The Crimson King by Graham McNeill (Book Review)

It has been ages since I last read something from the Horus Heresy series. Coincidentally, that happened to be Graham McNeill’s The Vengeful Spirit. And now finally, after a gap of some three years, I’m returning to the series that I fell in love with almost ten years ago. After catching myself back up with the Legacies of Betrayal anthology, I dived head-on into the latest release, The Crimson King by Graham McNeill, which carries on from A Thousand Sons, finally continuing a story almost five years old. The Crimson King does a lot to flesh out how the Thousand Sons legion fully turned away from the Emperor and how it “healed” itself after the terrible fall of Prospero. For any fan of the XVth Legion, this novel is a must-read.

Graham’s A Thousand Sons stands for me as one of the best novels in the Horus Heresy series. It details the first grand chapter of Magnus the Red’s fall from grace and paints a very vivid and detailed picture of the XVth Legion in an era where it was considered to be one of the finest of all the Legions, paragons of knowledge and enlightenment. However, as a certain fictional character once said, “with great power comes great responsibility”, and in their hubris the sorcerer-warriors of the Thousand Sons forget their duties and their oaths. Graham did a lot to peel back the webs of mystery surrounding them with this novel and now with The Crimson King he takes it a step further as he details the second grand chapter of Magnus’ sons as they struggle to reorient themselves following the burning of Prospero.

The fall of the XV Legion was an event that shattered its warriors. The utter brutality of the Space Wolves at Prospero just further left them disillusioned and uncertain about their future. Thousands died, the planet burned, so much knowledge was lost. And all because of the hubris of a few and the lies of a few more and the gullibility of the rest. And now the Legion has to bring itself back together and rise up. Which is not an easy thing to do. The remnants are on the Planet of the Sorcerers somewhere in the Warp, Magnus the Red has closed himself off from most of his sons except his equerry Amon and the Legion’s Chief Librarian, Ahzek Ahriman. How can they even begin?

To get a full picture of events going into The Crimson King, I’d certainly recommend reading A Thousand Sons and the short stories Thief of Revelations and Lucius, the Eternal Blade. Both short stories can be found in the anthology Legacies of Betrayal. The events therein form the bedrock for what happens in The Crimson King and provide certain insights as well. So, moving on.

I loved this novel. Graham gives us a really strong start with some of the Legion’s senior leadership in the form of Ahriman, Hathor Maat, Sanakht, Menkaura and Tolbek sent off by Magnus on a mission to realspace. For plot reasons, Lucius also goes with them, whom Ahriman has foreseen as playing an important role in the Legion’s resurrection. The whole mystery of the mission is up for grabs for a fair bit until it all comes together rather explosively and we learn that Magnus wanted access to some kind of a daemonic entity named the Iron Oculus. From here begins a tale of treachery and betrayal that sees these characters cross the lengths of the galaxy and beyond to save their Legion. And almost every moment of it is fantastic.

I first encountered Magnus in William King’s Grey Hunter where he kind of had a special appearance towards the end. Initially an object of hate, so to speak, after A Thousand Sons he has become an object of pity for me. With his limitless hubris he doomed his entire Legion and himself and now we see how he begins to make amends, although the road is really long and uncertain and fraught with immense dangers.

What I really loved about the novel was Graham’s characterisation of every single character, whether they be XVth Legion or others outside of it such as the Space Wolves led by Bodvar Bjarki or the Ultramarines Librarian Dio Promus or even the mortals like Lemuel Gaumon and Camille Shivani whom we met last in A Thousand Sons or Malcador’s agent Yasu Nagasena wom me last met in The Outcast Dead. Graham gets everything on point and he weaves their narratives together in a really cohesive manner. Every one has their place in the story, an important one at that. There are actually no throwaway characters, something that I’d feared once I saw the dramatis personae for the novel.

And the scenes involving Magnus himself are a blast to read. In the beginning of the novel he is a broken man unsure about his place in the galaxy. But by the end, he has begun to retake control of his destiny. And his journey from this point A to B, as told through the eyes of his equerry Amon and Ahriman most of all, is a really fantastical one. As someone who has the strongest connection to the warp when compared to his brothers, and given his Legion’s nature, Graham doesn’t hesitate to explore what potentialities and possibilities the warp holds for Magnus. In some places, I do wish that Graham had gone a bit further or even toned a few things down, but by and large I’m really happy with how things ended up. The novel is quintessentially Magnusian and that’s all that matters to me.

