Thursday, 24 June 2010

‘Nemesis’ – James Swallow (Black Library)

The ‘Horus Heresy’ books have pretty much become the flagship series for the Black Library’s ‘Warhammer 40,000’ line and it’s not hard to see why. If you’re already a fan then you’re finally getting a story that fills in all the gaps for one of the most important events in 40K history. Instead of internet speculation (and the odd paragraph or two in ‘White Dwarf’ magazine) you get to see what actually happened, all of it.

If you’re not really a fan of the setting then there is still plenty to recommend these books. Genetically engineered warriors with big guns fighting wars that engulf entire star systems; what’s not to like about that? If you like military sci-fi then you really need to be reading these books if you aren’t already.
I’m not a gamer but I fall firmly into the first camp as a fan of the setting and books. The ‘Horus Heresy’ series hasn’t been a perfect ride so far (and I haven’t read all the books yet) but there’s been more than enough to it to have me eagerly anticipating each new release. James Swallow’s ‘Nemesis’ is the latest release and it could very well be the best of the lot...

After the horrors wrought by Horus in the Istvaan system, all out war is declared on the Imperium and the march on Terra begins. Planet after planet falls and it becomes clear that the only way to stop the onslaught is to kill Horus himself. In the shadowy recesses of the Imperial Palace, an unprecedented alliance between the Assassin Cults sees a handpicked team sent to execute the Archtraitor and end the war before it can develop further.
What the agents of the Imperium cannot know though is that their traitorous counterparts have similar designs of their own. While the Imperial assassins head out to intercept Horus, another assassin is headed in the opposite direction. His mission, to strike a deadly blow at the very heart of the Imperium itself...

I’ve had mixed results with what I’ve read from James Swallow in the past. For every ‘Black Tide’ there’s been a feeling that Swallow likes to use the ‘haunted spaceship’ scenario a little too much for my liking (although I’ll admit that I do need to read a lot more of his 40K fiction before that feeling becomes more concrete). With this in mind, my anticipation of a new ‘Horus Heresy’ read was tempered by the fact that I wasn’t sure which way this was going to go. Were we talking ‘Black Tide’ here or would I find myself on board another haunted spaceship...?
It turns out that I needn’t have worried, not only was ‘Nemesis’ a storming read but there were no haunted spaceships at all!

‘Nemesis’ is a deftly written mixture of action and intrigue that really captures the feel of a galaxy that has just tipped over the precipice and is beginning the long slide into anarchy and chaos. It’s also the thirteenth book in the series, so far, so I really wouldn’t recommend beginning the series here (although there is enough background detail for you to be able to do it if you really wanted to) That’s not a problem though, not only will you have ‘Nemesis’ to look forward to but there is plenty of goodness to keep you going in the meantime! :o)

The big problem facing ‘Nemesis’ is that if you’re a fan of the setting then you will know of Horus’ ultimate fate and how that ultimately influences the outcome of this book. If you’re not then it doesn’t matter at all but there’s definitely an issue there for anyone with a little background knowledge of the 40K universe.
It wasn’t a problem for me. Apart from a few moments where I felt that Swallow was perhaps a little too verbose in describing the scenery (well done but not as relevant to the book as it thought it was) I couldn’t put this one down and I knew how the mission had to end. So... what happened?

For a start, and perhaps most importantly of all, Swallow isn’t afraid to mess with your head a little and at one crucial moment in particular. You may look back at it, afterwards, and think to yourself that it makes sense for it to have gone the way it did. While you’re reading it though, that’s a different matter...
Swallow builds things up to a real crescendo and then hits you right between the eyes with the last thing you would possibly expect to happen. I couldn’t believe it and the accompanying imagery really drove that impact home. Great stuff!
On a lesser scale, Swallow does a similar thing when rounding off one of the subplots. This one didn’t hit me as hard but, again, I never saw it coming and it’s a testament to Swallow’s skill at blindsiding his readers.

When he’s not messing with your expectations, James Swallow tells a pretty mean story. ‘Nemesis’ is a high octane ride where assembling a team of assassins can be just as dangerous as the mission itself. It’s also a ‘police procedural’ where nothing is as it seems as well as being a snapshot picture of a galaxy’s uncertainty as stability crumbles and chaos begins to take over.
Swallow switches effortlessly between these plots, giving his readers a multi-faceted tale that has something for everyone as well as coming together to form something pretty special. The battle lines are clearly drawn, between the two opposing forces, but the divisions within each side make for passages that resonate with intrigue. Everyone is on the same side albeit for reasons of their own...
When we’re not working our way through the labyrinthine corridors of Imperial (and rebel) politics, Swallow ups the tempo by pitching us headfirst into full on warfare between assassins. When this happens the story flows like quicksilver and so do the assassins who are fighting. Whether it’s the berserker fury of the assassin of Clade Eversor or the psionic fury of the assassin of Clade Culexus; Swallow shows us all too well that we are witnessing fights between humans with abilities augmented and far beyond our own. It’s great to watch.

