The last audiobook that I remember listening to from Black Library is Dan Abnett’s Prospero Burns, one of the two books alongside Graham McNeill’s A Thousand Sons that told the story of the fall of Prospero, of Magnus, and the Thousand Sons Legion. I’d tried to read the book before many times but always gave up, the only such Horus Heresy novel I’ve struggled with so much to date. The audiobook was a better experience but the story was still too problematic for me. Fortunately, Dan’s next big Heresy novel, Know No Fear easily proved to be a much better experience in all respects and is one of my favourite Heresy novels to date. So there’s some balance.
Dan’s latest Heresy novel The Unremembered Empire is my first Heresy audiobook since spring 2012 that I have experienced primarily in the audio format. I listened to the novel back in September, supplementing it with reading the ebook on and off, and I liked the dual experience. The Unremembered Empire is one of the better novels of the series, but it is also one of the more weaker ones since it is a branching novel and it attempts to do too much with too many characters. Taken in the context of the series at large, it is a pretty decent novel, but taken on its own merits, if fails to satisfy as much as it should. There’s just way too much going on in the novel and that works against it. Had it been trimmed of a few plotlines, it would have been one of the best novels of the series.
Note: This review contains spoilers of varying degrees.
In the anthology Age of Darkness, Graham McNeill wrote a story called Rules of Engagement that first mentioned the words Imperium Secundus. These two words flowed under the radar of many people at the time but have since gained much momentum and meaning as various writers have built up a mythology of the words since that short story that also showed Guilliman was testing his Codex Astartes and was preparing his Legion for war against every other Legion since he didn’t know for sure who could be trusted. Dan’s latest finally delves into the concept in detail and shows what Guilliman was planning for the Imperium Secundus and what his goals and objectives were.
The novel primarily focuses on Guilliman and is set on Macragge itself, so we get to see some great details about the Primarch’s homeworld that we have not seen before. Macragge in the days of the Great Crusade and the Horus Heresy is very different from Macragge in M41 and that is what Dan emphasizes here again and again. And I loved that. Details of how the Ultramarines participated in the civil and municipal matters of their homeworld, how the Legion at large interacted with the people themselves, all of that can be found here. At times such details are terse and perfunctory, but taken together they create a very vivid picture of how Guilliman molded his Legion to be more than just warriors, to be statesmen and governors. Fantastic stuff, and exactly what you’d expect.
As I said above, The Unremembered Empire is a branching novel. What this means is that though it is a sequel to Know No Fear, which covered the Word Bearers’ assault on Calth and the planet’s ravaging and the early weeks of the war that followed, it also brings together several different plotlines that have been simmering in other novels and short stories and novellas. And it takes all of them to spin out more branching plotlines that will undoubtedly be picked up later. And that’s all well and good. But the thing is that oftentimes the novel loses itself in all these plotlines and the overall experience gets unfortunately diluted.
For instance, we learn of what has happened with Warsmith Dantioch of the Iron Warriors who stayed true to the Emperor when he was asked by his Legion-brothers to join Perturabo and Horus. In Rob Sanders’ excellent The Iron Within in the Age of Darkness anthology, we got a great look at this loyalist Iron Warrior and now we see what he has been up to since he joined up with Guilliman’s Legion at the end of that short story. And his work has had a big impact on the overall story of the Heresy since he has given Guilliman a greater weapon than any could ask for, beyond thousands of warriors and fleets of warships: a way to navigate the Ruinstorm that erupted in the wake of Calth’s ravaging by the Word Bearers. Now ships are able to navigate the warp and focus on Macragge as a destination, much in the same was the Astronomican of the Emperor does for Terra.
This then plays into the climax of the story in rather unexpected ways and while I appreciated what Dan did here, I was also deflated a bit since it was too much hand-wrangling for the sake of it. To push pieces out of order just so there could be more complicated and more “original” stories. I get that the point of the Age of Darkness period is to show what happened in the years between the war on Calth and the Siege of Terra, but what happens at the end of the novel is something that extends that into uncomfortable territory for me.
Another great thing about The Unremembered Empire is that brings together some of the Shattered Legions who have found a home in and a purpose at Calth that they have been missing since the Dropsite Massacre. Iron Hands, Raven Guard, Salamanders, even some White Scars. This is, perhaps, the most superficial bit of plot in the novel. The non-Ultramarine Legionnaires aren’t used until right at the end for the climax, and that’s all their function appears to be in this novel. There’s a convoluted climax between Guilliman, the Lion and the Night Haunter and that’s where the members of the Shattered Legions fit in here. It was great to see them get some screentime, but I would have felt much better if there had been a substantial role to them besides being a token force.
Then there’s also the whole Perpetuals thing going on that comes across as extremely contrived and convoluted. What Dan Abnett started in Know No Fear with Ollanius Pious and John Grammaticus continued on in this novel, and it was easily the least interesting part of it all. Drawing on from what Nick Kyme did in Vulkan Lives, we find out the fate of the Primarch Vulkan after he “disappeared” at the end of the novel, and this all ties into the reason that John Grammaticus is on Macragge to begin with. Honestly, I feel that this entire plotline did nothing for the overall narrative, serving only to entrench the Perpetuals concept further into the Heresy role. It was decent when introduced, a curiosity of interesting depth and scope, but the way it is handled here struck me as “rule of cool”.
Don’t get me wrong. I had fun reading and listening to this novel, but I felt that there were bits that could certainly be easily excised and this plotline is at the top of the list, among many others.
Still, when all is done and said and read, Guilliman comes out on top. He was pretty fantastic in Know No Fear and with The Unremembered Empire Dan Abnett shows that he understands the Primarch really well. He isn’t just a tool of war, a finely-honed instrument superior to almost anything in the galaxy at large, but he is more. He still has his own ambitions, his own desires, his successes and failures. Whenever the novel deals with Guilliman, I did sit up and take notice. This book is a great look into the man behind the mask of the Avenging Son, and if this can spread to the other Primarchs, then certainly they are all going to end up being great. No doubt about it.
There’s lots more that can be said about the novel of course, since there is an absolute metric ton of things happening. Taking cues from Vulkan Lives, Know No Fear, Crimson Fist and many other stories across all the formats, Dan tells the tale of the Imperium Secundus and he manages to keep the overall Heresy narrative alive. He rushes some of the concepts and his ending isn’t exactly the best either, but I won’t deny that I did enjoy this novel on some level and that I’m very keen to see some of the plotlines taken further, whether into full novels or novellas or short stories or audio dramas.
The audiobook is narrated by David Timson, who is a Black Library audios veteran, having worked on several audio dramas before, and he does a fairly good job of keeping things exciting and refreshing in the novel, by and large. Being an audiobook, there aren’t a whole lot of sound effects used, but we do get some really good stuff on occasion and I must say that Black Library’s partnership with Heavy Entertainment is turning out some great dividends for the publisher. David utilizes a number of voices for this audio and it is an even mix of the good and the bad. Perhaps the most striking is when he has to voice Mamzel Euten, a woman who serves Guilliman as an advisor and also as a surrogate mother in the ages when he was still young and the heir to Lord Konor, who ruled Macragge before him. Female voices just don’t work for David, but that’s fine really. A small nitpick. I’d definitely recommend the audio experience, an 11-hour extravaganza, should you be willing to experiment with the format. Quite fun really.
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, Know No Fear, The Devine Adoratrice, Brotherhood of the Storm.