Tuesday, 29 January 2019

A Review of The Crimson King by Graham McNeill

(Sorry everyone, will do more proper content soon.)

Alright, I've done enough complaining about my bête-noir, McNeil’s over-use of recent history and modern cultural references. I'll do it one more time then never again.

McNeil is really good a writing about the grand tragedy of knowledge loss. He wrote two of the most major and impactful scenes about exactly this; the disaster on Mars when the Dark Mechanicum release scrapcoade that trashes huge vaults of collected data and ignites power disasters that annihilate huge libraries of humanities past, and again on Prospero, when the Space Wolves do the same thing to the library collected there.

These scenes and their impact play a large part in the sense of doom and tragedy that informs the setting and the Heresy series in particular. But *in* McNeils stories characters are continually pulling Shakespeare off the wall, picking up European/medieval Tarot cards, finding the skull of Nikolai Tesla etc. I feel something that it wouldn't be a surprise for someone to pull out a vinyl album of Cat Stevens and jam that out on the planet of the sorcerers.

And they rarely seem to reference the forty (or thirty) thousand years of pseudo history between now and then.

It makes the setting feel small and cramped and massively undercuts the horror of lost knowledge and memory loss that plays such an important part in the background and psychology of the characters.

And it irritates me because it knocks me out of the story every single time, and with greater alienation the more it occurs.

Like, if he really wants to do it he should at least invent new (old) crazy shit for people to talk about and discover.


The book;

While many Heresy books are about terrible parenting, this is also about terrible childrening.

I remember in the book 'Emperor of All Maladies' reading about the children of cancer patients being simply unable to let them go. Though the disease is terminal and the treatments can be agonising, they will often prolong the suffering of the people they love because to simply allow death would be to 'give up'.

Is this love? It is, of a kind.

We start the book after the end of the fall of Prospero. The 1k Sons have been swooshed through space to the Planet of the Sorcerers (which ADB re-names in later books, possibly because he thinks it sounds silly), along with bits and pieces of Tizca and their dad, Magnus, who had his back broken by Leman Russ.

We know that in a few years the 1k Sons, along with Magnus, show up at Terra ready to stomp on things with Horus, and we know that at the moment they seem to have very little interest in doing that. Is all this because McNeill wrote Magnus as too much of a topping fellow in A Thousand Sons and had to come up with a reason for him to join Horus?

Possibly, but if it is we got quite a lot out of it.

The 1k Sons quickly find out that dad is dying. He's essentially a weird Demon/Angel/Supersoldier magical dude anyway and when Russ smashed him up (McNeill describes Magnus's insides like Enochian angel organs, to good effect) he literally broke his hyperdimensional soul into pieces which got scattered throughout the galaxy and which are all now dying separately.

So now we have a classic object quest which is also an internal psychodrama as all the shards of Magnus have their own desires and point of view on what is going on. Curious that this is a book about a contest between powers, sons, nightmares and enemies to either engineer a soul or prevent it being remade.

I didn't count them exactly but I think we have;

- Asshole Bro Magnis.
- Alzheimers Magnus (they all are a bit).
- Weird Ash Magnus (what was up with that guy?).
- Librarian Magnus.
- Cosplay Librarian Magnus (multiple shards are largely bibliophiles).
- Good Guy Magnus (is on earth and bookends the novel).

The less insane and deluded shards of Magnus repeatedly tell the 1k Sons that nothing good will come of putting them back together, that it would be better to let him die, that there is nothing they can do.

Being outside the fiction we know that this is largely (probably) the case. Magnus becomes a demon and ends up 99.9999% evil and cracking the galaxy in half like a dinner plate.

But his sons won't, or can't, let him go. No matter how much he asks to be left to die, or how crazy and dangerous his Altzheimers self becomes, or what the sacrifice is, or how much of  a bad idea it looks like being, they just keep trucking along in their various ways, causing utter havoc to everyone.

All of this is orchestrated by everyones favourite blue, feathered Magic the Gathering and 4e D&D player.

Tzeentch corrupting the 1k Sons to be honest, does not take very long. But to be fair, he has a pretty trump hand, more so than with any other legion. If they choice is between going a bit evil or dying, then some of us would willingly die. If its between evil and being horribly mutated into a huge mindless flesh beast in eternal agony, then few of us would take the deal, and if its between evil and watching people we care about mutating into crazy flesh beasts, how many of us would resist?

