Garro by James Swallow (Book Review)

I started listening to the Black Library audio dramas back in September 2011, well after they’d been established as an important by the publisher. Ranging from stories set in Warhammer Fantasy Battles or the various shades of Warhammer 40,000 the audio drama series have definitely carved for themselves a niche among Black Library’s many products. None however have been as enjoyable as James Swallow’s stories featuring Nathaniel Garro, once a captain of the Death Guard legion and then a Knight-Errant for Imperial Regent Malcador following the Isstvan III treachery. Garro is the collected edition of all these audio dramas and also includes a brand-new novel, telling the story of Garro’s journey from being a legionnaire to a legion of one.

Note: This review contains some spoilers.

The story of Nathaniel Garro is the story of the Heresy itself. He was there when Warmaster Horus betrayed the Emperor and conspired with his brothers Fulgrim, Mortarion and Angron to murder all the warriors amongst their Legions who were loyal to the Emperor before them. He watched the Heresy unfold before his eyes and suffered deep personal losses that have haunted him since. He has since traveled the length and breadth of the galaxy on secret missions for the Imperial Regent, Malcador the Sigillite, putting together a team of Astartes loyal to the Emperor who can fight the silent war that often goes unnoticed and unremarked. His is a thankless task and yet he doesn’t look for any, content in the work that he does. His big chink in the armour, so to speak, is his faith. Faith in the Emperor and his divinity. Faith in the former remembrancer Euphrati Keeler who has become a Saint. Garro is the retelling of his singular journey as he searches for meaning and purpose in a galaxy gone to hell, one where oaths once sacred and binding have been betrayed and disavowed.

And it is one hell of a read.

I’ve listened to most of the audio dramas featuring Garro before. Oath of Moment, Legion of One, Sword of Truth, Burden of Duty, Shield of Lies are among the best of Black Library’s audio range. I’ve reviewed some of them before as well. However, what’s different about their collected reprint here is that there is some additional material where appropriate, material that enhances the overall experience and provides stronger connections between the various stories so that they all read as one continuous saga. It’s been a long time since I listened to these audios though that I would not be able to point out the new additions. Suffice to say however that I enjoyed the novel quite a fair bit. And these stories have definitely aged well too, being still as exciting and fun as they were originally, if not more so. So let’s dive into it.

Chronologically, the first story is Oath of Moment which marks Garro’s initiation as Malcador’s first Knight-Errant and also his first mission, to travel to the battlefield of Calth and recruit an Ultramarine for Malcador’s purposes. You can find my review of the story here. Going from an audio version to the prose is a little jarring since part of the experience doesn’t translate over, particularly as Toby Longworth did such a fantastic job with the audio. But, as I said above, Oath of Moment has aged very well and I definitely enjoyed it all the more this time. James creates a fantastic atmosphere where his characters get to shine brightly and he definitely makes you feel their torrent of emotions and their incredulity at a galaxy gone mad. The bit at the end where Tylos Rubio must leave his Ultramarines brothers behind and join Garro’s band was a high-point for me, because it marked yet another loss for the heroes, something that becomes very important later on.

From there we seamlessly move to Sword of Truth. In terms of publication date, this one comes after Legion of One, but is chronologically before that. This one shows how Garro and Rubio must confront a band of Astartes from the traitor legions and make an assessment on the veracity of their claims of being of the loyalist factions within them. Accompanied by a belligerent and biased Custodes named Khorarinn who is in overall charge of the mission, their path is uncertain and marred by many difficulties. This one also was really good. I absolutely loved the action scenes here and also how James manages to flip the script on its head for the big suspense of the story. This story also introduces us to another of Garro’s band, Macer Varren, formerly of the World Eaters. Varren was a fantastic character here, for he is so different to either Garro or Rubio, with a completely different set of beliefs, but he nevertheless holds fast to one particular truth: that he was betrayed by Angron just as Garro was betrayed by Mortarion and wants vengeance. I liked how the heroes get tested to their limits, forced to each confront their prejudices and come to a resolution. This also marked a significant point in Garro’s journey because he is desperately trying to make sense of events and what he experiences aboard the Daggerline. Some really poignant and emotional stuff, especially for an Astartes.

