Alright, we are seven books in and I think that The Horus Heresy has done pretty well. There are some weaker instalments such as Descent of Angels and while it’s not as good as some of the others, there’s a lot to like about it – sci-fi fantasy western is a fun genre mash. Unfortunately, Battle for the Abyss doesn’t have a cool gimmick to help drag along its weaker elements. Instead, this is a story that could easily not have existed without impacting the wider Heresy. While that is a pretty damning criticism, there were some parts that I enjoyed. So let’s dive into why by this point is easily the worst book in The Horus Heresy.
Battle for the Abyss takes place as The Horus Heresy is kicking off, sides have been picked and the Word Bearers are tasked with the destruction of the Ultramarines. There’s a plan in motion to wipe out a large part of the Legion and this is kicked off with an Ultramarine ship being destroyed in space and nobody knowing what happened. In response to this our primary protagonist Cestus, a follow Ultramarine, rallies his friends, a Space Wolf, Thousand Son and World Eater, to find out what happened. They pursue the enemy ship that destroyed the original Ultramarine ship, uncover the plot against their Legion and the betrayal of the Word Bearers. As a minor spoiler, this is all tied up with no loose ends and the attack against the Ultramarines goes ahead minus the mission Cestus prevented.
And that’s pretty much all there is to the story. It feels like it didn’t need to be a novel. If this was a short story about an Ultramarine and his pals trying to stop a Word Bearer ship prior to their attack, then this story would have worked a lot better. Instead, this is a book that’s about as long as Descent of Angels and a lot longer than Galaxy in Flames. However, nowhere enough happens to justify this length. If they spent more time fleshing out the characters’ backstories with how they met and became friends, this would have strengthened their relationships and allow for the length of the book. Instead, we have a story that should have the pace of Galaxy in Flames if not faster, but it’s drawn out and made grandiose for no reason.
The characters themselves are fine. There’s an interesting side plot about the Space Wolf, Brynngar, having a confrontation with the Thousand Son, Mhotep, about his use of the Warp. However, this culminates in a way to remove Brynngar’s agency from the equation and mean that it also felt pointless. It’s not resolved in a meaningful way and only really serves to inject some artificial tension and separate Mhotep from the rest of the Space Marines. The sort of standout here is the World Eater, Skraal, who spends most of his time trapped on the Word Bearer’s ship, the Furious Abyss, doing what World Eaters do best, killing folk. He’s enjoyable for his single-minded, behind enemy lines almost Rambo-esque side plot. However, he’s never really developed and the story spends hardly any time exploring his adventures onboard the Abyss, so it felt aimless at best. Our main man Cestus, the Ultramarine, is fine. He’s your standard Ultramarine and never develops beyond that.
And then we have the Word Bearers, the antagonists of this story. They are so generically evil in a way that is absent from almost all other Warhammer media, that I was so utterly disappointed. Their grand plan with the Furious Abyss is to attack a planet but they keep taking pit stops and engaging in unnecessary skirmishes throughout the story. Their commander, Zadkiel, is a moustache-twirling madman who with a thin motivation of wanting power and glory. He is kind of the foil to Cestus in that he’s so plainly his opposite, but the two barely meet and neither are interesting characters in the first place.
However, I did enjoy the parts of this book that were set in the Warp. The imagery around the demon attacks and warp invasions remain compelling and terrifying. The idea of warp storms and the chaos that ensues is by far the best part of the book. This is also where the conflict between Brynngar and Mhotep hits its peak and the motivations behind it are clear. While not amazing, for a book as long-winded and uninteresting as Battle for the Abyss, this section is a noticeable high point.
While I wouldn’t say that I hated Battle for the Abyss, it is not a good book. It suffers from major pacing issues and none of its characters help to carry an otherwise standard story of chasing a battleship. You could easily skip this book and not miss anything from The Horus Heresy, and I’d suggest you do just that. It doesn’t add anything or have anything to say beyond “Word Bearers bad, Ultramarines good”, which is about as boring a message as you can have for a Warhammer story.
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