In the wake of Black Library switching and changing the printing schedules and formats of its flagship Horus Heresy series back in late 2012, I fell off with the series in early 2013. Where before I read the publisher’s novels pretty much as soon as they were released or just prior, months went by before I read anything, and this applied more so to Horus Heresy since I preferred to wait for the regular paperback editions. As such, I am significantly behind in my reading, though the experience of catching up has been fairly delightful thus far, especially with their various audio dramas. I got back on track back in May with Nick Kyme’s Vulkan Lives, and that reignited my interest in the series, though I haven’t been able to read another Heresy novel until just a few days prior.
Mark of Calth is the twenty-fifth novel in the series and to read this one, there isn’t a lot that someone needs to have read already, which is great really. The anthology kicks off from Dan Abnett’s fairly amazing Know No Fear from 2012 and it expands upon a lot of the minor arcs in that novel, as well as setting the stage for more future stories. Guy Haley, David Annandale, Graham McNeill and Anthony Reynolds deliver some really good stories, with lots of action packed in, while the stories by Aaron Dembski-Bowden, Dan Abnett, Rob Sanders and John French are good but do miss the mark in some ways.
The first story in this anthology is by Guy Haley, Shards of Erebus. Guy is a relative newcomer to writing for Black Library, having published his stories only in like the last year, year-and-a-half or so, but in that short frame of time he has already shown that he is right up there with the best of them. In this short story he tackles the Word Bearers for the first time and specifically, he deals with characters like Erebus and Kor Phaeron, two of the biggest characters in the Horus Heresy series.
The story deals with Erebus as he learns myriad forms of warp-sorcery under the tutelage of the Davinite priestess who (kind of) killed him back in False Gods to allow Horus to have his out-of-body-near-death experience that would see him fall to Chaos. Guy weaves together the narrative of Erebus’ warp-studies and the fruits of his labours as he prepares for the Word Bearers’ massive invasion of Calth, and it proves to be a tightly-plotted story about one of the most hated characters of the era, as far as readers go. Indeed, he is a character that I love to hate, like a few others from the various Traitor Legions.
Given how major a character Erebus is, getting a story focused on him and his various manipulations of the people around him is something that proves to be very compelling. You don’t get to see so much of a focus on him anymore, and this story is a great vehicle for him.
Of course, he isn’t the only major character here, for there are other Word Bearers of note in the story, and seeing him interact with all of them is also an eye-opener. Especially when Kor Phaeron pretty much confirms that while Erebus was once his student, he is on his own path now and Kor Phaeron has no real hold on the First Chaplain anymore. The story ultimately sets the stage for some of the events of Know No Fear and even for some of the later stories in this anthology, so in that respect as well it proves to be a fairly good one.
The second story here is Graham McNeill’s novella Calth That Was. First of all, what is nice here is that editor Laurie Goulding mixed up the lengths of the stories and gave us a novella here instead of the as-expected short story. More so given the publisher’s current taste of releasing Horus Heresy novellas individually in shiny packages that will not get reprinted for at least 2 years. And it also helps that Calth That Was is packed full of awesome action and some great characterisation as well.
The story here picks up from where Know No Fear left off and we find ourselves down in the trenches with Fourth Captain Remus Ventanus as he leads a combined force of Ultramarines, Mechanicus and Imperial Army against Word Bearer remnants on Calth. In this story, several months (possibly a few years as well?) have passed since Calth became a wasteland thanks to the Word Bearers’ treachery and time has allowed the Ultramarines and their leaders to regroup and fight back against the invaders. The Word Bearers have begun to take severe casualties and their number of victories are beginning to shrink in the face of the Ultramarines’ victories.
Remus Ventanus particularly has emerged as a hero of the Underworld War and part of the narrative focuses on that aspect of his personality. As a loyalist Ultramarine who believes fully in his Primarch and the Emperor, he does not like the connotations of the epithet given to him, Saviour of Calth, for it has religious connotations, but he does accept it out of necessity. There’s even a great short scene in the middle of the novella when he discusses this with a fellow Ultramarine officer that is worth reading.
