The Horus Heresy Book Club: Horus Rising
It should go without saying that from this point, there will be spoilers. If you haven't read Horus Rising, and you are bothered by spoilers, then come back later after reading it.
Horus Rising is the first book in the Horus Heresy series, and the first of a trilogy that revolves around the same cast of characters. It was written by Dan Abnett, and I first read it when it came out in 2006. This is my second read through.
This is actually also my second attempt at writing this post. The first time I got too bogged down in synopsis and backstory, and was staring down the barrel of a veritable essay. Instead, I'm going to assume you've read the book, and know enough about the parts of Warhammer 40,000's background that brought us up to the end of the 31st millennium.
First, I want to talk about how much I love Dan Abnett's writing. Horus Rising opens with some misdirection—we think for a second that this is the Solar system that's the ship translated into. In doing this, he has us engaged in the story, and not overwhelmed with details and background. A lot of writers—sadly, some of which write Horus Heresy novels—dole out too much information when it comes to sci-fi/fantasy. This isn't an issue with Abnett.
What's always struck me with this book is the Imperial Truth, the secular philosophy of the nascent Imperium. The remembrancers are bearers of this, and are a great addition to the 40k canon. I remember reading this and thinking about how much more horrific the 41st millennium is in light of what could have been, and one of the fun parts of this series is clutching the books in tense hope that things will turn out better. But we know how it turns out. This is one of the ingenious parts of 40k, that at first blush it brings you in with these heroic and daring tales, and only then pulls back the curtain to show you how wrong you were.
The Imperial Truth is only slightly more appealing than the Imperial Faith, and the two are constantly played against each other as the burgeoning cult of Emperor worship begins to take hold of the humans in the Crusade. From early on in the book we see the characters grapple with the immensity of what they're engaged with. Even Loken begins to wonder, if not question, why they couldn't have just left "Terra" alone. What will the Imperium mean if it's built on this violence?
It's violence we see not only on the battlefields, but in the relationship between the Astartes and the humans, who are regarded as lesser by the space marines. This is a source of tension in the book, the Astartes know that their sole existence is to create a galaxy for humans to live in, and one day the Crusade will end. What will become of their warrior culture then? Some space marines don't believe there will ever be peace, while some are content with their lot. But it's this tension that causes rifts between the Astartes and the remembrancers, which boils over later in the novel.
Before we get to that, however, let's dwell on Horus. He's a great guy in the beginnings of this book. I was charmed by his character as I was reading, and it's easy to see why everyone is awed and in love with him. But he's just as much a victim of this tension as anyone. It comes to a head at the end as his attempts at bringing the Interex into compliance go up in flames. He's left alone in the Crusade. The father who he's fought with for hundreds of years—Horus was the first primarch recovered by the Emperor—has left him. Sure, the Emperor has given his son his confidence, but there are other primarchs who don't feel that he's deserving of the title Warmaster.
Horus is also troubled by the question of what would an Imperium built on violence be like, when he's troubled by his "mistake" at handling "Terra." Violence is fit for the perfidious xenos species, but for humanity it seems heavy-handed. Was the Emperor wrong in leaving the Crusade in Horus' hands? How much of this doubt was seeded by Erebus, the Word Bearer 'ambassador' who has inserted himself between Horus and the Mournival?
This is what I love about this book, and what lies beneath even my least-favorite Horus Heresy novel in the series: The tension between the ideals of the Crusade and what it takes to keep those ideals alive. When the Interex' museum is in flames and its caretaker dead, Horus even pleads to the heavens for help. Maybe the Crusade is too much for his shoulders to bear. It's interesting at this point that Loken decides that he's never been more confident in Horus. I think this speaks to Loken's humanity that he can see nobility in flawed individuals. Or perhaps it just speaks to his utility as an Emperor's soldier that this nobility comes across as Horus fights his way back to his ship.
I think one could look at this book, and see an indictment on humanity for the brutality inherent in what's considered the 'natural' human empire taking shape. I prefer to see it as an indictment on the Emperor. After all, he has built all of this. He created the primarchs, he created the Astartes, he created every aspect and method of the Crusade since before he began his unification of Terra. If humanity's conquest of the galaxy is hard, and full of tension, it's really on the Emperor himself. Even more so now that he's not in it.
Well, I hope you liked the format of this post. If not, let me know through email, or in the comments/replies wherever I post this (Instagram, Facebook, and Mastodon). Next week, I'll tackle False Gods by Graham McNeill.