Ah, Warhammer 40K. I hate it… but I love it.
Before I start this review I feel the need to preface, given that it’s my first review of a Black Library novel on this blog. All future 40K-related posts will link back to this one.
Anyone who has even a passing knowledge of 40K knows that most of the 40K universe is utter bullshit, which isn’t entirely surprising seeing as it is, at its heart, just a futuristic reskin of regular Warhammer, which is, like the vast majority of popular fantasy tabletop franchises, made for cishet white boys.
I’m not going to bother explaining the entire 40K mythos here but if you want a refresher, here’s a helpful Youtube video that I did not make.
So, why do I give 40K any of my time considering the overarching tone of this blog (which, for those keeping score is “almost all male science fiction writers suck”)? To be honest, I can’t explain it. I guess it’s something of a guilty pleasure. It appeals to my nihilism, and I find it fascinating to speculate that humanity is destined to simultaneously advance and regress so completely that we end up reliving our own shitty history over and over again, each time on a different planet.
But it’s not even a guilty pleasure because it is such a pleasure to hate on it, even in spite of that seed of genuine enjoyment of the subject matter. It’s because of 40K’s utter disregard for any sort of social progress, its complete and shameless embrace of the sweaty, women-hating, nice-guy with hentai posters on his bedroom wall that we probably all picture when we hear the words “Games Workshop.”
So I ask you to take it on faith that I am fully aware of how incredibly problematic and stupid the 40K universe is when I say I’m a huge fan of it.
On to the novel, then! Descent of Angels is the sixth book in the Horus Heresy series, and Mitchel Scanlon’s first contribution. It’s also the first HH novel that doesn’t throw the reader into battle with an Astartes legion right off the bat. Descent of Angels is interesting because it’s the first Black Library novel that I’ve read that follows a recruited space marine from birth, starting from before he had any knowledge of the Emperor or the primarchs.
As the novel opens we meet Zahariel, a young boy living on the planet Caliban. Caliban has been inhabited by humans for the past 5000 years and has evolved a stoic patriarchal culture that views success through knightly combat as the highest honor one can achieve. As you can see, it’s super original, right from the start.
The entire planet of Caliban is overrun with “beasts” – huge, man-eating chimeras that come in a variety of flavours and are the main source of conflict for the world’s many schools and orders of knights.
Early on, we’re informed that, a number of years before Descent’s plot takes place, a lone man was found wandering in the beast-infested woods of the planet, and by virtue of not being dead, was instantly knighted and became a legendary figure known across the planet. The man was given the name Lion El’Jonson which means “the lion, the son of the forest” and is also one of the dumbest sci-fi barbarian names I have ever heard. By physical description, Jonson is basically Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan.
Jonson starts a campaign to exterminate all the beasts on the planet, convincing everyone that Caliban is the rightful possession of the human colonists, because this is Warhammer “Fuck All Cultures Except for Ours” 40K.
This is all going on while our boy Zahariel becomes a man. He gets to join the Lion on his crusade and manages to kill one of the beasts single-handedly, a feat which earns him an instant promotion to knighthood.
By this point, I was feeling encouraged – the novel had raised a few interesting, if heavy-handed points, and I thought maybe Mitchel Scanlon was going to take more of an introspective approach to the Heresy. There had been implications of tapping into the warp for the power of good, mentions of Zahariel meddling in forces he didn’t understand, and an argument speculating that removing an external source of conflict (the beasts) would cause humans to turn on each other. I thought maybe I was going to get to see some genuine internal conflict or some critique of humanity’s xenophobic politics within the fiction. Was I going to get a glimpse of what a self-aware 40K could look like?
Shame on me for getting my hopes up. Scanlon posits his debate topics then buries them again like a nervous fox. The Lion’s campaign is a success and the beasts are vanquished, but before anyone has time to study the aftermath, a spacefaring deus ex machina full of Astartes drops on Caliban and starts preparing the planet for assimilation into the Imperium.
Obviously all the young knights want a piece of that action, because the Astartes are the biggest, shiniest phalluses they’ve ever seen and this is Games “we think the crusades were awesome because we’re a bunch of white dudes” Workshop.
As it predictably turns out, Lion El’Jonson is a primarch and Zahariel and friends are recruited and turned into space marines of the Dark Angels legion. They go on to have adventures and not learn from their mistakes ever at all, because boys will be boys and the Emperor knows best. Little did I know that Mitchel Scanlon wasn’t finished cockblocking readers who were looking for a bit more provocation.
The Dark Angels get stationed on a planet called Sarosh, with orders to take over for the White Scars legion. The White Scars have, for the past year, been trying to penetrate the planet’s convoluted bureaucratic system to make the Saroshi people “compliant.”
Sarosh is portrayed as a peaceful if slightly slow-paced utopia, so naturally the Dark Angels are super annoyed to be there because they won’t be allowed to shoot guns and fuck shit up in the Emperor’s name. I got my hopes up again and thought that Scanlon had been saving his Big Subversive Message for later in the novel, when the stakes were higher.
But no. The Saroshi try to blow up the Dark Angels’ ship because, twist ending, this isn’t just a confusing but benign foreign bureaucracy – it’s a terrorist organization and a cult. Everyone knows that if you aren’t willing to conform to the Imperium’s will it means that you are literally Satan.
Oh, and it’s bad. The Dark Angels discover that the Saroshi people are not actually human but rather non-Euclidian nightmare creatures disguised as humans who worship some sort of shapeless Lovecraftian blob thing, sacrificing millions of their own kin to its insatiable hunger.
Okay. I will say: the book has a cool ending, and readers who are reading it because they love 40K in all its stupid, ridiculous glory will love it. It’s action-packed and bombastic and dripping with gory chainsword porn.
Descent is a unique story in terms of the Horus Heresy novels, and I appreciated where it came from. As with most Black Library books, I can’t know exactly how much blame to lay on the author himself, and how much to lay on the publishers behind Warhammer “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” 40K.
Now, obviously I don’t think that Black Library authors need to be inserting tidbits of philosophy into every other paragraph because these are supposed to be action/adventure books and people are reading them for the alien-slaying, not the abyss-gazing. That said, the moral lessons in this novel seem so obvious that the fact that they are not explored at all makes the story feel disjointed. It’s like Mitchel Scanlon had some kind of shock collar on while he was writing it, and got jolted every time he even hinted at a critique of the deeply fucked up machinations of the 40K universe.
I understand that these novels are simply fleshing out a world that already exists with a fully-realized time frame of certain events, so there are things that you can’t actually change as an author coming in post-creation. But the world is also so massive that it’s pretty easy to tell sweeping, complex, even progressive stories without affecting the overall canon in the slightest.
Can you imagine how interesting it would be to have one Astartes legion realize what a dick move it is to force an apparently peaceful and civilized planet to arbitrarily conform to your system of government and religion? I know the space marines are clones bred for one purpose (war), but I consistently see Black Library authors trying to paint them as complex individuals with their own thoughts, desires and opinions, so I don’t think it would be such a stretch to have one of them go off the rails a little bit, have some sort of identity crisis.
Show me a 40K novel featuring a non-Imperial religion that doesn’t involve ritual sacrifice or demonic possession, that isn’t actually a malignant force. Show me humanity seeing an alien culture and going “you know what? This is actually better.” Show me the challenge and upheaval that comes with trying to impose your law and religion while still feeling empathy.
Or so help me God-Emperor, I will write it myself.