Prospero Burns + Embedded by Dan Abnett Review

Perhaps the most eagerly awaited book of the Horus Heresy series, Prospero Burns is the fifteenth book in this New York Times best-selling collection. Though initially slated for simultaneous release with Graham McNeill’s A Thousand Sons, unforeseen circumstances in Mr. Abnett’s life prompted a delay, much to the disappointment of fans across the world.

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You can check out my interview with Dan Abnett.

The wait is now over, and I have to tell you that despite my already high expectations, this book has exceeded them. I’ve been a fan of Abnett’s work for a very long time, and with good reason:  he’s one of the most talented SF/F authors in recent history. However, my feeling while reading this book was that in the year of his convalescence he levelled up as a writer (I thought he was already at the top) and, in so doing, gained access to an all new epic level skill set.

Those of you who have read A Thousand Sons will already have a good idea of what’s to come in terms of the broader story arc, but this novel focuses on the perspective of the Space Wolves, or, as they more formally call themselves, the Vlka Fenryka. Abnett has taken a significant risk in this novel; he has reinvented the Space Wolves and by so doing committed one of the great heresies of this genre, messing with the canon. However, before any of you reach for your chainswords, I have to tell you that I think he has breathed much needed new life into a very old chestnut.

The Space Wolves of old were, to put not too fine a point on it, Vikings in Space. Drinking, carousing, swearing mighty oaths of vengeance, and blah blah blah. They were Vikings not as history saw them but as Hollywood and the popular myth perceived them. It was very clear while reading the book that Abnett has researched his Viking history and used it to inform his rebuilding of the world of Fenris and the culture of the Wolves. I’m having trouble describing what this added to the story; perhaps a sense of history, of reality, of gravitas? Yes, all of those things, and something more that I can’t quite put my finger on.

The old Space Wolves were presented as barely controlled savages possessed of a surprising nobility, and this, too, has been dispensed with. Their savagery is still present but in a controlled and cunning way. Their feral natures are both a show to mislead observers and an expression of their very wolf-like personalities. Abnett has added tremendous depth to this Legion, and I’ve welcomed it with open arms!

Okay, this is a book review right? I should probably mention the story and how bowled over I was by it.  The story is told from the perspective of a human scholar obsessed with the gathering and cataloguing of all human knowledge, who travels to Fenris supposedly for the purpose of learning about the Wolves and their culture for the benefit of the Imperium of the future. To anyone with a taste for historic exotica, the character name will ring a bell, Kasper Hawser. (It meant nothing to me when I first read the book.)

This novel is partly what you think it is, the story of the Space Wolves’ sacking of Prospero, but it is, in my view, mainly a psychological thriller of surprising power. In A Thousand Sons we see how that legion treads close to and then crosses the line of what is acceptable to the Imperium with their use of the warp. We watch as they mess with powers they believe they have mastered as it slowly takes them over. This novel tells the story of the consequences of their choices. Believing Magnus, the primarch of the Thousand Sons, to be corrupt beyond saving, the Emperor dispatches the sixth legion, the Space Wolves, to receive their unconditional surrender or ensure their complete destruction.

Kasper’s journey to Fenris comes unstuck from the moment he enters the Fenris system; his shuttle is shot down, and he finds himself amongst the tribes of Fenris. In his injured state, his mind goes back and forth through time as he examines the life that has lead him to this moment. At this stage of the story, I found myself experiencing his sense of displacement in a very personal way. Abnett builds on this and raises it to a fever pitch as you, through Kasper, experience the mind of a man who cannot trust his own thoughts and memories. And then his own body.

This leads to his meeting with the Wolves and the beginning of his journey into their mindset and culture. The Wolves present themselves as the Emperor’s failsafe, the living embodiment of the Emperor’s wrath for anyone foolish enough to enrage him. In effect, the Emperor’s executioners. There’s a sense of ‘it’s a dirty job but someone has to do it’ about them, which they carry well.

“‘The Vlka Fenryka… they’re capable of cannibalism then, are they?’ [asks Kasper].

‘We’re capable of anything,’ replied Skarsi. ‘That’s the whole point of us.'” (Page 98)

As the story progresses, the real reason and drive behind Kasper’s visit to Fenris is gradually made clear, and the cunning nature of both Leman Russ, the primarch, and his Wolves is laid bare amidst a secret war that has been raging in Kasper’s unconscious. I can’t quite find the words to convey the power of the story. Abnett has crafted layer upon layer within his tale, opening up much of what was latent in McNeill’s A Thousand Sons. The unfolding tragedy is slowly built up as the narrative heads towards its inevitable conclusion, and Kasper’s attempts to get at the truth take him on an extraordinary journey that moved me deeply.