Then we have Burden of Duty, which was another memorable story. Having begun to form his elite band of warriors, Garro is dispatched to yet another Legion to recruit yet another warrior, one who might well be an important piece of the puzzle as to Malcador’s intentions for these warriors. And yet, for the first time, we see how Garro is forced to go too far and comes up against an immovable object, so to speak. You can read my review of the story here. As I mention in the review, in this we finally get an answer to a question I’m sure most of us have asked since the earliest days of the Heresy lore: when the Emperor ordered the disbanding of the Librarian contingents of the Legions, what did Rogal Dorn of the Imperial Fists do with his sons who employed psychic powers? It is a sad tale, and reading through I really did get a little emotional. James wrote Rogal Dorn really well here and I couldn’t help but feel for the stalwart primarch who was charged with the defense of Terra itself, to protect it from Horus when he inevitable arrived to challenge the Emperor. Burden of Duty is almost a haunting tale of loyalty and purpose and here it fits in so nicely. We also get a really nice sequence where Garro infiltrates the Phalanx, the mighty space-fortress that serves as the mobile headquarters of the Imperial Fists legion. If only we could get more of such espionage and black ops style stories from Black Library!

Ashes of Fealty is next. This actually has to be the most tragic of all the stories in this retelling. Spurred on by the words of Rogal Dorn, Garro goes off the reservation for a mission of his own and what he finds at the end is not something that he was prepared for. Since the events of The Flight of The Eisenstein when Garro escaped Isstvan III with what few warriors remained loyal to him, we have heard little of these brethren of his. And now we find out what the fate of one of them, Apothecary Meric Voyen, was. Since the horrors of the Somnus Citadel, Meric has devoted himself to understanding and curing the plagues that afflicted his brothers of the Death Guard who fell to the Chaos God Nurgle during the Eisenstein‘s mad journey from Isstvan III to Terra. Alongside the tragedy, this is also rather bleak for its resolution. The war against Chaos is never-ending and the heroes will always be on the back-foot no matter what victories they manage to achieve on the battlefield. Ashes of Fealty is a summation of that and James presents the Plague God’s afflictions in a terrible (in a good way!) light. This is also where we really begin to see what Garro has been wrestling with for some time now, his faith in the Emperor’s divinity and the actions of Saint Euphrati. Highly recommended on its own, and a vital part of the retelling itself.

And then we have Legion of One, which was the second published Garro audio drama and a review of which can be found here. Once again, not to go into much detail but this was as enjoyable a story as I remembered it to be. As you can see from the review, I rated this one very highly and just as with Oath of Moment, this too has aged very well. We get to revisit the blighted world of Isstvan III, long after the horrors of Horus Lupercal’s treachery have passed. In this story we revisit one of the greatest characters of the Heresy and find out what happened to him after the events of A Galaxy In Flames. It is a sad tale of madness and heroism and also contains some of James’ best work in the series entire. If you get a chance, then I definitely recommend listening to the original audio drama. Toby Longworth was an absolute master and given how much he has defined all these characters, I couldn’t help but read the dialogues and descriptions in his voice. It is just that good.

Legion of One also marks the end of the “recruitment” phase of Malcador’s plans for Garro and his fellow Knight-Errants. Now we are ready to move into the next phase and while we don’t get to see much of what lies in the beyond, we also see how Garro is continuing to engage in a silent war of his own, with and within himself. It is really fascinating to read and as we start off with Shield of Lies, much begins to crystallize together.

