliance mission, to Twenty-Eight One, or Byzas. Though ostensibly welcoming of the Imperium, Fulgrim knows he must still work hard to bring Byzas and its people to compliance. Stung by perceptions of him and his legion, he sets out with just seven of his sons to demonstrate his methods and prove his worth to his brothers.
It’s a well-chosen setup – Byzas’ challenge is its byzantine systems of government and aristocracy, the similarities to Chemos putting Fulgrim right in his element. It’s a story of bloodless compliance as Fulgrim sets out to prove his detractors wrong and demonstrate his superiority, except that alongside civilised negotiations and sharply pointed conversations, there’s actually plenty of bloodshed in the end. It all makes for a great backdrop to Reynolds’ examination of Fulgrim’s complex character – there’s arrogance for certain, but lots more than just that, and while the roots of what’s to come are clearly visible he’s genuinely relatable and really quite likeable in his own way.
A key narrative element is Fulgrim’s decision to only bring seven Emperor’s Children with him to Byzas, a choice which represents both his already-towering arrogance and his determination to do things his way, and also the parlous state of his legion at this point. There are a few familiar names to Reynolds fans, not least an early-stage apothecary Fabius, but also a couple of characters whose later incarnations pop up in the Fabius Bile series. By only including seven, we get an enjoyable amount of exploration for each character rather than a wide-angle view of a whole legion, and while the overall focus is very much on Fulgrim there’s plenty of detail for each of his sons…particularly (unsurprisingly) Fabius. Suffice to say Reynolds nails the 30k-era depictions, starting from the expected pride and arrogance but layering complexities upon them as well.
Narratively it starts off quite leisurely, emphasising Fulgrim’s decision to avoid the all-guns-blazing approach. There’s plenty of thoroughly entertaining action as the story continues, including a few opportunities to see Fulgrim in full flow, but overall it’s less about action than dialogue and plot. It’s chock full of intrigue and ham-fisted assassination attempts, and feels refreshingly different to even the usual Heresy stylings, never mind 40k. Reynolds has done a great job of telling an interesting, exciting story while illustrating the core concepts of Fulgrim and the Emperor’s Children, with the added bonus of exploring the fascinating non-military side of compliance. It might not be what you expect, but it’s a really smart and effective story that’s a must-read for Heresy fans and 40k fans alike.