Whilst the Thousand Sons legion arguably boast one of the most complete and traumatic backgrounds of any of the original Space Marine legions, there is an era of their history that has always been decidedly vague, lacking anything but the most supeficial and perfunctory details: that following their flight from Prospero and establishment on the daemon world that would become known as Sortiarius, Planet of the Sorcerers.
In the latest instalment to the Thousand Son's story, writer Graham McNeill attempts to elucidate this abyss, exploring what the legion has become in the aftermath of its near-extinction, its shifting philosophies and perspectives, what its Primarch, Magnus the Red, intends following his apparent defeat at the hands of Space Wolf Primarch Leman Russ, and how these matters will come to affect the wider Heresy.
McNeill wastes no time in establishing back story; the novel assumes that the reader will be at least passingly familiar with the events of both A Thousand Sons and Prospero Burns, focussing instead on particular characters within the Thousand Sons legion, documenting their evolving states, now that they are free from the Imperium's strictures, but also their despair at the legion's escalating disgrace.
Concerning itself primarily with Chief Librarian Ahzek Ahriman, the plot follows his efforts to forestall the flesh curse that has returned to plague his brothers; efforts that, for all their elaboration and sacrifice, result in nothing but atrocity. In this, Ahriman is fast losing the faith and loyalty of his brothers, many of whom blame him and Magnus for the state their legion has come to, others of which ache to leave and pursue their own destinies in the wider universe.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the book is the time scale in which it operates; being set within the Eye of Terror, time moves differently for the Thousand Sons than in the material universe. As such, from their own perspectives, the Thousand Sons operate on Sortiarius for hundreds -if not thousands- of years while the Heresy grinds on beyond, fracturing into myraid, conflicting cults and covens, many of its number ascending to the states of sorcerers, establishing their own small kingdoms upon Sortiarius's shifting plains.
As for Ahriman, he and a small cabal of brethren find themselves repulsed by what the legion is becoming, and what their Father is tacitly allowing by his absence.
Providing a contrast to Ahriman is Amon, another consistent character in the Thousand Sons novels, who acts as Magnus the Red's equerry; one who maintains a closeness to the Crimson King and his intentions that not even Ahriman can match. Whilst they exercise a certain rivalry, the relationship between them is as complex and ambiguous as that between any of the Thousand Sons; McNeill takes time to establish that no character in this book is clear cut in terms of their motivations or loyalties; statuses shift constantly, depending on circumstance, making every moment fraught and uncertain; seeming victory undone by an instant of betrayal, redemption snatched by unforeseen means from what seems almost certain defeat. Amon is certainly one of the most intriguing of the Thousand Sons, especially in contrast to Ahriman, who is, in many ways, his antithesis, which will have grave ramifications for both in the future, as has already been detailed in John French's Ahriman: Exile.
Whilst subtle and, for the most part, unspoken, the influence of fate and chance (or, to give them another name, Tzeentch) pervades every moment, esepcially relating to certain key figures within the Thousand Sons, not to mention the myriad enemies and allies that they encounter, driving the skeins of their destinies:
A surprise inclusion occurs in the form of none other than Lucius the Eternal, the arch-champion of Slaanesh, who accompanies the Thousand Sons after hunting down and confronting Sanakht, their master swordsmen, in a previous short story. Following their disrupted duel, the two have become respectful allies, if not reluctant friends, their relationship at once antagonistic yet inevitable, Sanakht seeming to accept that their destinies are inextricably intertwined.
Even more surprising is the part Lucius comes to play in the destiny of the legion, for good or ill.
Alongside new characters such as a Aforgomon (a quietly esoteric Lovecraft reference), a daemon contained within a mechanical shell, Dio Promus, an (ex) Ultramarine Librarian who spoke in support of Magnus at the Council of Nikaea, a contingent of Space Wolves sent to hunt down Magnus and his sons following the shattering of Prospero, the book also includes some familiar faces in former Remembrencers to the Thousand Sons, Lemuel Gaumon, Camille Shivani and Chaiya Pavarti, all of whom were last seen fleeing the desolation of Prospero and falling into the Imperium's hands.
McNeill orchestrates a cast that might otherwise be unwieldy with surprising panache throughout; each and every character has a part to play in a wider design, whether they know it or not, perhaps the most profound and unanticipated significance reserved for the least likely, which brings their character arcs full circle, and starts them on entirely new circuits.
As for the eponymous Primarch, the status Magnus the Red occupies in this book demonstrates him to be not only one of the most powerful primarchs (very close in nature to his Father, at his most metaphysical and legitimately divine), but also the most complex in terms of character: following the breaking of his physical form over the knee of Leman Russ, Magnus has shattered into myraid contradictory aspects of himself, which are scattered across both the Eye of Terror and the material universe. Ahriman and his cabal take it upon themselves to find and cohere their Primarch, whose remaining aspect upon the Planet of the Sorcerers is slowly dwindling, sacrificing itself in the construction of The Orery; a vast library and repository of lost knowledge within the Warp itself, so that whatever remains of mankind following the galaxy-burning war of the Horus Heresy might one day rise again and perhaps succeed where he and his sons have failed.
Not only does the reader learn a great deal of the contradictions and ambiguities that inform Magnus, we also gain some insight into how the legion operated and perceived itself during this previously empty and unspoken portion of its history: at the opening of the book, the Thousand Sons still refuse to proclaim for Horus, no matter that the Imperium has turned on and exiled them, no matter that the Warp is slowly claiming them, undoing all they once sought to make and sustain: they regard themselves as martyrs upon the altar of knowledge, Icarion entities that soared too high and saw too deeply, who might still garner some redemption, if they can only restore their broken Father and the knowledge that has been lost.
Nor does the legion acknowledge or accept Tzeentch as their patron or master, at this point; if anything, it's difficult to determine if they even know what Tzeentch is or that it exists: rather, the legion is slowly fragmenting into isolated sorcerers and their warbands, all of whom pursue their own goals and agendas, who operate on different plains of time and reality, meaning that some already perceive what is going to happen in the future, whereas those events are already the long dead past for others.
There are many dynamically difficult concepts at work within the book, especially relating to time, causality and event following event, which McNeill handles gracefully and with reference to metaphysical imagery that is extremely esoteric, but which works in context with the Thousand Sons, their philosophies and the consistent imagery and ethos they exhibit.
One of the more significant books within the history of the Thousand Sons and the Horus Heresy itself; essential for those with an interest in the Thousand Sons and those legions whose histories directly intertwine with them, as well as those interested in a more complete outlook on the Heresy in general.
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