The End and the Death (of End and the Death Reviews)

This review will contain spoilers for the End and the Death, but they will be spoiler-tagged.

So here we are.

It’s been almost 18 years since Horus Rising introduced us to Garviel Loken, his heroic-but-doomed dad, and his brothers-in-arms.  It’s been almost 18 years since Loken first told us about how he was there, the day Horus killed the Emperor.  Like Loken’s brothers, we chuckled at the sheer treason of the conceit, especially when Dan Abnett pulled back his lens to reveal the conjurer’s trick he’d played on us.  The Horus we met back in Horus Rising was a noble man, an honorable man, a man trying to do his best in impossible circumstances.  The Greek-tragedy structure of the Heresy illuminated the flaws in his soul, flaws that would bring the Imperium crashing down, but in Horus Rising we saw a glimpse of the Horus that could have been.

We glimpsed, too, a series that could have been: tight, economical, spinning myth onto the page and setting forth the secret origins of the Dark Millennium.  Eighteen years later, the Horus Heresy series (and the Siege that followed it) has bloated like its namesake, swollen with power, drunk on possibility, seeking to draw everything into its embrace because it simply could not imagine the word “enough.”  The series has sprawled, and not to its benefit, but it’s fitting that as we reach the bloody denouement we are once again in Abnett’s hands.  He started this whole mess, and despite his penchant for unsatisfying endings, he’s earned the right to finish it.

I’m not going to try to review The End And The Death 3 as a standalone book; my friend and colleague Lenoon has already done that, and nothing I write could improve what he’s already done.  You should check out his reviews of parts I, II and III as well.

Abnett has said repeatedly, in interviews and in the length afterword that accompanies this book, that TEATD is not three novels, but one in three parts.  That may seem like a semantic distinction at best, but with all three parts in our hands, I think it’s actually just an honest way of describing the book.  It’s not just that TEATD’s plot plays out over three books; it’s that there are themes, character arcs, and elements of mood and tone that don’t snap into focus until you’ve digested the whole volume.  It really is one book, albeit a bloody long one, and so I’m going to try to review it as such here.

Of course, a book this big, with this much riding on it, can’t be reviewed from just one perspective.  Abnett readily admits in his Afterword the impossible task before him.  He had to write a book that stood on its own as an entertaining novel; he had to write a conclusion to the massive Horus Heresy/Siege of Terra project that satisfied; he had to write a legend that fit into the larger Warhammer universe; and he had to do all this while hitting specific plot and character points that every Warhammer fan has known for longer than the Heresy series has been running.

Everyone knows that the Emperor teleports up to Horus’s flagship in a last desperate ploy.  Everyone knows that Sanguinius gets there first, challenges his brother, and is slain by him.  Everyone knows that the Emperor arrives on the scene, engages Horus in single combat, and annihilates him.  Everyone knows that the effort of doing this leaves the Emperor on the brink of death, such that his loyal followers have no choice but to install him in the Golden Throne.  No spoiler tags here – you know these things, but you are reading anyways, to find out how they happen.  That’s the task Abnett had set before him: to tell you a story that you already knew, and to make it seem both fresh enough to entertain but familiar enough to satisfy.  Too much of the former, and he’d just be dictating a future Lexicanum entry; too much of the latter, and it wouldn’t feel like the Heresy at all.

So how’d he do?

The End and the Death: Reviewed As a Novel

What Works and What Doesn’t

First, we can discuss the book in the simplest and, perhaps, purest way.  Abnett’s prose and dialogue are, as ever, among the best Black Library has to offer, and this book shows his mastery of perspective as well.  Malcador segments feel different from Death Guard segments feel different from Basilio Fo segments, and the second-person Horus perspectives really work to get into the head of the Arch-Traitor.

Abnett is in full literary mode here, with quotes and references both acknowledged and unacknowledged to Sartre, Tennyson, Shelley, and of course Eliot, who has shown up over and again.  (What is The Waste Land but a nightmare vision of the world of 40k?).  Sometimes, these digressions and epitaphs feel a little like Abnett is trying his best to be ~literary~, but there are more hits than misses, and they really add to the poetic quality of the book.  This book is not just epic but an epic, lived out in real time by its heroes and villains alike.