Some may see the book as slow to get started, and if you’re hoping for an all out actionfest you may well be disappointed. Make no mistake, there’s plenty of action, but I quickly got the feeling that it wasn’t really meant to be the focus. Instead you are slowly initiated into the world of the Space Wolves at war. Not the frothing, feral monster’s war you’re expecting but a subtle mind game played for the highest possible stakes. Again, don’t get me wrong, Abnett portrays them as capable of glorious, staggering violence, but they hide the clarity of their perception and their cunning behind a mask of primitive belief and feral behaviour.

This story is told as only a master of Abnett’s calibre is capable of. Read it! It is both action packed and emotionally challenging.  I was truly awed by the experience.

I’ll leave you with a small quote from a scene that had me wanting to stand and applaud before realising how odd that would be…

“‘The Sixth Legion Astartes has a reputation,’ said Bear.

‘All the Legions Astartes have reputations,’ replied Hawser.

‘Not like ours,’ said Ogvai. ‘We are known for our ferocity. We are thought to be feral and undisciplined. Even our brother Legions consider us to be wild and bestial.’

‘And you’re not?’ asked Hawser.

‘If we need to be,’ said Ogvai. ‘But if that was our natural state, we’d all be dead by now.’

He leaned down towards Hawser like a parent addressing a child.

‘It takes a vast amount of self control to be this dangerous,’ he said.” (page 190)

Indeed it does.

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Embedded is Abnett’s second independent novel for Angry Robot Books and one of the most original and compelling SF stories I’ve read in quite some time. In fact, I’m drawn to a grossly overused cliché to describe my experience because it happens to be, well, true:  I couldn’t put the damn thing down!

The story is set in a not too distant future where the peoples of Earth have expanded into space and colonised numerous worlds throughout the galaxy. Enter our protagonist Lex Falk, an award-winning veteran journalist on the hunt for a new story, who is in truth compelled to keep on moving after years of constant interstellar travel. The ‘camera’ immediately pans down to ’86’, a recently colonised world with excellent mining potential that seems to be experiencing some trouble in settling down.

Already at this early stage of the story Abnett starts to build a wonderfully rich picture of his universe–bland corporate-sponsored imagery, corporate-filtered language, and synthesised foods designed to taste like the original, with furniture and architecture to match. There was for me some distinctly Firefly overtones in some of the details of his world, which I loved. Though the source of some of his inspiration was apparent, Abnett, I felt, made it very much his own.

I was immediately drawn to Falk’s character, and his hard-bitten journalistic cynicism proves to be a cover for very human vulnerabilities that over the course of the story are brought sharply into focus. In the course of trying to circumvent the SO’s (Settlement Office) obfuscation about the realities of the conflict, he is taken with a unit into the combat zone to supposedly see for himself the stark visuals of combat. When this turns out to be a PR exercise with no real substance, he allows himself to be drawn ever deeper into the darker side of the corporate world to get at the story. Through an old friend he meets a group who are equally determined to uncover the truth for their own ends, and he fearfully undergoes a procedure that allows him to ride inside the mind of a combat veteran who’s being deployed to the front lines.

Using a new and clearly untested technology, Lex Falk hops into the mind of Private Nestor Bloom. The implications of this technology and its raw state of development form a central part of the story that absolutely fascinated me. Falk is immersed into an isolation tank, called a Jung Tank, so as to improve the link. I found myself wondering if the Jung reference was drawing on his concept of the collective unconscious as the route into the mind of another.

Bloom soon finds that his ‘passenger’ is actually far from just a neutral observer and is disturbed to find Falk’s fear infecting his reality.  When Bloom is shot in action, the story takes on a disturbing, tense and ground-breaking turn.  At first Falk’s zombie-like efforts to control Bloom’s body from within the tank are frankly terrifying to experience sitting alongside him through the story, but as he gains greater control, he steadily realizes that for all intents and purposes his survival depends upon his getting Nestor’s dying body and mind back to safety while bringing with him the story of his life. From this point on the pace picks up fast, and woe betide anyone who can’t keep up. The twists and turns experienced by Falk had me glued to the page into the wee hours of the night.

