Cast your mind back. It’s 2002 and Games Workshop are preparing for the Eye of Terror campaign. A fledgling Black Library released Storm of Iron, a book by Graham McNeill, who at the time was perhaps best known for his work on the Games Workshop Design Team. It was good. Like, really good. The community’s reaction was pretty positive. Yet since then, it feels like that same community seems to have soured on him, if only for the crime of liking Ultramarines. [Fuckers! - Ed.]
For my own part, I’ve not always enjoyed everything Graham has written, but he’s one of the few writers that seems to be experimenting and testing his limits with each new book he writes. His books often don’t quite work for me, but his ability to mix of 40k battles and more nuanced exploration of the universe wins me over more often than not.
My pre ramble is important, because if there was a way of describing my gut feeling of A Thousand Sons, it’s “Mostly works, if not quite as much as it should”. It’s going to take the rest of this review to explain why.
Now, how go best go about it? If you are familiar with the history of the 40k universe at all, you will know the Fall of Prospero is one of the defining moments of the Horus Heresy. A Thousand Sons starts sometime before that and allows us to get to know the legion, as it explores the galaxy trying to increase mankind’s knowledge, which they see as the real purpose of the Great Crusade. Censured at the Council of Nikaea for treading a dangerous path, events soon spiral out of control and the Imperium will never be the same again.
The main drive and focus of the book is secrets. Everyone has them, from our humble Remembrancers, the human element of the book, to Magnus, Primarch of the Thousand Sons himself. Even the Space Wolves, usually portrayed as being as subtle as an axe to the face, are keeping back something, which suits a book about a Legion that one day will become the servants of the trickster god Tzeentch.
The novel is certainly very effective at allowing you to empathise with the 15th Legion, as by allowing you to see their triumphs through to their lows, you gain a real sense of the tragedy of the situation, as two Primarchs refuse to back down from one another until it’s too late. Getting to see the glorious paradise of Prospero and how the Space Wolves appear as alien invaders allows for a great contrast to A Thousand Sons sister book Prospero Burns. It really makes you root for a legion that could otherwise come off as more arrogant and monstrous than the Emperor’s Children.
McNeill is good at penning an action scene and the description of the fall of Prospero as one continuous piece in the latter half of the book manages to capture both a personal scale of Magnus’ folly and the larger more epic of the war around him, that an event like the Horus Heresy demands. The only real failing of the book is its human characters. Whilst fairly prominent at the start of the novel, the Remembrancers seem to be lost and forgotten by the second half, until suddenly they become prominent characters at a time that is disruptive to the more interesting narrative of Magnus and his son’s discovery of Horus’ plans. By the time of the invasion the characters have any further involvement cut off, in a sentence that seems to hint they make it back to Prospero, without any follow-up. Perhaps my memory is faulty, but it’s an odd ending to characters that have been written to make us care about them, only to have them dropped as any hint of a future absent once the big fighting scenes kick in. [I think the point was that fate can call upon even the lowliest soul to change the galaxy, but be just as quick to discard them. But that's just me. -Ed.]
All in all, apart from the odd bit of clunky dialogue, I really have no actual complaints about the book. It flows well, and Graham manages his usual trick of making each battle about more than just cool explosions and bolter porn. A real blast from start to finish and a nice counterpart to Dan Annett’s Prospero Burns. It’s probably the best work I’ve read of Graham’s yet and I look forward to reading his further contributions to both the 30k and 40k universe.
A Thousand Sons is available via The Black Library as an E-book or physical copy, or is available from all good high street booksellers. And Waterstones.