Wednesday, July 5, 2017

REVIEW: The Master of Mankind

If there was ever one book from the Horus Heresy series that people have been waiting for, it was a book about the Emperor. While The Master of Mankind delivers on this by giving us some of the closest and most personal looks at this larger than life character, it also gives us so much more, with a rich cast of supporting characters and peeks into other elusive aspects of the setting, including hints and twists that tie in more closely with the 41st millennium than the 31st.

Aaron Dembski-Bowden is a titan of the Warhammer 40,000 setting, writing some of the most well received and loved books, enshrining himself safely alongside the likes of veterans Abnett, King, and McNeil. His two previous Heresy novels, The First Heretic and Betrayer, both took previously unlikable or one dimensional legions and transformed them into some of the most complex and multi-layered takes on the traitor Space Marines. Before Dembski-Bowden, Kharn was simply a blood mad lunatic who shouted kill, maim, burn! Now he's both tragic and still extremely tough and cool. Although there's no saving Erebus, the Word Bearers got a new lease on life with his take on Lorgar and his sons.

When it came to tackling the Big E himself, the Emperor of Mankind, I would say it either had to be Aaron or Dan that did it, and I'm certainly happy with how AD-B handled it. The story opens with a brief look at Magnus' intrusion into the Imperial dungeons to warn his father about Horus' treachery, an event that set of a cataclysmic series of disasters for the Emperor secret project and Terra itself. I particularly like how to everyone in the throne room, Magnus appeared as a insanity inducing monster of pure horror, killing many of the mortals around him with his mere presence. After that we snap forward five year into the present era in the unfolding timeline. The Emperor's Great Work, to secure use of the Eldar webway for mankind and eliminate their reliance on the Warp is hanging on by its fingernails. The combined forces of the Custodes, Sister of Silence, and various Mechanicum and Titan forces have been battling nonstop within the confines of the ancient xenos-made tunnels against an unending horde of Chaos. Not just demons either, but traitor Space Marines who have somehow found their way into the webway. This was a nice little twist that opens up the scope of the war in the webway a bit more. Previously there was very little written about this, and I think most people thought of it as a rather small affair, with small tunnels, and confined to just the Custodian Guard and demons. Here we get to see that in fact, portions of the webway are large enough to fit Warlord Titans, and even entire cities.

This city is the focal point of the conflict, the last line of defense the Imperials have to hold before the forces of Chaos would be able to overwhelm them and push into the throne room itself. The Emperor is unable to personally help in the conflict since he is now confined to the Golden Throne, focusing all of his psychic might just to keep the Terran portion of the webway from crashing in on itself. The first major character we are introduced to is Ra, a captain within the Custodes, and someone who is in personal communication with the Emperor. It's really interesting to read about how the Custodes see the Emperor. To most people he is a godlike being, someone they can barely look at for more than a handful of moments. He appears differently to different people, appearing as they would want him to appear. To the Custodes he is but a man. A very important and powerful man, but just a man nonetheless. They do still see a bit of the "holy" radiance around him, but since their entire job is to be around him all the time and personally protect him, they have gotten very use to him. In an interesting bit later in the story we get to see how the Sisters of Silence see him, which is literally just as a man. Since they are psychic blanks, with no soul to speak of, none of his guiles and illusions work on him, and they see him as he truly, truly is.

The Emperor psychically communicates with Ra, who is fighting within the webway, several times throughout the book. Each time we are taken to another moment in the Emperor's long life. The first, and most interesting to me, is during the Emperor's childhood. In each of these visions the Emperor tries to teach Ra a little bit more about why the Great Work is so important, as well as staying appraised of what's going on with the battles. While Ra is leading the attacks directly, Diocletian, another high-ranking Custodian, and Kaeria, a high-ranking Sister of Silence, are sent to Terra's surface to recruit valuable assets to the war effort. This is where are cast really expands and we are introduced to Zephon, a Blood Angel shunned to Terra due to faulty bionic arms and legs that render him unreliable in a fight; Jaya, an Imperial Knight pilot who was tricked into fighting for Horus and now seeks redemption; and my favorite character from the novel, Arkhan Land, the inventor of the Land Raider and Land Speeder, or as he correctly calls them, Land's Raider and Land's Speeder. I remember reading a little paragraph on him more than a decade ago when they first redid the Land Raider model for 3rd edition. It was great seeing him utilized in an actual story, and not only that, but he has a pretty significant part to play and is written fantastically.

Land is portrayed as a man who is at odds with the very institution he is a part of, holding little reverence for anything, even the Emperor. Having personally met him in the past, he sees him as a scientist, the very best scientist in fact. It's also during this flashback scene that a certain aspect of the Emperor really starts getting fleshed out. I don't want to ruin the scene itself, but it really starts to hammer home the idea that the Emperor is not a "good" man. He is doing what he believes needs to be done to save the entire human race, but in the process he is a real bastard. The Primarchs, beings who see the Emperor as a father figure, are nothing but tools to him. He doesn't even refer to them by name, but instead by their legion number. Horus, for instance, is called the sixteenth. This could all be part of an act as well, something he's doing to distance himself any painful realities, but I think there is more truth in this tyrannical portrayal than lies. You see this part of the Emperor a few more times throughout the book, and by the end I didn't really like the Emperor very much, which I think is the point. You are not meant to "like" a tyrant, a dictator who sacrifices the lives of millions to achieve their goal. It's just that in the 40k universe, that's the kind of leader that is needed to ensure mankind's survival, you don't need to like him along the way.

After recruiting the new assets, including a new general from the Mechanicum, a monstrous robot sanctioned by the Fabricator-General himself and instilled with the conscience of a tech-priest, the army heads back down into the dungeons. Not only do they face the combined might of the traitor legions and the demons of Chaos, but a particularly ancient and powerful demon now stalks the webway as well. The demon created from the very first murder amongst mankind, a being so powerful that even the Emperor is hesitant to face it. It's not one for leading a bloody charge though, and instead stalks around the Imperial defenses, picking them apart little by little.

The final battle is as epic in scale as you would hope for with a book like this. I really don't want to ruin any of it for you, but there are some great moments involving the Titans, Arkhan Land, the Custodes, and an unexpected betrayal. There are so many other parts from this book that I haven't even mentioned yet, like a good look at what the Imperial dungeons and the throne room really are, the start of the Emperor's psychic tithe, and a bunch of other callbacks to moments from the 41st millennium that have only been hinted at previously. There is a twist near the very end that I wasn't expecting at all which connects nicely with some lore that's been around for decades. All of this is written fantastically well too, with the pace of the book never letting up. Even during quieter moments you keep wanting to turn the page to find out what happens next. Some of my favorite parts were simple conversations between two characters, particularly any that involved the Emperor. I finished the book in just a matter of days and at no point did I really want to put it down, just you know, real life stuff demanded that I didn't spend my whole time reading.

While I wouldn't say this is the definitive Heresy book, I would say that it is definitely a very important one, and a must read for any 30k or 40k fan. The only reason I say it's not the definitive book is because for me the Heresy series is all about the Primarchs and the Space Marines, both of which are absent here besides Zephon. The Master of Mankind is a fantastic book and I highly recommend you pick it up, if nothing else but to learn a little more about the Emperor himself. There aren't any books I think you absolutely have to read to understand what's going on here, but you'll definitely get more out of it if you have a good understanding of the setting, both during the Heresy and the 41st millennium. So what are you doing still reading this? Go pick up the book if you haven't already!

Until next time,

Tyler M.

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