Lord of the Night reviews the incredible first book in The Black Legion series, The Talon of Horus First Edition by New York Times Best-Selling Author Aaron Dembski-Bowden.
"One of the most beautiful, thought-provoking, action-packed, well-written and brilliantly exciting novels I have ever read. The Talon of Horus can be described in one word: Masterpiece." - Lord of the Night @ Talk Wargaming
The Talon of Horus is the book that I have been waiting to read all year. Aaron Dembski-Bowden has been my favourite author ever since I read Soul Hunter and he remains one of the small number of authors whose work I will buy no matter the topic. So when I read that he would be writing a Black Legion series depicting the rise of Abaddon the Despoiler, a long-running series that would depict the momentous moments across the 10,000 years of the Long War; the destruction of Horus Reborn, the Black Crusades from the First to the Thirteenth, the Planet-Killer, and all the moments that we don't kow happened yet, but we will. Well I was beside myself with excitement, I knew right from then that this had the potential to be the most popular series in Black Library, a series of either completely new material or pre-existing material so vague and miniscule that it could be shaped by the right mind. And it appears Black Library were confident about that as well, as The Talon of Horus has the honour of being the very first in the new First Editions line, resulting in a gorgeous matte-black book engraved with cavorting Daemons and with a gold-leaf Chaos Star dead-centre. And as soon as I opened the book, seeing the number 991/1500 penned on a spread of gold and black horrors writhing together that would have done HP Lovecraft proud, I was hooked on the novel. What followed is without a doubt one of the best books I have ever read, and it was only a prologue to a story of ruin, destruction, war, tragedy and brotherhood.
The Horus Heresy... is over. The False Emperor lies entombed on his throne of lies, the numberless herd of humanity now worshipping him as a living God have already begun to forget the sins of the past, the angels that once shed blood for them and then shed their blood in the name of the Warmaster and his Dark Gods. But now those fallen angels are gone, vanished into hell itself where the grudges and ire they bore each other have erupted into wars more vicious than even the infamous Terran War. The Legion Wars rage across the land of the damned, servants of disparate Gods slaughtering each other in the name of uncaring avatars of blood, rot, change and lust, and all of the Nine Legions are dying. All but the one that is already dead. The Sons of Horus, once the proudest of all the Legions and now the Legion That Fled, are no more, destroyed by the rage of those they abandoned to die by loyalist guns. But one among them, the battle-king of the Justaerin and the favoured son of the Sacrificed King, may be the key to a future that the others have forgotten. Ezekyle Abaddon, one day to be the Warmaster Abaddon the Despoiler, Lord of the Black Legion, Bearer of the Mark of Chaos Ascendent and the Bringer of the End Times, now only a lost pilgrim in hell. This is the story of those who stood with him under a red sky as the sons of failed fathers ended the final legacy of the Age of Primarchs and ushered in a new age, the day a new breed of Space Marine was born in ash and fire, and the day that Abaddon first became the legend he was destined to become. But all stories have a beginning, and this is that beginning.
The story in TToH is many things. It's exciting from the very first sentence to the very last, it's suspenseful and keeps the reader guessing at what will come next at every twist and turn, it's thought-provoking on a degree that few other BL books have ever achieved, and it's a truly enjoyable tale about murderers, traitors, thieves, monsters and sons left behind by their flawed fathers, and brothers finding a new family. Right from the start the book gives the impression of this being the series to end all series, the untold story of Abaddon and His Black Legion, a story will be a long time in the telling and I have no doubt will take many books to tell. ADB himself has said that he thinks there will be complaints that Abaddon does not appear until the final third of the novel, but this is a long-running series and as Khayon notes, the beginning is as important as the end, the context is necessary to fully understand and appreciate the story you are being told, and so I went into the book not expecting to see Abaddon on the very first page but instead wanting to see the very beginnings of the Black Legion, how those first souls were gathered together and how they went in search of their lost liege and what secrets they found along the way; that is what TToH felt like to me and the fact that Abaddon wasn't the most prominent character in it did not detract from it in any way, at least for me. This is a story that delves deeply into unknown territory, the days of the Eye of Terror Slave Wars, the days when Abaddon was just one of many names in the Eye, when the Imperium and the cause of dethroning the False Emperor had been forgotten; and the book does a brilliant job of transporting the reader to an age of possibility where anything could happen in a realm where anything can and likely will happen. In keeping with the idea of a beginning of context that the narrative explains quite early on, TToH does feel like only the beginning of a great story, of course we get mentions and teasing flashforwards to the Dark Millennium when all of Abaddon's plans are coming to fruition, but I would not be surprised if all of what i've guessed from these moments is dead wrong. And of course the best part, frequently so with ADB's novels, is the subversion of expectations which the novel does, a lot. It is made clear in the book that this is the true version of events, not the historical record or the fearful imaginings of the Imperium, but the unvarnished truth right from a man who stood at the Anti-Christ's side as he became the nightmare of every loyal Imperial. Each chapter in the book has surprises waiting for the reader, leading up to the final scene that contains what I think is one of the most surprising twists in any Black Library book and resulted in the best scenes of the entire book. There was not a single part of this book that didn't have me glued to the page.