Swallow’s character reflect the 40K landscape perfectly and all credit to him for creating an entire cast of cast that are completely unlikeable but that you also feel compelled to follow. This is especially true of the group of assassins tasked with killing Horus. Not one of them has a redeeming feature but you really feel how important their mission is and you have to see it through to the end. Characters who initially appear to be the most shallow turn out to be the ones with the most depth and they can really surprise you with their actions. You won’t engage with these characters because of who they are; you’ll engage with them because they’re so cleverly written into the landscape and the things taking place their.

Apart from a couple of minor niggling flaws, I can quite confidently say that ‘Nemesis’ is the best novel yet in the ‘Horus Heresy’. Here’s hoping that the rest of the series maintains this momentum...

Nine and a Half out of Ten


Forkmaster said...

When I first bought Horus Rising (the first in the series) I thought I knew most that could be known about the Warhammer universe. I knew how Horus Heresy would end and so on. But there is so much I didnt know, and thats the beauty of HH-series, it fills out the blanks and the shadows that people have been waiting over 30 years to find out.

Its not the end thats important, everyone knows hows that goes. Its the journey there everyone is excited about. =) Thats why HH is so popular.

However, it might be a great book but I have small hopes it will be better than my favorite Fulgrim, but you never know so I have to wait until that comes.

Antonis M. said...

I have not read a single book from the black library yet nor do I know anything from the warhammer universe. So seeing this is a series (Nemesis must be the 13th book if I'm not mistaken?) my question is: Do I need to read all the books in order from Horus Rising or can I just pick one that sounds interesting? Does it matter much that I have absolutely no background knowledge of the warhammer 40k universe and how things start and end according to their games?

Andres said...

@Antonis the first three tell you how the Heresy came to happen. I recommend start with those so you know the background story for all the other books, that focus on different parts of the galaxy or give you background on other factions... my personal recommendtion then goes to the Flight of The Eisenstein, Legion, Thousand Sons and if it says 'Angels' on the title skip it :P

Jeff said...

Aside from the first three novels in the Horus Heresy series, they can all easily stand alone. No need to read anything before hand (aside from the two Dark Angels books maybe).

I can't say that any of them are "bad" per se, though some are more to my tastes than others.

Thousand Sons, Legion and Eisenstein are my faves so far: not finished w/ Nemesis yet (but so far it's a strong contender for the top shelf).

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Matimus said...

What i love about the heresy is that i can introduce it to people who know nothing about 40k and It wont dilute their experience. I've got my Neighbour reading them, 6 of my mates and now my house mate's gf is on board. One of the best sci-fi series ever !

Antonis M. said...

Thanks guys! Your advice is very useful! I will keep it in mind!

Anonymous said...

For me none of the books have had quite the same impact on me as Galaxy in Flames, which I consider Counter's best work. The emotion of the betrayal at its most raw and fresh point, the last stand on Isstvan, the heroes and the villains all make an extraordinary tale.

I'm not a fan of Swallow's other work but I'm looking forward to an assassin novel so I'll give him another try.

As for other HH books to pick up, Alpha Legion and Fulgrim are both terrific books.

Bastiaan Vergoossen said...

Antonis :

I don't agree fully on the things said before. The novel Fulgrim, although mostly about the Emperor's Children legion and their events, progresses the standard storyline defenitely.

Fulgrim is also VERY good, my favourite. Perhaps the most tragic and emotional novel yet.

Flight of the eisenstein does this also a bit.

Also : just read them ALL : they aren't ALL that good, but I enjoyed them all. You surely will miss much reading fun if you don't read them all.

Cheers !

The_spartan said...

Mr. Graeme, you're a lucky man... I'll have to wait another month or so before I can read "Nemesis", as I live in Portugal and black library books are a bitch to come by. Swallow's previous entry in the HH was easily one of my favorites (SPOILER - Birth of the Inquisition, anyone?), and your review just confirmed my suspicions that "Nemesis" would just be pure awesome sauce!
Your reviews are really helpful and so far all recommendations have been money well spent!
Keep up the good work, mate!

Anonymous said...

If anyone is interested (and anywhere near the southeast of England) James is due to do a Nemesis book signing at Waterstones in Colchester, in early August.
Would be cool to see lots of fans there to show some love.