Use of language aside, the book has its flaws.  From a pacing perspective The End and the Death is inconsistent, with a sense of draggy repetition that builds to a muddled middle before clearing out at the end.  The book effectively takes place during a single day – Horus’s Day of Days, his day of victory and ascension – but it doesn’t even really do that, instead wallowing in a single, endlessly refracted moment of bloodshed and horror.  Time has stopped, not just literally, but metaphorically, too: once the Emperor has teleported aboard the Vengeful Spirit, very little anyone else does matters.  Threads gradually converge in the fractured warp-vortex that was once a ship, but until they do, those threads seem to meander, taking detours through scenery alternatingly blasted and baroque that seem to add little except a sense of oppressive, suffocating despair.

That’s the point of these sequences, though, so I can’t say they’re a total failure.  One thing that the End and the Death does very well is to convey the sense of total, final catastrophe that has engulfed the human species and its homeworld.  Hope has been crushed out on all sides: the loyalists know that they are doomed, and the traitors have realized that they will never get what they wanted.  The utter nihilism that pervades both sides comes across well in the Fragments sections interspersed through the book.  The Emperor fighting Horus means something, maybe.  None of these other fights mean anything.

And yet there are so many of them.  This is, to some extent, a mandate forced on Abnett by the sheer size of the Heresy.  There are dozens of character arcs to conclude here, and dozens of people who are destined to either die in glory or live in shame.  They all get their moments, and most of them are well-earned, but the sheer volume of them clings like kudzu, turning a fairly lean plot that I summarized in four sentences above into a massive, 400,000+ word book.

As the story wears on, the Fragments begin to feel more and more intrusive, and the repeated cuts to individual Heroes On the Brink begin to strain.  There is only so much that we can really hear about some of these plots, knowing that they aren’t going to pay off here (if ever).  Some of these characters I quite like, and I’m glad to spend more time with them, but they use up all their screentime in the book working towards a goal they never achieve, or towards an end that was always inevitable.

This is where the editorial mandate becomes an issue.  There are dozens of characters who must die, and dozens who must live.  Resolving those threads takes time, and it also requires Abnett to invest energy into their individual struggles, so that their individual fates don’t simply feel like a box-checking exercise when they arrive.  The book groans under the pressure of tying off this many loose ends.  It also makes it harder to tell what really, actually matters: Is Basilio Fo’s weapon going to be finished?  We know that Fo doesn’t unleash a gene-phage that destroys all transhumans at once, so we read this thread knowing that it ultimately won’t disturb the outcome, but there’s so much ink spilled on it that it feels like it has to be going somewhere.

Some of these subplots do have satisfying payoffs, but given the sheer size of the book, the energy dedicated to them inevitably distracts from a clean, crisp resolution of the main plot.

With all that said, the final act is as propulsive and readable as I could have asked.  The battle between Horus and the Emperor really does live up to the expectation, and is one of the best action sequences in all of the Black Library.  The fight is complex and layered with emotion.  Each stroke and counterstroke, each ploy and feint, is not just exciting but satisfying, as the relationship between father and son plays itself out in real-time.  The decision to have so much of the fight from Horus’s perspective, and to keep that perspective second-person, is a ballsy one that I think works out.  Horus is powerful, but he is delusional, in the grip of a lie so complete that it has hollowed out his entire personality.  It’s never possible to know exactly what is “really happening” during the fight; Horus’s arrogance is so towering and the illusion that he lives in is so complete that just about the only thing we can be sure of is that he’s not describing it accurately.  But the impressionistic details he conveys are enough, especially combined with the occasional, brief other perspectives we get.

The book is able to carry forth strong themes, too, and does so with aplomb.  Foremost among these is the idea of control, especially self-control.  The Heresy is fundamentally the clash of a two men who thought that nothing was ever beyond them, and they are both proven wrong.  In the end, both men learn a lesson; it comes too late for one, and possibly for the other as well, but on the brink of total, irrevocable catastrophe, they manage to avoid the worst possible outcome.  The book is about hope, too, about what it’s for, and why it’s important, and what it can do.  It might be the most hopeful Horus Heresy book yet, which is deeply ironic.


