Horus Rising

Book 1 of the Horus Heresy

settings scifi warhammer

The Horus Heresy book series is set in the 30th millennium, just 10 short millennia prior to Warhammer 40,000. It's the story of how the Emperor of Man found his lost sons, the Primarchs, from all across the galaxy, and ultimately how one of them turned against him, causing civil war within the nascent Imperium. It was, by chance, my proper introduction to the universe of Warhammer and although I've read books set in the 41st millenium since then, the Heresy era stories remain some of my favourite Warhammer fiction. I'm re-reading the Horus Heresy, and this is my review of the first book in the series, Horus Rising by Dan Abnett. There are minor spoilers in this review.

The first book of the series has some severely impossible challenges to overcome. The obvious one is that we all know the end of the story already. Warhammer 40,000 and the Imperium and the Emperor all exist in the "current" [fictional] timeline, so obviously Horus loses. So what's this series going to be about? How is this initial book going to make us believe it might be worth reading a series of, say maybe 10 books (just kidding, it blew up into a 50+ books)?

"I was there the day horus slew the Emperor."

That's the opening line of the book. There's no way a book about the [fictional] history of the world of 40k could possibly be more effective at grabbing the reader's attention. Because it's obviously wrong and also it doesn't make sense for the book about the infamous Horus Heresy to start at the end of the Heresy.

That's kind of obvious, though. It's an obviously good opening line. What I love about it is that it works even if you don't know your basic 40k history. Even if you don't know that the Emperor wins in the end (if sitting catatonic on a life-support throne can be called winning), this line apparently gives the end away. Some guy named Horus, for whom this series is obviously named for, has killed an Emperor. A few short paragraphs later, you learn that this is a flashback and that Horus may have killed an Emperor, but that didn't take the title for himself. He's called the Warmaster, and he serves some other Emperor. Whatever's going on, it's clear that it's complicated, and that you have a lot of catching up to do.

But so does everyone. Everyone's thrown for a loop with this opening line, and the whole first part of the book (it's divided into three disctinct parts) is about a planet populated by a branch of humanity that left Earth millenia ago, and called its new home Terra, after their old home. A man rose to power on the planet, and he calls himself the Emperor of Man. They've had a whole history, fighting for survival, struggling for unity, probably fighting off alien invasion, and everything all the other planets in the galaxy have to go through. It's a beautiful storytelling technique not only because it betrays your expectation, but also because it emphasises one of the things most important to Warhammer 40,000: History.

The Warhammer setting needs you to understand just how vast its fictional history is. The numbers are big in Warhammer. Years are numbered in the ten-thousands, like in Dune. We understand pretty quickly from the title that this is the far future. But 30,000 to 40,000 is also a really long time. Sure, 30,000 is closer to 40,000 than it is to 2023 but it's still a really really long time. For us humans, it's the same as eternity itself.

This is important because it reminds us that in this setting, the traditions, struggles, and stagnation of humanity is basically forever. No rag-tag band of rebels are surfacing in this world to destroy a Death Star. The people of Warhammer world (not to be mistaken for the actual Warhammer World location in the UK) don't just believe in the status quo, they have proof that the status quo is the only possible reality. For an epoch, the Emperor's truth has been, whether it has to be or not, the definition of the state of the universe. Humans good, xenos bad. The Imperium is the only way.

Appropriately, one of the key stories in Horus Rising is the introduction of the remembrancers. Horus believes that truth, whether it's pleasing or ugly, is valuable, and he wants artists and historians to witness the end of the Great Crusade. His fleet's ships are crawling with them as the book starts. The military hardly knows what to do with the remembrancers, and at first the chapters of the Astartes don't much care for them either. Eventually, though, the value of having the great deeds of the military recorded by living witnesses becomes clear, and so the remembrancers are invited along to witness victories and the subsequent transition toward planetary compliance.

For us readers, the remembrancers serve as our proxies. They're the lowly humans witnessing the mythical deeds of demigod warriors, as we are. The contrast between the human characters, like Mersadie Oliton, and the Astartes, like Garviel Loken, reminds us that the heroes of these stories are super-human. There's a huge power imbalance here, and while it might be humbling and awe-inspiring in this book, there are hints that, were anything to go wrong, the protectors of humanity could easily become their greatest threat. It's the classic Frankenstein mythos reinterpreted, and it's one of my favourite aspects of Warhammer 40,000.

Truth and obfuscation

The big focus of Horus Rising, beyond a whole array of fascinating characters, is about truth. Loken is obsessed with it, in part because the Emperor has espoused it for hundreds of years. The Emperor, at this stage, has declared all gods fictitious, and insists on a rational and humanist philosophy. There can be no secrets in the Imperium of Man, because secrets breeds uncertainty. Truth gives people the ability to understand the universe.

The irony is, of course, that we know the Imperium of Man is destined to become a fascist theocracy. Even in this, the first book, the Lectitio Divinitatus, the cult that asserts that the Emperor is a god, has started to circulate.

Even greater irony surfaces when we start to hear the "truth" that the Iterators promote in their lectures. The Imperium, they say, is obligated to conquer other civilisations because the Imperium is the truth, and so it must be shared with everyone who doesn't know about it. And if those civilisations fight against the Imperial truth, then it's out of ignorance and stubbornness, and they must be enlightened despite themselves.

How does the Imperium know it's right? Because the Imperium knows it's right.

If you had a very religious upbringing, you'll, probably painfully, recognise this kind of "logic". There's an analogy that the sagely Iterator Kyril Sinderman gives to Loken: if you saw a young boy drowning, would you rush to save him? Yes, of course. But what if the boy, not understanding that you were trying to help him, fought you off? Would you leave him to drown? No, of course not. It's so simple and clear that you might forget that the civilisations being "saved" aren't drowning, or if they are then no more than the Imperium itself is.

But that's how these things go. The religious zealotry, the nationalism (or in sci fi, species-ism), the constant need for conquest and domination. This is what Warhammer is actually about. Sometimes it's so subtle that you willingly forget. After all, it's just more fun to cheer for the space marines than it is to constantly ponder how they're building a horrific totalitorian regime. But other times it's so blatant that you laugh out loud at the absurdity of it. Until you realise the absurdity isn't fictional, and that it's happening all around you in real life.

Great Warhammer

There's so much in this first book. There are mentions of Ullanor, the Thunder Warriors that came before the Astartes, there's a fascinating encounter with a human empire called the Interex, a being called Samus, big-name characters like Sanguinius and Abaddon, and so much more. It's an absolute pleasure to read and to re-read, and I think it's a great introduction to Warhammer in general.

All images in this post copyright Games Workshop.

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