So off a-questing we go, with a three-pronged story;

- Amon goes on a freaky dream/grail/spirit quest in a Voyage to Arcturus style, across the Planet of Sorcerers to find his mad dad and persuade him to join up with his other selves. This was my favourite part of the book and some of the shorter elements were very good indeed.

This part also has some of the most affecting scenes as Amons desperate need for his father meets the mental decay of Magnus, whose personality and memory flip back and forth, sometimes enthusiastic and hopeful, sometimes forgetting what is going on or drifting back in time, and on a few occasions massively endangering or murdering his own sons.

- Azhek Ahriman goes on a more classically 40k-ish  journey across space to grab soul bits, along for the ride are a demon in a robot, a gang of increasingly-bitter 1k Sons and Special Guest Appearance; Lucius the Eternal! Lucius is a surprisingly fun character to drag along, his utterly insane omni-destructive hyper-narcissism makes him an engaging counterpoint to the sad introverted 1ksons.

- Annd in hot pursuit of Azhek are Space wolves (boo) an ex-Smurf, one Raven Guard who stays off screen (classic) and the Sigilites slightly-ridiculous 1980's Samurai, who are charged with stopping whatever the hell is going on.

Throughout the book, Magnus and his sons are persistently attacked by their greatest enemy; foreshadowing.

This is more of a general Horus Heresy problem, start the heresy at humanities peak, its megabeasts have already won their reputations so for a large part we don't get to see that happen. Instead we get to see them fall apart while their reputation for being amazing is more told than shown.

But it's brought into sharp relief by the really-very-significant amount of it in The Crimson King. There's lots of bird totems, dust, people falling out of walls talking about inevitable betrayal, multiple warnings of hubris and doom. It all goes on so much that it perhaps makes the characters ignoring it seem a little stupid.

Nevertheless, the books does manage to sustain itself, a little like the planet of the sorcerers itself, on the strength of its own invention; dream visions, megastructures (Celestial Orrerys, Nightmare Psyker Prisons, Warp-Carved Hyper Cathedrals to the concept of extinction, Infinite Oceans of Memory etc), some strong characterisation, some exciting scumbags (Lucius, the Demon Robot) and the essential tragedy of the story.

Towards the end the soul-swapping and hyperpowers do blur a little and make the final conflict a little bit of a 3rd act skybeam but McNiell does nail the landing. The titanic hubris of Magnus and his sons would count for little, or simply be insensible, without genuine and deep idealism. As fucked up and monstrous as they become, they are still originally motivated by the desire to do the right thing. Azhek and Amon want their dad back, Magnus wants to save human culture.

By the end of the story our boys are back on track to the best of all possible worlds, they just need to do one more utterly terrible thing first.


  1. At least TOS Trek would always have that one gratuitous future example. "Your great poets: Homer, Milton, Zoktag of Rigel VII"

    1. EXACTLY. That is exactly what I am talking about.

    2. To me there is an example in Star Trek which is almost as bad: the constant harping on Shakespeare by Klingons (Klingons!) just because they had Christoper Plummer available for Star Trek VI and wanted him to show off a bit. Hundreds of thousands of years of Klingon history and they haven't got a decent poet but have to nick one from Earth of 1000 years ago????

    3. Here's Ian Watson on the issue (from Harlequin)
      "Poems might well be famous in the frogpond of one planet. They would be unknown anywhere else. Even the most famous poems would be no more than a grain of dust upon a speck of sand in a desert ten thousand miles across. If on each of only half a million worlds only ten poets of genius flourished each century then after merely a thousand years no less than fifty million bards would have perpetrated their masterpieces. After ten thousand years, five hundred million bards. Simply to name each bard of genius once, allowing only two seconds per name, would occupy a calculator almost thirty-two standard years non-stop. Futility was the final fate of all endeavour."

    4. I like it. I should add it to my list of things to read.

  2. Great review! 40k (the universe and books, not the game itself) has always fascinated me. It works with deep time in a weird backwards way, where instead of descending through layers of the past like a dungeoncrawl, those layers are folding up around the Imperium to crush it (Horus, then the Eldar, the Necron, etc).

