Galaxy in Flames

Book 3 of the Horus Heresy

settings scifi warhammer

I'm re-reading the Horus Heresy, and this is my review of the third book in the series, Galaxy in Flames by Ben Counter. There are spoilers in this review.

In my review of the previous book in the series, I mention that Horus himself feels like he skipped a notch or two between "really great guy" and "evil mastermind". I don't think that any more. This book didn't exactly explain it all away, but it provided more examples of men, who we'd seen in previous books, turning evil and after you witness it time and time again, you start to pick up on some subtleties of human and post-human nature.

In the first book, Horus surprises you. Instead of a murderous traitor just waiting to explode, he comes across as a compassionate diplomat who goes to great lengths to avoid conflict. In fact, when he has to fight the Interex at the end of Horus Rising it exposes just how weary of war he has become. He was prepared to tolerate xenos influence instead of going to war.

But he does go to war.

And that's the key to understanding Horus, I think, and indeed to all the traitor legions. It's the inverse of the Batman-never-kills principle.B Because Horus is willing to wipe out entire civilizations, we can believe he is harbouring the hatered it takes to turn against his battle brothers, his father, the Imperium, and the entire galaxy. Yes, he's a "compassionate diplomat". And he's sincere in his compassion and diplomacy. Or at least, he believes he's sincere. He believes that he prefers conversation and art and documentation and the open sharing of ideas, and so on. When it's convenient, he acts on that impulse, and he does it wholeheartedly, and so we believe it, too.

You've known somebody in your own life like this. It's not just on the surface, it's a deep and earnest conviction. But it only lasts as long as they maintain control. When things start to spiral, when they start to feel the discomfort of hard choices, or even impossible choices, that's when they find where their conviction ends.

Think of how many times you've read a Batman comic book, and you think this has got to be the time that Batman kills the Joker. The cost has been too high. Batman has to kill the Joker for what's happened. But he doesn't. In the very darkest hour of the Dark Knight's life, he maintains his conviction that redemption is possible.

In the not-even-the-darkest-hour of Horus's life, he forsakes his convictions, and wipes out entire planets. Billions of lives.

How hard is it to believe that somewhere in there, deep down, Horus was nursing the desire to push his father aside, to become the centre of people's worship, and to wield power greater than anyone else in the galaxy possesses? It's not just Horus, either. It's entire legions of Astartes, and Abaddon and Lucius (yes, that Lucius) and Horus Aximand and Angron and Maloghurst and all the rest. They all turn out to be sycophants to his power-hungry ego, and just as full of hatred.

It's hard to believe until it starts to feel so real that it becomes hard to disbelieve.

Our lord and saviour the Emperor of Man

There's a counterpoint to all of this egotism, and it comes through stronger and clearer than ever in this book. During this story, everything's falling apart around the remembrancers. Their angels are proving to be fallible, they're seeing that the Great Crusade is actual literal romanticized war, some of their colleagues are assassinated. Life on the Vengeful Spirit is suddenly really really scary. You feel it along with them.

More than that, some of the humans on the ship have seen things beyond their comprehension. Keeler and Sindermann and Jonah Aruken and Titus Cassar basically lose their minds, at least for a little while, and you can't blame them. Theirs is a sadness and fear of things out of their control. They're like caged animals, constantly in fear of a life they no longer own. It's not hard to see why they would choose to believe, instead, that an unseen man far away on a place called Terra would somehow have a plan for their lives. Keeler might not own her own life's trajectory, but at least the Emperor does. She may not see where the path is headed, but at least she can believe that there is a path. Then, at least, she can live her life with the singular purpose of being along for the ride of some greater plan.

You sympathise. You feel it.


This is good Warhammer. Great Warhammer. It's unsettling and disturbing and painful, but also energizing and full of adrenaline. You may or may not know what happens on Isstvan before it ever happens, depending on your general familiarity with Warhammer lore, but the battles there are sheer tabletop gaming power fantasy. If you've ever pitted two space marine chapters against one another on a tiny battlefield, then Isstvan is something you must read. In a way, it's the epitome of Warhammer, even though the chaos space marines aren't really quite chaos marines yet, all the ingredients and most of the flavour is there (and anything that's missing, like little Nurglings or chaos demons joining the fray, is compensated by the tragedy of betrayal). It's the power armour battles you've dreamed of and played out in your games, and a heck of a lot of fun to read.

All images in this post copyright Games Workshop.

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