Black Library’s Horus Heresy series is a worldwide bestseller, and with good reason. Many of the novels and anthologies and audio dramas have ranged from good to stellar with very few bad apples in between. The series started off innocuously enough, but it has since then become the publisher’s flagship range, also with good reason. One of the first books in the series to come out, right alongside the excellent Deliverance Lost from Gav Thorpe, was Dan Abnett’s Know No Fear, a novel that proved to be a major game changer in the series, both in terms of the lore revealed and also for future novels. It is also one of the best novels in the series, by far.
In light of The Founding Fields currently suffering some major site issues, I’m going to be reposting my reviews from the site to the blog, so enjoy away!
The original review can be found here.
“Blunt. Stunning. Intense. Brutal. Cold. Callous. All these words come to mind by the time you turn the last page of the novel and you just have to marvel at the author’s sheer brilliance.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
You have all no doubt already read a few reviews of Know No Fear by now, almost all of them highly praising Dan Abnett for the masterpiece he has delivered, taking the Horus Heresy series to entirely new heights. All of that is entirely true because Know No Fear is definitely one of the best novels novels in the series and it is an absolute joy to read.
As most of you know, I like to balance my reviews, or try to at least. I had some ideas in mind when I finished the novel last night but I have thrown them all out of the window. The simple fact is as above, Dan’s latest is one of the best in the series.
Dan is one of the two authors, the other being William King, that I first started reading in Black Library fiction. Those were the days when you could still get his first Gaunt’s Ghosts novel, First and Only, as a single mass market paperback. He is also one of the most prolific writers for Black Library, having written quite a few Gaunt’s Ghosts novels and has three entire series of Warhammer 40,000 novels to his credit with another on the horizon for next year. I’ve read his Gaunt’s Ghosts, his Eisenhorn, his Ravenor, his Malus Darkblade, his Iron Snakes, his audio dramas and a lot of the other stuff he has written over the years. The Horus Heresy series, which he kicked off with his excellent Horus Rising, has seen him write some of his best novels to date and Know No Fear is no exception to that (although I am not a fan of Prospero Burns, for a variety of reasons).
So what is it that I like so much about Know No Fear that I liked so much? Almost everything.
To begin with, the novel is broken down into the traditional act/chapter/scene sequence, but it does so much more than just that simple distinction. Dan uses what he calls “marks”, with each mark being either a time countdown to the when the Word Bearers treachery at Calth unfolds or to the events thereafter as the Ultramarines and their allies begin their resistance. This is perhaps the biggest contributor to the sheer awesomeness of the novel. It gives a very perspective look into the betrayal of the Word Bearers and you can pretty much chart how things happened. Starting with a few hours prior, to nearly a day afterwards, the “mark” system gives you an entire timeline of how things happened and it does so combined with the viewpoints of dozens of characters. And these characters aren’t just limited to the XIIIth legion’s officers and Guilliman himself, but we see line-captains, sergeants, army troopers, army officers, Mechanicum adepts, Skitarii, cultists, Lorgar, Word Bearer officers and traitor army units. This has the added effect of making the events of the novel really epic in scope as we see the betrayal unfold on all levels of the Ultramarines legion heirarchy.
All the point of view switches can throw people off, especially in the beginning, but I recommend that if you pick up this novel (and you really should) you should stick with it. It really proves to be extremely atmospheric and after a while, you will start liking it, same as I did.
Dan Abnett has also captured the essence of Roboute Guilliman and the Ultramarines as they were meant to be during the Great Crusade. The sentences are all short, blunt and to the point. The Ultramarine dialogue is sharp, blunt and to the point. You really start getting the feeling that you are reading and seeing Ultramarines here and not just another legion, beyond the superficial differences. Especially so since the Ultramarines talk in a very unique way of the theoretical and the practical. The terms are self-explanatory but in terms of the novel and the narrative itself, their use in dialogue shows how methodically and analytically the Ultramarines are trained to think and act. Theoretical – supposition and guesswork based on information gathered. Practical – action and reaction based on solid Theoreticals. It really makes the novel so much more enjoyable that I quickly fell in love with the Ultramarines.
Dan’s Ultramarines are very different than Graham’s Ultramarines or Nick’s Ultramarines, even beyond the timeline differences, and it is a welcome approach. Dan has definitely brought something new to the table and it is something that is very fresh and innovative in its approach. I quite like it.