Shield of Lies is similar to Ashes of Fealty in that here Garro has gone off on a mission of his own, unsanctioned by Malcador, and he comes across something that could shatter the security of the throneworld, Terra, itself. We begin by meeting Katanoh Tallery, a scribe of the Administratum on one of the orbital plates that float in Terra’s high atmosphere. Tallery has discovered a serious irregularity amongst the records of the Administratum wherein a minor but not insignificant amount of resources for the loyalist war effort are being redirected by possible traitors. And now she’s being hunted for the knowledge she has gained and discovers in Garro an angel of her own. I remember listening to this back in the day and being really impressed as well. It is a fascinating story and by the end we come across one of the biggest  secrets of the Horus Heresy, something that will have huge ramifications down the line for millennia to come. The unfolding secret is pretty amazing, and I loved how James executed everything, from the action to the more introspective moments, not to mention that he absolutely nailed the ending as well.

And finally we have the novella Vow of Faith which formally ends this larger first stage of Garro’s grand journey. In here, all his fears and his doubts come to fruition and he must find some desperate answers if he is to continue as a Knight-Errant in Malcador’s employ. This was an absolutely fascinating read. Everything has been building to this and now Garro takes a leave of absence from the Imperial Regent’s work and sets out openly on a quest of his own. The objective of this quest is to find the Living Saint, Euphrati Keeler, and rediscover his purpose and his mission. Betrayed by his gene-sire, questioning his tasks as Malcador’s chosen, he has had enough and now he wants a resolution that he believes on Euphrati can give on.

I won’t spill the secrets on whether or not he discovers where Euphrati is hiding and whether Garro is able to meet her or not, but suffice to say that Vow of Faith is a deeply satisfying story. There is a lot that is resolved here, one way or another, and we also find out just how deep and far-reaching the turncoat Warmaster’s plans for the invasion of the Sol System and Terra itself are. There is a deeply cunning mind at work here that Garro must contend against, and he goes up against some truly monstrous foes as well. And in an interesting way, James ties things back to his novel Nemesis if I’m not mistaken, which was definitely pretty neat to see. All of Garro’s doubts and more are answered here and I loved James’ execution of the concept.

I also liked how the story of Garro became a commentary on the subject of the Emperor’s divinity itself. We know from various sources already that the Emperor denied all divinity for himself and tore down all the religious constructs of Terra before launching his Great Crusade. We know that he propagated the Imperial Truth which held that there were no divine powers at large in the universe and that all was explained by science and reason. We know that this was a false truth, maintained to protect the Astartes from the harsh truths of the universe. All of this conspired to turn the Word Bearers against the Emperor, leading up to the Heresy itself. And in the midst of it all we have a lone warrior of the Death Guard who held fast to the Imperial Truth but also could not escape the evidence of his eyes when a mortal woman, Euphrati Keeler, held back foul daemons of the warp during the events of The Flight of The Eisenstein. Garro’s search for Euphrati is as much about this reconciliation as it is about Garro rediscovering his purpose in the universe. And that journey is a rather incredible one as James shows us, tells us.

All in all, Garro is one hell of a read and as a continuous tale that was previously told in various short installments, it definitely stands up to the rigors of being retold as a full novel. And Vow of Faith is a great way to cap it all off. Garro is one of the central characters of the Horus Heresy, and this is very much his journey from betrayed son to willing ghost-in-the-shadows. As I’ve said above this is also collectively one of James’ best work on the series and for Black Library. And reading through, you are not dependent upon the wider complicated tapestry that has developed over the last decade of the series. You only need to have read the first four novels. With that, this is practically a standalone story that will have some major consequences before the series is done. And that’s certainly a grand thing.

Rating: 9.5/10

More James Swallow and Horus Heresy:

  • Deus Ex: Icarus Effect (Review)
  • Star Trek: Cast No Shadow (Review)
  • Star Trek: The Fall #4: The Poisoned Chalice (Review)
  • Judge Dredd: Dreddline (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #19D: Garro: Oath of Moment (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #19F: Burden of Duty (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #19G: Garro: Legion of One (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #21: Fear To Tread (Review)
  • Sisters of Battle: Hammer & Anvil (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 #20: The Primarchs by Various Authors (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 #30: The Damnation of Pythos by David Annandale (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #31: Legacies of Betrayal by Various (Review)
  • Horus Heresy #44: The Crimson King by Graham McNeill (Review)

16 thoughts on “Garro by James Swallow (Book Review)

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