Reviewing this book is tricky.
Avenging Son is a book with enormous pressure and responsibility for the future of Warhammer 40,000 fiction and that requires a slightly different review than what we would normally post for a Black Library book.
We kind of need to split this thing into 3 sections: A wider perspective on the current lore of 40k before the book, Black Library’s place in it, and then look at some previous works that might point us to where this might all end up. At some point – probably in the middle – we will actually review the book. As I type this I can already hear the editing team of the site cursing my name and, as always dear reader, that is a very good thing. (Editor’s Note: Curse you, Coda!)
If you are looking for a short answer to the question of “should I buy this book?,” then my answer is an emphatic “Yes.”
It’s a very good book. The first third can be a little bit of struggle as it feels the weight of the task it is burdened with, but the final two thirds? Fantastic. A must buy. If you have any reservations of this being the sequel series that the Horus Heresy deserves, then let me tell you that if Haley and Kyme continue to build what they have here, everything is going to be more than OK.
If you want more information before picking this up, then welcome to the deep dive. SPOILER WARNING: This is a pretty spoiler-ery review so read on at your own peril.
Returning to Indomitus
When it was announced in the big 9th ed preview, Avenging Son is a book that initially had me asking “why does this exist?”
Pitched as the start of a new series that similar to the Horus Heresy that would kick off at the start of the Indominus era, the book struck me as something that wasn’t really needed. With previous Black Library books, the 8th and 9th edition rulebooks, Psychic Awakening, etc. we had a really good picture of where the Imperium was in this new era.
More importantly, I thought Haley’s own Dark Imperium books set the scene adequately from a Black Library perspective. We had a good story thread to follow with Guilliman, Felix and friends. We also had Wright’s Watchers of the Throne series, Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s Spear of the Emperor and Haley’s own Dante and Crawl books. We already had a foundation, so why were we going back, yet again, to the start? Surely the third Dark Imperium book, with Roboute immersing himself in Logar’s Lectitio Divinitatus would be the ideal launch point for the series? I know I was itching to find out the fall out of that, along with the various hints in the lore of a massive splintering of the Imperium.
Instead, we were shunted back to the starting line. This wasn’t an entirely Black Library problem. After the initial leap with the 8th ed lore, my heart sank when 9th immediately held itself, yet again, to the start of the Crusade. It felt like we were at the start of a car race and when the starting lights went out, instead of launching the car forward, we were stuck doing the ‘sickest of burnouts.’ Burnouts are showy things and are pretty fun to watch. However they all end in two ways: A cloud of smoke and burst tires (oh and sometimes fire). After watching one you kind of have the full idea of what a burnout entails. Trust me that from personal experience the only way to watch say, 4 or 5 in a row, is to be ‘out of your mind drunk.’
That was what at least felt like to me – pushing everything back to the start of the Indomitus Crusade was the new ‘10 seconds to midnight’ era of 40k that ran from the mid 90s to 2017 before 8th edition finally pushed things forward. Are we doomed to have this be the de facto status quo for the next two decades? I cursed the fact that GW missed the golden opportunity to advance the lore meaningfully and incrementally again.
During the lead-up to 9th edition’s release these thoughts knocked around my head. Fresh off reading the insanely good Saturnine and Bloodlines, I initially went into the book with somewhat lowered expectations, viewing it as having to eat some vegetables before getting to the gravy-covered bit of chicken that the rest of the series promised.
The Book Itself
Again, Beware: Here Be Spoilers
With that in mind, let’s talk about Avenging Son. As a stand alone it’s a solid book; as the start of a series it initially struggles with the weight placed on it before finding its stride in the back two thirds. Set at the end of the Battle for Terra, Avenging Son shows the Imperium caught at a critical moment in its future, detailing the start of Roboute’s new regime, the reveal of the Primaris project, a dive into the insane horror that is ‘normal’ bureaucratic life in the Imperium and the initial strike of the Crusade.
