The Horus Heresy: False Gods (Graham McNeill)
False Gods, the second book in the Horus Heresy series, continues directly where the first left off and sees our heroes tackling even more alien threats in their attempts to bring the glory of the Emperor to the entire universe. Although it isn't a perfect read by any means, particularly in the characterization department, False Gods manages to turn Horus evil in a fairly convincing manner, all while providing a legitimately tense, action packed, grim narrative that will be familiar fun to Warhammer 40k fans.
The basic plot of this book has the crusade arrive on yet another Chaos-infested world, where a new threat of living dead Chaos abominations threatens to overwhelm even the mighty Space Marines. An elongated battle sequence sees the Marines and their less augmented allies struggle against a menace that seemingly cannot be killed, evoking memories of classic zombie movies and delivering the kind of furiously paced action Warhammer is known for. It all culminates in a haunting scene inside a derelict spaceship where Warmaster Horus and a small squad of soldiers goes toe to toe with the heart of the infestation, a grotesque figure straight out of Horus' past. Here begins Horus' fall, and from this point the book goes in a significantly different, equally successful, direction.
After Horus suffers a grievous injury, the book takes a decidedly different tone. We are shown another Primarch and learn about his plans for Horus, and the conflict shifts from Astartes vs. Chaos Zombies to Astartes vs. Astartes. There are numerous squabbles about what to do with Horus, rendered comatose by his injuries, and clearly divided factions begin to form among the close knit Space Marines. The tense atmosphere and erratic, paranoid behavior of many characters during this sequence makes for an entertaining and unpredictable read, even though there is very little suspense concerning the ultimate outcome. Watching the Space Marines unravel in such a through way, turning their backs on what made them special and acting increasingly distressed under pressure, really brings home the dire nature of the situation and generates some compelling conflicts. In the midst of all this, the group of remembrancers from the last novel take a more important role in showing us the civilian perspective, and also struggle with how to capture and cope with such a shocking turn of events. The second part of the book manages to work well as a contrast in pacing and scope to the first, looking more at interpersonal conflicts and individuals coping with Horus' injury instead of the sweeping war scenes featuring space zombies and massive explosions.
In any story detailing the fall into darkness of a once venerated figure, the characterization and motives behind the descent must be carefully thought out and expressed impeccably. Failure to do so leads to a contrived and flimsy driving force, usually embodied by one or two particularly unbelievable moments, as seen in Anakin Skywalker's fall during Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. Luckily in False Gods, this isn't a problem, though Horus is still a tough character to pin down. For Horus, some measure of pride and ego, plus a heaping helping of Chaos magic, seem to be the core ingredients in his slow turn against his own father, the Emperor. Along with some important revelations concerning his genesis, Horus' descent into evil feels plausible, although it would have been nice to get some more time to know him as he used to be. The first book only developed his character from afar, and this one seems to do it far too quickly, moving him from venerated icon to angry Chaos-infested warrior on the path to vengeance. It is remarkably difficult to care for the character when we have so little taste of what his background, life, and personality are really like. However, considering the fact that his fall was written convincingly enough, with effects that are immediate and dire to the more sympathetic characters, the sequence can still be considered a success.
There are a few other standout characters, although most of the space marines are woefully underdeveloped. Loken's role as a cool headed participant and his narrator role is a good fit for him, and a nice way for us to view the action, but he isn't a particularly impressive character. The end of this book does set up a potentially intriguing arc for him in the next novel, but so far he has felt like a more or less unimportant character being used to show us the events from a balanced angle. The remaining space marines are hard to keep track of, mostly because there doesn't seem to be much of an effort spent developing any of them. Granted, there wasn't a lot done with them in the first book either, but here they all basically turn into total idiots for story purposes or are ignored. We don't see things from their perspectives, and they are lumped together and defined primarily by their combat prowess. Conversely, the remembrancers are among the most vividly imagined characters in the entire book, and having such a unique perspective into the war-torn universe is certainly a treat. It helps that their sub-plot remains relevant throughout this book, and that they are as effected by the events of the book as any other faction. Through the caste of remembrancers, we see the seeds of the idolatry and blind worship that begins to work its way through the rest of the battle group, and once again characters like Ignace Karkasy and Mersadie Oliton provide a much needed counterpoint to the testosterone fueled Astartes.
While this book isn't as well written as the previous in the series, it certainly has its moments of awe inspiring brilliance. Of particular interest is the string of battle sequences leading up to the pivotal moment of the novel. As is usually the case, Chaos is described with a laudable degree of wrongness, and the decrepit ringleader couldn't have been much more disgusting. Unlike the previous book, and in fact most Warhammer novels, the fighting isn't exactly the central focus. Instead, there is a sense of dread following Horus' injury that begins to build toward the inevitable conclusion, wreaking havoc on most of the characters in our story and giving this book a distinctly different feel than many of its brethren. The slow turn of brother against brother is captured masterfully, and even more poignantly, we see exactly what Horus meant to the reporters who covered him and ordinary people who worshipped him.
A pivotal novel for the credibility of Horus' character and future events in the series, False Gods manages to get just about everything right, setting up future events quite nicely and giving the series even more momentum through the dramatic fall of Horus and the men closest to him. If you enjoyed the first book in the series, Horus Rising, then there is no reason that False Gods will disappoint.