Review: ANGELS OF CALIBAN by Gav Thorpe (Black Library)

ThorpeG-HH-AngelsOfCalibanThe Dark Angels’ true nature revealed?

With the Dark Angels spread across a hundred systems, primarch Lion El’Jonson stands as Lord Protector of Ultramar – though his true motives are known to few indeed, and old rivalries on the home world threaten to tear the Legion in half. But when word comes of the Night Lords’ attack on Sotha, the Lion’s brutal actions bring Imperium Secundus once again to the brink of civil war. Not even the most fearsome warriors of the Dreadwing, nor any arcane secret of the Order, can guarantee victory if he sets himself against his loyal brothers.

Ah, the Dark Angels. One of the most mysterious and popular legions of the Astartes. But, sadly, also the one that hasn’t received the best novels in the Heresy series to date. The first two — Descent of Angels and Fallen Angels — were rather disappointing. It is on this foundation that Thorpe must redeem them. His familiarity with the Legion is a considerable asset for this endeavour, and he manages to make them interesting and nuanced again. I enjoyed this, but probably would have liked it more if the events on Caliban had been less prominent.

Angels of Caliban is split into two threads: one focused around Lion El’Johnson and Imperium Secundus, while the other takes place back on the Dark Angels’ homeworld of Caliban. I absolutely preferred the former to the latter. So, I’ll deal with the events on Caliban first.

Things are not going well. Luthor, the Lion’s second, is fomenting unrest and rebellion against the Imperium on Caliban, jettisoning the teachings of the Imperial way, pulling Calibanites back to the old ways. There are some strange goings-on in caves and with an entity that seems to pass itself off as the spirit of Caliban, but is actually a Chaotic manifestation. There are meetings of Great Import and Skullduggery between leading Dark Angels who have remained on Caliban. Partly, this seems to be because they disobeyed the Lion, and therefore are not particularly trusted. To be honest, this storyline didn’t interest me as much as I’d hoped — it is, basically, a case of extreme separation anxiety. The rebels come across as petulant adolescents throwing a mega-tantrum because they didn’t get the prime posting and role in the ongoing conquest of the galaxy. Or because they’re not the Lion’s favourites. In later sections of the novel set on Caliban, I may have started to skim chapters…

I know the events on Caliban are important to the story, they just aren’t nearly as interesting to me as what else is happening in the Heresy. In pretty much every instance, the conflicts within and between the Legions is interesting, multi-layered and has huge potential for the future. With the Dark Angels…? Meh. Maybe it’s a case of being more familiar with the Dark Angels’ “mysterious” qualities from 40k fiction and Codexes, which has meant that finally seeing what the mystery and shame was… It doesn’t live up to expectations. This is, of course, not Thorpe’s fault. It was only because he wrote this novel that I was looking forward to another Dark Angels Heresy book. Otherwise, I may well have skipped it. Who knows what will happen to/with them in the future of the series.

The events on Imperium Secundus are far more interesting. Still cut off from the rest of the Imperium by the Word Bearers’ Ruinstorm, the new Emperor Sanguinius and his brothers Roboute Guilliman and Lion El’Johnson are administering to and building the new Empire. They are also dealing with their rogue brother, the psychotic and definitely mad Konrad Curze of the Night Lords. Curze is causing havoc, committing atrocities, fomenting dissent and generally being a thorn in his brothers’ sides. In other words, he is fulfilling his purpose.

Not long into the novel, Johnson pushes Sanguinius to allow him to deal with the Night Haunter once and for all; to put an end to his madness and murders, and bring him to justice. Reluctantly, the new Emperor agrees, but gives him restrictions in order to protect the population of Macragge. Johnson is not as noble as we have been led to believe, however — his tactics are ruthless, almost indiscriminate. Ultimately, he becomes a tyrant, with little regard for the lives of Imperial citizens. Hyper-goal-oriented, he circumvents his brother’s orders on a technicality, leading to considerable collateral damage. It is through these events that Thorpe does a great job of highlighting the awful qualities of the Imperium — the brutality, the inflexibility, the militarization of society, the authoritarianism…

I enjoyed that the Primarchs featured so prominently in the Imperium Secundus storyline. Thorpe does a great job of expanding on their characters, fleshing them out a bit more for the reader. I enjoyed the tensions between Roboute and the Lion, as well as Sanguinius’s grappling with his visions (and the impact Curze’s visions have on the new Emperor’s interpretation of his own). They also feel more like real brothers — they bicker and disagree, and come to blows. I love how Curze is able to seed so much doubt whenever he interacts with his brothers — he knows just how to needle them, to poke their existing fears and concerns. True, it has a tendency to enrage them (see, for example, Lion El’Johnson…). And, for those of us who know more about 40k lore, the tragedy is that Curze is mostly right… For the main, each recent book has done a good job of rounding out the Primarchs — especially since the rebellion was revealed and picked up. They are all grappling with this new reality, not to mention their own roles in the Imperium or rebellion.

The denouement is very interesting, too, for what it promises for the three Primarchs and their Legions. Also, Angels of Caliban moves the story forward into what should be the next phase of the Heresy story. (Hurrah!) I think we can finally say that the first two acts are over, and we’re entering the final push to Terra… (Finally!) I’ll be a bit disappointed if the next novels make it feel like we’re back-tracking.

I enjoyed this quite a bit, although I think I definitely prefer Thorpe’s Raven Guard Heresy fiction — especially Deliverance Lost. I think that legion has given him more room to invent and create original and very interesting background, etc. They are also more interesting than the Dark Angels, in my opinion.

I’m really looking forward to the next novel in the series: John French’s Praetorian of Dorn, which should be out in August.

*

The Horus Heresy: Horus Rising (1), False Gods (2), Galaxy in Flames (3), Flight of the Eisenstein (4), Fulgrim (5), Descent of Angels (6), Legion (7), Battle for the Abyss (8), Mechanicum (9), Tales of Heresy (10), Fallen Angels (11), A Thousand Sons  (12), Nemesis (13), The First Heretic (14), Prospero Burns (15), Age of Darkness (16), The Outcast Dead (17), Deliverance Lost (18), Know No Fear (19), The Primarchs (20), Fear to Tread (21), Shadows of Treachery (22), Angel Exterminates (23), Betrayer (24), Mark of Calth (25), Promethean SunScorched EarthVulkan Lives (26), Scars (I-III, IV-IX; 27), The Unremembered Empire (28), Vengeful Spirit (29), The Damnation of Pythos (30), Legacies of Betrayal (31), Death & DefianceTallarn: ExecutionerBlades of the TraitorDeathfire (32), The PurgeWolf KingCyberneticaGarro: Vow of FaithRavenlordWar Without End (33), Pharos (34), The HonouredThe UnburdenedEye of Terra (35), The Seventh SerpentThe Path of Heaven (36), The Silent War (37), MedusonTallarn: IroncladAngels of Caliban (38), Praetorian of Dorn (39), Corax

Also on CR: Interview with Gav Thorpe (2011); Catch-Up Interview (2016)

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