Descent of Angels: A review
29 January 2008 | 4th Edition
At last the Dark Angels or more properly the First Legion finally make their entrance into the Horus Heresy series so let's be thankful for that. They arrive in the form of a 416pp softback written by Mitchel Scanlon. This being the sixth book, and coming as it does on the tail of Fulgrim it had a lot to live up to.
First impressions — well what are the marines on the cover wearing? Is that green power armour in pre-heresy times? No, apparently the armour is black but the artist highlighted it with a dark green as the all-black just didn't work well in print conditions. Hmmm.
The narratively the book breaks down into three (not equal) sections that cover specific periods of time. Each follows the main character Zahariel and as his cousin Nemiel, a pair continually locked in good-natured competition to be the best first. (Note that these sections are my artificial divisions.)
The first section deals with life on pre-Imperium Caliban. We learn of the nature and ferocity of the planet, as well as the role and function f Knightly Orders that have come into existence. The two characters become members of one particular order known as The Order, and through their experiences follow them on quests to hunt beasts, competing to become full knights and see the secretive inner-workings and personalities of the higher echelons of the Order in action. One strand of the story which is important is the developing relationship between the Lion and Luther. The Lion is portrayed very matter-of-factly and truthfully doesn't seem to have a very sympathetic personality. This is in marked contrast to other books in the Horus Heresy series where the Primarchs are aggrandised through extremely florid writing.
Although of interest from a background point of view, for me this first section was just too long. It just became too tedious and bogged down in detail and narrative that ultimately had no relevance to the larger picture. That aside, there were one or two moments of brilliance — the episode with the Watchers in the Dark was excellent, as was the fact that a well known hunted fugitive of the Dark Angels was named after an honorary title, and is not a name it it's own right. I shall not spoil things further.
With Zahariel and Nemiel now blooded Knights of the Order, we enter the second phase of the book. The Imperium arrives in the form of the First Legion and later the Emperor himself. Jonson is promoted to the First Legions head and renames them the Dark Angels after an old Caliban fable.
For me this is when the Descent of Angels really gets started. We see the assimilation of the Order into the Dark Angels, and the Lion meets his father the Emperor in what must be one of the most underplayed parts of the whole book, in fact the meeting takes place off-stage as it were — a real disappointment. Also of interest is the development of Zahariel into a Librarian of the chapter — although this is one aspect of the story that is interesting maybe it could have been developed in a more detailed manner as the Librarius in future times plays a large part within the Dark Angels in the interrogation of the Fallen [but all that is to come], more of an insight into their relationship with dark powers and the Imperium would have been great.
Maybe we see the first chink of a schism between Luthor and his erstwhile protege and now Primarch Jonson — is Luthor jealous — he says not but the seeds of doubt are sown.
The third section sees the Dark Angels embarked as part of the Great Crusade — ordered to oversee see the completion of compliance of a conquered planet, a task that was previously held by the White Scars. Here we see the Dark Angels' relationship with another chapter, and how they are described "brave and resolute" by their peers. It is here we see the first real doubts of Luthor — his "confession" such as it was to Zahariel is trite and soon retracted — it seems like a bit of an afterthought to me and maybe not the authors' own. We also get a slightly fuller image of the Primarch but he is no more likeable.
The real tour-de-force is right at the end when finally, yes finally, the Dark Angels fire their bolters in anger. This is what I have been craving for throughout the whole book! And here we are on page 381. Oh if only this had happened 100 pages sooner!
As was said at the outset many felt the end rushed. I disagree. The end is a perfect lead on for a second book! We leave the Legion at a crucial part of their history when Luthor is sent back to Caliban ostensibly to oversee the recruitment process. Ultimately we know what happens to the Dark Angels from elsewhere, it seems to me that Descent of Angels is merely filling in some of the initial blank spots.
In all honesty this is not a bad book, simply not as good the others of the Horus Heresy series. Indeed maybe it shouldn't have been part of the series at all as Horus nor any of his legions (before or after their corruption) make their appearance here. If it wasn't for the token inclusion of the White Scars and the Great Crusade this could have been a standalone book as it is not 'joined' either in timescale or narratively to any other that has gone before it.
This comes as bitter disappointment as a Dark Angels fan myself — and maybe that is part of the problem — expectations were running too high. The natural part of the story to cover would have been the Lion's return to Caliban and the ensuing civil war and Fall, but that comes much later in the Horus Heresy history — which is why I think there is more to come.
As such it is a book that shines in places, but ultimately for Dark Angel and 40K fans generally one that just doesn't excite at many levels. The characters are two-dimensional (there's no Loken, Torgaddon, Qruze, or Garro in here), and I was really not that bothered what happened to them. And in complete contrast to the other HH books I struggled to pick it up and actually finish it.
UK PRICE: £6.99 (paperback, when first published)
GW PRODUCT CODE: 6010 0181 052