Saturday, December 11, 2010

Mechanicum by Graham McNeill

Horus Heresy: Mechanicum by Graham McNeill is the tenth book in the Horus Heresy series and the first that doesn’t focus on the Space Marines. This, I assume, was an editorial risk by Black Library to broaden the scope of the Horus Heresy series. It was trying to reconcile the lack of Space Marines that lead me to write my previous article Warhammer 40K Universe - Black Library’s Challenge. By defining the Horus Heresy not in terms of the Space Marines and instead by a broader theme of a loss of innocence, then you can easily fit Mechanicum into the Horus Heresy canon. That fact is precisely what makes Mechanicum so successful.

Graham McNeill has continued the trend of being my favorite Horus Heresy writer. Graham writes memorable dialogue and thus far in the Horus Heresy has done an excellent job of creating dramatic irony through excellent foreshadowing. Not only does Graham capture the feel of the Space Marines, he is able to capture the unique flavor of each chapter. Graham brings these talents to Mechanicum. The Mechanicum has its own unique culture, and history alien to the rest of the Imperium. Capturing this is a unique challenge as they are so completely different from the Space Marines and Imperial Guard that dominate the majority of the Black Library’s catalog.

Mechanicum’s plot is its strongest feature. This is not to say that the dialog and world building are deficient, which they are not, but it is the plot that shines. Mechanicum’s plot is two fold. The primary plot charts the fall of the Mechanicum into heresy. The secondary plot concerns the secret origins of the Mechanicum. The secondary plot is interesting and full of fluff for the hardcore Warhammer 40K fans. But, beyond setting up an obvious sequel it has no direct bearing on the Horus Heresy’s overall plot. It is also impossible to discuss without major spoilers so I will simply avoid it.

The primary plot, the rise of the Dark Mechanicum, is incredibly well conceived because it captures the essence of the Horus Heresy so completely. The essence being betrayal and a loss of innocence on the eve of greatness. Parallelling the corruption of the Space Marines, the Mechanicum is slowly being corrupted from the inside as well. Drawn into heresy through petty jealousies and ego. Kelbor-Hal, the Fabricator General of Mars, resents the Emporer and his capricious edicts; specifically declaring some information verboten. This central fact is a recurring theme within the Horus Heresy; e.g. the Emperor’s mysterious retreat to Terra and interdiction on sorcery. Of course, this lack of faith in the Emperor leads Kelbor-Hal into heresy via his lust for knowledge.

The complement to Kelbor-Hal’s fall is the rise of Koriel Zeth, forge mistress of Magma City. Koriel works to throw off the superstitious shackles of the Machine Cult; risking being branded a heretic by her peers. Her greatest ambition is the creation of the All Knowledge Machine. A device which taps into the aether, aka Warp, to access the latent knowledge of all mankind.

That is the setup for the novel. As you can see it mirrors the fall of the Space Marine Legions. Kelbor-Hal is the greatest Fabricator General in the history of Mars. He takes the role of Horus. Koriel Zeth is about to lead the Mechanicum into a Golden Age, indeed lead all mankind into a new Golden Age. She takes the role of the Emperor.

Kelbor’s decent into heresy leads the Mechanicum into civil war. The outcome of which is the creation of the Dark Mechanicum. Additionally, a good part of the Mechanicum’s knowledge and history is also lost during the conflict The result of which sends the Mechanicum deeper into the arms of the Machine Cult, leading to future of stagnation and superstition. Again, this parallels the future of the Imperium as the ultimate outcome of the Horus Heresy.

As Graham develops this plot, he also brings his trademark skill to the novel. The Mechanicum is brought to life through its characters. Their unique drives and ambitions are explored. Of particular note is the detail into which the Legio are explored. Although they have little direct bearing on the plot, they do serve to bring a martial element to the novel so that it is not saturated with purely political machinations. Mixed in is a tremendous amount of fan service through delicious fluff, particularly the secondary plot.

But, the reason I enjoyed this novel so much is how it successfully broadened the scope of the Horus Heresy, showing the reader that the treachery of Horus was repeated many times throughout the Imperium. The sense of loss in Mechanicum is acute and painful. The grand battle at the end of the novel is heart wrenching. Mechanicum captures the heart of the Horus Heresy and provides a new perspective through which to view heresy; giving the reader a great appreciation of the scope of Horus’ treachery. I can only hope the rest of the Horus Heresy is as successful as this novel.

The Black Library: Mechanicum by Graham McNeill
Image Source: Scanned Cover
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 978-1844166060

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Horus Heresy - Black Library's Challenge

While trying to organize my review for Mechanicus I started thinking about the unique challenges faced by Black Library writers. In short a writer must integrate themselves into an existing universe while conforming to a predefined canon, style, and tone. That is no mean feat. Thinking on this idea further I was trying to decide what exactly defines the Horus Heresy.

When trying to define the writing style of Warhammer 40K, you really have to think sci-fantasy. Warhammer 40K is nominally sci-fi but perhaps more accurate to be called sci-fantasy and even more accurately, dystopian gothic sci-fantasy. This style is most keenly felt in the diction choice both through spoken dialog and description. Black Library uses anachronistic word selection which conveys a sense of age and authority to the text. In addition, Black Library has cultivated a pidgin language of pseudo-Latin techno-speak. Perhaps the greatest aspect of this unique pidgin is how it manages to merge science and religion through root word choices, creating a high description word selection.

Where the Horus Heresy differs is that it is not dystopian. It is still gothic sci-fantasy but the fledgling Imperium has not yet lost its innocence. This is found in the diction choice. The dialog and description is decidedly more positive, everything is tinged with a sense of anticipation. The galaxy is falling to the might of the Emperor and his Legions. The Horus Heresy is the zenith of the Imperium. This diction choice directly supports the narrative them of the Horus Heresy. Mankind is ascendant. Horus Heresy is about man at his finest with the galaxy firmly in his grip.

This is itself in direct contradiction to Warhammer 40K where the galaxy is in a slow decline to stagnation; a stagnation of both spirit and mind. Whereas Warhammer 40K is full of heroes facing valiantly fighting a loosing battle, Horus Heresy is still an age of conquest and glory. The Emperor and his Primarchs walk with mankind. In Warhammer 40K the Emperor and the Primarchs are nearly myth, cloaked so heavily in mysticism from the passage of time.

So, when I am reading a Horus Heresy novel I really look to see how well an author captures the feel of the Horus Heresy universe; the sense of hope and glory. I can’t imagine how tricky this must be for the Black Library’s long time contributing authors as due to the amount of time they have spent in the Warhammer 40K universe proper and its distinctly different style. Not only does the author have to capture the unique pidgin and cleave to the canon but they also have to reverse course on the theme of the universe. This fact is of the utmost importance because after all, everyone knows the end of the Horus Heresy story. If the Black Library and its writers do not build up the narrative enough then the fall will impact weakening the most pivotal moment of the entire Warhammer 40K universe. Now that is a daunting challenge...fit for a Space Marine.

Image Source: The Black Library