Heretical Texts (2011)

This feature, written for SFX 213, is a primer for Black Library’s best-selling Horus Heresy series, and includes some nice quotes from two of its authors, Dan Abnett and Graham McNeill.

Intricately detailed universes are not the sole province of lone authors. They can also come from games.

After 30 years in business, Games Workshop’s toy soldiers are now a part of many people’s childhood; the motifs of its Warhammer 40,000 (or “40K”) have imprinted themselves upon the public conscience, not least in the shape of those multi-coloured guardians of humanity, the Space Marines.

The worlds of GW began as disparate scraps, concepts dreamt up or borrowed in isolation to provide backstory to a model or rule. But by the cumulative efforts of many creative minds over many years, these elements have grown together into something vibrant. Publisher The Black Library was set up to explore these rich worlds in novel form, it was only a matter of time before they turned their attention to the Horus Heresy, one of 40K’s most important events.

“The weight of responsibility is huge,” says Dan Abnett, one of the series authors. “This is the mythology of the 40K Universe (although Horus Heresy is set 10,000 years earlier, so we refer to it as ‘30K’). It’s been mentioned in background text for more than two decades, sometimes in quite contradictory ways. We’ve got to make sense of the facts and weave a story that doesn’t disappoint anyone. The rules are very different to mainstream 40K novels, there’s a lot more to invent, and the scale is bigger: these are galaxy-changing events, not ‘just’ big space wars. Plus, it’s a team effort. Authors, who are solitary beasts by nature, have to work with other authors. It’s great fun, but you have to leave your ego at the door and come to the table in collaboration mode.”

With several of the books entering The New York Times bestseller list, the series’ appeal has reached far beyond the gaming fraternity. Author Graham McNeill maintains this is an SF epic the equal of anything. “The Heresy novels are exciting, chock full of interesting characters, high stakes and a plot that offers as many inventive twists and turns as any other series out there. In fact, when you think you know it back to front, that’s when you’re more likely to get surprised.”

Senior range editor Nick Kyme sums it up. “The worlds of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 have a certain rigour and identity that our fans clearly love. In worlds that are so utterly bleak, the heroes shine that much more brightly, their deeds are more heroic, the conflicts greater and tragedies more cutting. There’s depth to them, a gravitas brought about by a weight of imagination and creativity over thirty years. The Horus Heresy is the seminal event that sets up what comes after it in the Warhammer 40,000 ‘now’. That has resonance.”

In fact, it’s all that and more. It’s nigh on impossible to get across the complexity of a universe like Warhammer 40,000 here. It truly is one of the richest collaborative worlds out there – Star Trek and Star Wars are frankly simplistic in comparison. And the Horus Heresy is its greatest story.

“Imagine a science fiction Paradise Lost,” says Abnett. “It’s a HUGE scale, epic story of the fight to control a massive empire. It’s set in a gothic universe that’s brilliantly realised. And despite the fact that there’s a large amount of thunking action going on, it’s pretty clever stuff with great characters and ideas. You don’t have to be a fan or player of Warhammer 40,000 to get into it.”

Future Imperfect

In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.

In the 41st Millennium mankind stands upon the brink of utter destruction.

In these dying days, the human Imperium is beset by aliens, but the greatest threat is that of Chaos. A second universe of energy exists alongside our own. Travel and communication through this “warp” allows interstellar civilisation, but it is not empty. The warp’s energy is moulded by the emotions of sentient beings, aggregating into four powerful consciousnesses – the Chaos Gods.

The Imperium’s Emperor is a psyker of godlike power, but he is near death, his shattered body trapped in stasis for 10,000 years. His multitudinous servants try to interpret his will as best they can, but without his direct guidance, mankind is doomed.

It was not always so. The Emperor once walked among men. In the 31st Millennium, a time when the wonders of the Dark Age of technology were millennia past, and humanity was deep in an age of barbarism, the Emperor revealed himself. From where he came, no one knows, although some say he was an ancient immortal and had been manipulating history for long ages. The Emperor resolved to save mankind, creating twenty superhuman sons from his own genetic material to aid him.

