Lord of the Night reviews the thirtieth novel in the acclaimed Horus Heresy series, The Damnation of Pythos by David Annandale.
"An entertaining and scary story that explores the various monsters of the Heresy and the horror of Chaos against the rationality of the machine. Annandale's first entry into the Horus Heresy is a resounding sucess!" - Lord of the Night@Talk Wargaming
The Damnation of Pythos is a landmark thirtieth novel for the Horus Heresy series and it's also newcomer David Annandale's first novel entry in the series. I was a little wary of this novel as my experience with David Annandale's work has been mixed, I greatly enjoyed his short story The Traveller and the novella Mephiston: Lord of Death, but alas I did not care for his novel The Death of Antagonis. It was my hope that The Damnation of Pythos would fall into the same category as The Traveller and I was very pleased by the end for while Pythos lacks the sheer shock horror and unreliable narration of the short, it is a delightful and grimdark story about the horrors of Chaos and how the most rational of the Astartes Legions deal with an enemy that is not rooted in logic.
The story in TDoP is first and foremost, a break from the main Horus Heresy story. There are no Primarchs here, and the battle for Pythos and the story of the 111th Clan-Company is entirely self-contained to this novel and the attached audio Veritas Ferrum, and a short story in the anthology Sedition's Gate. Rather than look at the wider stage of the Heresy Annandale has chosen to look at a particular company of survivors from Istvaan, and cast them in a tale of subtly-growing horror and see how their beliefs of rationality and logic stand up to the insanity of Chaos. After reading this I think Annandale has a real talent for writing the horror side to Chaos, rather than go full-on nightmare right at the beginning, he slowly over the course of the first two thirds of the novel builds up the horror, small acts and strange happenings dogging the characters steps as they try to figure out exactly what they are facing, and in the final third the build-up explodes into a series of chapters that give the reader a pay-off that was well worth the wait, not that the wait wasn't fun in it's own way. One of the key themes in the story, according to the Author's Afterword, is monsters; there are all kinds of monsters in TDoP from the saurians to the creations of Chaos and even on the Imperium's side there are monsters, each one of a different flavour. Some are obvious right from the start, and in some it takes time to see exactly how monstrous they have become, and the reason they are monstrous being very different reasons than the obvious monsters in this story. Personally I very much enjoyed the self-contained nature of this story, after around thirty novels, multiple audios and many more short stories all dealing with big events and the wider picture, it's nice to see a novel that deals with the smaller picture, some characters whom we can't be sure will survive and in a battle that we don't know the outcome of. Those two factors made the novel much more tense than it would have been had we been able to predict the outcome of even a single character, nobody was truly safe and it worked nicely with the horror element, making it feel as if anybody could die and we might not even see it coming.
The characters are a nicely varied mix from the Iron Hands, Salamanders, Raven Guard and with some additional human characters from the ranks of the Iron Hands serfs and some other sources appearing later in the novel that I won't reveal. The key cast are the Iron Hands who contrast nicely with the themes of Chaos, they are logical and ordered and rational; Chaos is none of those things. And this being the Heresy nobody besides the Traitors has really had any contact with Daemons yet, at least not at this point of the story, so the Iron Hands utter refusal to believe in anything that doesn't fit in their rational worldview makes a good part of their plot as a group being how each one begins to see that the Imperial Truth is a lie and how they incorporate that into their worldviews. Some were quite surprising, and others were not surprising though not in a bad way. Annandale also looks at the Iron Hands as a Legion, their beliefs and how those beliefs are changing after the death of Ferrus Manus. The two characters that best show this are Anton Galba and Durun Atticus, the former being less augmented and more in touch with his humanity while the latter is so augmented that his humanity has been nearly completely bled away; and the tragedy behind the Iron Hands taking their Primarchs beliefs to the extreme is also explored through the thoughts of both these characters. The Salamanders, or really Sergeant Khi'dem, provides another contrast to the merciless Iron Hands with the typical compassion and humane nature of the Salamanders, and how these contrasting ideals keep them apart during the crisis and how each belief leads the group closer and closer to the end. Annandale mentions in his afterword that he wanted the reader to wonder, "Who is right?" Which of the Legions was correct in their beliefs during the Pythos campaign, I do agree with him that perhaps there is no correct answer on that as both groups made decisions that were right and were wrong based on their beliefs. Perhaps no one Legion has a correct method of dealing with what the characters faced in this book. The aspect of faith was also explored through the characters and the faith of three particular characters, each one wildly different, and how they contrast against each other made for interesting reading.
The pacing of the book is very nicely done. As I said above the horror element to this story is the best way of describing how the story reads, at first Annandale starts off slow letting the characters, background and story take you in and get you informed on who everybody is, what they are doing and what is happening/what has happened; once that is done the horror element slowly builds up with things becoming stranger and stranger, surprises coming along the road that add to the background and to the story making the reader wonder exactly what is going on and what the end game of some involved parties is, and as the book reaches Chapter Eighteen out of twenty-three the build-up finally pays-off and we get to see the culmination of all the events on Pythos, and many events beyond the immediate story as well. Like the horror element the book starts off slow but picks up speed slowly over the course of events until said final third when everything kicks into high speed and the novel races to it's conclusion in a series of epic battle scenes and final character development, before the epilogue where everything slows down once more and we see the final result of the Pythos campaign. In addition to the story the novel contains, as usual now, four pieces of interior artwork that help give you an idea of the story's imagery and characters. These particular artworks are Neil Roberts and it shows in the spectacular design, clean edges and clear imagery and the fitting feel of the art to the wider Heresy. I very much enjoyed these images, especially the first and fourth, as they were very nice to look at and provided great context to some things that may have been a little tricky to picture properly.
My favourite quote, I think is this one though there was a lot of competition;
"This action will be worthy of song, though those songs shall never be written. But brothers, we will know the full measure of our worth. And could we ask for a better reward in our final moments? I think not."
The ending was quite a surprise because I had not expected things to turn out that way, and yet it felt like the right ending to the story as anything else would have just felt wrong. Annandale closes the Pythos campaign, and keeps to the idea of this being a self-contained story by closing most of the plot threads, though just one was left open and could lead to an interesting short story or perhaps an audio, though not a full novel. The actual epilogue was interesting, showing the end result of the characters efforts on Pythos and what it all ultimately amounted to, and what that was was quite a way to close the novel and one that I felt was in keeping with the wider themes of the Heresy and with a nice dose of grimdark, something that has felt lacking from the recent entries in the Horus Heresy and that I think we need more of.
For a very enjoyable story that was also spooky, a nicely contrasting cast of characters, and epic action scenes that definitely stand out as unique in the Horus Heresy even after thirty books, I give The Damnation of Pythos a score of 8.0/10. This is a novel that while I would recommend it to readers of the Horus Heresy series, and especially to those of you who want a bit more horror in your 30k/40k, I would also stress that if you are expecting this novel to advance the series or the plots of its leading characters, you will be disappointed. This is a singular story with characters and plot threads that I doubt will go much further beyond this one novel, maybe a short story about one character's fate but other then that, don't read this book looking for any key series plot advances. But if the fact that this story is self-contained doesn't bother you, I would suggest you get reading as soon as its released.
That's it for this review. Thanks for reading, until next time;
AVE DOMINUS NOX!