The relationships between the members of the squad and the person they perceive as their comrade is one of the things that really stood out for me and added yet another really important layer. Abnett’s portrayal of their extraordinary camaraderie challenges his assertion that he’s never served in a combat unit. He’s just got it so…right. I was also really moved by how Falk-as-Bloom develops a growing attachment to the man whose body he inhabits and the unit he finds himself fighting with. His initial terror slowly develops into the mindset of a combat veteran as he finds himself absorbed into the family of the ‘unit.’

Abnett’s coy reluctance to reveal all until the end was rather…cheeky but kept me going through amazingly tense combat scenes and the emotional turmoil at the heart of the tale. In truth, looking over what I’ve written above, I realise that I’m trying to tell you the whole story while trying to avoid giving the game away. You’d think that by now I’d have gotten the hang of the book review shtick, but this book is quite challenging in that way; there’s so much going on, and on so many levels, that I find myself feeling that I have to get it all out to do justice to it. Don’t worry, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the story, and I’ve given nothing important away even with all I’ve said.

Normally I leave at least a week after finishing a book before writing a review, to give myself some time and space to sit with it a little. Not so here, and I think that’s why my way of relating it is much more raw than usual. You’ll all have to decide whether or not that’s a good thing.

This book carries all the hallmarks of Abnett’s writing:  compelling and engaging characters, fiercely visceral combat scenes, and profound, thought-provoking themes set within a world that feels so real I could almost reach out and touch it.

Embedded gets my highest recommendation–it’s a must-read for any SF fan.

Phillip is an Existential Psychotherapist and Teacher by day and a writer, gamer and all round geek in the hours of darkness. He claims to be enjoying the creative process enormously and secretly harbours the hope of publishing a novel one day…

4 Replies to “Prospero Burns + Embedded by Dan Abnett Review”

  1. While I enjoied the book, I have to say that in my opinion it is not at the same level as the recent HH installments. A Thousand Sons was superior for the way the secondary characters were depicted, the ones here look a bit flat in comparison.

    Another issue I have is with the primarch : I liked the playful side of Russ, but I was definitely perplexed at the tone of his address to Maguns before the final battle (it seemed totally out of character to me).

    And I cannot take away the feeling that this book and A Thousand Sons are a bit out of synch. You take as you like the final revelation about who really engineered all the conflict between Magnus and Russ, but to me it seemed not really believable, and in disaccord with the hints which where thrown along the way in A Thousand Sons.

    And yet, I liked the book overall, there are some very good sequences, and if you are following the HH series there is no excuse to refrain from purchasing it : it is definitely no filler and a main piece in the puzzle.

  2. I have enjoyed this book immensely. I had recently read First Heretic by Aaron Dembski-Bowden and thought that was a cracking read, but Prospero Burns is almost a step outside the usual 40K realm. It felt like it had the sense of space found in a novel rather than the usual constraints of the regular Black Library fiction. You could have relocated this book outside the 40K universe and the central theme and characters would have stood for themselves.

    I think that whereas most black library books feel that they are definitely of their genre, Prospero Burns stands as true sci-fi in that it is the characters and the society that are expressed and analysised. The book really brought a sense of culture to a legion that were previously cartoonish. In doing so, it surpassed all the previous attempts to do so with other legions (although Fulgrim and the Emperors children were well expressed in other Horus Heresy books).

  3. I thought that the title of the book was Prospero Burns, not space viking nazis are jerks to an ancient historian who mysteriously changes his entire life motivations and goals the second they tell him to.

    I detest Dan Abnett, because he is the best of a very poor stable of Black Library writers. He manages to make interesting topics boring, never engages the supposed theme storyline of his novels, rushes his endings. No matter the book, he simply can not seem to focus on unrelated stories.

    This book is a good example, they handwave aside the brutality of Leman Russ, drain out the fun movie viking side of things, and try to justify incredibly evil acts. Magnus is treated very poorly in his book, whereas in the fluff he is generally seen as a loyal son that got screwed over.

  4. Nice review. I have to whole heartedly agree and echo some of the praise given to Prospero Burns. It truly does transcend its subject matter. Warhammer 30/40k is great source material of course, and has been rendered skillfully by others such as Aaron Dembski Bowden and Graham Mcneill, but Dan Abnett just has a way of taking it to a new level. His skill as a writer not only fleshes out the 30k/40k world, but adds depth, maturity, and sophistication that takes it beyond the source material. He makes a good thing better. In the case of the Space Wolves in particular, he takes a legion that was previously comic bookish and a bit corny and turns them into something absolutely believable. This novel really gripped me, so much so that I’m reading it again a second time after only having finished it for the first time a month ago. Thank you Dan Abnett and I look forward to your next Horus Heresy Novel about the battle of Calth.

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