As these “Primarchs” grew, the powers of Chaos stole them away, scattering them across the galaxy. Thinking his sons lost, the Emperor proceeded with his plans. From the genetic templates of the Primarchs, he made legions of super soldiers, the Space Marines. With these he conquered Earth, and headed into the heavens on his Great Crusade.

As his armies advanced, The Emperor rediscovered the Primarchs one after another, and appointed them leaders of the legions. Returning to Earth, the Emperor left his most favoured son Horus to lead the reconquest of the galaxy.

Terrified of the Emperor, the Chaos gods set a conspiracy underway to seduce Horus. The Primarchs had not been untouched by Chaos during their childhood transit through the warp, and under Horus’ influence half of them renounced their oaths, turned on their brothers, and plunged the galaxy into civil war.

The Horus Heresy had begun.

Forbidden Knowledge

The novels of the Horus Heresy

Horus Rising (2006, Dan Abnett)

The seeds of heresy are sown

Horus is appointed “Warmaster”, and leads the Emperor’s armies to victory.

False Gods (2006, Graham McNeill)

The heresy takes root

Horus is wounded by a Chaos-tainted weapon. His fate is sealed.

Galaxy in Flames (2006, Ben Counter)

The heresy revealed

Horus, corrupted, becomes brutal, destroying the planet of Istvaan IV with virus bombs. The Luna Wolves, World Eaters and the Death Guard legions turn traitor, but loyalists within their ranks stage a desperate fight back.

Flight of the Eisenstein (2007, James Swallow)

The heresy unfolds

Captain Garro of the Death Guard witnesses Horus’ betrayal and flees in the frigate Eisenstein to warn the Emperor.

Fulgrim (2007, Graham McNeill)

Visions of treachery

Fulgrim, Primarch of the Emperor’s Children is perverted by Chaos. The book is also the first to detail the dropsite massacres of Istvaan V, a pivotal event in Warhammer 40,000 history.

Descent of Angels (2007, Michael Scanlon)

Loyalty and honour

The early life of the Primarch Lion El’Jonson is revealed as a future schism in his legion, the Dark Angels, is hinted at.

Legion (2008, Dan Abnett)

Secrets and lies

The twin Primarchs of the Alpha Legion, Alpharius-Omegon, join the Warmaster but their motivations are perhaps not what they seem.

Battle for the Abyss (2008, Ben Counter)

My brother, my enemy

The loyal Ultramarines attempt to stop the Word Bearers assaulting their homeworld of Ultramar.

Mechanicum (2008, Graham McNeill)

War comes to Mars

Horus tries to subvert the Techpriests of Mars to his cause.

Tales of Heresy (2009, edited by Lindsey Priestley and Nick Kyme)

A collection of short stories providing background to the Horus Heresy, the Great Crusade and The Imperium.

Fallen Angels (2009, Mike Lee)

Deceit and betrayal

As Lion El’Jonson tries to prevent Horus seizing control of an important world, the Dark Angels’ homeworld of Caliban is riven with strife.

A Thousand Sons  (2010, Graham McNeill)

All is dust…

Magnus, cyclopean Primarch of the Thousand Sons, has a thirst for arcane knowledge. Despite being forbidden him, Magnus uses magic to warn the Emperor of Horus’ perfidy, but only succeeds in enraging him…

Nemesis (2010, James Swallow)

War within the shadows

Treason in high places is revealed as super-assassins clash.

The First Heretic (2010, Aaron Dembski-Bowden)

Fall to Chaos

Lorgar, Primarch of the Word Bearers, turns to Chaos when the Emperor rebukes him for worshipping him as a god.

Prospero Burns (2011, Dan Abnett)

The wolves unleashed

Much is revealed of how the Chaos plot came to be, leading up to and covering the destruction of the Thousand Sons’ homeworld by the Space Wolves legion.

Age of Darkness (2011, edited by Christian Done)

Short stories covering the seven years between the Istvaan V massacre and the campaign to seize Terra.


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