Hoboy, I have been looking forward to this bad boy for a while. Of all the Horus Heresy – scratch that, of all the Black Library, full stop – release this year, Unremembered Empire is the one I’ve been waiting for, because a) it’s Abnett, and what’s not to love, and b) it’s exploring something utterly new in the HH lore; the Imperium Secundus.
I bought the book yesterday, and devoured in one five-hour sitting. And what are my first impressions? Well, read on if you want to know. Oh, fair warning, but SPOILERS.
The Unremembered Empire (TUR from now on) is a story that’s pulling a lot of separate threads together; you’ve got characters from Know No Fear, Vulkan Lives, Betrayer, and loads of stories from the anthologies like Savage Weapons, Iron Within, and so on. This, I feel, is one of the book’s weaknesses; basically, previous HH titles are required reading for you to understand some of the references made in TUR. Who the hell is Narek? Why is Vulkan mad, on Macragge, and apparently a 40K (30K?) version of Captain Scarlet? And for that matter, who’s this John Grammaticus chap? What the hell is a fulgurite? Why is Curze hiding on the Lion’s flagship? Be assured, this is not a book you can jump into if you’re not familiar with the HH series already, so that can be somewhat of a turn-off for some. If you’re up to date with your HH timeline though, you’re in for a treat…
The story follows Guilliman, Ultramarines Primarch and rocking the new title of “Avenging Son”. He’s on Macragge, in the heart of his realm of Ultramar, the Five Hundred Worlds, which is isolated from all outside contact with the Imperium due to the warpstorm unleashed by First Chaplain (and Chief Dickhead) Erebus in Know No Fear.
Guilliman, as determined before in KNF, is a man of logic, and in his current situation, logic calls for contingencies to be made. He knows that Horus has gone cuckoo, and that Lorgar, Angron, and some of his other brothers have joined the Warmaster in open rebellion. Guilliman has no idea if Terra has already fallen, if there are any loyal Primarchs left, and, most importantly, if the Emperor is still alive. Guilliman’s contingency is to start building a second Imperium in Ultramar, preserving what was left of the old Imperium. However, he is hesitant to name himself ruler, or regent, feeling that to do so would almost make him no better than Horus, believing that people will accuse him of taking advantage of Horus’s rebellion to establish a new Imperium while the old one is being destroyed on the other side of the galaxy.
It’s really nice to see Space Marines, and especially Primarchs, get this kind of character development; I think everyone was terrified that when the HH series started, we’d just see book after book of Mary-Sues with perfect morals and flawless plans and sudden “LOL I AM NOW TEH EVULZ” moments, but obviously it hasn’t played out like that at all. In my mind, The First Heretic is perhaps the absolute best book in the series for showing ultimately how fragile and human a Primarch can be, but TUR is not far behind. It seems that the best way to write Marines and Primarchs is to have them be like tragic heroes from classical plays; everything they do and experience is human, but more. Their anger is more, their grief is more, their honour and pride and ambition is more.
Phew. Moving on…
On another planet of Ultramar, some Ultramarines and a loyal Iron Warriors warsmith have found a beacon (heavily implied to be Eldar) which essentially lights up Macragge and allows other lost loyalists to find their way to Guilliman’s side. Things start getting complicated though when a squad of Alpha Legion disguised as Ultramarine Veterans from Calth manage to sneak in and nearly assassinate Guilliman, and our favourite Perpetual John Grammaticus makes an appearance, fresh from his ordeal in Vulkan Lives. On the subject of Vulkan Lives, guess which immortal Primarch has made a crash landing on Macragge after teleporting into high orbit… Other parties on Macragge include Damon Prytanis, another Perpetual, Narek, a Word Bearer who wants to kill Lorgar, and a gang of Space Wolves, who watch over Guilliman to ensure that he isn’t going to “Go Horus” and outright secede from the Imperium. Meanwhile, shaken from the assassination attempt, Guilliman still struggles with the decision of whether or not to declare himself the ruler of the Imperium Secundus, declaring that he’d be more than happy to hand the responsibility over to any other of his loyal brothers. He’s about to get his wish…
Lion El’Jonson and his Dark Angels show up in massive numbers, but Guilliman allows them to land. Robby and the Lion discuss how the whole Imperium Secundus idea might seem a tad suspicious, but Guilliman is ultimately prepared to hand rulership over to Jonson. Their discussion is interrupted when Konrad Curze, who has been hiding out on the Lion’s flagship for months, lands on Macragge and starts causing all sorts of mayhem, which pushes the story into its bloody final act, which I actually won’t spoil here, because there’s a lot of stuff that happens and I’ve already written too much for just a synopsis. Needless to say, there’s some fighting, a Primarch dies OR DOES HE, and eventually Sanguinius shows up, Robby and Lion-O are totally like “OMG he’s so pretty!” and bam, new regent of Imperium Secundus.