Apart from all of that however, it is the simple matter of Dan’s excellent characterisation that blows you away. If you have loyally stuck to the Horus Heresy series, then you’ve read Aaron’s The First Heretic and have probably come to loathe the Roboute Guilliman and the Ultramarines presented therein. Well, time to come to love them. As my friend Jeff said above, we really come to see the real Guilliman in Know No Fear. Where Dan has excelled at first of all, is showing that the Primarchs aren’t just Super-Astartes, they are God-Astartes. And he does this in a way that is very reminiscent of Corax from Deliverance Lost. We have all read countless references to the Primarchs being god-like even among the Astartes and that their intellect is superseded only by that of the Emperor himself. We have read countless references to them being the pinnacle of bio-engineering. But we have had pitiful few actual cases of that in the Horus Heresy series, hte one and only notable one being Corax as I said.
And you know what? That is how it should be. I’m not saying that the authors should hammer us with this obvious fact but that there should be stark, clear cases of this more often than two Primarchs in two novels out of eighteen Primarchs and nineteen novels. Guilliman aptly displays why he is such a great strategist and how he goes about using his super-intellect.
Which brings me back to Dan showing us the real Guilliman. Guilliman in The First Heretic is a cold, unfeeling bastard who doesn’t really seem to care about what is being done to his brother and his brother’s legion. He is supremely practical and dutiful to the point of appearing as someone who doesn’t have any emotions, or is someone who has a great control of his emotions and never lets that facade crack. Now imagine Guilliman losing control of that facade, explosively so and with so much emotion that you are left stunned.
It is a gross understatement that Guilliman has suddenly become one of my favourite Primarchs, joining Russ, Corax, Vulkan and Sanguinius.
The characterisation isn’t just limited to the Primarch of course, but extends to several of his sons as well, and a few Mechanicum adepts. Remus Ventanus, Luciel, Marius Gage, Sydance, and all the others truly bring the XIIIth legion to life and they do so in a very memorable way. Ventanus is of course the protagonist of Graham’s short story Rules of Engagement in the Age of Darkness anthology whereas all the others are mostly new. Dan’s portrayal of all of them definitely breaks the stereotypical mold that so characterises Ultramarines in M41 and for which many fans have long despised or even hated them for. Sure, this is a different era altogether but the point still stands. These guys all have personalities and emotions and they are still stoic Ultramarines, just like their M41 counterparts.
Special mention should also go to Sorot Tchure of the Word Bearers, the man tasked with firing the first shot of the betrayal and the one who is very much the star character of the XVIIth legion in the novel. That he is not overshadowed by the presence of either Erebus or Kor Phaeron is proof that Dan has a very skillful hand at building up his characters. Tchure is definitely my favourite Word Bearer of all time, alongside Argel Tal from The First Heretic.
Going back to the use of the “marks”, the pacing of the novel is intrinsically tried to this new style and at times, it does suffer as well. Some of the opening chapters drag on a little too long, giving us too much exposition and too many characters to follow but the pace picks up really well in the second third of the novel, where it is absolutely brutal. No punches are pulled by the author and the scope of the narrative just leaves you cold. As does the various short scenes that happen at the time of the betrayal itself. I actually shuddered at that point.
The pacing picks up once more in the final third of the novel but this is where I’m more ambivalent in my appreciation of Dan’s work. The ending of Know No Fear is classic Dan Abnett, rushed with too much happening at the end. That really breaks the immersion. It is a much better ending than that of Hereticus, Ravenor Rogue, Only in Death or some of his other novels but it is still not as fulfilling as it could have been. Too many plot threads are left right until the end and they are systematically resolved as if from a checklist of scenes. It is somewhat impersonal.
In terms of brief, unexpected and jaw-dropping cameos and scenes are superheavy tanks falling from the burning skies of Calth, trooper Oll Pearsson of the Imperial Army and two particular characters that were last seen (separately of course) in Horus Rising and Legion. Their inclusion in the novel is something of a sore point with me but Dan has executed it well so cheers to him. However, it needs to be stated that there are too many references to Dan’s other works, especially his 40k novels and are tied to, but not limited to, Brothers of the Snake and the Ravenor novels.
All in all though, Know No Fear is a very, very enjoyable novel, one of the ones that are so much more fun to read in a single setting. I liked it quite a bit and I definitely place it in the top tier of Horus Heresy novels, alongside Deliverance Lost and The First Heretic and Galaxy in Flames. So yes, I highly recommend the novel because it is not a novel that you should miss out on any time soon.
The entire Horus Heresy experience is incomplete without Know No Fear and therefore I rate the novel at 9/10.
More Horus Heresy: Angel Exerminatus, Butcher’s Nails, Fear To Tread, Garro: Burden of Duty, Garro: Oath of Moment, Garro: Legion of One, Grey Angel, Promethean Sun, Shadows of Treachery, The Outcast Dead, The Primarchs, The Raven’s Flight, Thief of Revelations, Vulkan Lives, Mark of Calth, Templar, Censure, Honour To The Dead.