Friday, 20 September 2013

Books in Brief : Fear to Tread by James Swallow

As promised , I'm back (can't quite believe it took three months but that, it seems is parenthood for you) with a not so brief  Books in Brief review of the Horus Heresy novel Fear to Tread by James Swallow.

In the past I have been, deservedly I think, quite harsh in my criticism of Swallow's handling of the Blood Angels in his 40k period books (here are links to my reviews for Blood Angels Omnibus and Red Fury). Perhaps I have an overly critical eye and fanboy bias due to the Chapter being the primogenitors of my own beloved Blood Drinkers; but the fact remains those books were by any stretch sub-par and the author can and has delivered much better.

It was with some consternation then that I found Swallow was still at the helm when it came to the first Heresy novel dedicated to the Primarch Sanguinius and his Legion.

So should fans of the Heresy series and the Blood Angels 'Fear to Tread' the pages of this novel?

Well with some reservation the answer is no but caution is still advised; Mr Swallow has pulled up his literary britches and while not delivering a classic, he has risen above his previous lamentable Blood Angel works, producing an adequate addition to the series.

The main thrust of the book follows the 9th Legions campaign into the Signus Cluster on the orders of the Warmaster Horus and is thus another offshoot from the main trunk of the Heresy and its slow growth towards the Siege of Terra. The momentous events on Signus Prime explain what the Blood Angels are busy doing whilst the rest of the Galaxy Burns; hint: they aren't just sitting round polishing the nipples on their power armour!

Signus is also the setting for the first of three pivotal moments in Legend of the Primarch of Sanguinius, the epic showdown depicted on the cover and what a cover! An awe inspiring piece that wouldn't look out of place on a Meatloaf Album and looks pretty goram impressive currently framed on the Forge wall (see pic); arguably Neil Roberts finest Heresy work to date.

Unfortunately the book doesn't quite live up to its glorious binding, it's faults knocking it out of the running for being anywhere near a series favourite. The pacing is off, the story lurching and detouring (although the flashbacks that illuminate Sanguinius's relationship with Horus are worth the trip) rather than steadily building to the awesome title fight. That fight being the duel between Sanguinius and Ka'Bandha which the author struggles to distil into words that which Roberts so brilliantly captured in his art.

The action for the most part is the standard 'Bolter Porn' fare with the usual cast of thousands dying explosive and ultimately forgettable deaths. It does have moments where the terrifying, reality warping power of Chaos is taken to new apocalyptic levels by the author, with some truly scene crunching events but these are fleeting and later descend into repetitive use of blood and bones (or no bones as the case may be).

Something I always enjoy with the Heresy novels, is when pieces of lore are woven into the fabric of the tale; little reveals or snippets of information that either draws together, adds to or expands the epic background of the 40k verse and has the veteran fanboy in me nodding contentedly. This book supplies a few; there is a major retcon of the origin of the Red Thirst that fits the story and works quiet well.

Another is the creation of an origin story for 'The Red Angel'; not to be confused with the title of the Primarch Angron (probably makes for awkward moments when they both attend the same Chaos cocktail parties). This 'Angel' was a curio feature in a double page drawing of Horus and his cronies in The Horus Heresy Collected Visions (a copy of which I fortunately own) and up until now, as far as I'm aware; nothing else was known about him.

Whilst on the subject of characters, this was perhaps the biggest weakness of the book; aside from the afore mentioned Red Angel and an audacious Captain of the 5th Company, the rest show little in the way of substance. I'd go so far as to say the Blood Angels could have stepped right off the page of one of Swallows 40k era stories and that (as you know by now) is not an endorsement. The Legion is lacking the bold unique flavour that has been lavished on others like The Thousand Son's or the Vlka Fenrika; aside from the addition of a Blood Angel specific Chaplain, these are cookie cutter Marines and a great opportunity to define the Sons of Sanguinius has been missed. There are also some odd character inclusions that I found to be extraneous to the plot, Wolves and Word Bearers seemingly just along for the ride.

The portrayal of Sanguinius is particularly frustrating, in a few places he rightly shines with angelic fury, although in one 'Leaf on the Wind' scene Swallow pushes the bounds of credibility beyond even a super human Primarch. The rest of the time Sanguinius comes across as a rather incompetent and gullible (despite his gift of foresight) leader prone to hissy fits of diva like proportions; this is not the Prince among Primarchs I was hoping for.

If that all sounds quite damning, it's not, this is a big improvement on what James Swallow has served up for the Blood Angels in the past and as I said at the start, being a Blood Drinker player I'm perhaps overly critical. I really struggled with this review because I so wanted to like this book more than the sum of its parts but for an honest assessment I had to remove the rose tinted helmet lenses.

He's no Abnett, Dembski-Bowden or McNeil, not every author can be; but as he has been given the reigns of my Chapters pre-history, that he's not in the same league as these greats is a shame. Still the story is competently told, holding enough interest and excitement to keep me turning the pages and its conclusion dovetails nicely with the ending of John French's excellent short story 'Crimson Fist' setting up more pieces for Unremembered Empire.


Anonymous said...

Worst book from the series yet, I can't believe that they did this to the Blood Angels and I don't play them, but I was so looking forward to reading this. It would be stupid, but this essential part of Blood Angel history would need a reboot, and get one of the big names on it.

Bix said...

Hi Anon, thanks for your comments.

Whilst I'd argue there have been worse (Descent of Angels perhaps?)

I'd agree that this book in no way did 'this essential part of Blood Angels history' the justice it deserves.

It's certainly in the bottom end of the Heresy table and perhaps my review didn't convey the big disappointment I had in it's reading.

I'd definitely like to see the Blood Angels given to someone else as I've yet to read a decent portrayal of them.

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