At its heart, this book is a setup novel for what Black Library has planned as the next “Horus Heresy”-style series and the weight of this task chokes it a little. Coming off Abnett’s sublime Sautrine and finding ourselves back on Terra, yet again under siege is jarring and played into the déjà vu vibe that I initially had going into the book. The opening battle itself is more than serviceable but didn’t hit as hard as some of Saturnine’s similar moments. Messinius’s defence is simply not on the same level of something like Diaz’s last stand. However this is OK – there isn’t much out there that can really touch that moment and Avenging Son’s opening fight doesn’t have benefit of books of character development behind it. It is however more than serviceable in it’s mission to setup the rest of the book. But again feel like a bit of an echo at times, enhancing the feeling that we were still doing that burnout at start line I talked about before.
Similarly reinforcing this feeling is a cheeky line of “I was there, I was there the day the Imperium died,” invoking the similar line of “I was there, I was there the day Horus slew the Emperor” line from the start of the Hersey series. I’m not going to lie here, when I read that line I’m pretty sure my eyes rolled so fast that broke several landspeed records. However what Haley does with the expectations created by coupling this line and battle to the Heresy series is sublime and genuinely ended up being one of my favorite moments of the book. With newly appointed historian Fabian delivering Guilliman a history of the Horus Heresy based on the works of Kyril Sindermann and a series of romance novels that opens with the in-universe line of “I was there the day the Emperor slew Horus” was genius and I wish that moment was placed much earlier in the book as it kind of made the “why are we still here?” concerns evaporate.
There is a lot of set up going on here and it’s not really until Crawl unravels the Primaris project that the book finally hits its stride. Once it does start moving, Avenging Son draws you in and demands your attention. The new characters of Vitrian Messinius, Eloise Athagey, Ferren, and Logos Historica Verita all rather excellent (as are a host of others), and hopefully will provide key insight into the workings of new Imperium as time goes on.
Ferren’s perspective is an interesting one, providing insight into what it means to be a freshly awoken Primaris Astartes. Kidnapped, displaced, gene altered and heavily psycho-indoctrinated, his first steps into this new world are a great viewpoint. Ferren’s post awakening ‘fog’ slowly lifting into him fully realising the horror of his new existence was a great moment that I really hope Haley capitalises on in the future novels. With a bit of luck, we might even see how a new space marine chapter is formed around Ferren and Messinius’ leadership.
The other outstanding fact that Haley absolutely nails in this book is that the Imperium, despite everything – the return of Guilliman, the many victories he wins, the reforms he enacts, the revealing of the insanely well resourced and vast Primaris project – is still doomed to die under the weight of its terrifying brutality, bureaucracy, and intolerance of free thought. The very act of Guilliman creating new more agile institutions like the Logos Historica Verita and Officio Logisticarum, while essential to getting Indominus moving and saving the Imperium, has created friction and a massive brain drain effect on the institutions that it drew its members from, setting the stage for further friction in the Imperium and future disaster. While this plotline about Imperial bureaucracy sounds dry, Haley shows very well the horror of the Imperial institutional complex though eyes of a low level Scribum, Nawra Nison.
Nison’s chapters elevate the book from being merely ‘good’ to ‘excellent’, showing the reader first-hand the value of human life in the Imperium, how it works behind the scenes and how insanely grimdark the current 40k lore is. Her struggle to deliver a warning about an impending disaster to someone that can actually do something about it weaves its way through the entire novel and in a normal book, would have been something that resulted in a ‘good’ ending. The fact that she risks so much to get her message to the one personal that actually gives a shit and would do something about it, only to find that Guilliman has already recruited him and sent him away, dooming the missive to be unheard was insanely 40k. To further drive this home, it’s not just Nison that had this mission, with hundreds of similarly burdened scribes and officio members delivering the exact same warning to the same vacant desk was a massive gut punch that landed perfectly.
Getting back to the the core conflict in the book: The final battle is thwarting Abaddon’s attempt to isolate Terra. This requires the destruction of a massive installation made of blackstone that will amplify the great rift and turn it towards terra. Guilliman needs to destroy these to open up the warp lanes so the Crusade can flow out of Terra and into the wider imperium. Haley does a good job here crafting a wicked void and land battle during this “destroy the super threat”-style plot. During this battle Haley really lets fly with his ability to go into detail, gleefully describing the horrors of the chaos fleet and the forces arrayed against the protagonists. This plot point is a good one, tie-ing the blackstone, Chaos and potentially the Necron threat plot threads all together in a neat bow for future novels.
