I know I’m late to the party, but I finally decided to start reading the “Horus Heresy,” a huge series of novels set in the universe of Warhammer 40,000 (though it is set much earlier than the year 40,000). I thought it would be awesome to blog the series as I go. With more than 50 novels and many, many short stories, there will be a lot of posts in this series (I doubt I’ll get to all the short stories). I’m reading the series in publication order unless otherwise noted. There will be SPOILERS from the books discussed as well as previous books in the series. Please DO NOT SPOIL later books in the series.
The Outcast Dead by Graham McNeill
So what’s going on on Terra as the Heresy is breaking out? Don’t worry, Graham McNeill has you covered on that question in The Outcast Dead, a frustrating novel that is at turns brilliant and dull. Thankfully, it is more often the former than the latter.
Kai Zulane is central to the novel, a telepathic survivor of the Argo, a ship ultimately ruined by daemons and warp storms. Brought back to Terra to be retrained, it turns out he has been granted a vision of the future that can change the tide of the entire Heresy and war that is breaking out everywhere. When several traitors break out of imprisonment on Terra, they take Zulane with, hoping to present him to Horus to gain his secret knowledge. What follows is a lengthy trip across Terra as the “Outcast Dead” seek to escape, culminating in a massive final battle that leads to Zulane’s vision being unlocked.
At risk of repeating myself too often, this novel suffers from the same pacing issues many of the HH books have so far. Essentially, there’s a lot of buildup through the middle section with little action, and readers need to force themselves through to an ending that has enough action and revelations packed into it to get them hyped up for the next book. It is starting to feel more than a little artificial. At least half of the books so far have been like this, and it is honestly a bit annoying. McNeill’s writing is good enough to sustain readers through the slog of the middle section, but one wonders what kind of editorial direction was given to the writers that this happens so frequently. Would it really harm anything to have a major battle in the middle of a book and then have the climactic ending be “just” a huge reveal about the world to come? Or could we turn that around and have some nefarious revelations come in the middle or even gasp beginning of the book and the battle that follows later be a result of the same? The current formula of great intro, slog middle, epic climax makes it start to feel like nothing more than an episode-of-the-week format that is just there to keep readers going. And McNeill doesn’t really deserve to have this rant on his book alone, because he’s definitely not the worst offender so far. It just doesn’t make for great reading when it becomes predictable. The best HH novels so far are those that have shunned that formula.
The big reveal here is that the Emperor manages to get Kai Zulane’s secret knowledge, discovering that he must suffer defeat from Horus in order to save the Imperium. It’s obviously a huge revelation in-universe, even if we as readers effectively know this is what is going to happen (assuming some baseline knowledge of WH40K lore, of which I myself only have a surface-level at best understanding). This makes the end of the novel, once again, a fantastic bang and one that will surely resonate into the future. It’s a great ending.
It’s good the ending is so strong, because this book also plunges readers deeply into Warhammer lore such that it becomes hard to follow the plot if one doesn’t know all the ins and outs of what’s going on. As someone with, as I said, passing familiarity, it became somewhat dense at points and I found myself wondering if I’d missed something that happened. Nevertheless, it is a solid read that gives readers insight into the horror happening on Terra. That is maybe one of the coolest parts of the book, as McNeill reflects upon the stunned people back home willing to throw themselves to their deaths at the thought that someone like the “demigod” Horus would betray them. It’s moments like these that highlight the strangeness and wonder of the setting that make people like me willing to read through dozens or hundreds of books.
The Outcast Dead is a good read that helps readers catch up on broader implications of the heresy, including on Terra itself. Though its pacing suffers at times, McNeill’s writing is solid enough to keep readers going and enjoy the payoff.
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