Getting back into the Horus Heresy series after such a long break has been a great experience. Legacies of Betrayal and Garro: Vow of Faith helped ground me and remind me of many of the ongoing storylines while The Crimson King continued the story of the Thousand Sons and Magnus. It also helps that you can jump back-and-forth between novels given how many narratives are in play and that certainly is key for a returning reader since you are not bound to a specific reading order. And in that respect, The Damnation of Pythos by David Annandale is a good example since while it continues a narrative introduced in the Veritas Ferrum micro-short, it is also a standalone. It is also one of the most bleak stories in the series, very intense and emotionally draining even, which fits right in with the horror of the Horus Heresy.
With The Damnation of Pythos, David revisits the story of Captain Durun Atticus of the Iron Hands that we first saw in Veritas Ferrum. This micro-short was released as a standalone story during one of the Advent Christmas events and was then reprinted in the anthology Legacies of Betrayal. In that story we saw how Atticus and his ship, the Veritas Ferrum, was one of the last Iron Hands vessels to arrive in the Isstvan system and witnessed the terrible fallout of the Dropsite Massacre. Just as he was retreating the system however, he was contacted by Sergeant Khi’dem of the Salamanders, one of the loyalist legions massacred and broken on the surface of Isstvan V, requesting his help. Atticus gave his help grudgingly, and now we see what happened to these warriors in the aftermath of that.
The story of Pythos is a rather strange one. As far as I know, this is all completely new territory to be explored and the novel is practically a standalone as well. If you pick this up hoping to read more about the central storyline then you will be disappointed. As such, I think that what David wanted to accomplish for this novel is very well served by this being a plot on its own. It doesn’t really owe anything to the larger series and can focus laser-sharp on the characters and their immediate circumstances without that extra baggage. Yes, it does take a cue from the events that have preceded it, but it isn’t beholden to continue on with those. It is an interesting niche to occupy and it certainly adds to the overall experience.
I mentioned above that the story of The Damnation of Pythos is very bleak. That is in part due to the fact that David elects to focus on the horror elements of the Warhammer setting here. The Astartes were created to know no fear, to be shining examples of bravery and courage and martial glory in an age when Mankind needed warriors such as these. So, in that respect, what is it exactly that can make even an Astartes fear for something, especially in an age where the Emperor has decreed the Imperial Truth of there being no gods or goddesses in the universe? We know that the Emperor lied on this matter, for reasons of his own and that this was one of the chinks in the armour of the traitor Legions. So there has to be something more to all of it.
And that, ultimately, is the beauty of the novel.
Atticus and his warriors, alongside the few Salamanders and Raven Guard that were saved from The Dropsite Massacre are basically stranded on the world of Pythos deep behind enemy lines. Drawn there by a psychic signal, the loyalists carry out a campaign of purge against the native beasts and establish a foothold, but things really aren’t that simple. As one of their number remarks, the entire food chain on Pythos is in flux and all is not well with the planet. Things get worse when a fleet of civilians fleeing the war arrives on the planet and establishes a colony near the Iron Hands’ stronghold. What follows is an extremely intense battle of wills that tests the sanity and loyalty of all the warriors under Atticus’ command, as well as their cousins of the Raven Guard and the Salamanders.
I’ll admit, the outright bleakness of the story got to me at times. The pressure of reading what was happening to these noble warriors was too much. Like any contemporary horror story, the warriors are isolated and picked off one by one, facing a terrible enemy they cannot pin down and cannot identify. How do you fight ghosts and the ephemera that are denied by the Imperial Truth? This also leads into a small side-plot involving some of the Iron Hands serfs who profess a belief in the Lectitio Divinitatus, a religious tract penned by the traitor Primarch Lorgar before he turned to the worship Chaos. This tract attributed supreme divinity to the Emperor of Mankind and was banned among the Legions. But clearly it took root and the events surrounding Pythos are one of the many instances of where such ideas blossomed.
Atticus, Khi’dem and their warriors all must contend with this. The evidence of their eyes contradicts the Divine Truth and so the test of their faith is whether they hold fast to their beliefs and their oaths, or whether they recognize the realities around them. And in all of it, Atticus is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve read about. The Dropsite Massacre affected the Iron Hands on a deep level, for it was at Isstvan V that their lord and patriarch Ferrus Manus was brutally murdered by his brother Fulgrim of the Emperor’s Children. The death of the primarch has affected the psychology of the Iron Hands and has driven them to extremes. And Atticus is a proponent of extremes. He embodies the Iron Hands’ creed of “Flesh is Weak” in all ways, in belief and in physical form as well for most of his body is now bionic. And he is definitely off his rocker for most of the novel, for he is ready to dismiss the evidence of his eyes and the counsel of his warriors like Sergeant Galba and the suggestions of Khi’dem and Ptero of the Raven Guard. He represents an extreme of Iron Hands ideology, and given that he is the only senior Astartes of his rank present, it means that what he says goes.
This all combines to present a very intriguing story. Owing to the many horror elements, the novel can be very dense and emotionally fraught at times. That makes it harder to read some of the chapters since you really have to slog through to get to the good parts. But at the same time, I also enjoyed this. It made for a nice change of pace from the “regular” stories and presented something new and different. As such, it is no different than the Architect of Fate anthology that came out some years ago and did the same thing for the M41 era of Warhammer 40,000. It was a collection of four horror novellas in the setting that each focused on some different aspect but yet had a cohesive story. As an experiment, I think that The Damnation of Pythos succeeds very well. But also, I think that it could have been further cut down in some places to add some more… excitement. There’s only so much mindfrackery you can read about before you start to go a little crazy yourself.
Given that David does have some roots as a writer of horror, I think that is in no way a bad thing, in a meta perspective. His characters are interesting. The plot is interesting overall because of the central mysteries surrounding Pythos. The action is superlative, especially in the first half, and the horror elements are used satisfactory as well. I can only hope that he gets to revisit the story again at some point down the line and that the events of this novel do end up having an effect on the larger story.
More David Annandale and Horus Heresy:
- Space Marine Battles: Shadow Captain (Review)
- Space Marine Battles: Forge Master (Review)
- Space Marine Battles: The Death of Antagonis (Review)
- The Beast Arises #4: The Last Wall (Review)
- The Beast Arises #7: The Hunt For Vulkan (Review)
- The Beast Arises #9: Watchers In Death (Review)
- War Zone Fenris: Curse of The Wulfen (Review)
- Horus Heresy #17: The Outcast Dead by Graham McNeill (Review)
- Horus Heresy: Thief of Revelations by Graham McNeill (Review)
- Horus Heresy: The Raven’s Flight by Gav Thorpe (Review)
- Horus Heresy #19: Know No Fear by Dan Abnett (Review)
- Horus Heresy #19D: Garro: Oath of Moment by James Swallow (Review)
- Horus Heresy #19F: Burden of Duty by James Swallow (Review)
- Horus Heresy #19G: Garro: Legion of One by James Swallow (Review)
- Horus Heresy #20: The Primarchs by Various Authors (Review)
- Horus Heresy #21: Fear To Tread by James Swallow (Review)
- Horus Heresy #22: Shadows of Treachery by Various (Review)
- Horus Heresy #23: Angel Exterminatus by Graham McNeill (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 #28E: The Devine Adoratrice by Graham McNeill (Review)
- Horus Heresy #31: Legacies of Betrayal by Various (Review)
- Horus Heresy #44: The Crimson King by Graham McNeill (Review)