The characters are a varied bunch, which is fitting for the start of a Legion of ideals rather than blood. Iskandar Khayon is a fantastic character and one who feels just as interesting as Abaddon himself; Khayon comes across as very human for an Astartes, a sentimental man who at times feels almost melancholic, a man who has formed some very unlikely bonds and whose very nature is both what we'd expect and the opposite of what we've expect from a Thousand Son, though he can't be said to be one of those anymore. Khayon feels like a character that will be just as important as Abaddon throughout the entire series, he is our narrator and it is through him that we are told the story of the Black Legion, but more than only that he feels like a character whose personal story we will also learn in addition to Abaddon's. Abaddon himself is the more important of the two however as series about the Warmaster must have an interesting character to lead it, and it does. Abaddon is many many things; warrior, scholar, thinker, dreamer, innovator, leader, idealist, scientist, but most surprisingly he is a brother, which is an important idea behind this character. Horus was a father, and Horus failed. Abaddon is a brother, and only time will tell whether he will succeed or not. Quite a few parallels are made between Horus and Abaddon in the book, comparing the two, and the thoughts it offered were very interesting all the way through and surprising at times. Those who read this book expecting to see the brutal First Captain of Horus Rising, False Gods and Galaxy in Flames will not find what they are looking for, Captain Abaddon belongs in the Horus Heresy series, here is Warmaster Abaddon. The other Space Marine cast is just as good as it's two leaders with the sharp-tongued yet very likeable Lheorvine Ukris who provides a lot of the novel's more direct humour and serves as the straightman of the Ezekarion; Ashur-Kai who is a link to Khayon's past and the more esoterically directed of the two when it comes to sorcery; Falkus Kibre who sets a lot of the story in motion and shows the reader what has become of the Sons of Horus now that they are figures of hatred to everyone in hell; and Telemachon Lyras who is both a rival to Khayon and a character with some very hidden depths that came through in what in my opinion is the novel's most moving and beautiful scene. TToH's character base also continues ADB's tradition of strong, fascinating and likeable female characters, to name some of them we have Gyre, Khayon's familiar and a Daemon like no other; Nefertari, Khayon's bloodward and not only a character who provides interesting insight into Khayon and others, but also a very interesting character in her own right and one of my personal favourites of the book; and the Anamnesis, who is a very unique sort of character and one that reveals a lot about who Khayon is and who he was.
The action is very enjoyable, the battle scenes feeling very atmospheric and rife with possibility. Khayon being a Chaos Sorcerer allows for much more magic in the book, even though Khayon hates that word, and the first person narrative means that Khayon is always involved in the fights, though he may choose to gloss over some. Because of this the book contains sorcery in every battle, but it's not just that that makes the battles in the book feel distinct. The unique nature of Khayon's companions add a new flavour to each battle, even the Space Marines who carry weapons that you wouldn't expect their kind to wield, and the differing kinds of marines from Rubric, Terminators, and Berzerkers. Daemons are also featured, and they come in the flavour that ADB and Dan Abnett and Ben Counter have done so well, each one is a unique being and no two are alike, and we even learn the history behind one or two of them and not only do we get plenty of Daemons tearing mortals apart but we also get an immensely interesting look into how Daemons are born. The book also contains more than a few void battles, and when ships battle in the unpredictable Warp it adds a whole new element to the battles. But the best battle in the book is without a doubt the final fight scene, a scene that is stupendous and absolutely excellent in it's execution, and fast-paced as well which reflects the strength of the opponent Khayon and the cast face, an opponent that tests them all like nothing else. The only flaw in the battles is the absence of something that ADB has always done so well, in each of his books he shows the strengths and weaknesses of both sides, yet here that great feature is absent. The primary villains of this book are, at least in the definition of protagonist and antagonist, the Emperor's Children yet apart from the presence of Fabius Bile the only EC that felt like a distinct character was Telemachon.
The pacing of the book is different from the others, a complete first person narrative that often segues from telling the story to explaining and philosophizing on the nature of things to the reader, as if Khayon is actually speaking to the reader and encouraging deeper thought. Because of this the narrative moves at whatever pace Khayon dictates it does, which does make for interesting reading. One benefit to this is that since Khayon is never boring, either the story he tells or the ideas he postulates, the book itself is never boring because it truly does read as if he is telling you the story himself. The narrative never breaks from first person as some novels do, switching to third person when it suits them, which I think makes the novel feel stronger and doesn't break up the flow of dictation, Khayon is the only narrator we get and he'll tell the story from start to finish.
