So far the Horus Heresy novels have dealt directly with the build and start of the conflict. We’ve had some insight into the Primarchs and the Legions before the Emperor left the Crusade, but nothing in details. So when I started Descent of Angels and saw that it was the story of Lion El’ Jonson Primarch of the Dark Angels before he was discovered by the Emperor, I was excited. However, this also means that all that tension and build-up to Istvaan and the heresy itself, are left hanging as we take to the history books in a story that is vastly different to the ones that came before. So you might suffer some whiplash from this sudden turn.
A large portion of this story centres around cousins Zahariel and Nemiel as they undergo various trials in becoming knights on the planet of Caliban. They seek to join the same knightly order as the Lion and must prove themselves along the way. This part of the story is a massive change from closely following Space Marines as they gruffly shout ‘Brother’. You see the cousins grow and while they aren’t the most fascinating characters they serve well enough to introduce the Primarch and the planet he grew up on.
The first part of the book has a distinct sci-fi fantasy knight western feel to it, which is an impressive mashup of genres. We’ve got terrifying beasts, certain limited technology including guns that feel close to bolters and all of it centres around knights protecting the people and confronting each other to uphold their ideals. On my first through Descent of Angels, I was hit hard by the whiplash and this sudden change of pace from the events of the Istvaan system were not what I was after. However, on a second go through I thoroughly enjoyed these parts. There’s a lot of interesting nuggets of information to go on to inform the behaviour of the Dark Angels in the Horus Heresy and beyond into the regular 40k timeline. On top of that this weird genre combination is interesting enough on its own.
Where Descent of Angels struggled on both my visits was once the Imperium and Emperor visit Caliban and everyone gets Astartes’ed up. The distinct knightly western flavour is lost in favour of one that is more typical of Space Marines and big guns. It isn’t bad but it does mean that once you leave Caliban, you’ll wish you hadn’t. I won’t spoil these events but they have some fun action scenes and are necessary to get us to where the Dark Angels needed to be for the events of the Horus Heresy, I just wish we got to spend more time with plate mail gunslingers.
This is a book of who halves and while I think the first is the stronger of the two, it still has it’s wrinkles. Despite having a distinct flavour, we don’t get a decent picture of the world of Caliban. I think this is partly to keep it mysterious but it mostly serves to make the setting confusing. And while we don’t spend a lot of time with world-building, there is still a decent amount of repetition in terms of other descriptions. This repetition feels like padding but in the wrong way as there were areas that could have been further explored. I hope future Dark Angels books can fill in some of these gaps but it feels like a missed opportunity in Descent of Angels.
While I enjoyed Descent of Angels on my second go through, it is still a flawed novel. The first half is the most interesting but at the same time, it never feels like a complete world. The second half forgoes a lot of the interesting concepts and aspects that the first created, which is a shame. And while this creates an interesting set up for future Dark Angel books and the Horus Heresy in general, it never reaches the Space Marine highs the previous books reached.
This leaves Descent of Angels in a strange position. While I enjoyed it and the roots of the Dark Angels are great, the characters are passable at best. If you are a die-hard Dark Angels fan or committed to finishing every single Horus Heresy book then reading this is a foregone conclusion. However, for everyone else, this is an easy one to skip.
Thanks for reading. If you are thinking of kicking off 9th Edition with the Indomitus novel, then read my review first as it might make your reconsider that purchase. For a more positive review, why not read about the Talon of Horus which is a great story of Chaos Space Marines.
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