At the start of Avenging Son I was wondering why the book existed and by the end of it I couldn’t put it down. Haley also teases future threats, namely the Nephillim in Nison’s missive and Abaddon’s mortal servants, the “Hand of Abaddon” being setup as villains for the book’s arcs going forward. There is also a effort to tie in the other books from the same era, with Wright’s Watchers of the Throne series characters name checked a few times and an appendix at the end of book laying out information on Warp Gates, the Crusade Fleets and the new Logisticarum. Haley is really setting the stage here for something big and I hope we getting to see what happens when curtain drops soon.
Taking a Wider View
Alright so that’s the book review out of the way. Let’s look at the book with a wider lens. We know that this is the first in a new Horus Heresy style series, with Haley and Kyme taking on a hell of burden of helming the follow up. It has a lot in common with its predecessor, collecting many authors’ efforts into a cohesive, linked storyline with deliberate arcs. It’s also coupled to the main GW studio, tying itself to Black Library writers.
However this is a little bit different from the Horus Heresy. We don’t necessarily know the ending of this series (apart from some things we know from Dark Imperium), nor who will be important. The future is well and truly open. Therefore I think we need to step out of the 40k universe when think about this new series. We need to look at a similar property that attempted something on the same scale with the same freedom.
So let’s talk about the Star Wars Expanded Universe (EU) for a moment. Namely the Del-Ray era New Jedi Order series.
OK, it’s 1991. The USSR falls, the Gulf War is fought and Bantam Spectra drops Timothy Zahn’s Heir To The Empire, the first Star Wars book detailing events after Return of the Jedi. Each subsequent year saw the release of one more book, finishing up as a trilogy with The Last Command. These books are massive. The fans love them and the books explode in popularity, causing a massive revitalisation in Star Wars fiction. To bring this back to 40k, Zahn is Star Wars’ Abnett and the Heir trilogy is its Gaunt’s Ghosts/Eisenhorn. Zahn’s books still hold up well to this day and until the Disney buy-out of Lucasflim were considered to be the de facto sequel trilogy, setting up concepts like Coruscant being the capital of the galaxy (which would later be used in the special edition re-release of Return of the Jedi and more heavily in the movie prequel trilogy) and mining the West End Games books for technical information and things like the hyperspace-blocking Interdictor Cruisers.
Zahn’s books spawned an explosion of written work; using them as a basis the universe was fleshed out, spanning the 21-year period following the end of Return of the Jedi through a terrifying number of books. Through this, some attempts at continuity were attempted and authors like Zahn, Stackpole, and Allston regularly used each others’ characters and plot points to make the galaxy seem like a living, breathing thing. Not every all of these books were good: For every well written book like Heir, Bacta War and Starfighters of Adumar there where well… to put it politely, there were some decidedly less cool and good novels in the mix.
Also of note here is that a lot of the authors for the Bantam Spectra books came from RPG backgrounds, with a few working on West End Games’ Star Wars RPG. Troy Denning, Michael A. Stackpole, and Aaron Allston all fit this mould.
The reason why I’m taking this brief detour is that it should sound pretty similar. A lot of Black Library’s author stable cut their teeth on RPGs. And while not all of the Black Library books are linked, authors will on occasion mention other authors’ characters or reference key events from other books. We have books set before Indomitus that directly and heavily influence it. Books like Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s Black Legion series, Chris Wright’s Watchers of the Throne and potentially Dan Abnett’s Pariah trilogy all could have massive impacts on the arc. While Black Library has done similar things with the Horus Heresy and the Beast Arises series they are also a little different, with many authors getting together and writing a common arc are (mostly) the exception to the rule. So how in god’s name does Star Wars fiction relate to Indomitus?
There was a perceived problem with the Star Wars books: Characters led insane and at times disjointed lives, with the main trio from the movies more less being the focus of each book, such that plots would become “what super weapon do Luke/Leia/Han destroy this week”. With Lucasfilm still having ultimate sign off, readers knew that the main movie characters were effectively invulnerable. Additionally plots were dropped or picked up by authors at a whim. This lead to a shitload of continuity errors that fans, being fans, would dedicate a lot of time to fixing or pointing out.
