A superb novel: action-packed, revelatory, both grand and intimate in scale.
As the traitors tighten their grip on Terra, Rogal Dorn must marshal the Imperial hosts to weather the storm. But not all of the defenders will survive the onslaught…
The Traitor Host of Horus Lupercal tightens its iron grip on the Palace of Terra, and one by one the walls and bastions begin to crumple and collapse. Rogal Dorn, Praetorian of Terra, redoubles his efforts to keep the relentless enemy at bay, but his forces are vastly outnumbered and hopelessly outgunned. Dorn simply cannot defend everything. Any chance of survival now requires sacrifice, but what battles dare he lose so that others can be won? Is there one tactical stroke, one crucial combat, that could turn the tide forever and win the war outright?
The Loyalists have their backs against the wall. Resources are fast depleting, and nobody knows the status of potential reinforcements. The Traitors are throwing everything they have — corporeal and never born — at breaking open the Imperial Palace’s walls. Primarchs Dorn and Perturabo are locked in a deadly game, trying to find chinks in the other master tactician’s plans. When one appears, both sides rush to exploit it. This is a superb novel: it packs quite a punch, drops revelations all over the place, advances the overall meta-story, and is utterly gripping.
I wasn’t sure how the Black Library authors were going to make a seven-book siege story interesting throughout. Four novels and a novella in, however, and they have shown that they have plenty more fuel in the tank. Each book so far has done a great job of advancing the overall narrative, adding to the overall story, linking to and seeding events for the future. We are starting to see hints of the future Imperium (in particular, that related to the Imperial Creed, albeit as yet utterly unofficial and unsanctioned).
Saturnine is, I believe, Dan Abnett’s final full-length novel for the Horus Heresy. And what a book to finish on! It has everything: ferocious action, quieter moments, plenty of fantastic character development, revelations galore, and an ending that will leave readers very eager for the next book in the series.
The author covers a lot of ground, sometimes explicit and other times more implicit. More prominent at the beginning, but running throughout, is the importance of recording, reporting and learning from history. Dorn permits Kyril Sindermann, former remembrancer, to create a small group of “interrogators” to record Loyalist events and stories from the siege. Through him and those he appoints, readers get plenty of glimpses across the siege’s theatre of battle, from lowly foot soldiers to Dorn’s preparations. We also see the beginnings of some myth-making, as well as some nods to long-established bits of lore and legend.
‘Historians toil at the past, but they write for the future. That’s the point of them. If I know there are historians still at work, it tells me there will be a future. I think that might strengthen my resolve. The idea of a future, a far future, that will exist and want to remember. It would fortify my purpose, and offer me hope. If the historians give up, then we’re admitting an end is coming. Go do the work the Emperor once gave you, and remind me that some future is still a possibility for us.’
For me, there were two characters that really stood out in Saturnine. The first is Abaddon — long one of my favourite WH40k characters. He has benefited greatly from the Horus Heresy and Siege of Terra series, especially the latter as the authors start setting up for post-Heresy. All of the Siege authors have brought Abaddon more to the centre of the story, painting a fascinating picture of a warrior who is dedicated to his Primarch’s mission, while simultaneously struggling with the corrupting forces of Chaos and pacts with neverborn allies. He is chaffing at the Traitors’ changing states, and the methods that are being employed to win the civil war. His resistance to the Chaos Gods, his distaste for many of his allies and brothers, runs throughout his portions of the story.
A proper ending came with the blow of a sword, not the touch of a button. Blades and mettle had won the crusade, and they should win this. Not theory. Not warp magic either. Not the shrieking, filthy warp-things manifesting in the port around him, or inhabiting the flesh of beloved brothers as though they were second-hand garments. This end-war was being too much determined by new methods. Abaddon trusted the old ones far more.
The last few times he appears in the novel are particularly excellent, even powerful.
The second character who left a particularly strong impression was Krole, Vigil-Commander of the Silent Sisterhood. A psychic “blank”, Abnett gives readers a very clear picture of what it’s like to be a null, and also what it’s like to be around one. Told in the first person, it makes her sections very person — something that only enhances her separation and distance from everyone around her.
I rap my knuckles on the tabletop. The candle flames shiver. A few more go out. All three of them look down the table at me, their eyes straining as they make an effort to resolve me.
All four of the daemon Primarchs appear in this novel, to varying degrees. Readers will see how much power they now wield, but also how selfish and petty they remain — apparently, daemonhood hasn’t stamped out all of their insecurities, vengeances, and rivalries. Magnus is working to his own agenda, but takes a moment to sooth Mortarion’s tortured and pained soul and newly-transformed body. We get a small glimpse into the excruciating torment of Angron’s mind. And Fulgrim… well, he’s very Fulgrim in this novel: arrogant, unserious, deadly, utterly narcissistic and selfish. These conflicting agendas and personalities are creating strain on the Warmaster’s armies, as Abaddon points out to Perturabo at one point:
‘You know that’s the invisible danger. Our own unravelling…. To keep the multifarious factions content, and your brothers satisfied. It won’t be long before they start to get their own ideas. Lord, to maintain our trajectory towards triumph, you need to keep them all in line.’
‘The Phoenician, yes,’ said Abaddon. ‘He’ll be first. Well, Angron has already snapped your leash, but at least his rampage serves your plan. Fulgrim is your immediate problem. He is wilful, he doesn’t take to the bridle, and his attention span is woefully short. He is growing listless. I know this for a fact. Give him something to do that feels significant, and you can keep him in check.’
I think Abnett is the author who introduced the concept of “Perpetuals” into the Horus Heresy and WH40k settings. And in Saturnine we get a lot more information about them: some history, and some memories shared between two (one “artificial” and another one of the oldest). They debate their roles in current events. Readers are given some information (possibly unreliable) about the Emperor’s past, his rise to power and his agenda. Some conflicting information about the Primarchs, their origins, and what caused them to be scattered in their incubators. It’s fascinating, game-changing, and poses more questions and suggests more mysteries. (We also get one of the Emperor’s names, which is — as Grammaticus notes — indeed a little crap.)
The final act of the story was absolutely incredible: intense action, deadly confrontations, some conclusions. I really don’t want to spoil anything, though. Needless to say, it was superb and we reach many satisfying, sometimes tragic, endings to some long-running storylines and characters.
Overall? Fantastic. Saturnine is the best in the series so far (quite a feat, given how much I enjoyed the previous books). A rare middle volume that does everything. A must read for fans of the series, and one of my favourite reads of the year so far. I stayed up until 3am to finish this.
Very highly recommended.
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 Sun, Vulkan 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 Honoured, The Unburdened, Eye 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)