Thursday, July 5, 2012

Galaxy in Flames by Ben Counter

Galaxy in Flames by Ben Counter is the third novel in the Horus Heresy series published by The Black Library. Galaxy in Flames closes out the opening trilogy of the Horus Heresy. Ben Counter takes the series into a more passionate direction as the characters come to grip with Horus’ treachery.

The story arc of Galaxy in Flames is fairly compact. Most readers will already know how the books ends with the betrayal at Isstan III. The entirety of the novel is the build-up for that galaxy-shattering event. Though the reader may be aware of the future, the characters in the novel are not. So while the characters struggle to understand events, the reader is horrified as they see the underlying treachery unfold each step of the way.

A familiar cast of characters returns, and some of the smaller characters grow in importance as new ones arrive. I particularly enjoyed Titus Cassar, Primus of the Dies Irae. Although he might have been little more than a plot device, he was a very effective one. It is via Titus that you get a glimpse into the workings of the Collegia Titanica which is always interesting.

Perhaps most important is the interaction between Titus and Jonah Aruken. As events move along, Titus’ faith in the Emperor and the nascent Lectitio Divinitatus strengthen. Jonah however doubts. He has faith only in the Dies Irae, and his only desire is to one day be the princeps of such a machine. Ultimately, even in the face of proof of the Emperor’s divinity via Euphrati’s miracles, he rejects the Emperor and betrays his friend Titus. While Jonah was perhaps a good man, his desires prove to be his undoing. I thought this was a great way to showcase the insidiousness of Chaos.

Kyril, Mersaide and Euphrati’s story thread was perhaps the most interesting piece of the narrative as it was more of an unknown. The events of Isstvaan III are a known factor, but the rise of The Saint is an unexpected variable that is a pleasure to read. To see the beginnings of the Imperial Cult, its iconography and its sayings is very interesting. It was also fun to read how Mersaide’s character doubts the veracity of her friends’ new faith much like Jonah doubts Titus. Ultimately, Mersaide stays loyal to the Emperor. I thought that was a nice counterpoint point to Jonah.

The tagline for Galaxy in Flames is “The heresy revealed.” This manifests itself in the passion of the characters. While False Gods was more introspective as the characters sought to understand events, in Galaxy they rage against them. The character rage as they witness the ideals of the Great Crusade are perverted and stolen from them via base acts of treachery. The characters mourn as they see the potential for glory be lost.

All of this raw emotion is kept under tight control for the bulk of the novel. The characters seethe inside. They have no way to vent; Isstvan III serves as the pressure release. It is here that the full extent of Horus’ betrayal is laid bare, and there is no rationalizing it away. Watching Horus’ Chaos corrupted personality emerge during the slaughter of the remembrancers is tragic. You know there is no redemption for Horus. In the face of such repugnance, Iacton Qruze’s character is finally shocked out of complacency, honoring his brother Loken in protecting Kyril, Mersaide and Euphrati.

On the surface of Isstvan III, the loyalist Space Marines finally face the treachery of not only Horus, but their Primarchs and their battle brothers. There is no hope of victory; there are no reinforcements. Yet, in this crucible, they fight on. Their spirit is unbreakable. They fight to the last.

In this desperate milieu, two events are especially poignant: the battle between the Mournival brothers and Lucius’ betrayal of Tarvitz. Loken and Tarvitz have been built up as characters now for several novels. They have been developed as paragons of their Legions, ideals to which every Space Marine should aspire. Now they both die, betrayed and unwilling to break their oaths to the Emperor even for the love of their brothers. Lucius’ betrayal is especially foul as he succumbs to Chaos due to his pride and vanity.

The closing chapters of Galaxy in Flames are Ben Counter’s most successful. Whereas the bulk of the book can feel frustratingly slow at times, the final chapters explode in violence and emotion. Given that this gradual build up was likely intentional, the climactic end is highly effective.

What I didn’t like about the novel was Ben Counter’s rather loose grasp of facts at times. Saul Tarvitz’s character is incredibly promoted to First Captain, which is not really in line with the previous Horus Heresy entries. It is jarring because that is a fairly august position, yet he is not treated as such in the narrative. Ben Counter was also sloppy with the virus bombing of Istvaan III. Specifically, scenes of local citizenry dying both to the virus and later to the firestorm. They should not have been alive for the firestorm. I have a hard time describing these issues as anything else but sloppy writing and sloppy editing. They are minor, but they are also very annoying-- more so than grammar issues.

All in all, I enjoyed Galaxy in Flames. As a whole it isn’t as successful as the preceding two novels. But, its high points are very high, and Ben Counter creates some of the most memorable scenes of the Horus Heresy thus far while fashioning a fitting end to the opening trilogy. I think this is quite an accomplishment given the very strict framework within which he wrote this book. What I will remember the most is how Ben Counter was able to infuse the narrative with so much emotion. Galaxy in Flames is a must read for fans of Warhammer 40K and the Horus Heresy.

The Black Library: Galaxy in Flames by Ben Counter
Image Source: The Black Library
Review Copy: Self Purchased Paperback
ISBN-13: 978-1844163939

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