In 1999 Random House switched publication of the Star Wars books to its Del Ray imprint and embarked in a project that they had never attempted before. They would set out to produce a large series of novels with a common arc that would progress a massive shared plot with many authors. There would be a core team of writers and editors keeping track of the plot, continuity while simultaneously letting the story develop organically. They would also be an attempt to have the “Big 3” pass the torch to a new wave of characters. There would also be a tonal change, with the series taking on a darker tone with a feeling that ‘anyone could die at anytime’. They called this project The New Jedi Order (NJO).
The NJO was a vast undertaking that consisted of a 19-book arc detailing the invasion of aliens that came from outside the galaxy and were immune to and disconnected from the force. The first book had a marketing campaign with mass market TV ads narrated by Mark Hamill and R.A Salvadore opened the series by killing Chewbacca by throwing a moon at him. Everything that the readers knew about Star Wars was turned on its head. No one knew what could happen or would happen in the series. The books where darker in content, going for a more edgy early 2000s vibe and this, coupled with the fact that the heroes frequently lost, was a real change. When I first saw the description for the Indomitus series, I instantly thought of NJO. Hell the cover looked eerily similar to those of some of the Star Wars books that came out in 1991.
I won’t say if I think NJO was a good or a bad thing; it’s been the better part of 15 years since I read it and times change. However as a 10 year-old kid that rapidly read every bit of Star Wars fiction in front of him and was just getting into much grimmer and darker 40k universe at that time, NJO was exciting as hell. You could even say by the end of the series that it delivered on its promise. The galaxy was changed on the same level as the end of Return of the Jedi, the big three main characters more or less retired to lives of peace and the new characters had time to become interesting, fleshed-out people. The barn doors where well and truly opened. While there was some interference from Lucasfilm about who could and couldn’t die, it did at least seem as the authors and editors were free to deliver on their intended story arcs.
What came next was tragic. NJO showed that this shared arc storytelling worked and Del Ray continued it. However with each successive arc, the new characters were slowly killed off, with the big 3 still timelessly invincible to any threat. Authors actively retconned each other’s work and there seemed to be a lot of egos at play. This hit it’s peak with the Legacy of the Force series, consisting of nine-books, with Troy Denning, Aaron Allston and Karen Traviss each writing 3 each, cycling from author to author. The jumps from Denning’s to Traviss’ characterizations of the characters that we followed for the better part of 40+ books were jarring, with Allston doing his best to right the sinking ship. By the time the Disney deal was done and the Zahn EU era had been put aside as Star Wars Legends, there wasn’t much of the NJO galaxy left; the focus had once again forced back to Luke, Leia and Han.
The reason why I bring up all of this about the NJO in relation to Indomintus is because of the alarming number of parallels. We have authors playing in a established universe attempting to make a massive combined story arc with an almost totally open end. Other than the lore the studio produces (and, for now, the imperviousness of Cawl and Guilliman), there’s no set tale that has to be told like the Horus Heresy. So when I look at Avenging Son in a wider context with a view to the future I do find myself a little worried. Are we going to end up being too focused on Indomitus killing the potential for less metaplot-driving stories like Spear of Emperor, effectively shrinking the universe down to the people in Roboute Guilliman’s direct orbit? Will the design studio’s release pace or unknowing interference cause issues? Will we end up with a bizarre two-tier system, with the ‘mainline’ books being Indomitus-related and then the rest of the 40k books being sidelined? Is it going to whiff on its promise like the Beast Arises series? I honestly don’t know the answers to these.
What gives me hope that Indomitus will avoid the same pitfalls of Del Ray’s Star Wars is honestly one person: Nick Kyme. Any editor who can tame the behemoth that is the Horus Heresy can pretty much do anything in my mind. With authors on hand like ADB, French, Wright, Haley and Abnett, I believe that the future can be very bright. So to finish up this long rambling article, my hat’s off to Guy Haley and Nick Kyme. Avenging Son is a total success and I cannot wait to see what comes next.
Avenging Son is a very good book. The first third is a bit of a struggle but once it finds its rhythm, it’s a fantastic work that’s a must-buy and sets the stage well for the Black Library’s new foray into a large fiction series set in the 40k universe.
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