I have put this review for a long time. It has sat half-finished in my Google Docs for months while I try to effectively articulate how and why this story works so well. The best way to describe A Thousand Sons by Graham McNeill is to say that it is a tragedy. And much like some of the stories that come before it, it’s comparable to Greek Myths such as Oedipus. You see the great Magnus at the height of his power and influence and watch as his decisions come back to bite him in the form of a Space Wolf. This is a masterclass in Horus Heresy fiction and this is why you need to bump it up your to-read list.
A Thousand Sons starts just before the Council of Nikea, where Magnus is censured for his use of sorcery. Upon the decision made here, the Primarch and his Legion retreat to his home planet of Prospero to continue to use their powers in secret. However, when Magnus foresees the betrayal of Horus, he tries to intervene. We see the scene where Horus is injured from False Gods, but from the perspective of Magnus as he tries to convince his brother to stay away from the dark gods. And we all know how that went. After which, he tries to warn his father, and that doesn’t go well either. And then the wolves arrive.
That is a truncated explanation, but I don’t want to ruin the ins and outs of this brilliant story. The highs and lows of Magnus are fantastic to read about. You see his humanity, his arrogance and his failure. Throughout, Magnus feels like a living, breathing character and you feel his pain when things don’t go his way. And while we can’t relate to the Primarch on a physical or psychic level, we can understand the pain of a child who is seen as second best and only wants to show how much he has grown. We can also relate to failure. Everyone has tried to do something good and do it badly, even the legendary Primarchs. And that de-Demi-God-ifying of Magnus is the true triumph of A Thousand Sons.
But that isn’t all. We get to spend a decent amount of time with Ahriman and learn a lot about his character. He is another fascinating character and through dramatic irony, we know exactly where his road of good intentions will end up. We see him throughout the Council of Nikea, we see him challenging Magnus, we see him helping regular people when they return to Prospero and we see him delving into the dark secrets of the rubric. And at each stage, we learn something and step further into this character who will shape the Imperium.
The entire section set on Prospero that leads up to the inevitable Space Wolf invasion is a fascinating look at the height of the Imperium. The planet is at peace, everyone is working to the betterment of everyone else, but with an undertone of fear. This is partly through the alien life that can physically implant its young into your brain and the fact that Astartes are hulking brutes and one wrong word could result in death. And it serves to show that even without Horus and his heresy, the Imperium was a point where civil war was likely inevitable.
And now a few criticisms. Firstly, this is a long book and suffers from a few pacing issues from time to time. Much like the ponderous legion it follows, this is a ponderous book and as such, you can spend a good ten pages learning about the above aliens or the inner workings of Prospero. For me, that’s great but I can see other people bouncing up and down waiting for the next bit of plot. And because it’s such a big book it has a lot of characters and we don’t always get to see what happens to them. The remembrancers for example are at one point an important part of the story, but they are sidelined and their fate left without a satisfying explanation. However, considering the cast and the purpose behind the story, it certainly achieves what it was aiming for.
And that’s A Thousand Sons. It is easily one of the best works so far in the Horus Heresy. And while it isn’t as action-packed as some instalments, there is plenty of fighting to get your blood pumping. If you’ve been avoiding this book because you don’t like the legion or Magnus, then give it a go because it might surprise you.
Thanks for reading. If you want more Horus Heresy, then check out the short story anthology Tales of Heresy or one of my favourites Legion. Alternatively, check out something different with Gav’s article on UI Fatigue.
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