Review: THE MASTER OF MANKIND by Aaron Dembski-Bowden (Black Library)

dembskibowdena-hh41-masterofmankindThe battle for the Webway

While Horus’ rebellion burns across the galaxy, a very different kind of war rages beneath the Imperial Palace. The ‘Ten Thousand’ Custodian Guard, along with the Sisters of Silence and the Mechanicum forces of Fabricator General Kane, fight to control the nexus points of the ancient eldar webway that lie closest to Terra, infested by daemonic entities after Magnus the Red’s intrusion. But with traitor legionaries and corrupted Battle Titans now counted among the forces of Chaos, the noose around the Throneworld is tightening, and none but the Emperor Himself can hope to prevail.

This was probably one of my most-anticipated novels of the year. Each of Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s contributions to the ever-expanding Horus Heresy mythos to date has been superb: The First Heretic and Betrayer are particularly stand-out novels in an overall-excellent series. So, when it was first announced that Mr. D-B would be taking on the story of the Emperor himself…? Well, how could I not be excited? Unfortunately, this novel didn’t work for me on almost every level.

There are moments in The Master of Mankind when Dembski-Bowden’s imagination shines, and there are some interesting questions posed, and tantalizing hints dropped throughout. However, in each instance, the novel quickly reverts to a description- and exposition-heavy style. It’s a narrowly-told story, about a massive event. Sometimes, this can work brilliantly — indeed, the Horus Heresy series has frequently shone because its novels have been told from the perspectives of “non-special” characters. The novel has a few Easter Eggs for the current WH40k timeline, and perhaps also a hint for his next Black Legion/Abaddon novel. It provides the context for some of the “current” practices of the Imperium, explaining and describing their origins. We see the Custodians and Silent Sisterhood in action (impressive).

We do get to “know” the Emperor a little better, and are given more information on his longevity and the scope of his powers. This was quite interesting, as over the course of the novel we see the Emperor communicating with one of the Custodians, Ra, through psychic memories. We learn of the connection between the Warp and “religion”, for example, and its corrupting ways:

‘What am I looking at, sire? What is this?’

‘Faith,’ said the Emperor. ‘You are seeing his faith, through my eyes. Maulland Sen’s massacring priest-king is… what? Another of the Unification Wars’ warlords? Terra had hundreds of them. He died beneath my executing blade, and history’s pages will mark him as nothing more.

‘And yet, his life is the path of faith in microcosm. Once a wandering preacher feeding the weak and the lost, ending as a blood-soaked monarch overseeing pogroms and genocides – his teeth stained by cannibal ritual, his skull a shell for the toying touch of warp-entities he does not realise he serves. Every act of violence or pain that he performs is a prayer to those entities, fuelling them, making them stronger behind the veil. What he believes no longer matters, when everything he does feeds their influence.

‘This is why we strip the comfort of religion from humanity. These are the slivers of vulnerability that faith cracks open in the human heart. Even if a belief in a lie leads us to do good, eventually it leads to the truth – that we are a species alone in the dark, threatened by the laughing games of sentient malignancies that mortals would call gods.’

We also get to see the Emperor in a far more cold light. In previous novels, Dembski-Bowden’s included, he has come across as a father-figure for the Primarchs. And yet, in The Master of Mankind, he is dismissive of them:

‘The primarchs. It is said they have always called you father. It seems so… sentimental. I’ve never understood why you allow it.’

The Emperor was silent for some time. When He spoke, His eyes had returned to the hulking form on the surgical slab. ‘There was once a writer,’ he said, ‘a penner of children’s stories who told the tale of a wooden puppet that wished to be reborn as a human child. And this puppet, this automaton of painted, carved wood that sought to be a thing of flesh and blood and bone – do you know what it called its maker? What would such a creature call the creator that gave it shape and form and life?’

The Emperor sees them as tools, and little more. Perhaps this is a reaction to Horus’s betrayal, or perhaps this is what he’s always thought and the care and father-like love he has exhibited towards the Primarchs was artificial and merely strategic.

So many of the revelations and introspective moments with the Emperor failed to cohere into a gripping narrative. It’s almost as if Dembski-Bowden had some things he wanted to write about, to experiment with, and then wasn’t sure how to knit it all together into a proper, flowing narrative. Maybe it’s a symptom of the Heresy series having become to huge, expansive and complex. The mythological place of the Emperor in the lore also means no portrayal of him will probably ever meet the expectations of fans. I’m not sure why this translates to lacklustre characterization for the humans, Custodians, Legionnaires, etc.