A Problem Significant Enough To Get Its Own Heading

In the end, though, these themes are ill-served by the three-book structure.  The middle portion contains an extremely significant turning point for the Emperor, perhaps the first and only real form of character growth He’s had throughout the entire series.  Some spoilers here:


I’m going to get into the Dark King more in the next part, but fundamentally, the book is weakened by the resolution of the Dark King arc in the second part.  For one thing, the nature of the resolution is an incredible anticlimax: the Emperor is well on His way to becoming the Dark King, and then Ollanius shows up and says “Emperor, don’t become the Dark King!” and the Emperor says “you’re right, Ollanius, I won’t become the Dark King.”  Then he doesn’t, and basically nothing more is said of it.  This kind of resolution makes the setup feel cheaper, and it makes the reader feel stupid for caring, since it turned out that the Dark King plot was like Basilio Fo’s weapon – just another unloaded Chekhov’s Gun.

However, the Dark King plotline does serve a very important role: It is a moment of genuine personal growth by the Emperor.  Throughout the entire Heresy, the Emperor’s defining trait has been His towering, monstrous arrogance, His unwillingness to listen to other people or to try to understand them.  That trait has brought Him to the disaster of the Heresy, and it now leads Him to an even greater disaster: the rise of the Dark King and the extinction of the human species.  Finally, confronted by all the death and horror that His stubbornness has wrought, His oldest companion manages to break through to Him.  And the Emperor listens.

He listens, for once in His immortal life, and He accepts wise counsel.  He understands that there is something beyond His power to control, and He lets it go.  He averts ultimate doom.  That is not only satisfying, it adds a frisson of greater tragedy to the Heresy: had He survived, would the Emperor have learned from this experience?  Would He have changed His ways, become more open to advice, been willing to listen?  Maybe!  But we’ll never find out, because Horus robs us of that possible future, and all we are left with is the screaming corpse on the Golden Throne.

This is, in my opinion, an incredibly well-executed moment from both a plot and a character perspective, and it’s a shame that it comes two-thirds of the way through the book, in basically a single conversation in a field in the middle of nowhere.  I can see a version of this story where the Emperor confronts Horus, crowned with the power of the Dark King, and contemptuously bats him aside, only for Ollanius to show up in the Court and plead with his old friend not to lose everything.  The plot could resolve much the same way, but placing it at the climax of the book would make it the emotional climax as well.

The Finale, and Final Thoughts

Beyond that, I have no complaints about the Horus/Sanguinius fight, which is a nice little set piece and mini-climax that comes an appropriate 2/3 of the way through the book.  The brutality of the fight makes you shudder, as well it should.  This is the first real look we get at Horus the Great Despoiler, and he’s as vivid and terrifying as he should be.

The actual climax of the book plays out much as we’d expect, which is itself a little surprising, and it does feel a little abbreviated.  Just a little – but I would have liked to see more of Horus’s perspective at the end, as he realizes what has happened to him and what he has made happen.  It feels a bit rushed, and I think taking what is currently a split climax and combining it into one scene would have created a richer and more resonant emotional payoff.

As a novel, I think the pieces are all there for the End and the Death to be one of the Black Library greats – but they’re jumbled a bit, and some of them are in there twice.  I think it would be a stronger book if most of Part II were excised and the remainder shuffled into Parts I and III as appropriate.  I don’t know that Abnett could have gotten it down to single-novel size, but double-novel was definitely doable, and the book would have been better for it.

Blood Angels

The End and the Death: Reviewed as a Warhammer Novel

The Good, the Bad

I can’t just read The End and the Death as a sci-fi novel, though.  It fits into a meta-story: the Horus Heresy, and the Warhammer universe writ large.  And so we have to consider it on its merits there as well, as the final act of a great play launched almost two decades prior.  From that perspective, I think the End and the Death does many many things well, and one thing poorly, but the one thing it does poorly is something so important that I can’t help but linger on my criticism.

