False Gods

Book 2 of the Horus Heresy

settings scifi warhammer

I'm re-reading the Horus Heresy, and this is my review of the second book in the series, False Gods by Graham McNeill. There are minor spoilers in this review.

This is it. This is the book where it all happens. The previous book introduced us to Horus himsulf, and managed to make him pretty endearing. He's charismatic and surprisingly attentive and compassionate and diplomatic. When his captains urge him to go to war with the Interex, he refuses, saying that the goal of the Great Crusade isn't to fight with disparate human words but to enlighten them. He's the Warmaster, but he doesn't seem all that eager to wage war.

It made us believe that this Horus could never betray the Emperor of Man. Maybe, somehow, despite the name of the book series and despite 20+ years of everyone in the Warhammer hobby knowing the lore, it would turn out different.

Faith and rationalism

This book, I think, is almost entirely about simultaneous faith and rationalism, two opposed mental processes that the human (and post-human, for that matter) mind can, for whatever reason, balance without conflict. In the first chapter, two Titan crewmembers are discussing their machine of war. One character happens to have recently joined the Imperial Cult. As they talk about Titans, there's subtext of their feelings toward religion. The religious character is scolding the Titan pilot for anthropomorphizing the war machine, saying that it smacks of superstition, while the Titan pilot scolds the cultist for believing in gods.

You almost have to read it twice to make sure you have the characters sorted as you read, yet the dialogue is something you may have had yourself with a friend. Something like "aliens exist because of probability, but there are absolutely no gods" or "I believe that a god designed the universe, but I distrust science" and so on. It's brutal realism that we human types are able to mix and match beliefs that imply certain conclusions, but discard the logic that prevents the ideas from fully resolving.

In the book, it's not just a human trait. The Astartes do it, too. When the Warmaster falls in battle, they're beyond terror. Their world stops. They literally trample over humans to get Horus to the apothecary. (And I mean so literally that it's a major plot point.) The Warmaster is an idol to the supposedly godless space marine chapters.

Even more profound is our own ability to do the exact same thing as we read. You know the Imperium is bad, you know the powers of the warp are bad, and yet as you read Warhammer fiction you do tend to pick a side. You have to. That's how stories work. There's a protagonist and an antagonist, and you identify with the protagonist and hate the antagonist. Somehow, it doesn't seem to matter that the protagonist of one book, or heck even one chapter in a book, ends up being the antagonist of another book or another chapter.


There's one small wrinkle between this book and the previous book that I've noticed the both times I've read them. Horus himself isn't entirely recognizable at the start of False Gods, and I don't think it's intentional. It feels like the outline for the end of the previous book and the start of this one said something like "Horus is worn down by administrivia and wants to be a warlord again". That's how this book starts off. The first we see Horus, he's sitting in a dark room, hands in head. He's totally worn out. He speaks of the tax collectors, specifically, who were such a minor plot point in the previous book that I don't think we even "met" the tax minister (and we still don't in this book).

He also complains that he won't be consigned to a desk job, and that's he's built for war. . This feels strange because all he did in the previous book was go to war.

All of this ends up being significant because when he makes the monumental mistake of going to Davin, it's down to these feelings. He wants nothing more than to go to Davin himself to fight for his honour. It doesn't read like the measured and thoughtful Horus I read about in the first book. If I'd seen Horus being restrained and kept away from the action in the first book, this would feel natural, but that's not what the first book showed us.

In short, the Horus of False Gods feels a little hotheaded, a little more aggressive than the one in the first book.

It's not a major break in character or narrative, but it's a slight quirk I've noticed, and I think it's an artefact of the shared universe. Heck, these characters are a lot more consistent than any of the other pop sci fi franchises I enjoy, so this is definitely not a problem.

More important than the [arguably realistic] shifting mood of the central character is the still impossible task of making Horus's downfall suspenseful. As with the first book, we already know what happens from the lore published decades ago. And yet, when it happens, you feel like Horus just may somehow resist the temptations of the powers of chaos. It wouldn't make sense for that to happen, because the series is called the Horus Heresy and besides the entire Warhammer setting hinges on it. But I challenge you to read this book without feeling like Horus can still be saved.

Too many characters

Admittedly, there are probably too many characters in this book series, and we're only two books in. Mersadie Oliton felt significant in the previous book but is basically just Lokan's confidant in this one. Then again, so is Ignace Karkasy. Feels redundant.

Euphrati Keeler, as the preeminent saint of the Imperial Cult is obviously essential. But what's up with Petronella Vivar? What purpose does she serve that Mersadie or Ignace couldn't do?

And then there's Jonah and what's-his-name.

That's to say nothing of the entire Mournival, oh and the lodge members, and the fact that there's both the Mournival and a lodge at all. There's just a lot of stuff to keep track of.


This is a very good book, despite the weight and complexity of a shared setting. Situations and characters develop and change quickly, and there are some pretty great battle sequences. This book packs in so much story that you're likely to finish it sooner than you'd otherwise expect. By the end, the setting is notably different. That's a little scary, but also a little exciting, in the horrific tradition of a good tragedy.

All images in this post copyright Games Workshop.

Previous Post Next Post