Thursday, 23 December 2010

‘Prospero Burns’ – Dan Abnett (Black Library)

It feels like a lot longer ago but it was only back in February this year that I read Graham McNeill’s ‘A Thousand Sons’; one half of what promised to be an epic (and tragic) tale of the opening stages of the Horus Heresy. And very good it was too (if aimed a little obviously at long term fans rather than the casual reader), certainly more than enough to have me very much looking to reading the same tale all over again from the perspective of the Space Wolves .
Illness (the authors, not mine...) meant that the wait for ‘Prospero Burns’ ended up being a little longer than anyone had anticipated but my anticipation for the book never lessened. In fact, it’s safe to say that ‘Prospero Burns’ was the one Black Library book that I’ve been waiting for above all others.
All good things come to those who wait and that’s what eventually happened with my copy of ‘Prospero Burns’. And it’s well worth the wait; I would even go so far as to say that ‘Prospero Burns’ is the best ‘Horus Heresy’ book yet...

Following the events of the Council of Nikaea, unregulated use of psychic powers and the pursuit of occult knowledge have been strictly forbidden by the Emperor himself. Well intentioned as it was, the breaking of these edicts by the Primarch Magnus the Red has ultimately cost thousands of lives and cast the Emperor’s own plans into disarray. The Emperor is enraged and the ultimate sanction looms; Primarch Leman Russ and his Space Wolves Legion are sent to bring Magnus and the Thousand Sons to justice.
Kasper Hawser’s time with the Space Wolves has shown him many things about this most bestial of legions but he hasn’t seen anything like the sacking of Prospero and he won’t even begin to divine his own true role in events until it’s far too late...

The Horus Heresy series retells a period of Warhammer 40K history that fans are already well aware of. The trick then is for each author to strike a balance, giving new readers a chance to jump on whilst not repeating stuff that long term fans already know, and at the same time fleshing out the detail to give us a story that’s fresh and new. Abnett may fall down slightly when maintaining that balance but what he does give us is a compelling tale that turns itself inside out to spring a few surprises. It’s the tale of espionage and counter espionage that ‘Legion’ really wanted to be but fell short of.

‘Prospero Burns’ is a tale of manipulation and scheming, decades old (the longest of long games in fact), that is all aimed at one particular point in time and for a particular purpose. What better to illustrate this level of deception than by telling the story through the eyes of the man who is unwittingly at the centre of it all?
What is initially a simple study trip to the Space Wolves home planet Fenris is gradually revealed to be a lot more for Kasper Hawser and it is the way that this is done which more than held my interest. Questions are either answered with more questions or not answered at all until the time is right. This gradual unfolding of the picture did an admirable job of getting me hooked early on and, despite knowing how it would eventually all turn out, I couldn’t help but be surprised by the detail of how it ended. This was very much a case of, ‘I knew it would end like this but I didn’t quite realise that was how it would end...’ Everything falls into place so neatly that you will wonder how you never saw the big picture to start off with.

When you add Abnett’s ability to write consistently excellent military science fiction then you’ve got a book that satisfies on more than one level. Abnett gets right inside the beast that is humanity’s Great Crusade and turns it into a living and breathing animal on the page, complete with a structure that is complex enough to accurately reflect its great purpose whilst also being simple enough to get to grips with quickly. Abnett also once again demonstrates his ability to accurately portray the common soldier on the field and adds yet another layer of welcome detail. You will probably never have a better view of mankind’s endeavours in the thirty-first millennium than you get with Dan Abnett.

When the guns start pounding the story ramps up another gear; especially when you see the Space Wolves take to the field. Abnett has already taken time to dispel some of the notions that this Legion is nothing but a gang of bestial killers with the cunning they display during the long game. This is none more evident than in the Primarch Leman Russ himself who orchestrates affairs with a purpose that belies his status as a mere brawler (although he is fond of the grand gesture as well, check out what he does to an enemy space station...). When the fighting kicks off in earnest though, Abnett leaves his readers in no doubt that the reputation of the Space Wolves, as the Emperor’s ultimate sanction, is thoroughly deserved. There is a raw animal power here that burns in every axe blow made by a Space Wolf and you feel it every single time. On the whole, Abnett generally delivers a balanced account of what it means to be a Space Wolf although the flow of the story is sometimes interrupted by Abnett’s pandering to the casual reader with more background detail than is perhaps necessary.

This is really only a small complaint though when set against what is undoubtedly a quality offering from Dan Abnett. ‘Prospero Burns’ completes the picture initially begun by McNeill’s ‘A Thousand Sons’ and in some style. Highly, highly recommended (look out for it at the beginning of next month).

Nine and Three Quarters out of Ten


Jocke said...

Kaspar Hawser?!? Seriously? Does he share any characteristics with Herzog's Kaspar Houser?

Heloise said...

After dithering for the longest time, I've only recently decided to give the Black Library and Dan Abnett a try; I'm into the second volume of the Eisenhorn trilogy now and so far enjoying it quite a bit, so might eventually end up getting this one, too.

I'm curious about one thing, though - 'Kasper Hawser' is obviously a reference to this guy, but is it just name-dropping or does Abnett actually do something significant with it?

Graeme Flory said...

My general knowledge is shocking sometimes, I didn't realise that there was a connection here... I might have to re-read the book (soon, if I get a chance) to see any new light is shed through this.

This isn't just a case of name dropping, there are definite parallels here that all contribute to the plot.

noothergods said...

I read Eisenhorn, its actually sitting on a bookshelf in my house right now. Pretty good but not as good as what I've read of the Horus Heresy series. My only problem with the series so far is it's length...just takes too much time to keep up with.

Anonymous said...

I have been reading all the Heresy series and find them very good, there is a general simalaritie of names that relate to literature, for example Prospero is itself from the Tempest by Shakespere who was a sorcerer who gave up his powers.

D F said...

Have to say I loved PB as a book, especially the subtle switch of the Wolves not just being mindless barbarians, but executioners and the ones who 'get the job done no matter what'.

Really enjoyed it, and of course Abnett's writing and style of showing you a familiar universe from an unfamiliar viewpoint really shone through for me.

Also, I know this is an old review - just had to post!

Anonymous said...

I have to dissent here. I hated this book. It was such a disappointment to me after reading the previous ten or so HH (not all of which were good, granted), and mostly just expecting the usual Dan Abnett kick in the arse... it never happened. It was a trial forcing myself through it on faith in Abnett alone, hoping that maybe it was just me, drowning in some sort of painting-induced mind fog, and not simply lackluster writing. In my opinion, it was the latter. I hope his future works see a return to form. Even more fervently, I hope some future Abnett-hoarding urge causes me to reread this and find the good in it.