If you want to write a great Horus Heresy book, there’s two things you can do. Either you can create compelling, realistic, characters and have them face a set of interesting events, or you can chronicle important events that have an impact on a galactic scale, and in the process set some canon. The very best novels of the series, such as The First Heretic, or Prospero Burns, are those which achieve both, and if your story provides neither, congratulations - you just wrote The Damnation Of Pythos and now people are going to have to read it.
So, with this overly simplistic metric established, does Praetorian Of Dorn deliver? Do we have a well-written, three dimensional character wrapped up in happenings of galactic import? In a word, yes.
The majority of the story is told from the point of view of an Imperial Fist named Archamus, and his story is one of the defence of Terra. Now now, calm down, this isn’t “The Battle Of Terra”; we still aren’t quite there yet. However, it is a welcome insight into a part of the Heresy odyssey which has been shown before, but only fleetingly. This is book 39 of the series, and it was back in book 4 that Rogal Dorn, another central figure of this book, found out about Horus’ betrayal. Since then, we have seen snippets of what the preparations of the defense of Terra have involved, earliest and most notably in Dan Abnett’s excellent short The Lightning Tower. We now get a full length novel on the topic, and it is perhaps fitting that this is where our host Achamus made his debut. At his inception little more than a faceless foil for Dorn, he truly grows into his own here, and giving the character such depth and life in the course of a single volume is an impressive achievement.
The book quickly establishes something I had not considered: That the Sol system is already under attack. For some reason, I had envisaged that the solar system would be inviolate to traitor forces right until the moment Horus dropped out of the warp with a thousand capital ships stuffed full of the gibbering spawn of Chaos and the defense of Terra began in earnest, but apparently (and in hindsight, obviously) not. So, this is a novel about the Imperial Fists defending against minor traitor picket fleets at the edge of the home world’s territory, right? Sounds riveting.
Oh no, that’s not it at all. It’s the backdrop, sure, but the story here is about a threat of a different kind. The aggressors here are the Alpha Legion.
The portions of the narrative not brought to us through Archamus’ lens are instead seen from the perspective of the Alpha Legion and their agents. Written well, the Alpha Legion are possibly the most interesting and compelling of the Legions, and here they are written superbly. Praetorian Of Dorn marks John French’s first full-length installment of the series, and if this is a fair example of his standard of work, he’s welcome to come back as often as he likes. The account is often exciting, always interesting, and, where it matters, downright breathtaking. In fact, this is the Alpha Legion at the most fascinating they have been since their literary “rebirth” in Legion. Deciding to chronicle a conflict between the Fists and the Alphas, with their vastly different worldviews and approaches to warfare is a great choice, and one that makes for an intriguing character study to go along with the signature Black Library ‘lovingly rendered descriptions of bolters being fired’ fare.
Make no mistake, Praetorian Of Dorn is one of the finest entries of the series to date, in both sheer quality and significance to the ongoing story arc. It is probably not the finest outright (an accolade which, for my money, still goes to The First Heretic) but is easily the strongest outing at least since Betrayer; a whopping fifteen novels previous, and the last time the series was truly excellent. Hopefully, in a series which started out on the strongest possible terms and has sadly struggled recently to exceed a relatively mediocre standard, French will tapped to provide more content in the future, so the end of the Heresy can be as artfully told as its genesis.
Next up in the series is Corax, a book about the guy who sits in a respectable fourth position on the ‘Most Forgettable Primarchs’ list, below only Jaghati Kahn, Ferrus Manus and Perturabo, the last of whom is currently enjoying his 30th straight year at number one. Go on bird-boy, impress me...