Well, let’s get down to it, shall we? TUR is really good, but it’s a very different book to what I was expecting. I was expecting Sanguinius to show up maybe halfway through, and then spend time wrestling with Guilliman’s suggestion to become the ruler of Secundus, perhaps being forced to accept the position when <insert something awesome with explosions> happens, but here, it feels a bit rushed; Sangy shows up, has a little bit of a moan, and then PARTY! I love Abnett, I really do, but he does tend to have this habit of going “SHIT I ONLY HAVE FIFTY PAGES LEFT!” and rushes to finish the story (a big quibble lots of people had with KNF). I also wasn’t expecting so much focus on John, Damon, and especially Narek. Oh, and Curze. Curze…
Let me get something off my chest. I fucking hate Curze.
I am getting really, really fed up of Curze. Okay, we get it, Curze is messed up in the head and no-one understands him and everyone hates him, but he likes being hated but he also wants to accepted, except when he doesn’t, and he burbles on about justice and hypocrisy like a high school student who thinks he’s “edgy” and “deep” AND OH GOD WE GET IT.
What annoys me most is that Curze is essentially invulnerable. In TUR, he fights Robby and the Lion at once, who are pretty much in the top tier of Primarchs in terms of martial skill, and they can’t even land a hit on him. Then Vulkan, who by this point is as mad as a box of frogs, comes swinging in, and lands some hits that by all rights, should fucking kill Curze where he stands. Then Damon unleashes a daemon that he’s been carrying around like a Lovecraftian Pokemon, which drags Curze into the Warp, which Curze basically just shrugs off. I mean, I guess it works, because it makes the reader hate Curze more and more (“Aaaagh why won’t he die!?”) which is ultimately how you’re meant to feel about him, but this was always going to be a problem with the Heresy series; you know that the Primarchs, for the most part, live until the Battle of the Palace, so there’s no tension. For example, Curze lures Robby and the Lion into a trap, and blows up the building they’re in, and all the Ultramarines and DA’s are like “Oh no, our Primarchs are dead!”, but the whole thing lacks any kind of real shock value, because we (and by “we”, I mean readers familiar with the whole HH storyline) know they can’t be dead. Going back to Curze, any story he’s in requires him to be invulnerable, even in situations where it’s ridiculous, because he has to survive until he can be killed by M’Shen, years after the Heresy.
And on the subject of survival, and Primarch death, Vulkan. Good gosh, Vulkan. You know what the problem of having a character who can come back from the dead is? To show them using that power, obviously they need to die, usually repeatedly, to show that they can come from the dead. The thing is, if you show that character dying a lot, if tends to put them in a kind of bad light, i.e. it’s a good thing they can resurrect, because by God they’re fragile and/or incompetent! Vulkan dies five times in this book; he’s stabbed by Curze, has his back broken by a long fall, he’s turned into strawberry jam by shuriken pistols, he’s headshotted by Narek, and finally he’s stabbed by John with the fulgurite spear, which (maybe?) kills him for good, and apart from that final death, none of those seem “special” enough to kill a Primarch; at least Ferrus had to be decapitated with a daemon sword carried by another Primarch.
Oh, what else? The whole Cabal thing is starting to wear a little thin, I feel. I mean, I love the concept, but I think I’d want to see a separate series of novels with John, Oll, Damon, and all those wacky aliens, rather than shoehorning them in around the Marines. We also get Eldrad in this book, going against the Cabal’s plan and trying to recruit John. Obviously we’ve got more to see from the Cabal and the Perpetuals; John’s a great character, but I haven’t made up my mind about Damon.
There’s also a magical portal that only works if you believe really hard. Umm… cool?
Naturally, there’s lots of nice references and Easter eggs in the book; Guilliman comments that he’d hate to be stuck in a stasis field (hello foreshadowing!), a comment’s made that a farmer won’t play any role of importance in the Heresy (hello Oll!), and the name of the coffin that the (presumably) dead Vulkan ends up in is very significant to people familiar with the Nine Artefacts…
Would I recommend Unremembered Empire? Absolutely. But should you do your homework before you read it? Well, it wouldn’t hurt. Hopefully there’ll be a few more books expanding on the Imperium Secundus; we’ll have to wait and see.