Mike Lee’s Fallen Angels is the eleventh book in the hugely popular Horus Heresy series and continues the story begun in Mitchel Scanlon’s excellent Descent of Angels. Did I just say excellent? Yes. I know that this is the mother of all minority opinions, but the first novel suffered from the all too common “it wasn’t what I was expecting so I hated it” review phenomena.
However, I thought it was in fact an excellent book that told the tale of the Knights of Caliban who would one day become the Dark Angels we all know and love. It also masterfully set the scene for the Dark Angel’s fall from grace that is the theme of Lee’s Fallen Angels.
Fallen Angels is a truly excellent piece of work that left me feeling that Scanlon and Lee worked very closely together in creating and developing the protagonists, Nemiel and Zahariel, and the story they tell. Whether or not that is true I can’t say, but there’s a consistency to the characters that plays well in this continuation of the Dark Angels’ story.
Lee’s combat scenes have all the action and suspense you could ask for, and Zahariel’s battle beneath Caliban left me breathless and compulsively turning the pages until it was done. What became clear for me during Lee’s combat scenes is his ability to eloquently communicate to his reader the unique nature of war from the perspective of a Space Marine. My only criticism, and this is where personal tastes come to the fore, is that Lee’s portrayal of the Astartes, while generally in keeping with my own, often speaks of emotional responses that I feel are inappropriate to a seven-foot-plus superhuman warrior in powered armour who carries what is effectively a rapid-fire, armour-piercing rocket launcher!
Almost every time something goes awry, we’re told that Nemiel’s skin goes cold or that there’s a sliver of ice in his spine (I’m paraphrasing there). What part of Superhuman Warrior isn’t clear?! They do not get the tinglies at every suspenseful turn of the story. They nod stoically and reassess. This is particularly irritating in Nemiel who’s a Redemptor, i.e., a Chaplain who’s supposed to embody the ideals of his legion and be brimming over with piss and promethium.
The tagline of the Space Marines is “…and they shall know no fear.” Whether or not this is removed from them at the genetic level during the process that turns them into Astartes, or whether they are trained to control and channel it, is an oft-debated topic on many a message board. After seventeen years in the 40K universe, I’m still not sure where I stand. What I am sure of is that there are times in the book where our beloved protagonists don’t ring true for me because of an emotional response that seems grossly out of place.
That aside, the book otherwise stands up to critical scrutiny. The story is well paced, switching between the perspectives of Zahariel and Nemiel smoothly and at good points that often create mini-cliffhangers. The tragic nature of the story and the inevitable fall of the Dark Angels is kept present in the struggles of the two main characters and their progressively more troubled relationships with the Primarch, Lion El’Johnson and his exiled second in command, Luther. Some reviewers have taken issue with Luther’s motivations, but they resonated strongly with me in the context of the story and the scene set by the author.
The story of the fall of the Dark Angels has been a part of the 40K mythos for a while, and yet Lee has managed to bring a novel and very personal perspective to an old tale and in so doing has turned it from myth to legend. If you’re new to the series, I would suggest reading Descent of Angels first, because there are quite a few references to that story in this book that will pass you by and reduce the depth that brings these tales to life.
There’s a reason that the Horus Heresy series has sold over a million copies. The books are generally of an excellent standard with only one or two lemons in the pack. Lee’s Fallen Angels is a worthy addition to the series and is highly recommended.