  3. What do you think of Dan Abnett's Warhammer fiction?

    1. I like a lot of it but he's very variable. He writes really strong 'scenes' and has solid characterisation, sometimes the book as a whole is weaker than the scenes you remember from it afterwards, and some of his books are pretty eh.

    2. Also, its interesting to compare his interests, intuitions and style to the other BL writers. A think I've found with reading lots of Arthurian fiction is that, if you read a whole bunch of people telling the same story, you end up reading the writer as much as the tale.

    3. I haven't read much of his Heresy stuff, and it seems like his heart might not be in the material so much since his health scare, but I think he's got a more, I don't know, humanist bent maybe to his Warhammer writing than the other writers in GW's stable. Like I can't think of another BL author who would be really interested in the interior life of a working class housewife on a forge world. It's also interesting that most of his protagonists have "being tired of all this" as a defining trait, and that he seems to much prefer writing normal people looking at space marines than he does writing space marines (probably why his Alpha Legion book is the only really good Heresy book of his, at least of the ones I've read)

    4. I'm trying to work out what I associate with the different BL writers I know of.

      Abnett - kinda views the Imperium as dark-British-empire in space, in terms of its morality anyway. Has probably the greatest swings from good to bad in quality, possibly because he's written more than anyone else. Good with humans, its true. Rarely talks about or considers the Ecclesiarchy. Seems more straightforwardly clasically-masculine in his attitude to heroism. Could be a kind of Bernard Cornwell in space. (& arguably rips off Sharpe for the first bits of Gaunts Ghosts). Happy writing imperial guard. In terms of scale and range of action and conception, almost the baseline and origin for a lot of 40k fiction.

      ADB - Much more lunar, internal, angsty and dark than Abnett. Really exceptionally good at writing dark manipluative relationships. Very strong themes of Fathers = BAD, Brothers = GOOD. Excellent prose much of the time but a bit variable on megastructures and scale, though he has some notable triumphs. I would see him as more fundamentally a quasi-literary writer absorbed with the darkness of peoples inner worlds. VERY heavy hand with his chosen themes (Astartes are weapons, humanity can't win etc, to the extent that people working in his space and with his ideas would find it hard to step away from his conception of them). Pretty good at writing space marines, or at least fucked-up space marines.

      Graham McNeill - well I reviewed him above and previously in the Forges of Mars stuff. Great megastructures, great scale, very often solid and interesting characters, some very frustrating tics and often goes noodling around into questionable choices and odd little story-paths. Prefers humans and human/other interactions, though I haven't read his space marine stuff.

      Chris Wraight - My favourite so far, but I have read less of his than anyone elses. Probably has a darker view of the power structures and morality than Abnett but not all the way down the rabbit hole like ADB. I am not sure about his themes yet. He seems to be very good at 'switching sides' and seeing things from the pov of whoever he is writing, maybe more so than the rest. His characters seem to say and think less stupid things than most other Black LIbrary characters. The endings of his books often don't quite satisfy me and I can't work out if its because they have company-mandated endings or if I just don't like his choices.

      Others I regard as being interesting, Peter Feevhari writes really odd 40k fiction and Matt Farrer doesn't do much any more but I like the few things he has done.

    5. Abnett does generally hold the Ecclesiarchy at arms length, but I think his depiction of street-level faith (most notably in Armour of Contempt) can be genuinely touching. That's an interesting note on Abnett's conception of heroism - I find him much less macho than Cornwell, though that is an admittedly easy bar to clear. The Cornwell/Sharpe DNA is strong for sure - Cornwell's very good at giving his recurring stock characters a wide variety of things to do - infiltration missions, big blow-out battles, overland journey/chases, heists, point defense, etc. Over in Fantasy, his Riders of the Dead is the best Warhammer thing I've ever read, but his Gilead's Blood is easily the worst (it was real early in his career, but even so).

      Simon Spurrier's Fire Warrior was a big one for me when I was first discovering 40k, though I've never read anything else by him since.

    6. Riders of the Dead is exceptional. Haven't read Fire Caste but I liked Lord of the Night

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