A Thousand Sons by Graham McNeill Review

One of the most keenly anticipated books of the bestselling Horus Heresy series, A Thousand Sons tells one half of the epic story of the destruction of Prospero, the Thousand Sons’ homeworld, from the perspective of the Thousand Sons themselves.

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The other half of the story, told from the point of view of the Space Wolves, is to be written by Dan Abnett in Prospero Burns; however, despite The Black Library’s intention to release both books simultaneously, Mr. Abnett’s  recent ill health has forced them to push back the release of his book by a year!

Disappointing? Certainly; however, A Thousand Sons is no mere placeholder. It is, in fact, a masterpiece.

The story begins on a planet recently brought into the fold of the ever-growing Imperium of man by the Thousand Sons. McNeill brings you into his world from the first page and steadily opens it out as the story progresses.

There is a lot to absorb, particularly about the somewhat unusual structure of the Thousand Sons’ Legion, but it is all revealed in good time. Considering that one of the underlying themes of the book is the slow, painstaking search for knowledge, there is more than a little congruity in McNeill’s gradually built picture of his title protagonists and the warrior-scholar path they follow.

All of the characters, both those familiar to long-term Warhammer 40,000 fans and those new to the world, are beautifully and vividly portrayed and really do bring something unique with them to the storyline. Certain reviewers have criticised the glut of personalities in some of the Horus Heresy books, and in some cases my experience has resonated with this critique.

However, McNeill’s characters here, though many in number, never become forgettable, and at no point in the book did I need to check the dramatis personae to remind myself whom I was reading about. This is no mean feat from a writer’s perspective and really highlights, for me, the tremendous talent that Graham McNeill brings to the table when he puts pen to paper.

One of the real black arts in writing novels in this series is the bringing to life of characters that have long occupied the role of legends in the Warhammer 40,000 mythos. Some authors have managed it well, some have been rather hit and miss, and some have completely missed the mark.

McNeill’s portrayal of the two Primarchs at the centre of the story is, frankly, masterful. Both Magnus, the primarch of the Thousand Sons, and Leman Russ, the primarch of the Space Wolves, carry an immense power that leaps off the page. Their interactions throughout the book are nothing short of electric, and the way they relate to their respective legions really highlights their wildly different personalities.

Magnus comes across as a wise and deeply knowledgeable father figure and for me remained a sympathetic character throughout. Again this is no mean feat, considering that Magnus is traditionally one of the “bad guys” of the 40k universe.

In fact, I have to say that this is one of the things I really love about this series. It takes characters from very black and white stories of good and evil (as told from the perspective of the Imperium, of course) and shows you the many shades of grey and the very human tragedies at the centre of those stories. This book is a paragon of that model.

The action scenes, that other staple of military science fiction, are very well written and convey a very clear picture of what’s happening without ever feeling cumbersome.

The story is also interspersed with “ancient history” references which, while normally the mother of all SF cliches, in the context of a Space Marine legion obsessed with the gathering and hoarding of knowledge, actually works rather well. Added to that is the fact that the “ancient” knowledge referenced by McNeil’s characters is actually rather interesting and off the beaten path.

McNeill has also answered a long-held question of mine regarding Space Marines. Are they nothing but genetically engineered killing machines with the emotional range of your average psychopath, or is that simply the propaganda that goes with their appearance? McNeill paints them as both more and less than human.

He describes them in the throes of powerful emotions that require lengthy training to bring under control and shows them in relationships that clearly require a significant emotional range. And yet their extraordinary abilities and functional immortality sets them apart from humanity. I felt that this dichotomy was beautifully portrayed by the author and provides a poignant subtext to an already powerful story.

Another notable characterisic of this book is its length. Weighing in at a hefty 558 pages, it is the longest book in the series thus far. This is a good thing as far as I’m concerned, in that it has really given McNeill the space to create an epic tale that explores the emotive themes of loyalty, brotherhood, and betrayal from the perspective of post-human warriors whose very being lends intensity to these oft-explored concepts.

As I think is clear from the above, I have found the book to be a terrific read and would have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone inclined towards science fiction whether they are Warhammer 40k fans or not.