Plus along the way, we get some really cool scenes involving the various legionaries and mortals. The action scenes set on the Imperial prison-facility Kamiti Sona are perhaps among the best in the entire novel. It is here that Ahriman and his fellow Thousand Sons officers clash against Bjarki’s Space Wolves that is a dark reflection of the burning of Prospero. And it is here that Ahriman comes face-to-face against his former apprentice Lemuel and his friends Camille and Chaiya. The last time we met these three, they were escaping aboard a Thousand Sons vessel just prior to the Space Wolves’ assault on Prospero. Now, some five years have passed in realspace and the three have been held captive in terrible conditions at Kamiti Sona. Everything is connected here. Graham weaves all the narratives back-and-forth in a complex dance that by the end just leaves you wanting more.

And a point of interest was when in the second half we revisit a scene from Prospero Burns (by Dan Abnett) where some unnamed Thousand Sons legionaries met the remembrancer Kaspar Hawser who later become a skjald to a pack of Space Wolves in that same novel. It was a very interesting look-back, full of several mysteries that raised many questions. Frustratingly, I didn’t quite get what exactly it was that Graham was aiming for here, but it was a really cool easter egg kind of thing.

It was also really cool to revisit Yasu Nagasena again as well. He was one of the most exciting elements of The Outcast Dead and I enjoyed his second outing here. There’s also the sense that there’s far more to his story since then, as is the case with Dio Promus who has also joined in with Malcador’s disparate group of Astartes for an unseen purpose and for which he has abandoned the colors and loyalties of the XIIIth Legion, the Ultramarines. Some fascinating background here, I’m sure, that I cannot wait to see more of given how the novel ends for both of them.

For any fan of the Thousand Sons of the Horus Heresy era, The Crimson King is an absolute must-read. You get tons of background on Magnus as he was and even as he will be and it is superlative work from one of Warhammer 40,000’s finest writers.

Rating: 8.5/10

More Graham McNeill:

More Graham McNeill:

  • Horus Heresy: Death of A Silversmith (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #17: The Outcast Dead (Review)
  • Horus Heresy: Thief of Revelations (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #20: The Primarchs: The Reflection Crack’d (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #22: Shadows of Treachery: The Dark King  (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #22: Shadows of Treachery: The Kaban Project  (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #23: Angel Exterminatus (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #25: Mark of Calth: Calth That Was (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #28E: The Devine Adoratrice (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #31: Legacies of Betrayal: Kryptos (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #31: Legacies of Betrayal: Lucius, The Eternal Blade (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #34D: The Seventh Serpent by Graham McNeill (Review)
  • Warhammer 40,000: Iron Warriors: The Omnibus (Review)
  • Warhammer 40,000: Ultramarines: Eye of Vengeance (Review)
  • Warhammer 40,000: Ultramarines: The Second Omnibus (Review)
  • Warhammer 40,000: Angels of Death: Codex by Graham McNeill (Review)
  • Warhammer 40,000: Priests of Mars by Graham McNeill (Review)

More Horus Heresy:

  • Horus Heresy: The Raven’s Flight by Gav Thorpe (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #19: Know No Fear by Dan Abnett (Review)
  • Horus Heresy: Garro #19D: Oath of Moment (Review)
  • Horus Heresy: Garro #19F: Burden of Duty  (Review)
  • Horus Heresy: Garro #19G: Legion of One (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #20: The Primarchs by Various Authors (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #21: Fear To Tread (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #22: Shadows of Treachery by Various (Review)
  • Horus Heresy: Butcher’s Nails by Aaron Dembski-Bowden (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #24B: Templar by John French (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #25: Mark of Calth by Laurie Goulding (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #25B: Grey Angel by John French (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #25D: Honour To The Dead by Gav Thorpe (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #25E: Promethean Sun by Nick Kyme (Review)
  • Horus Heresy: Censure by Nick Kyme (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #26: Vulkan Lives by Nick Kyme (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #27: The Unremembered Empire by Dan Abnett (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #28A: Brotherhood of the Storm by Chris Wraight (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #30: The Damnation of Pythos by David Annandale (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #31: Legacies of Betrayal by Various (Review)

19 thoughts on “The Crimson King by Graham McNeill (Book Review)

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