In the Warhammer 40,000 franchise, the Horus Heresy represents a monumental event. A galaxy-spanning civil war led by the Warmaster Horus, sundered and nearly destroyed the Imperium of Man 10,000 years ago. Horus, formerly primarch of the Luna Wolves, was appointed by the Emperor to command all Imperial forces. Flight of the Eisenstein by James Swallow, is the fourth book in the series, following Horus Rising by Dan Abnett, False Gods by Graham McNeill, and Galaxy in Flames by Ben Counter.
A brief summary of the previous volumes is important in contextualizing the action. Horus, now Warmaster of all Imperial forces, still feels jealous of his fellow primarchs. Wounded on the planet Davin, his vigilance slackens, providing an opportunity for the forces of Chaos to exploit his weakness. He forsakes the Emperor and embraces the evil corruption of Chaos. Galaxy in Flames details the spread of this treason as it infects fellow Space Marine legions, leading to the inevitable fight of brother against brother. On Istvaan III, Horus prepares for an act so shocking and so brutal, Garro struggles to find words to explain it. But he must explain it, since the fate of the Universe is in his hands.
Flight of the Eisenstein picks up where Galaxy in Flames left off. It traces the initial military exploits of the XIV Legion, the Death Guard, as they fight to exterminate an alien space station. The Imperium of Man’s policy is to exterminate the alien and the psyker, rogue elements that pollute the purity of humanity. The “secular truth” of the Imperium is to establish race-purity and to crusade against those who do not recognize the political supremacy of the Emperor. Shades of the Roman Empire and the British Empire extend throughout this U.K.-based role-playing franchise. And we haven’t even gotten to the bad guys yet…
The novel follows the trials and tribulations of Battle-Captain Nathaniel Garro. Fellow battle-brothers resent his status as a Terran, since most came from the home world of Barbarus. Garro encounters a Jorgall psyker with a prophecy on the alien space station. The psyker tells him, “Soon the end comes.” The prophecy is fulfilled once Horus’s plot is unmasked. During this engagement, the Space Marines partner with the Oblivion Knights, part of the Storm Dagger Witchseeker Squad: genetically-modified super-soldiers fighting alongside armored battle nuns. Yes, it’s that kind of book.
Wounded during battle, Garro is taken out of active duty, but ultimately makes a fateful decision. Should he fly into the middle of a warp storm or face obliteration from his fellow Space Marines? The novel ramps up the excitement, making for a suspenseful adventure.
More generally, though, throughout the series, a cult grows around the divinity of the Emperor of Mankind. This clashes with the imperial project of the Space Marines and its secular goals. Crushing local superstition and native idolatry never presupposed the Emperor to be a god. Garro himself is surprised at this revelation. Is the Emperor really a god? Are these people just fanatics?
Swallow gives the reader marvelous passages of zombified, mutated monstrosities. “Distended, malformed hooves scraped across the decking, leaving lines of acid slime and excrement. Each one was naked, and bloated around the torso and belly with gaseous buboes and grotesque sores that wept thick pus.” It is nice to see military science fiction get into a little purple prose.