Review: THE CRIMSON KING by Graham McNeill (Black Library)

The Thousand Sons grapple with their new world and reality…

After the razing of Prospero, Magnus the Red spirited the Thousand Sons away to the aptly un-named Planet of the Sorcerers, deep within the Eye of Terror. Removed from the concerns of the galaxy at large and regarding the Warmaster’s unfolding Heresy with cold detachment, he has dedicated his hollow existence to the preservation of all the knowledge once held in the great libraries of Tizca, should mankind ever seek such enlightenment again. But his sons can see the change in their primarch – he is a broken soul, whose mind and memories are slipping away into the tumult of the warp. Only by returning to the scenes of his greatest triumphs and tragedies can they hope to restore him, and allow the Crimson King to be crowned anew by the Ruinous Powers.

A Thousand Sons, Graham McNeill’s first novel focusing on Magnus the Red’s legion, was the first in what I consider to be the Horus Heresy series’s revival, and the beginning of a hot streak that has continued (pretty much) ever since. In The Crimson King, McNeill continues the story of the Thousand Sons, and looks at how they are coming to terms with not only their new status as traitors, but also their new reality and freedom. It’s an excellent continuation of the series.

The Thousand Sons have one of the most tragic stories in the Heresy: victims of a corrupted, unstable geneseed, Magnus spent many of the Legion’s formative years attempting to find a cure for the “flesh change” that was decimating his ranks: mutation took over many of his warriors, destroying not only their lives but also — and perhaps more importantly for the Primarch — their potential. This has always been at the heart of the Legion’s story, and the impact of chief librarian Ahriman’s ambitious, failed Rubric continues to be felt in the “present day” WH40k fiction. A seeker of knowledge, and scholar without peer, Magnus has attempted to marshal all of his prodigious intellect in the service of the Imperium who has now shunned and excommunicated him and his sons.

In The Crimson King, Magnus is recovering from the devastating blow at the end of A Thousand Sons: the sacking of Prospero by the Space Wolves. Literally broken by his brother Primarch Leman Russ, this novel is the story of how he was (mostly) put back together. He trusts the task of re-assembling his fractured soul to Ahriman, his “favoured son”, who sets out with a small, trusted band of fellow sorcerers and warriors on a hunt that will take them into the Warp, and confront daemons and betrayal at almost every turn (from within and without).

It was interesting to see Magnus’s decline through his sons’ eyes — especially Ahriman and Amon’s. McNeill also sows more of the seeds that will lead to the Legion’s fracturing post-Heresy, and the rifts that will grow between the Primarch and Ahriman. For added colour and flare, Lucius of the Emperor’s Children is along for the ride, doing his part to corrupt, well, everyone around him for sport and his own entertainment. I’m pretty sure his presence was explained in a recent short story I read, but I couldn’t recall it while reading the novel, nor now that I come to write the review. The inclusion of a number of characters of a more Chaotic nature added yet more interesting elements to the narrative, and context for the Legion’s continued decline. That being said, though, given the Thousand Sons’ eventual patron deity, there is plenty of obfuscation, a few red herrings and confusion sown into the tale. (As frustrating as it might be to not get a straight answer, it wouldn’t be fitting for everything to be spelled out for the reader.)

As with any novel that offers greater insight into the Primarchs and their thought-processes, I was particularly pleased to see Magnus let loose a bit more in The Crimson King. He seemed far more willing to exercise his considerable powers, even if they were directed at his brothers.

“A grand vision, but why bother with a book that cannot be read?” said Lorgar, placing it back on the shelf.

Magnus sighed regretfully. “I fear the Covenant ruined the joy of knowledge for you. Books have always been fearful things to priesthoods, things to be policed and secured from the populace – dangerous with radical new ideas and innumerable possibilities. I see things differently. I see books as repositories of knowledge to be savoured in and of themselves. Possession of a book is its own reward, and a worthy tale confers its own merit upon the reader.”

