REVIEW SUMMARY: The Blood Angels make their debut in one of the best Horus Heresy books to date.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Warmaster Horus sends Sanguinius and the entirety of the Blood Angels legion on a mission to the Signus System. What the Angels find there will test the very mettle of the legion.
PROS: Epic set pieces, beautiful imagery, good characterization, sweeping battles, and dark revelations.
CONS: The series still seems to be stalled, though the author isn’t to blame for this.
BOTTOM LINE: Sanguinius and the Blood Angels get the book they deserve and fans of the Horus Heresy series will be treated to one of the Top 5 entries in the series thus far.
A dark secret haunts Sanguinius of the IX Legion, the proud and noble Blood Angels. It is a flaw he has kept from his father, the Emperor, for fear of his gene-legacy. Outside of a small band of his most trusted soldiers Sanguinius tells but one other, Warmaster Horus. The friendship between the two is a bond forged in the fires of battle but as Horus prepares to make the transformation from champion of the Imperium to arch-traitor, it is a bond that is about to be betrayed. Tempted with the prospect of salvation Sanguinius assembles the full force of his legion to prosecute a mission given by the Warmaster himself. It is not salvation that the Blood Angels find in the Signus System, instead they face an unknown enemy that will challenge the IX Legion to its core.
James Swallow has a long history of writing stories about the Blood Angels for the Black Library. Thus it is only right that Swallow would write the novel introducing the Blood Angels to the Horus Heresy in full. Although I have been reading Warhammer 40,000 for years now I have largely avoided the works of Swallow due to some negative reviews. Last year I read his short story “Liar’s Due” from the Age of Darkness anthology and decided that I had unfairly judged Swallow. Having finished Fear to Tread I must admit that I had greatly misjudged him.
Fear to Tread opens with the force of a mass-reactive bolter round to the skull, introducing the fearsome might of the Primarch Sanguinius. The prologue is beautifully written. Swallow’s eye for detail permeates the whole novel but it is here that his craftsmanship really shines. The prose flourishes in a way that only science fiction set in the dark fantasy of the Horus Heresy/Warhammer 40,000 universe can. The novel is quick to establish the familiarity between Sanguinius and Horus. The repartee between the two is easy and brotherly. Twenty-one books into the series one might expect the sting of inevitable betrayal to have diminished but that is not so. This holds especially true when Sanguinius confesses the genetic defect inherent in the Blood Angels gene-seed. Readers know what to expect from the arch-traitor Horus and this lessens the severity of treachery not a bit.
When the fleet of Blood Angels reaches the Signus System they face an enemy unlike any they have ever endured. Slowly the IX Legion begins to realize that they are not dealing with ordinary xenos. The effect is quite unmanning. Space Marines are the very definition of “resolute” but as they progress through the solar system their beliefs are shattered and they face a cold reality. The Legion is unnerved by the curious circumstances, divided by conflicting opinions of what evil is at work. The tension is tangible. Swallow does an excellent job portraying Chaos, an enemy that the Blood Angels have never before encountered. Fear to Tread displays what makes Chaos such a terrifying foe. It is unnatural and difficult to combat with conventional means and so the Blood Angels will have to adapt or die. Fear to Tread channels this slow burning sort of horror novel vibe. After years of reading about the depravities of Chaos much of the shock value has been lost upon me but Swallow renews that original dread. This is a novel that is worthy of its title.
The characters of Fear to Tread are well rounded. Though no Garviel Loken or Tarik Torgaddon, ex-Librarian Kano and Apothecary Meros are definitely likable protagonists. Meros is a brave space marine with a flexible mind but he is no Legion champion. The events of the Signus System see Meros drastically revising his worldview. Kano is a former member of the Legion Librarius, diminished by the Decree of Nikaea that forbade the use of psychic powers. He is inquisitive and somewhat rebellious, often butting heads with the Wardens who are charged with protecting the soul of the Legion, and must resist the urge to unleash his mind-power. In the end, saving the Legion might require disobeying the law of the Emperor. Sanguinius is also well drawn, portrayed as a father who will sacrifice his own life for the lives of his sons. The Angel is probably the most noble of the Emperor’s sons but he also harbors a dark secret and the heavy burden that knowledge entails. The pain Sanguinius feels as result of the events in the Signus System is raw and understandable. Oh! And this may not mean much to most but the very first Flesh Tearer is also a member of the assembled host!
I mentioned before that Fear to Tread is a slow burner of sorts but that does not mean boring. At 500 pages in length this is a novel with serious heft. There are flashbacks to Ullanor and Nikaea that strengthen the narrative. The build-up of tension is compelling as readers will wonder what new horrors the Blood Angels will face. There is some intense fighting, principally toward the end, with a major space battle (complete with boarding action) and a humungous offensive that sees some hundred-thousand space marines in the field. My favorite action set piece would have to involve the hive world of Holst. I won’t spoil it for you but I will say that not even Michael Bay’s special effects budget could cover this part of the book.
Fear to Tread is one of the best books in the Horus Heresy series to date, easily a member of the Top 5. Swallow has done an amazing job introducing Sanguinius and the Blood Angels to the greatest civil war ever fought. There are emotional ups and downs. There are massive engagements that will leave you feeling like you are caught in the crossfire. There are heroes to cheer on and villains to despise. Oh, and if I haven’t yet convinced you to purchase this story…that image on the cover? You know, with Sanguinius and the Bloodthirster duking it out? Yeah, it’s totally freaking awesome.