Starting with the good: This is our last look at many of these characters, and so it has to both pay off their stories and give them a proper sendoff.  There are lots of deaths here, but none of them feel cheap (even that really horrible one, which I will not discuss in detail).  They are earned: People die because this is a disaster, a disaster of disasters.  This is the defining calamity of a universe defined by calamity, a wound torn in the galaxy that will never, ever heal.

That said, there are characters here who shouldn’t be, and once again we can feel the editorial impulse at work.  Two in particular I think deserve some discussion: Abaddon and Sigismund.

These guys are rocks.  They are archetypes.  They define the setting of 40k: Abaddon by his presence, and Sigismund by his example, as perhaps the first recognizably “modern” Astartes.  Much of their plot arcs in the Horus Heresy have been about how they reached this point.  How did Sigismund, Dorn’s praetorian, become the crusading templar, the Black Sword-wielding fanatic who prefigured the hollow fanaticism of his 40k descendants?  How did Abaddon, the loyal Son of Horus, become the bitter exile who derided his dead father as a “fool?”

Saturnine shows Abaddon’s path: gradually abandoned by everyone he’s followed and robbed of the chance to build anything meaningful, he rejects even the notion of building a better Imperium, or the idea of glorifying Chaos.  He rejects everything except the notion of strength, of war as an endless crucible to test and refine himself forever and ever, with no purpose except the refining itself.  He does this in the basements of the Saturnine fault, as the Justaerin die around him, and by the time his Mechanicum supporters teleport him to safety, he has reached his final form.

Sigismund, too, reaches his apotheosis in Warhawk, fighting and killing Kharn.  He, too, has shed everything that was part of him except his ability to make war.  He fights forever because he has forgotten how to do anything else, how to be anything else.  The outer layers of him ablate off in the fire of the Heresy until all that remains is the scorched core of spite and fanaticism, and that core becomes the mold from which the modern Imperium’s warriors are forged.

So why are these guys still here?  Why are we hearing from them?  Their character development has stopped – they’ve reached their final, perfect states.  All that’s left is for them to perpetuate themselves.  They’re here because they were there, at the Siege, so we have to see them, even though it doesn’t matter, even though the plot doesn’t really require either of them to do anything of significance.  Abaddon has some good character moments at the end, but I would say that most of his content and almost all of Sigismund’s could have been cut without The End and the Death suffering for it.

But this is The Book, the Last Book, and so it has to be about everything.  So we get their stories, and Basilio Fo’s, and Euphrati Keeler’s, and Kyril Sindermann’s.  Some of these “matter” in the sense that their actions shape the ultimate outcome; most don’t.  I don’t think that’s necessarily a reason to exclude them, especially since the book does have to wrap up the Heresy, but I think characters whose story arcs had reached a full and satisfying conclusion linger here in a way that doesn’t really add to their portrayal.

…And the Ugly

All that brings me to the elephant in the room, though: the Dark King.

Big spoilers ahead.


I actually really, really like the idea of the Dark King.  As a concept, it makes perfect sense.  Why else would the Chaos Gods care so much about one tiny man, one tiny planet, one tiny species?  Sure, they feel cheated by the Emperor’s theft of divine fire, but that doesn’t seem to justify the immense risk they’re taking by investing so much energy and effort in Horus that the Cabal saw a chance to end their threat once and for all.

But the Dark King… that’s a real prize to be won.  Total conquest of the material universe, their numbers expanded by 25%, and the total subjugation of the human species.  It justifies the Chaos Gods’ effort, and what Erda calls the Emperor’s “unseemly haste.”  He does not have an eternity to perfect His armies, not when the powers of Chaos are gathering around humanity, looking for their champion.  And it makes sense that He would not tell His sons about Chaos, either, since that’s basically an invitation: “there are people out there who want to make you a god, but don’t do it, because it would be really bad for everyone else.”  A lot of otherwise baffling decisions by the Emperor make sense in the context of the Dark King.

There are two issues with the Dark King plotline, then: the fact that we’ve never heard of it before, and the fact that we never hear of it afterwards.

