The Horus Heresy: Horus Rising (Dan Abnett)
Horus Rising is the first novel in the long running and best selling Horus Heresy series, a saga that looks to explain the early years of the 40k universe when the empire was still focused on expanding its influence and the forces of Chaos had yet to corrupt many of the Legions. Featuring thoughtful world building that gives us a rare look into civilian life and the cultural norms of the Imperium at large, a clever depiction of Chaos, and plenty of action, Horus Rising is the perfect way to kick off this series.
While it doesn't have the most sophisticated story, and the conclusion is a bit abrupt, Horus Rising is a great start to the series because it successfully avoids predictability and thrives on well written and emotionally resonant sequences. The story of the Luna Wolves and newly appointed Warmaster Horus, this book spans a variety of worlds and conflicts, with the central idea being Horus' rise to prominence. Told through the eyes of an ordinary space marine elevated to an extraordinary position of power, this book combines the best of Warhammer action with excellent pacing and a strong variety of action scenes.
Horus Rising's protagonist, Loken, is about what you would expect from a Space Marine. He is a bit rigid, very comradely, and utterly devoted to his service to the Imperium. The character works really well as a slightly better than generic soldier, and I really enjoyed his conversations with the reporters, something that apparently distinguishes him from the other marines. Loken is ultimately more of a character through which you view the crucial events of the story than a compelling character in his own right. He is quickly outclassed in terms of importance by the various leadership characters that make key appearances here, including Horus himself, but he has more personality than most of them. The remembrancers are also interesting in their own way, although we don't see too much of them after about the halfway point.
This book is like most Warhammer books in that it does not have a central antagonist character, instead relying on a faction (or more) of bad guys to provide the opposition. We are treated to an enjoyable mix of antagonist societies that serve up plenty of variety and definitely manage to give our heroes a run for their money. The most unique among them are the two human societies that have become completely detached from Imperial rule. Culturally and militarily different from our protagonists, these newly formed governments are an interesting look at the various developments that humans have experienced and a unique foe for our heroes to face. More stereotypical are the bugs that a newly introduced Chapter must tackle in the book's second act. They aren't exactly bad, and in fact they have some cool abilities and serve in some fantastic action sequences, but they aren't as well thought out as the other two antagonizing forces. Most insidious and recognizable are the forces of Chaos. A scene in which a formerly loyal marine is near-instantly corrupted and turned into an evil slavering beast may seem a tad on the overdramatic side, but the action scene that ensues is a fantastic example of the up tempo fury characteristic of all action sequences in this book, and the fallout from this event is even more harrowing than the spectacle itself. Chaos may not play a huge role in this book, but the simple and intimidating appearance has definitely piqued my interest for later entries in the series where it apparently will play a major role.
The world building actually ended up being one of my favorite elements of the entire book. We learn about the way history is recorded in the universe: basically by highly specialized recorders-poets, photographers, and , that are given tightly controlled access to major events in order to chronicle them. Of course, since it is science fiction they carry out their tasks in ways unfamiliar to us and using terms we aren't acquainted with, but the spirit is essentially the same. Including the "press corps." of the 40k universe was an excellent way to then explore military censorship and the media process in general in this vastly different setting. Granted, it isn't an in depth look by any means, but compared to what we usually get, something as small as this goes a long way towards fleshing out the world. We also get to see a bit of regular civilian life on a recently subjugated world, and there are a few details about the empire at large in addition to the expected fleshing out of the various legions featured in this book. References to recent and ancient history are also seen throughout this book which helped me as someone totally new to this era of 40k to understand what was going on. I have very few questions about this setting after this book, at least in terms of this premise, which is certainly a testament to author Dan Abnett's exemplary skill for weaving these minor details into the fabric of the overall narrative.
As an introduction to a new setting, this book couldn't have been much better. The cast of characters is nicely defined early on, the world building is top notch, and the plot moves along at a steady pace while revealing plenty to maintain interest. Even though there isn't much of an overarching conflict and it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, Horus Rising is well worth the time and numbers among my top five Warhammer novels.