Why The End of ‘Praetorian of Dorn’ Should Be Read Straight

So…the end of Praetorian of Dorn is something of a controversy. And because I feel like indulging in a fluff discussion, I figured I’d post something that I’ve been mulling over ever since the Age of Darkness podcast did their bit on the book.

Notably, should the book’s ending be taken at face value?

I’d argue the answer is “Yes”.

First, a warning. There’s no way to talk about this without indulging in spoilers. So there’s going to be a lot of them. And they’re going to be not only for Praetorian of Dorn, but the book most clearly linked to it – Solar War.

On The Unreliable Narrator

When I was first coming up in this hobby, the was slightly too much credulity when reading 40K fiction among many readers. Gav Thorpe’s Angels of Darkness drove me nuts because of how many people took everything said within it to be taken as the literal, factual truth. But I’ve also come to believe that, while viewing various viewpoints and passages in the Heresy series through the lens of the unreliable narrator has been useful, we do occasionally take it too far. Appending “…or is it!?” to the end of every sentence is…crippling…in its own way.

What Are We Actually Talking About?

Again…spoilers.

 

If you care, go click on something else.

 

Final warning.

 

Alright.

We’re talking about this bit, and what comes before it.

“ Then he pushed Alpharius away. Snakes of light writhed through the air. The primarch of the Alpha Legion staggered, mouth still moving.
Rogal Dorn brought Storm’s Teeth around. The blade cut down through Alpharius’ skull, and then tore free in a spray of blood and a detonation of light.”

Alpharius is dead. Or is he.

No. He definitely is.

Here’s my argument for why that’s a good thing. Not a textual reading of whether or not it’s true, but why it’s desirable that it is.

It’s a Death Worthy of Alpharius

I think this is true in a couple different ways. Primarchs are exceptional beings – when they die, it should be a surprise, to them and us. It should be shocking. And it wouldn’t suit for Alpharius to die in some sort of elaborate plot, a trap within a trap. That’s the water he swims in, that’s his wheelhouse. It wouldn’t be fitting for him to simply be outfoxed. Instead, the Primarch that built a Legion that doesn’t trust itself, that operates alone, that has more than once turned in on itself is foiled by a Legionary stepping in the way of a blow meant for his Lord without hesitation or question. He dies in direct combat.

The right way for Alpharius to die is thinking “…did not see that coming.”

I’d also argue that Dorn is the right Primarch to do the killing. In many ways, he’s the proper foil for Alpharius. Alpharius is sneaky, and indirect. Dorn is about as subtle as a freight train, and direct as they come. But they both play the long game – both of them have been planning for this for the length of the Heresy, and arguably longer (the Imperial Fists were recalled before things kicked off). If Alpharius is the schemer, Dorn is the planner. One comes up with innumerable plots – the other tries to cover every avenue of attack.

Praetorian of Dorn is an Imperial Fists Story Too

The Imperial Fists need a victory in one of the few books that’s focused on them. In many ways, their story is one of loss, and inadequacy.

The great master of defensive works must fail. The defenses of the Sol System won’t last long enough for the Ultramarines to arrive and relieve the Loyalists. The Vengeful Spirit won’t wither under the guns of the Phalanx. At it’s core, the Heresy is a story of the Imperial Fists coming up short. But it would be nice, especially in a book about the Imperial Fists, if they were able to impact the plot. And as the Heresy comes to an end, the scope of that starts to narrow. There’s just not that many degrees of freedom left to the writers to give the VIIth Legion a big win.

And it can’t come in Solar War – that book only had one possible ending. This is a thing I’ve been thinking about a lot – as we get later and later into the Heresy, the writers are getting more and more constrained as we approach the Emperor v. Horus singularity.

Killing a Primarch would count. And Alpharius is pretty much the only traitor(?) Primarch whose fate isn’t locked in.

It Works If Alpharius is Loyal or a Traitor

Alpharius’s death scene leaves his motivations sufficiently ambiguous that it doesn’t lock his story into place. On one hand, if he is a Loyalist trying to walk the narrow line between betraying the Imperium and saving humanity, then his death fits in with the tragic arc of the Heresy, where the wrong people die (RIP Koriel Zeth) and duty is often humanity’s shackles as much as its savior. That two men trying to save humanity ended up fighting to the death because they’re bad at talking to each other.

And on the other hand, if Alpharius is a traitor? Then his final act is a bit of sneaky treachery. He gives Dorn his win. He validates Dorn’s approach to fortifying the Solar system, and convinces him he can throw back a traitor fleet. He opens up the door for Horus’s attack by playing to confirmation bias – and in a way Dorn wouldn’t question.

It Still Works With Later-Era Fluff

There’s some later fluff where Gulliman kills someone believe to be Alpharius, and unlike the Legions that go into various stages of shock when their Primarch bites it, the Alpha Legion…just doesn’t.

The obvious reading of that is that they’ve got a spare. Which, if Alpharius is already dead, obviously isn’t the case – you only get to cash in the extra Primarch token once. But honestly, I think it’s significantly more badass if one of the secrets to the Alpha Legion is that they were meant to be independent. If the number of Primarchs they needed wasn’t two – it was zero.

TL;DR

Beyond needing to ignore everything in the text (and John French) saying Alpharius is dead, I’d argue that “It was all an Alpha Legion ruse!” is a much less compelling story than the one presented by reading Praetorian of Dorn straight, which also accomplishes some things that needed to be accomplished in the Heresy.

Sorry JP.

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2 Comments


  1. Hey bud. I get so weary of the Traitors always being portrayed as cooler and better and smarter etc. etc. I loved this book because we got to see one of the “good guys” smash face, literally. Its an era of “subverted expectations” its really refreshing to see the straightforward protagonist, stay true to his convictions, but grow and adapt, and overcome his weaknesses and defeat his perfect foil. And for readers who know how well established the Alpha Legions mastery over deceit and planning, it truly feels like an impossible task. The ending was truly a shocker but it was well setup and I loved it.

    I’m usually very quick to bail on Horus Heresy books but this is one of the few where I felt I could really get attached to the characters despite the perspective shifting and the big guys got their due. Great article man loved it!

    Reply

  2. “But honestly, I think it’s significantly more badass if one of the secrets to the Alpha Legion is that they were meant to be independent. If the number of Primarchs they needed wasn’t two – it was zero.”

    As a die-hard Alpha Legion fan, I’ve always liked the various interpretations that Alpharius tricked his way out of there, but I have to say, this is really the compelling argument to me. As much as I would like to see Alpharius return (as a Daemon Primarch or otherwise), the argument that he trained his Legion well enough that they didn’t actually need him to function lets the Legion itself be even more badass, while, yeah, still giving the Fists a much-deserved genuine win.

    In particular, think of the contrast with Horus’s Legion after he died. They more or less completely fell apart, pretty much instantly. IIRC, the Iron Hands were pretty similar after Ferrus’s death. The Alphas kept on operating so smoothly and effectively that there’s significant room for doubt on whether their Primarch had actually died or not.

    Reply

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