Dembski-Bowden has always allowed his WH40k-Geek Flag to fly in his work, and that has usually instilled his novels with a depth and quality that made them stand out from the pack. (Longtime readers may be familiar with my previous reviews of his work, almost all of which have been glowing and not a little effusive.) In this novel, however, it felt like a crutch to cover up the fact that the story as presented is pretty thin. So much happens off-screen, while readers have to wade through some pretty bland descriptions and long, seemingly-pointless tracts of text. The author spends a lot of time on setting the scene, only not to deliver the scene (if that makes sense). So, aside from the few ‘revelations’ about the Emperor’s state of mind (as mentioned above), the novel doesn’t really deliver much.

I frequently wondered if this would have worked better as a novella — the amount of story certainly suits a shorter format, but at the same time the story could have offered so much… more. There’s a distance that remains throughout the novel — between reader and narrators. I never felt like I got to know any of them. Could it have been authorial hesitance or lack of confidence? Perhaps. In his afterword, Dembski-Bowden briefly comments on how the novel (and its perspective) changed dramatically from his original draft, and I wonder if this shift is the culprit for its weaknesses.

The Emperor is enigmatic to a fault — understandable, because we’re teased about the possibility that he’s not actually human. There were interesting characters — the Silent Sisterhood, for example, were really interesting and I would have liked to learn more about them. Arkhan Land was also interesting, and had the potential to be an engaging protagonists/POV character, but unfortunately didn’t feature as much in the story as I would have liked. Diocletian is a bit of a dick, which was amusing at first, but he also suffered from a narrative distance.

The tech-adepts of Mars were interesting, but Dembski-Bowden didn’t seem able to exercise some self-control when writing about them, and often the passages descended into muddled techno-babble. “Cant” is a word that is overused. That being said, these chapters and scenes did make me want to get caught up on Graham McNeill’s Mechanicum and Mars Trilogy. (All of which I have, so I could very easily do so.)

Ultimately, I came away from this novel disappointed. I never felt properly gripped or engaged, and getting through it felt like a slog. The Master of Mankind exhibited so much promise, and inched forwards in potentially great narrative directions, but unfortunately never fully delivered. I hope his next contribution to the series exhibits much more of what has, in my mind, made him one of Black Library’s best authors and one of my favourite Sci-Fi authors.

*

Also on CR: Reviews of Cadian BloodSoul HunterBlood ReaverVoid StalkerThe Emperor’s GiftArmageddon (Helsreach & Blood and Fire)The Talon of Horus

Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s The Master of Mankind is out now, published by Black Library.

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 Exterminatus (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 (40), The Master of Mankind (41), Garro (42)

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4 thoughts on “Review: THE MASTER OF MANKIND by Aaron Dembski-Bowden (Black Library)

  1. This novel reminded me of Praetorian Of Dorn in how introspective it felt. Both these novels try to find their own stories in the preparation-stages for the siege on Terra and instead of setting up this finale, it tries to distract from this inevitable event. The Horus Heresy is drawing to a close but these novels still act in a manner that suggests the writers aren’t in a big hurry to get to the finale. These books show awareness of the series reaching its end but the story is still about “Yeah, but what about this other thing over here…?”. At least, Praetorian had a better plot than this novel.

    I mean, I don’t want to spoil anything but my gut-reaction to the Emperor revealing his ambitions was just “This is hubris.” (I think it’s even mentioned in the book somewhere). Sure, it’s the Emperor and he certainly handled defeat better than the Eldar but the reach of his ambitions just made me dislike him. Thinking you can “fix humanity” isn’t a trait that is seen as noble in fiction most of the time (for good reason). Maybe I would’ve forgiven the Emperor for this if he had been more of an idealist rather than this enigmatic, god-like figure.

    Even if things are kept vague and ambiguous as in this novel, this shouldn’t become an excuse to not reflect on what’s actually happening. And in that regard, I often missed a counterpoint to the Emperor’s point of view. Someone who makes a case for why Chaos isn’t at fault for everything evil in the universe and why humanity is great despite its flaws.

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    • I agree – there needed to be more from the “Chaos”/rebel perspective. Which is usually where ADB’s strengths lie. This has been, in my opinion, the strength of the series – the ability of the authors to make both sides relatable and, at times, sympathetic. It’s less black-and-white, more nuanced and more complex. This one… not so much.

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