Sunday, November 4, 2012

Legion by Dan Abnett

Legion by Dan Abett is the seventh book in The Horus Heresy series published by The Black Library. Legion is ostensibly about the most secretive and least known of the Emperor’s Angels, the enigmatic Alpha Legion. In keeping with the theme of acting behind the scenes, the Alpha Legion is rather invisible for most of the book. Instead, the bulk of the book is taken up with a panoply of Imperial Guardsman characters as they deal with secretive plots, xenos agents and the Ruinous Powers. It is a heady mix indeed, but one that unfortunately is not greater than the sum of its parts.

Legion takes place largely on the world of Nurth, an ancient human homeworld cut off from Terra during the Long Night. The 670th Expeditionary Fleet has been mired in enforcing compliance. The Nurtheans have bloodied the Imperial Army heavily and compliance has taken far longer than expected through their use of unknown technology. Readers familiar with the Warhammer setting will recognize it as the chaos sorcery. Even with such foul aid, the Nurtheans are losing ground through attrition.

Behind the scenes numerous plots fester. The Alpha Legion is operating unknown. Agents from the Cabal, an ancient xenos organization, are attempt to contact the hidden Alpha Legion agents. Capping it off, The Lord Commander of the Imperial Army dreams of grandeur. At the height of fighting on Nurth, Chaos reveals its hand with disastrous effect to all involved. Afterward, the story shifts focus to the Alpha Legion and the Cabal, centered around a rendezvous on a forbidden alien world where dangerous truths are laid bare and the fate of the Imperium hangs in the balance.

Dan Abnett once again shows his fondness for the human side of the Imperium. In particular, he seems to enjoy the creative potential of the pre-Heresy Imperial Army. The Imperial Army, as usual, is composed of many smaller armies, each with their own martial traditions. What is thrilling is that this time, the units date to the time of the Unification Wars. These are the armies of ancient Terra during the Age of Strife. Dan Abnett fashions whole new histories, filling in the blanks of Terra’s history. The martial pageantry of each unit is carefully constructed. You learn of the Zanzibari Hort, Crescent-Sind Sixth Torrent, Outremars, Geno-Chiliad, Lucifer Blacks and Regnault Thorns. For fans of the Warhammer 40K, this world-building fluff is truly exciting.

The strength of Legion is found in its human characters. The interactions between Hurtado, Peto, Honen Mu, Rukhsana and John Grammaticus drive the novel. Their loyalties, honor and sense of self are all tested. Also, the characters from the Geno Chiliad stand out because their loyalties are suppose to lie with the Geno first, Imperium Second. This test of loyalties becomes central to Legion’s story and makes the ending heartbreaking.

The non-human characters stand out less. The Alpha Legion and Cabal exist as philosophical extremes, tugging at the human players. Each are devoted to long term monolithic causes with pragmatism dominating their decisions. Their knowledge is secret and dangerous, not to be shared. In one scene, such is the danger of this knowledge that its mere revelation kills one of the Alpha Legion’s psychic agents. In occupying such extremes, it is difficult to identify with either the Alpha Legion or the Cabal. The Cabal was intended to be this way as they are composed of incredibly ancient xenos. With the Legion, I think they were simply under-developed, especially when compared against earlier Horus Heresy novels. If not for the major revelatory moments concerning the Cabal and the Alpha Legion, they would have very little impact on the story as a whole.

My primary criticism with Legion is that it fails to form a cohesive whole. There are many excellent elements to the narrative and much to like about the book-- the splendor of the Imperial Army, the memorable characters, glimpses of the Alpha Legion, momentous secrets, etc. These are all things that are well done and exciting when examined individually. Yet when viewed as a whole, they feel as if they had been stitched together from a handful of short stories. Some elements seem to exist only to move the story to the next phase, such as the Black Cube. I think this weakness manifests itself most clearly in Legion’s anticlimactic ending. The most powerful moments center around the human characters. The moments featuring the Alpha Legion are lackluster as a result of their under development, and this unevenness robs the ending of its potential.

Overall, I enjoyed Legion. As a fan of the Warhammer 40K and Horus Heresy settings there is a lot to enjoy about the novel. The good points far outweigh the negatives. Yet when Legion is viewed independently of its setting, it isn't as successful and lacks a cohesive, driving narrative. This weakness was unexpected given the excellence of Dan Abnett’s previous entry in The Horus Heresy, Horus Rising. Legion is a solid if average entry to The Horus Heresy series. It helps drive the series forward but doesn’t raise the bar. Like the Alpha Legion itself, Legion is important due to its impact on the overall series story-line but will fade into the background letting other standout novels take the spotlight.

Memorable Quotes:
"'We are all Alpharius' said a third. 'We are all Alpha Legion, and we are all one.'"
"Overhead, the slow skies turned. The wind made a reptilian hiss, and the noise of the drums almost drowned out the sounds of screaming coming from the city ten kilometers away."
"He realised at length, that it was simply too big, too alien, too unparalleled, for his mind to accommodate without collapsing into madness. He looked away. He'd seen enough of the extraordinary for one lifetime."
"Honen Mu perceived that no one would be coming for them."
"It wouldn't be his first death, but he hoped it would be his last."
The Black Library: Legion by Dan Abnett
Image Source: The Black Library
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 9781849703406

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