Review: THE TALON OF HORUS by Aaron Dembski-Bowden (Black Library)

DembskiBowden-A1-TalonOfHorusAn excellent start to a new series

When Horus fell, his Sons fell with him. A broken Legion, beset by rivalries and hunted by their erstwhile allies, the former Luna Wolves have scattered across the tortured realm of the Eye of Terror. And of Abaddon, greatest of the Warmaster’s followers, nothing has been heard for many years. But when Horus’s body is taken from its resting place, a confederation of legionaries seek out the former First Captain, to convince him to embrace his destiny and continue what Horus began.

The Talon of Horus is the first novel in a brand new series from Aaron Dembski-Bowden, author of the Night Lords trilogy and two of the best Horus Heresy novels (The First Heretic and Betrayer). Not only is he one of my favourite authors, but this series will chronicle the rise of one of my favourite characters: Abaddon. On the strength of this novel, it’s going to be just as good (if not better) than his Night Lords novels. This is an excellent novel.

As with every novel by Aaron DB, I always come away with lots to say. That’s not particularly useful in a review, however. So, I will try to keep this focused.

One thing needs to be addressed right away: this novel is not from Abaddon’s perspective. Given the synopsis and the cover, this was quite the surprise when I first started reading. This is also, I’m sure, going to annoy some readers (like all fandoms, BL’s has its fair number of naysayers and eternal critics). However, as the novel progressed, it was clear that Dembski-Bowden’s chosen approach was entirely appropriate and sensible: given Abaddon’s mythic stature in the WH40k lore, the responsibility of turning him into a relatable character that lived up to expectations would have been huge. Instead, taking a cue from the Horus Heresy series, where titanic personalities are view from the perspective of those who interact with and serve them allows for more nuanced, relatable and interesting storytelling.

The Talon of Horus is presented as a chronicle narrated by Iskandar Khayon, captain and sorcerer of the Thousand Sons Legion. The novel recounts a period of time after the Horus Heresy when the Nine Legions were at war with each other, aimlessly battling rival warbands for territory and the favour of the Chaos Pantheon. There is no unifying force to turn them into an effective war host. There is certainly no single leader. Abaddon, First Captain of the now-disgraced and eternally-persecuted (not to mention near-extinct) Sons of Horus, has disappeared. Indeed, he doesn’t turn up properly until two-thirds of the way into the book. The first half of the book is part fellowship-forming, part back-story. In the classic form of many SFF novels, Dembski-Bowden spends some time introducing readers to the characters and their backstories — especially Khayon’s, of course. They’re a colourful cast of rogues and warriors, as befits the eventual nature of the Black Legion (which has still not been founded, at this point in the story).

“The primarchs were dead or ascended past mortal concerns in the tides of the Great Game of the Gods. He listed the Imperial dead and the traitorous ascended, ending with names that were fast becoming mythic even to those of us within the Eye: Angron, Fulgrim, Perturabo, Lorgar, Magnus, Mortarion. The names of fathers elevated beyond the ken of their mortal sons; patrons who now paid us little heed, lost as they were to the winds and whims of Chaos. The names of fathers precious few of us still admired, with their legacies of dubious success.”

As fans of WH40k fiction have come to expect, Dembski-Bowden offers a more introspective take on the universe — his characters, especially his traitors, spend a lot of time examining themselves, the directions their lives have taken, and their place in the universe. This should not be confused with emo-navel-gazing, however: I won’t go so far as to say it’s philosophical, but he come pretty close pretty often. The fact that he’s dealing with Chaos and the warp does offer some interesting angles he can use to explore the nature of war, change, and ambition. What I especially liked in The Talon of Horus was what Khayon brought to our understanding of the warp — as a member of the warp-touched (and -obsessed) Thousand Sons Legion, his character and brothers have been studying and manipulating the warp for centuries, and therefore have a more nuanced, intellectual interpretation of what it is and what it can do for them and humanity.

“The empyrean’s alterations and flesh-changes are not accidental, indiscriminate mutations. The warp, for all its seething madness, hones its chosen. It reshapes them, siphoning the secrets of their souls and writing those truths upon their mortal flesh. When a pilot melts into the console of his fighter or gunship, it is not on the random curse of bodily horror or some unknowable divine whim. For all the pain he endures, he finds his reflexes and reactions far more attuned, as well as taking enhanced chemical and sensory pleasure in the kills he makes in the void. A warrior’s weapons become extensions of his body, reflecting the importance he places upon them in his heart. This is the simplest truth of life in the Great Eye. Everyone sees your sins, your secrets and lusts, written plain across your flesh.”

The novel contains plenty of action, but does not descend into ‘bolter-porn’, and the focus on story is always dominant. The action scenes are good, well-composed and feel free of exaggeration and excess. For the main, Dembski-Bowden’s prose is tight and a delight to read. There were a couple more instances of what came close to being info-dumping, but they were presented in an engaging way and so I was never knocked out of the story or flow. Dembski-Bowden’s wit is evident on occasion, but never derails the tone of the story (it’s deployed as comradely banter, mainly).

I’ve said it before (many times, I think), but Aaron Dembski-Bowden is a superb writer. He confounds expectations of how a story will be told, and I never come away disappointed or underwhelmed. His characters are engaging, varied, and more complex than how many might present them. When he breaks with established perceptions of how a character should be or act, it is always done in a way that feels natural and unforced. For example, Khayon is quite sentimental, and expresses a form of devotion and love for his bloodward and familiar that is quite unlike anything I’ve read from a Space Marine, and certainly not from a Traitor. His relationship with these two and his comrades is an interesting one — he is fiercely loyal, but also not above meting out extreme justice and punishment (as he does to Telemachon). We get a glimpse of just how power a psyker Khayon is, too. It’s… impressive. The character is an excellent guide to these early years for those who would make up the core of the Black Legion leadership.

The Talon of Horus is an excellent beginning to a new series. I’m not sure how long it’s intended to be, but I hope quite a few novels are in the works. The novel should appeal to anyone who has been enjoying the Horus Heresy series, as a fair number of characters reappear, or are fated to appear in the future. If you’ve enjoyed the author’s work in the past, this will not disappoint. Dembski-Bowden is a brilliant storyteller.

I can’t wait for the next one. In the epilogue, the narrator seeds a few upcoming events: this is going to be an epic series.

Very highly recommended, this is a must-read.

“A new war,” I said slowly, softly. “One not born of bitterness nor founded on revenge.” Abaddon nodded. “The Long War, Khayon. The Long War. Not a petty rebellion swallowed by Horus’s pride and his hunger for the Terran Throne. A war for the future of mankind. Horus would have sold the species to the Pantheon for the chance to sit on the Golden Throne for a single heartbeat. We cannot allow ourselves to be used the way he was. The Powers exist and we can’t pretend otherwise, but nor can we allow a sacred duty to devolve into such weakness, as Horus did.”

“A new Legion,” he concluded, surprising several of the others with the offer. “Forged as we desire, not as slaves to the Emperor’s will and cast in the image of his flawed primarchs. Bound together by loyalty and ambition, not nostalgia and desperation. Untainted by the past,’ he said at last. “No longer the sons of failed fathers.”

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