Although there is a wealth of emerging new talent in the Black Library there is something very reassuring in reading a book by one of the ‘classic’ authors. In this case one of the Horus Heresy Alumni, here managing to continue to write for the Black Library despite working elsewhere. Within reading the first few pages of Magnus the Red it feels like slipping into a comfortable pair of shoes as the flow of the prose and class of the writing assert themselves and by the end of the first chapter I knew I was in for a treat. However, the book still proved capable of a surprise or two. I have to say, I did wonder if Graham felt the same sense of familiarity in writing the book as I did reading it, as he eases back into references to Corvidae and Pavoni in no time, effortlessly picking up the terminology he established in A Thousand Sons all that time ago. (Seven years now!)
Set in the early days of the Crusade, the narrative sees Magnus and Perturabo tasked with the evacuation of a compliant planet named Morningstar which is quite literally falling apart. Although saving everyone is impossible, they are resolute in their intention to save as many of the populace as possible.
It is quite jarring to see these two Primarchs portrayed displaying so much compassion and in such a heroic light. Of course Magnus’s prime motivation is actually the knowledge that will be lost with Morningstar’s destruction and the people are a secondary consideration, though he does ensure his sons play their part in the evacuation efforts. Ergo it is actually PERTURABO who comes off as the more humane here, though he is of course calculating and arrogant in his execution. Graham adds a up to now unseen facet to the Iron Warriors Primarch and he really shines, threatening to steal the limelight from Magnus in his own book, which seems a little unfair given the next scheduled title IS Perturabo.
Of course the evacuation doesn’t go smoothly or this would be a pretty boring (though at the same time unique! ) Heresy Tale. It transpires that there is a rogue faction on Morningstar. A cult, called the Sons of Shaitan.
Graham, really? Morningstar? Shaitan/Satan? Bit close to the mark there and I felt it came across as a bit lazy, though to be honest Mr McNeill has probably earned a free pass at this point. I think we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
Misgivings about the identity of the antagonist aside however they certainly throw an almighty spanner into the works of the evacuation effort of the two Legions. You see the Sons of Shaitan (sigh) don’t WANT to leave the planet, they want to stay and die and ascend. Problem is they don’t want anyone else to leave either. Cue lots and lots of sabotage and destruction as they try to ensure as many die on Morningstar as possible.
This obviously gives the Astartes a lot more to do than evacuate a panicked populace. Plenty of action follows, though an author of Graham’s class would never fall into the trap of resorting to outright bolter porn and keeps things moving at a brisk pace . He deftly distinguishes the two legion’s approach to combat with the Thousand Sons using their powers freely (so presumably this is all before Nikea) and the Iron Warriors falling back on tactics and disciplined Bolter Fire. Most of this centres around Arthava and Forrix as Graham once again ties into his 40k Iron Warrior novels.
These scenes of action and calamity also call the Primarchs into action with Magnus getting a standout scene in which to display his heroism. It’s really well written and I don’t wish to spoil it here, you’ll recognise it when you get to it. He is not alone either, all the loyalist forces on the planet are sorely tested and events are fairly epic with the action proceeding at an appreciable pace. Time and time again the Astartes are challenged as the planned evacuation threatens to become a wholesale massacre.
However, this is Magnus’s book and his overwhelming desire for knowledge causes him to send a squad of his sons off to explore a location he has seen in a vision, believing the secrets of Morningstar to be buried there. Athough at the time this seems to be superfluous addition to the book, threatening to derail what has up to this point been a fairly tight narrative, I can assure you that it does in fact serve a purpose to the overreaching arc. It may not be obvious at first as it comes across as a little clumsy but it sets up several important relationships, and of course the shocking climax to the book. I’ll not say more here, these are spoiler free reviews.
So that is Magnus the Red – Master of Prospero. While a long way from Graham’s very best work it is nonetheless a wonderful treat to read his writing again. So far it ranks as the best Primarch book, being a fair bit more complex than previous efforts, setting up multiple future narratives and arcs. There is an excellent mix of characterisation and action and some great work is done to humanise these two Primarchs, presenting a profound compassion that we have not really seen before. It’s very jarring given we know how these Primarchs end up.
And in general I think that the Traitor Primarchs will be the better books of this series as we are confronted with a stark contrast to their characters as we know them from the Heresy. With Purturabo and Lorgar next up we should have some excellent stories ahead. For now Magnus The Red comes highly recommended and I’m greatly looking forward to The Crimson King as he returns to the Heresy Proper. I have a backlog there though so have Praetorian of Dorn and Master of Mankind to get out of the way first.