One promise of the Horus Heresy books has always been revelation: the True and Secret History, revealed at last.  Was the Lion a traitor?  What was Angron’s homeworld called?  Why did Leman Russ try to kill Magnus?  Some of these revelations are fascinating, and make the universe feel more textured and complete; others seem superfluous, and serve only to strip away mystery.  The Dark King does neither.  It’s so huge and so important that you know that it can’t matter, because if it did, we’d already know about it.

I don’t think that means the concept is inherently doomed – it can serve as a peek behind the curtain as to why the Chaos powers set all this in motion, even if the forces of humanity successfully thwart the Dark King’s ascension – but I do think that introducing something this significant, that recasts former events in light of new information, has to be done deliberately.

If the Dark King plotline was going to be in The End and the Death, it should have been the overarching plotline and source of drama.  Who will be the King?  Horus?  The Emperor?  Someone else?  What will the King do?  How will its rise be stopped, and at what cost?  These are genuinely interesting questions, but the book’s unwillingness to fully engage with the new mythology it’s spinning means that the answers come both too soon and too perfunctorily.

He Who Was Living Is Now Dead; We Who Were Living Are Now Dying

If the function of the Horus Heresy series is to tell the true and correct story of the Horus Heresy, the End and the Death does that, almost to a “T.”  After so many Expectations being Subverted, it’s kind of surprising how much the major plot beats in the book follow the ones we’ve all known for decades.  I can’t really bring myself to be disappointed here, but someone hoping for earth-shaking revelations (was it really Malcador on the throne all this time?) will be disappointed.

If the function of the Horus Heresy series is to explain how the 41st millennium got to be the way it is, I think the End and the Death is much more successful at that.  You can see it in the final chapters, even before the final blow is struck aboard the Vengeful Spirit: the future is pouring itself into a familiar mold, even as seeds of hope take root.  I particularly liked the two chapters at the beginning dealing with the exiled traitor primarchs.  Perturabo’s rage-filled, spiteful musing goes a long way to explaining his bitterness and the choice to become a daemon prince, and it even made me feel a bit sorry for him: the Emperor made a sword that was smart enough to know it was never meant to be more than a sword, but didn’t quite have the strength of character to try to become anything else.

The presence of these segments makes me wish for more like them.  I’d especially love to hear what the Daemon primarchs were up to when their patrons pulled the plug.  I dearly wish some of these characters could have been spotlighted instead of endless scenes of the Palace being collapsed into reality slurry, or battles between characters who both survive into the 41st millennium.  This is where the repetitive, draggy portions of the first two-thirds of the book extract their price.  Still, the End and the Death does seem a fitting capstone on the Horus Heresy.  Innocence is dead.  The Emperor has fallen.  The future beckons, and it is both grim and dark.

…With A Little Patience

As I mentioned above, the End and the Death is a surprisingly hopeful book.  The Emperor is trapped on the Golden Throne, but now we know He went there having learned, at long last and at terrible cost, one important lesson.  Maybe, if He ever gets up, He won’t make the same mistakes again.  And His humanity, His mercy and gentleness and so on, are out there.  They’re waiting to be recaptured.

Horus killed one vision of the future, and the one that replaced it was dark and miserable, but even if the Triumph of Ruin is inevitable, it can be put off inevitably as well.  The clock may be stuck at one minute to midnight, but heroism can hold it there forever.  And maybe even push it back a little bit.

So, Should I Read the End and the Death or Not?

Yes, you should.  You should read it because, where it’s good, it’s very good.  You should read it because you’ve come to care about these characters over 18 years, and you want to know what becomes of them.  You should read it because Games Workshop has done something astonishing here.  Not just Abnett, though he was a big part of it.  Games Workshop put their shoulder to the wheel and pushed for 18 years.  A lot of the Horus Heresy books are superfluous, or overwrought, or melodramatic, or just plain bad.  But the Horus Heresy, as a project, is as ambitious an effort as I’ve seen, and now it’s finished.  There will be more books – a Scouring series beckons – but there will never be another Horus Heresy novel.  At least not until they decide to remaster the whole thing.

Until next winter, my friends.

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions or comments feel free to drop us a note in the Comments below or email us at And if you want regular updates in your inbox, subscribe to our newsletter.