Review: BLACK LEGION by Aaron Dembski-Bowden (Black Library)

DembskiBowdenA-A2-BlackLegionThe long-awaited sequel to The Talon of Horus

Ezekyle Abaddon and his warlords strive to bind the newborn Black Legion together under threat of destruction. Now Khayon, as Abaddon’s most-trusted assassin, is tasked with ending the threat of Thagus Daravek, the self-proclaimed Lord of Hosts — a rival to the Ezekyle’s final fate. Fighting the vile whispers of the Dark Gods within his mind, Abaddon turns a fevered gaze back to the Imperium, where his destiny awaits. Yet the Emperor’s Champion and his Black Templars stand guard at the gates of Hell, and Sigismund has waited centuries to face Abaddon in battle.

Aaron Dembski-Bowden is one of my favourite sci-fi authors. His work for Black Library has been, for the main, outstanding — especially the Night Lords trilogy, The First Heretic and Betrayer. He hasn’t been writing at the same pace as many of his peers at BL, but each of his new novels is met with quite some fanfare. Despite something of a wobble with his previous novel, The Emperor of Mankind (part of the Horus Heresy series), Black Legion sees him returning to form quite nicely. The sequel to The Talon of Horus, and picking up the story a short while after that novel, it’s a short novel, but one that manages to pack in quite a bit of story. I enjoyed this.

Dembski-Bowden’s greatest strength as a writer of WH40k/Horus Heresy fiction is his ability to dig down a little further, to explore the motivations and agendas of his characters (the virtuous and… most certainly not). This is on full display in Black Legion, as he highlights the surviving Traitors’ bitterness. He also explores the nature of Chaos, the traitors and more, adding extra layers to our understanding of the setting and the forces that are trying to shape the future of mankind. The fact that Dembski-Bowden is able to return to his favourite WH40k themes, at length, without ever recycling what he’s already written is impressive: he continues to expand upon ideas and themes in interesting and thought-provoking ways.

In the timeline of the series, the traitors have not uniformly devolved into Chaos-worshipping, slavering psychopaths. Yet. The timeline for the series is a bit tricky to put one’s finger on, but it turns out to be far earlier in the 40k timeline than I originally thought. There are plenty of traitors who have welcomed the attentions of the Chaos Pantheon, but others are still stubbornly holding on to the ideals of the Heresy (twisted as they might have become). Abaddon is still marshalling his forces, attempting to forge the Black Legion into a viable fighting force. The traitors are still warring amongst themselves, punishing the remnants of the Sons of Horus — they have become, for many, the sole focus of hate and retribution.

The lingering resentments and lessons of the Heresy continue to dominate many of the characters’ thinking. The author does an excellent job of bringing the survivors’ bitterness and hatred for (especially) Horus to the fore. It is especially interesting to see how often they place blame at the feet of their Primarchs, especially Horus.

“I do not intend to let the same mistakes occur a second time. You were ignorant then, Ezekyle, and your place was to give counsel to a deluded fool. We are all far more than we were in that age of moronic optimism.”

In Black Legion Dembski-Bowden also examines and highlights the differences in the Traitor Legions’ focus and that of the loyalists they encounter outside of the Eye of Terror. He places them in context and comparison quite well:

When we lock blades with the Space Marines of loyal Chapters, and they pour scorn upon us for a bitterness that has lasted ten thousand years. When we have little idea which thin-blooded newborn conclave of hypno-indoctrinated soldiers is hurling itself against us with oaths the Emperor Himself would have found insane. The truth is that it is no ancient grudge rolling on through the cobwebs of old, old minds. Our hatred is still hot. Our wounds are still fresh. It has always been this way, and it shall always remain so. Time cannot dilute the venom that flows through our hearts, for time no longer exists.

