Monday, August 27, 2012

Fulgrim by Graham McNeill

Fulgrim by Graham McNeil is the fifth book in The Horus Heresy series. It is the first truly stand-alone title in The Horus Heresy. Granted the creative freedom to strike off in a new direction, Graham presents the fall of Fulgrim and his Legion, the Emperor’s Children. It is especially poignant and ironic given the symbolism of the Legion and their Primarch.

The tagline for Fulgrim, “Visions of Treachery,” sets the tone for the novel. Chaos is never encountered directly. It is only through indirect contact that Chaos works its corruptions, through “Visions.” Through this, Graham crafts a tale of a Legion losing a battle for its soul without ever having seen or confronted its attacker.

Fulgrim is a whirlwind novel, rarely staying in one place for long. The novel begins with the assault on Laeran. The opening chapter introduces the principal actors, and the qualities of the Emperor’s Children are detailed. It is here that Fulgrim finds the demon possessed blade that will be his downfall.

The narrative dwells briefly on a joint operation with the Iron Hands Legion against the Diasporex, a nomadic fleet of humans and xenos, and then jumps to an exciting sequence involving the Eldar. The sequence is exciting both in that the Eldar are appearing in the Heresy for the first time, but also for the backstory presented on Eldrad Ulthran which becomes pivotal in the Warhammer 40K setting. Fulgrim wraps up with a small skirmish with the Orks before moving to the finale in the now familiar Istvaan system.

Structurally, Fulgrim is a very complex novel. The complexity lends to the greater length; it being nearly one hundred pages longer than previous novels. Graham puts those pages to good use, and the conflict between various factions within the Legion is critical to the novel’s structure. These struggles are crucial because it is through this battle that Graham showcases the creeping corruption of Chaos.

There are three central conflicts upon which the novel hinges. The conflict between the Captains of Emperor’s Children, the conflict amongst the Remembrancers and finally the conflict between Fulgrim and Ferrus. Of these, the strife between the Captains is the least successful, and Fulgrim and Ferrus’ the most.

The conflict starts with Fulgrim and his demon possessed blade. Unbeknownst to Fulgrim, the blade contains the soul of a Greater Demon of Slannesh--a deadly enemy. Slannesh’s principle domain is excess. Introducing such a fiend into the midst of a Legion who prides itself on Perfection, in all its forms, could not have created a more volatile situation.

It is via this classic Shakespearean setup that the novel gains its momentum. Fulgrim is plagued by the fear of failure. Therefore, he seeks to ward against failure through perfection since you cannot fail if you are perfect. In this tiny, well-meaning crack, Chaos gains it toehold. From Fulgrim, the infection spreads to the rest of the Legion.

All of the conflict in the novel follows the same basic premise; contrasting the points of view between the Chaos-corrupted actors and the Loyalist actors. The fued between Fulgrim and Ferrus captures this dynamic at its most simple and most potent. It is here that petty bickering of brothers metastasizes into something malevolent, purely through the instigation of Chaos.

The demon in Fulgrim’s blade is constantly whispering into Fulgrim’s mind; turning every kind gesture by Ferrus into a slight. When Ferrus saves Fulgrim’s life during the battle with the Diasporex, Ferrus was trying to steal Fulgrim’s glory. This resentment builds to hate, blinding Fulgrim to the true nature of Chaos, and allowing himself to be manipulated.

Graham also renews the focus on the Remembrancers, largely absent from the previous entry in The Horus Heresy: The Flight of the Eisenstein. I was pleased to see their return as I think they help bring a very human element to the story that is often missing when the Astartes are the sole focus. The conflict between the Remembrancers is interesting because it is so lurid compared to the rest of the novel. It brings a welcoming change of pace.

In particular I enjoyed Ostian Delafour and Serena D’Angelus story thread. While it was Fulgrim’s blade that whispered treachery into his ear, it is Ostian’s and Serena’s artistic talents that whisper to them. Ostian and Serena also create a neat mirror of Fulgrim and Ferrus. While the Primarch express a brotherly love, Ostian and Serena express a romantic love. Like Ferrus, it is Ostian’s humility that inoculates him to the lure of Slaanesh. Serena’s self doubt is what leaves her open to the sickly sweet seduction of Chaos, as with Fulgrim. Serena’s ultimate fate also parallels Fulgrim. I also find it interesting that Serena has the fortitude to kill herself but Fulgrim does not.

The conflict between the Captains of the Space Marines was less successful. I think this in a large part is due to the lack of word count. Most of the story is focused Eidolon, Julius, Lucius and Fabius. Much less time is given to Vespasian, Solomon and Saul. As a result you end up with an imbalance in points of view.

In particular, Solomon Demeter’s character is sorely lacking. Solomon’s character bears a lot in common with the character Garviel Loken from earlier Heresy novels. I think Graham was counting on that fact to help bolster Solomon’s character but it only serves to exacerbate the sketched in quality of Solomon. Vespasian is in some ways even worse; he basically doesn’t exist in the story except to be introduced and then killed later on.

Why this bothers me is that it weakens the scenes involving the death of Solomon and Vespasian. Without any substance, it is hard to generate the empathy needed to give those scenes the gravitas they deserve. These should be pivotal scenes, but they fall flat.

One grating annoyance I had with Fulgrim was the character Saul Tarvitz. In the previous four books, Saul’s character had been steadily built up. He felt like a pivotal character. I was really looking forward to Fulgrim in large part because I wanted to see more Saul Tarvitz. Instead, he is a bit player until the closing chapters. In fact, it appears he has been demoted. My greatest frustration is that Saul could have easily replaced Solomon Demeter’s character in the narrative. I think Saul’s character was more interesting and dynamic than Solomon’s and was a better fit to contrast against Eidolon. Especially due to the past confrontations between Eidolon and Saul. Yet, by dividing time between Solomon and Saul, both are weakened. I feel like something was missed here that could have elevated the book another notch.

Overall, I think Fulgrim represents the high point in The Horus Heresy series thus far. Graham McNeill delivers a book that is all his own, one that he didn’t have to share with his fellow Black Library authors. You can feel that excitement in the narrative. The book's structure is complex, beautiful and successful. Chaos is represented in a truly intriguing and suspenseful manner. You catch yourself yelling at the pages, trying to warn Fulgrim.

Fulgrim’s one downfall is that it is perhaps too ambitious. I think Fulgrim could easily have been two novels. As it is, everything is crammed into one book and a few characters do not get the attention they deserve, which weakens key scenes in the book. I am especially disappointed with Saul Tarvitz’s lack of growth and, in some ways, regression. But, do not let this criticism deter you. Fulgrim is an excellent book. I highly recommend it.

Memorable Quotes:
"Yes you did. With your own hands, you struck down your brother, he who had only thought well of you and fought faithfully with you through all the long years.
'He...he was my brother.'
He was, and all he ever did was honor you."
The Black Library: Fulgrim by Graham McNeill
Image Source: The Black Library
Review Copy: Self purchased mass market paperback
ISBN-13: 9781849703383