The story is larger than just a single battle against the Word Bearers however, and it provides some interesting details on how the Ultramarines reorganised themselves following the death of Calth and how the Word Bearers were ultimately defeated. That, more than anything else, is the true value of this novella, for we know very little of the seven long years that the Ultramarines spent trapped on Calth as the Underworld War raged on and their later reentry into Heresy proper.
There are a few things here and there in the novella where I felt that Graham gave in to some inner bias with regards to the Ultramarines and he built them, and specifically Remus, as infallible, not to mention that this novella is as packed with gratuitous exaggerated vocabulary as some of his other recent work, so it wasn’t as grand an experience as I preferred. But that’s fine. The story was still pretty darn good, especially towards the end, when it lays the groundwork for some more stories and connects to bits of established lore.
The third story here is Dark Heart by Anthony Reynolds and this one is undoubtedly my favourite here. Anthony has a long history with Black Library and his Word Bearers trilogy featuring the Dark Apostle Marduk is among some of my favourite Warhammer 40,000 works. In this story we get to see some of the origins of Marduk before he ever became a Dark Apostle, from his days as an acolyte to the legion’s senior cadre of sorcerers and officers. The short story is one that I’d read last year itself since it was released as an individual story and I liked it as much now as I did it then.
Dark Heart is set during the events of Know No Fear, just before the big climax between Guilliman and Kor Phaeron, and it helps cast a light on both Marduk and Kor Phaeron. It gives us an understanding of both characters, especially their motivations for the things they do and believe in, which is pretty important since they haven’t been featured all that much until now.
There is some good action in the short story, yes, but there is also a lot of nice character-building, so I enjoyed this story quite a bit. Moreover, it is nice to see Anthony writing more for the series and for Black Library in general. His Word Bearers are really good, most of all.
Next up is The Traveller by another relative newcomer, David Annandale. David for me is one of Black Library’s best among the new authors that have joined in the last 2-3 years, and he has always been quite impressive. With The Traveller he kind of experiments with a new style of story than he has written before and it kind of works, but the specific device he uses didn’t work out all that well for me.
But, I’ll have to say that getting a grunt-level look at the Underworld War, specifically with the mortals of the Imperial Army and others, that was an eye-opener indeed. Too often the Heresy stories deal with the Legions and others of the same caliber, so the grunts of the Imperial Army often get sidelined. Not so with this story, and in fact it ties in to one of the key events of Know No Fear, helping to explain part of the opening events of the invasion itself.
Given that the Word Bearers are pretty much daemon-worshippers at this point and that the Underworld War lasted for nearly seven years, it stands to reason that there would have been some daemon-oriented shenanigans in Calth’s underground tunnels and arcologies. David certainly builds up the atmosphere and dread really well, so he passes on that note.
Then we have Rob Sanders’ A Deeper Darkness, another Ultramarine-centric tale that focuses on some aforementioned daemon-shenanigans in Calth’s underground. This story is told in first-person, and that was one of the reasons why I didn’t connect with the characters and the story so much. Rob Sanders is one who always explores with different styles of storytelling in his work, and my reaction to them has always been 50-50 between good and bad. I loved what he did in Legion of the Damned but Atlas Infernal was a bore for me.
In A Deeper Darkness we follow an Ultramarine officer as he hunts down a rogue Word Bearer officer and his men, the animosity between them being at an almost nemesis level. The way that Rob gets into the Ultramarine’s mind and builds up the dread and horror of what happens in the second half is really brilliant, but it also opens up the way to the reader getting exposed to too much. And Hylias Pelion wasn’t all that interesting a character for me either. The story is very… cerebral, and so is the protagonist himself.
Towards the end, the story gets really good however, especially once it becomes apparent what kind of a mythic monster Rob has based his daemonic monstrosity on, and the ending is very bittersweet indeed. Some of the repetition that Rob uses also helps there in the end, bringing the story kind of full circle from where it started, and it is even a commentary on how the Horus Heresy has already changed the Imperium and how it will change it even more in the years to come.
The sixth story here is Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s The Underworld War. There is a bait-and-switch of sorts in this story, one that doesn’t become apparent until right at the end, and I liked that twist. It was certainly more interesting than almost half the story really, because the focus on Jerudai Kaurtal dragged the story on and on for me. The sections that focused on Kaurtal’s past and his ascension into the ranks of the Gal Vorbak, the daemon-possessed warriors of the Word Bearers, were much more interesting because they provided a tantalising glimpse into how Argel Tal changed after his own possession, in the pages of The First Heretic, and how the Crimson Lord went on to found the Gal Vorbak brotherhood and what the process itself was like.