And also:

Would we slaughter each other over fragments of lore or tithe fortunes in service and materiel to the Mechanicum’s daemon-forges if we could simply engineer miracles without their priceless expertise? We bind daemons into our war machines to keep them functioning. We forge new amalgamated horrors of daemonic flesh and cold metal to replace technology we can no longer maintain…

… For all that we mock the Imperium in the way you make a virtue of small-minded ignorance, we too have lost so very much. Perhaps even more. Your masters have sealed knowledge away from you, incinerated it, or it has been lost through the natural passage of time. We, on the other hand, have watched it slip through our fingers even when we tried to keep it close.

It is the flexible nature of time in the Warp and Eye Space that helps explain how much time has passed for the Traitors, compared to that of the loyalists. It also explains how they haven’t received much information about the Imperium, and its wholesale acceptance of Emperor-worship and (in their minds) devolution into a culture dominated by an authoritarian, demanding and oppressive religion. Referring to the initial Emperor-focused religion that emerged during the Heresy, here’s a little bit of how Moriana

“… The Lectitio Divinitatus was a child’s bedtime candle compared to the sunlight of the beliefs now gripping the Imperium.”

All these thousands of years later, deep in what scholars name the Dark Millennium, the Ecclesiarchy grips the whole Imperium in an inviolate hold. Moriana spoke of its rise as an inexorable ascension, only a handful of centuries before its formal, final adoption as the Imperial Creed, backbone of the Adeptus Ministorum, state religion of the Imperium of Man. And all of it, all of it, founded from the very beliefs that the Emperor had sought to destroy. Just as the Emperor had been betrayed by His sons, so too had the fool been betrayed by His own empire. Blind and rudderless without its monarch to guide it, the Imperium was devolving into superstitions and half-truths. No wonder we were already close to being myths.

I very much welcomed this return to form from Dembski-Bowden. As I mentioned at the top of this review, The Emperor of Mankind was a disappointment and, in my opinion, a massive lost opportunity to flesh out the mythology of the Emperor (it did some of this, but not with as much depth as I had expected from the author). I wonder if, for some reason, the author is just better able to explain the universe through the eyes of the traitors — by making them not as one-dimensionally evil as early BL writers did, by giving them plenty of depth, he explores the setting quite brilliantly and convincingly. Also, given the fanaticism of a lot of the loyalist factions, the traitors are afforded a surprisingly clear-eyed impression of the Imperium. Without ever dismissing, justifying or sympathizing with their methods, their embrace of the Chaos Pantheon, nor their eternal hatred for the Imperium, Dembski-Bowden nevertheless explains the development (or devolution) of the Traitor Legions in a way that makes it plausible and understandable.

Continuing the theme from the above pull-quote, there’s a rather blackly-amusing, bleak conclusion drawn by the Traitors, upon learning of the Adeptus Ministorum’s dominance:

“The Word Bearers won. They eat dirt and drink shame. They chant prayers to the unwanted truth through bloodied lips. They lost everything. And yet they still won.”

“I did not fight for the Word Bearers’ vision,” Amurael snapped.

“None of us did. Our ideals were higher and worthier than the pedantics of divinity.”

There is a lot to like in Black Legion. It sees the author returning to form, exploring what makes the WH40k setting tick, and also what makes it so interesting and a fan-favourite. True, I would have welcomed a longer novel, and I think the conclusion wrapped up rather quickly, but if there are more to come in the series (and hopefully soonish), then I will be a happy reader. In many ways, this series works as a continuation of the Horus Heresy, set (I think) after the 12-book Beast Arises story.

Nuanced, engaging, and interesting, Black Legion is recommended for all fans of WH40k, and especially those who have enjoyed the Horus Heresy series, and also Dembski-Bowden’s past work.

*

Black Legion is out now, published by Black Library.

Also on CR: Reviews of The Talon of Horus, Cadian Blood, Soul Hunter, Blood Reaver, Void Stalker, The First Heretic, Betrayer, The Master of Mankind, The Emperor’s Gift

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter

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