The world that ADB creates in the book is an insane and immensely engaging one. Right from the start the Empire of the Eye feels like a place where imagination is reality, which it is, and a place where fallen angels war with themselves and madness reigns across an uncountable number of worlds. One of the things that helps really bring the reader into the world is the little things, the names that don't appear in the Codexs or the official lore, the names that only those that were actually there and those that actually live in this place would use, the off-hand mention of events and people that inhabit this strange world, or the musings of Khayon on the nature of the Warp, the Gods, Chaos, and many other things that get the reader into the right mindset to imagine a world where thoughts become real and anything is possible.
The artwork featured in the First Edition is very striking. A full cover print of Daemons in gold and black is the very first thing the reader will see upon opening the book, and it paints a very nice picture of the roiling and unformed madness of the Warp. After this comes the original cover for the novel, Abaddon in all his glory with the Eye of Terror behind him, which I quite liked as it's a great cover by Raymond Swanland that the First Edition changed, with another great cover yes but it's very nice to have both. But the best part of the artwork is the interior designs of the main cast, hidden away between pages 200 and 201 are four images, depicting Iskander Khayon, Lheorvine Ukris, Ezekyle Abaddon and Telemachon Lyras as they appear in the books, yet fully armoured which gives the reader the wiggle room necessary for their image of the character's actual appearance to vary from reader to reader, as ADB does in the narrative. Each piece of artwork is stunning, giving each character a sense of uniqueness in their appearance and accurately depicting the personal features of each character's armour that makes them stand out from the others in their former Legions.
The extra in the First Edition include the already-printed stories Chosen of Chaos, set at an unknown time in the future; Extinction, set before TToH and depicting the death of the Sons of Horus Legion; and the never-before-printed and never to be printed again story The Wonderworker, a bridging story between TToH and the second book in the series, The Black Legion. The Wonderworker is a very nice addition to the book, revealing the fates of a few characters from the novel, introducing a new character to the series and revealing the fate of some odds and ends from the book and the wider series lore. Since the story will not be reprinted it is not essential for the series story, merely explaining where Khayon gets something that will appear in the second book and introducing what could be a new character. It's a nice little story that feels very weighty due to the in-universe importance of several things in it, a dose of the humour that ADB gets into all of his stories, and a further look at the interior of the Vengeful Spirit that will be so important in the series.
Now for my favourite quote, I have tons from this novel but I will stick to the first three. First, the quote that was the most epic, without even having to think about it it's this one;
"I am not your son."
And secondly the quote that made me laugh the hardest;
"That's for lying to me. It was nothing like teleportation."
And finally a quote that made me smile and go "Awww";
"You are beautiful."
The ending of the book is very good and nicely sets the scene for the series to come. The actual epilogue itself stays true to the idea that this entire book is a prologue, the context and understanding necessary for the reader, us and in-universe Inquisitor Siroca and Thoth, to fully understand the adventures, stories and epics to come. The framing story is what the novel closes on, revealing the reason Khayon is where he is, also exactly where he is which is shocking, and why he is there, and why he has chosen to tell this story and all the stories that will follow. I quite enjoyed where the story left off, Abaddon and his followers are not quite a Legion yet but their ideals have been formed and with victory behind them, they are a step closer to becoming what we know they will become. The ending also provides two teasing hints at events to come, one that will be one of the most epic confrontations in all of 40k, and one that promises to be a heartbreaking moment that I both anticipate and dread reading. Now that the prologue is over it feels as if the next book will be the real start of the adventures, we have our 'heroes' and their quest, and now we get to see them embark on it and see where it takes them across ten thousand years of warfare.
For a brilliant story that had me hooked from page one, characters that felt real, understandable and very likeable, action that was exciting in every fight scene, a narrative that turned made this book not only exciting but the most thought-provoking 40k book I have ever read, and the humour that lightened up a lot of the book and humanised a lot of the characters, I give The Talon of Horus First Edition a score of 9.8/10. This is the definitive Chaos Space Marine series and anyone who calls themselves a fan of 40k needs to make this book a priority to read. I would also recommend this series to any fan of science fiction as this book itself is a fantastic read and the series as a whole promises to be an amazing one. If Chaos Space Marines aren't for you however then this isn't the series for you, though that said maybe you should still give it a try and see if it changes your mind, ADB has a talent for making his readers rethink their opinions on factions, characters and other things.
And that's it for this review, it was a joy to read and the book was a true joy to read. Until next time, (And in honour of the Black Legion,)
WE ARE RETURNED! DEATH TO THE FALSE EMPEROR!