Quick Review: VALDOR by Chris Wraight (Black Library)

WraightC-Valdor-BirthOfTheImperiumOne of the most important characters from the Horus Heresy series, and also an illuminating glimpse at the early Imperium

Explore the history of one of the most well known heroes of the Imperium…

Constantin Valdor. It is a name that brings forth images of heroism, honour and peerless duty. For it is he who commands the will of the Legio Custodes that most esteemed and dedicated cadre of elite warriors. He is the Emperor’s sword, His shield, His banner and he knows no equal. Clad in shining auramite, his fist clenched around the haft of his Guardian Spear, he is the bulwark against all enemies of the throne, within or without.

Nearing the end of the wars of Unity, Valdor’s courage and purpose is put to the test as never before. The petty warlords and tyrants of Old Earth have been all but vanquished, and the Emperor’s armies are triumphant. What now for the nascent Imperium and what fate its forgotten soldiers, its Thunder Warriors and armies of Unity? A new force is rising, one which shall eclipse all others and open the way to the stars. But change on Terra is seldom bloodless and for progress to be ensured darker deeds are necessary.

This is the first in Black Library’s Horus Heresy Character series — a series of novels that expands the overall Horus Heresy series in some way. Focusing on Constantin Valdor, the commander of the Legio Custodes, the Emperor’s personal guard. It’s a novel that not only gives us some more insight and background to the character, but also an interesting and illuminating (to a point) glimpse at the early years of the Imperium, before mankind had set out once again for the stars. A quick, interesting and engaging read.

Most, if not all, of the Horus Heresy novels have included plenty of nuggets of tantalizing information about the early years of the Imperium and the Emperor’s crusade across the galaxy. Thus far, I think the author who has provided the most details and revelations is Dan Abnett, especially in his latest novel, Saturnine. In Valdor, Wraight gives Abnett quite a run for his money: this novel is all about the early Imperium. The story is set about 50 years after the wars of unification, and the Imperium is still cleaning up the final elements of resistance, and consolidating its position. The Imperial Palace is still being constructed, and Wraight does a very good job of giving us a sense of the scale:

The place was being built for another age. No war machines yet existed that would remotely fit into its vast alcoves, and the entire Palace itself did not contain nearly enough troops to fill out the halls of this one bastion. In anticipation of future abundance, the interior now shuddered with emptiness.

Throughout the novel, we are given hints that the Emperor is already looking ahead, and seems to understand exactly what’s coming. There are mentions of the upcoming campaign to bring Luna into the fold. Even though some of these hints refer to events that fans of the series will already be familiar with, writing too much about them in a review would nevertheless spoil some of the impact. Wraight does something really interesting with Valdor over the course of the novel — aside from Constantin’s own thoughts, we see him through the eyes and interpretations of others. He is seen as an emotionless warrior, effectively an automaton with limited capacity for experiencing life to its fullest — “no joy, no hate, no fear. Unbreakable without growth, immortal without passion.” (They’re not entirely wrong.) But, Wraight also shows us other sides of his character: his fierce belief in the Emperor’s mission, and also his regrets about his own limitations and even the extent of the Emperor’s control. It’s a nice duality, very well done on the page.

Another theme that has run throughout the Horus Heresy series is the importance of history, narrative, mythology, and control thereof. (Rather salient, given contemporary politics, as it happens.) Wraight addresses this in Valdor, as well. Specifically, he shows how the Emperor and his supporters are already starting to exert control of the narrative, education, reporting, and so forth — “there were organisations dedicated to eradicating difficult ideas. They operated subtly, for the most part – enforcing literature bans, having quiet words with the right, or the wrong, people”.

We also see how the mythology of the Emperor is already forming. At one point, a character offers an interesting examination of the three figureheads of the Imperium: the Emperor, Malcador the Sigillite (“the sorcerer”) and Constantin Valdor (“the warrior”). After mentioning some of the rumours about the Emperor and Malcador’s relationship, we get this about them:

With Malcador, the only thing that was certain was that he knew the stories, had a hand in spreading them, and was careful to ensure they were all false. The essence of Malcador was that he had no essence – he was a shadow, a memory, a pale reflection of the greater soul who walked beside him. His power, which was colossal in itself, was that of deflection and uncertainty. The Emperor would level a mountain with a word of truth. Malcador would erode it over a thousand years of lies… Valdor, the golden champion. Though a member of the triumvirate in appearance, in truth he was the servant to the others. He was the standard bearer, the cup-holder, the skull-bringer. If there were doubts about the origins of the two principals, there was none about him – Valdor had been made, created from mortal Terran stock.

The building of these myths allows the Imperium to justify and explain away its growing authoritarian impulses (never forget: the WH40k setting is not a utopia — it is a dystopia). Valdor offers a good monologue along the lines of “the ends justify the means” which could just as easily apply to everything we read about in the WH40k “present” storylines.

“We are the architects of the species’ future. No crime could be judged as too heinous if it secured that, no virtue could be forgiven if it hindered it…”

One final thing that long-time fans of WH40k lore will enjoy: the Thunder Warriors are important to the Valdor storyline. We learn a little bit more about them, and also get to spend some time with one of their most accomplished generals (or “primarchs”, as they were known). We learn of their fate, how the Thunder Warriors experiment influenced the Astartes (we also meet Astarte, which was interesting). And the early concerns about the Astartes project, what happened to the 20(/21) Primarchs (the demigods we’ve come to know and love/loathe), and what is to come.

I finished the novel feeling like I’d received an interesting and illuminating glimpse of the early Imperium. But that’s about it. It’s a little strange, but I came away a bit disappointed that the novel hadn’t done more, or been longer. Yes, there’s plenty of detail that supports and builds on what we have learned over the Heresy series proper. But I feel like the novel could have done a bit more with the story itself — it seemed more like a book created to offer these hints, rather than a novel that happened to include revelations. And it’s a shame to offer this minor niggle, because there are plenty of great moments in the book — Wraight is a very good writer, and I could offer plenty of quotations as examples of what he manages to weave into the story. But it nevertheless didn’t feel as substantial as I’d hoped.

Nevertheless, Valdor is a quickly-paced and well-composed novel, populated by interesting characters (old and new), and featuring some pretty good action/battle sequences. If you’re a fan of the Horus Heresy series, then you really should check this one out (and I’d be surprised if you haven’t already, to be honest). If you’re a more casual fan, then I think Valdor will still be an interesting read, too: it’s an interesting story of a new global Empire, cementing its power and beginning its great project.

*

Chris Wraight’s Valdor: Birth of the Imperium is out now, published by Black Library in North America and in the UK.

Also on CR: Interview with Chris Wraight (2011); Reviews of Brotherhood of the Storm, The Path of Heaven, and Vaults of Terra: Argent

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter

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