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Book Review: Descent of Angels (The Horus Heresy, Book 6) by Mitchel Scanlon

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The Horus Heresy series continues in its sixth installment, Descent of Angels, written by Mitchel Scanlon. The series makes a major reversal with this series. Scanlon has written previous novels for the Black Library, but his work involves the Warhammer brand, the epic fantasy sister ‘verse to the space fantasy of Warhammer 40K. Unlike previous volumes, the action occurs on one planet under circumstances one could label “low-tech.”

Descent of Angels begins with an original story, telling the tale of how humanity settled on the planet Caliban. The settlers became separated from the rest of humanity because of warp storms (the Warp being the means of interstellar travel). The separation lasted 5000 years. In that space of time, the human settlers created their own mythology, culture, and defense systems. The major obstacle to settlement on this heavily forested planet was the great beasts, nightmarish monsters reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos.
The novel follows Zahariel, Knight Supplicant of the Order, in his rise to full knighthood. The Order, unlike other knightly orders, considers all men created equal, regardless of birth or position. Zahariel is in awe of the Order’s future Grand Master, Lion El’Jonson, a superhuman giant found in the woods battling beasts with his bare hands.

During Zahariel’s ascent to full knighthood, he becomes aware of a “gift” he possesses, an uncanny ability to “read” people. He keeps this gift secret until members of the Dark Angels Space Marine legion descend upon Caliban, ending 5000 years of separation.

Descent of Angels can be seen as a Pre-Contact novel, to borrow the phrase from colonial studies. The majority of the novel does not involve the Imperium of Man and the Space Marines arrive well into the book’s second half. Ideologically, the book takes place when the Imperium espoused a rationalistic, explicitly atheist position. A previous volume, Flight of the Eisenstein, traces the transition from this militant atheism to the “Church Militant” phase, when the Emperor was considered a living god. It is nice to see a franchise not adhere to a rigorously linear storyline between volumes. The vastness of the Warhammer 40K universe and multitude of Space Marine chapters offers more opportunities to non-traditional storytelling. In addition, it is easier to drag out a series when it is not the standard linear storyline. (The sitcom How I Met Your Mother, a 3-camera sitcom, excels in plot contortions and subverting the standard linear storyline.)

In full disclosure, standard fantasy is not my favorite genre to read. I enjoy the Warhammer 40K space fantasies. It was enjoyable to read this volume of the Horus Heresy series because it was not the usual Tolkien Boilerplate Knock-off, although Warhammer 40K originated as such in the 1980s.

Descent of Angels is another exciting read in the ever-expanding Horus Heresy series.

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