As with Rob’s work, Aaron’s stories are also often 50-50 for me, and The Underworld War falls somewhere in the middle of two extremes for me, as it turns out. One half of the story is really good, the other not so much and largely because of the entire setup of the bait-and-switch. In the end, it proves to be a most interesting story, but the start is somewhat laborious and the middle is dragged out, without anything unique to recommend it. Still, worth a read for sure.
The penultimate story is Athame by John French, and is one of the weirdest stories here, and also one of the most interesting ones for the fact. It started off in a really confusing way, with a scene set in Terra’s distant past and it gradually moved forwards until we got to the events of Know No Fear, specifically the ending as it related to one surprising character to be found at the end of that novel.
In a way, Athame is John French’s Horus Heresy version of the story of the One Ring from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings epic. There are numerous differences of course, but the core is the same. And that is what I had an issue with, because most of the story, well it didn’t really connect with me. Almost until the first half of the story is over, it is boring and uninspiring because it deals with events that are really separate from what is happening in the series entire. I kept waiting for the twist that would connect it to the other stories in this anthology and that didn’t happen until all the way till the end, and by then, it was a bit too late.
For me, I don’t really see how the story had much to contribute other than to just build-up a completely new mythology for something that didn’t exist prior to Know No Fear and I say that in reference to the character who features at the end. Perhaps this is all going to be integral to how the finale of the Heresy plays out between the Emperor and Horus, so if yes, that is a long game indeed, far too long for me to be fully invested in.
The final story here is by Dan Abnett, Unmarked. This story deals with Oll Persson, aka Ollanius Persson, aka Ollanius the Pious. Ollanius in Heresy lore is credited with being the man who attacked Horus during the Primarch’s final confrontation with the Emperor and for causing a chink in his armour so that the Emperor could defeat him. In Know No Fear, Dan Abnett introduced Oll as a Perpetual, an immortal who has gone through the millennia and has experienced much in his life. Specifically, Ollanius was one of the men who went along with the ancient Greek hero Iason to retrieve the Golden Fleece from… Colchis (not sure if I remember the myth properly here). It was kind of interesting what Dan Abnett and in this story he carries on from there.
Indeed, Unmarked is a continuation of both Calth That Was and Athame as well, and it tells the story of Ollanius’ flight from Calth at the end of Know No Fear and how he and his band of… friends are hunted by a daemon named M’kar. As with Rob’s story, Unmarked too is rather cerebral and is quite a different story to all the rest in the anthology. Dan, more than any other author writing for Black Library, has experimented with various writing styles and this new story is pretty much a continuation of his experiments from Know No Fear.
I kind of liked the story. Oll is a character I want to know more about, especially his Greek origins, so the story had some interest for me, but I was still left wondering just what was going on here. It doesn’t expand on the story of Calth and has nothing to do with ongoing events there. It is a separate story on its own, much as James Swallow’s various Garro stories are, but much more… removed from the rest of the Heresy.
Time will tell how this all plays out, but at the moment, I’m not really all that sure this was a necessary addition to this particular anthology. It is written well-enough in the typical Dan Abnett way, but it doesn’t seem to have a lot of weight as yet, especially in its ties to Athame and what it all means for the finale between the Emperor and Horus.
Looking at it objectively, and that this is Laurie’s first edited anthology, there is a good mix of stories here. The writers are all of a high caliber and among the best the publisher has to offer, so good job there. Some stories worked for me, some didn’t, and I’m definitely interested to hear what you all have to say about this.
Overall Rating: 7.5/10
More Horus Heresy: Angel Exerminatus, Butcher’s Nails, Fear To Tread,Garro: Burden of Duty, Garro: Oath of Moment and Garro: Legion of One, Grey Angel, Know No Fear, Promethean Sun, Shadows of Treachery, The Outcast Dead, The Primarchs, The Raven’s Flight, Thief of Revelations, Vulkan Lives.