Quick Review: MECHANICUM by Graham McNeill (Black Library)

McNeillG-HH9-MechanicumThe Heresy comes to Mars

As the flames of treachery spread throughout the Imperium, Horus plots to subvert or destroy all those who would stand against him. On Mars, home world of the Mechanicum priesthood, the great manufactory-cities have long produced much of the weaponry required for the expeditionary fleets across the galaxy – making the world invaluable to whoever controls it in the coming war. Now, the Warmaster’s agents begin to stoke the fires of rebellion, turning the loyalist forges and the mighty Titan Legions against one another. And, with whispers spreading of an ancient terror lurking beneath the Red Planet’s surface, the Dark Mechanicum rises…

For some reason, I missed reading Mechanicum when it first came out. I was reminded recently that I hadn’t read it yet, and decided to plug this gap. The ninth book in the Horus Heresy series, it’s an interesting look at how Horus’s betrayal split the Mechanicum forces and saw Mars fall into civil war, grounded in some human stories of those who were either at the centre of events or existed on the periphery. I enjoyed it.

The Mechanicum (or Adeptus Mechanicus as they come to be known in the “present” WH40k timeline) are a faction that is in many ways quintessentially 40k: they are the “good” guys, but they are also utterly rigid, brutal, dogmatic. Their reverence for technology and the Omnissiah leads them to chip away at their humanity, enhancing themselves with augmetics and implants until many lose most if not all of their resemblance to their species.

How can members of this faction, then, sustain a long novel with them as the sole focus? As McNeill writes in his afterword, up until the release of this novel the Mechanicum had not had their own novel. The author does an excellent job of humanizing these characters. Each of the adepts — those most heavily augmented and elevated in the order — retain human traits and affectations that keep them grounded in their species. True, they are all manipulative dicks at times, but that’s another very human aspect they have retained.

Vast cities of steel, larger and more magnificent than any of the hives of Terra, reared up from the surface, gargantuan behemoths that vomited fire and smoke into the sky. It was called the Red Planet, but precious little remained of the surface that could be identified as that hue. Mountains had been clad in metal and light, and cities and districts perched on the peaks and plateaux of the world named for a long forsaken god of war.

Mechanicum has three main threads. The first follows Dalia ?, a transcriber with a preternatural affinity for technology and how it works. Arrested for blasphemously tinkering with her equipment (to make it work better), she is rescued from execution by Adept Zeth, who whisks her away to a forge on Mars, where she is put to work on a secret project of incredible potential. Through Dalia’s experiences, we learn more about how the adepts and their fiefdoms work, and the relationships between different forges. Adept Zeth tutors Dalia in the ways of the Mechanicum, engaging in discussions of how the order is stuck, limiting itself and ultimately superstitious. (Like the Emperor would want, Zeth seems to be an atheist.) We also learn of a dark secret of Mars, millennia old, which leads Dalia on a dangerous journey towards her fate.

‘The Martian Priesthood is an ancient organisation and is learned in the ways of technology, but our grasp of such things is limited by blind adherence to dogma, tradition and repetition. I believe that our future lies in the understanding of technology, that only by experimentation, invention and research will our progress be assured. This view is not widely held on Mars.’

Another story thread follows various members of a knightly order, Tempestus. Tasked with protecting the forges and Mars as a whole, allied with various factions on the Red Planet, Tempestus has a long and stories history with the Imperium — they are fiercely loyal to the alliance between Mars and to the Emperor. However, strange events out in the red sands, and belligerent actions from Legio Mortis kickstarts a rise in tensions that ultimately comes to boiling point. We get some great descriptions of what it’s like to be a princeps of a titan or knight, and the kind of horrific manner in which they are bonded to their machines — the physical and psychic toll it takes on each human is immense, and something that absolutely does not appeal to me.

‘Mars enjoys a pre-eminent position within the Imperium thanks to our grip on technology,’ continued Zeth. ‘Many of my fellow adepts fear the consequences of what might happen were that advantage to slip beyond their control.’

The final main thread, which doesn’t get as much space as the previous two, focuses on the rise of the Dark Mechanicum — the Martian forces that side with Horus and gain access to forbidden and terrible knowledge as a result. This thread is quite closely linked to Dalia’s, in that it also examines the Mechanicum’s nature and its place within the Imperium. We learn of how Fabricator General Kelbor-Hal takes the final step towards rebellion and corruption, unleashing a devastating attack across the planet’s network of forges. As is so often the case, the ultimate cause of rebellion and strife relates to the acquisition and/or maintenance of power. As Martian forces chafe at the distant rule of Terra, it becomes easier to fan the flames of rebellion and heresy.

… the senior princeps of Legio Mortis turned to the shouting warriors and said, ‘We are shackled to the demands of Terra, my friends, but I ask you why that should be? We were promised freedom from interference, but what freedom have we enjoyed? Our every effort is bent to the will of the Emperor, our every forge dedicated to fulfilling his vision. But what of our vision? Was Mars not promised the chance to reclaim its own empire? The forge worlds long ago founded in the depths of the galaxy are still out there awaiting the tread of any Martian son, but how long will it be before the Emperor claims them? I tell you now, brothers, that when those worlds are held by Terra, it will be next to impossible to reclaim them.’

As with all of the best Horus Heresy/Black Library novels, Mechanicum combines an engaging and entertaining action-packed story with tantalizing lore revelations. Still early in the series, I think the author was still under instructions to not give too much away — later novels have felt far more revelatory, but that makes sense given that the rebellion is only really getting going in Mechanicum.

The novel forces readers to confront the nature of the Imperium and Mechanicum — their rigid adherence to dogma and fascistic tendencies are by no means aspirational. It creates a fleeting moment of sympathy for the rebels until you learn of their tactics and the nature of their new patrons. The various authors and designers have done a wonderful job of making sure this far future is every shade of grey, with only the most fleeting glimpses of black and white.

A must read for any fan of the Horus Heresy series. I’m glad I finally got around to reading Mechanicum. Recommended.


Graham McNeill’s Mechanicum is out now, published by Black Library in North America and in the UK. The author’s most recent contribution to the Horus Heresy series is Sons of the Selenar, a novella set during the Siege of Terra.

Also on CR: Interview with Graham McNeill (2011); Guest Post on Black Library Expo Canada (2012)

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter

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), Old Earth (47), The Burden of Loyalty (48), Wolfsbane (49), Born of Flame (50), Slaves to Darkness (51), Heralds of the Siege (52), Titandeath (53), The Buried Dagger (54)

Siege of Terra: The Solar War (French), The Lost and the Damned (Haley) and The First Wall (Thorpe)

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