The rest of this scene with Lorgar was informative, as Magnus cows his zealot-brother, giving him a glimpse of just how powerful he is, and how insignificant and blinkered is Lorgar’s own view of the galaxy.

Later, he is dismissive of his brother primarchs, not trusting in their intellect or agendas, and critical of what he sees as their limitations:

“To whom among my brothers or the Imperium would you entrust so monumental a task? The Lion? True, he is a scholar at heart, but too wedded to his mysteries. He would pick and choose what knowledge to reveal, keeping the greatest secrets for himself. Roboute? Too hidebound to see the virtue in unrestricted freedom of knowledge. Nor would Rogal, Jaghatai or Corvus share my vision. And Vulkan is too rooted in earth and rock to lift his gaze to the stars. I might once have trusted Sanguinius, but he walks a path that leads only to blood and madness.”

Soon after the above comment, and continuing the theme of Magnus wanting little more than to be left alone to conduct whatever research catches his fancy, and for the sake of learning:

“Horus has aligned himself with the broken and the lost, and what appetite have such creatures for learning?”

Magnus’s frustration and even derision for the Imperial loyalists is justified. Considering his ostracism and censure were based on his use of psychic powers, the eruption of the civil war has led to a resurgence of psychic usage. For example, the irony is lost on Promus and Bjarki, who have been sent by Malcador to hunt down Magnus (to ensure that Leman Russ did the job properly, one presumes). They feel justified based on the ruling against Magnus for using his psychic powers and breaking the Edict of Nikaea. However, this does not prevent them from deploying their own powers, nor do they seem to accept that their own use of psychic powers is only possible because of Horus’s treachery. In many ways, they are the greater hypocrites. 

One of the strengths of the series has been to present the Heresy as three-dimensional, as opposed to a simple battle between “evil” traitors and “good” loyalist Legions. Each Primarch and faction has its own agenda, its own insecurities and arrogance. Forty-four books in, the authors who have worked on the series have pulled off something quite special and amazing. (Despite a couple of blips.)

McNeill’s novels are always welcome additions to their Heresy series (as well as his others, but especially so those in this series), and The Crimson King is no exception. It builds on what we already know of the main characters — especially Magnus and Ahriman — and moves the story of the Legion and Heresy forward quite a bit. The ending suggests there will be another novel in the Thousand Sons’ Heresy saga, and I for one am very eager to read it. Unlike some other, recent Thousand Sons WH40k fiction (e.g. John French’s excellent Ahriman trilogy), The Crimson King isn’t as… well, mad. McNeill injects plenty of Chaotic, otherworldly elements to not only the Planet of the Sorcerers, but also the characters, while at the same time reigning in any excessive oddness that might have derailed the narrative. With the exception of a slight dip in momentum somewhere around the middle, this novel moves very well and is quite gripping.

If you’ve been following the series, then this is a must read. If you’ve also been reading French’s aforementioned Ahriman trilogy, then you will no doubt also pick up on a number of Easter eggs and familiar names.

Very highly recommended, I really enjoyed this. More please.


The Crimson King is out now, published by Black Library.

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter

Review copy received from the publisher

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 SunVulkan Lives (26), Scars (27), The Unremembered Empire (28), Vengeful Spirit (29), The Damnation of Pythos (30), Legacies of Betrayal (31), Death & Defiance, Tallarn: Executioner, Blades of the Traitor, Deathfire (32), The Purge, Wolf King, Cybernetica, War Without End (33), Pharos (34), The HonouredThe UnburdenedEye of Terra (35), The Path of Heaven (36), The Silent War (37), Angels of Caliban (38), Praetorian of Dorn (39), Corax (40), The Master of Mankind (41), Garro (42), Shattered Legions (43), The Crimson King (44), Tallarn (45), Ruinstorm (46)

Horus Heresy Primarchs: Roboute Guilliman, Magnus the Red, Perturabo, Lorgar, FulgrimFerrus Manus

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