The holiday season, for me, means a lot of travel, which means less hobby time, and my mother-in-law’s kitchen is not the best place to do catch-up coding for various projects for the blog. Which means a lot of time to read.
Fortunately for me, Titandeath, the latest installment of the slowly-winding-down Horus Heresy series was just released, and given I love me some Titans, this seemed like an excellent way to occupy myself on a couple long flights. And since the Horus Heresy series is now of the size where many people are (correctly) picking and choosing what to read, I thought a review might come in handy.
Spoilers and Opinions Ahead
In my mind, there is no such thing as an objective review of an artistic project, and I’m not going to attempt to review the book without spoilers, as many of my opinions on it rest on particular bits of plot and text. So what follows is both opinion and laced with spoilers. You’ve been warned. It will not however be a play-by-play of the book, just a review of it. Those of you who want the TL;DR Spoiler Free Take? It’s good, but not great.
Now stop reading.
What is Titandeath?
“The Garmon Cluster is the key to victory to whoever holds it. It is already lost to us, but in attacking it Horus has no room left for manoeuvre. He has no space to outwit us. We know where he is. We know what he is doing. His options are limited, so his genius for strategy is a lesser advantage. He must come through Beta-Garmon. If we can hold the core system, retake Nyrcon City perhaps, the front will be stabilised, not forever, but the longer the better. Sanguinius and the Khan must buy Roboute time. I would gladly sacrifice many more than the worlds of the Garmon Cluster for that. Many, many more.” – Rogal Dorn
Book 53 (my god…) of the Horus Heresy series, Titandeath is one of the closing chapters prior to the Siege of Terra. Dorn has ordered a massive buildup of troops in the Beta-Garmon cluster, in hopes not of defeating Horus, but slowing him down and causing significant enough losses to perhaps influence the outcome of the inevitable Siege of Terra. The loyalists still have hope that, with Guilliman and the Lion approaching with largely intact legions, Horus might be crushed. At the head of this campaign are Sanguinius and the Khan, as well as a massive muster of Titans.
The book itself primarily focuses on characters from two Legios, the loyalist Legio Titanicus Solaria aka the Imperial Hunters, and the Legio Titanicus Vulpa aka the Death Stalkers, with occasional appearances from other forces like the Blood Angels or the Mechanicum, Dark or otherwise. It follows their participation in the campaign, up to the Siege of Nyrcon City, which is eventually known as the ‘Titandeath’ for the sheer number of them destroyed there. Guy Haley does an excellent job discussing that – massed Titan-on-Titan battles are, before the Heresy, a rarity, and the Legios are still adjusting their tactics for what it means to potentially be facing multiple maniples of foes. Military strategists are also struggling to adjust to the level of destruction that implies – it is suggested in several places that one of the appeals of throwing one’s Titans into a battle of attrition with another Legio is essentially “Better here than Terra” and that the best outcome might be for no one to have Titans at all when they hit Good Ole Earth.
What is notable is that, despite being potentially the only book we’re getting about the Beta Garmon campaign, it covers practically nothing else.
But man do we get some Titan battles…
“Third Maniple, double back, avenge your fallen sister.’
The Warhounds obeyed eagerly, wheeling about to strafe the fallen engine with vulcan megabolter fire and lashes of incandescent plasma. The fallen machine fired back in panic, its rockets stripping the shields from one of the Warhounds. The Reaver’s maniple mates were quick to target the naked scout, and a hit from a volcano cannon tore off the Warhound’s blast gun. The damaged engine fell back under fire, out of the battle, but its sisters continued, riddling the Legio Vulpa machine until it collapsed completely and lay dead, its hull punctured by dozens of smoking wounds.
<Engine kill,> said the machine voice in Domine Ex Venari’s cockpit. <Engine kill confirmed.>”
Titans are hard to write about, but I rather like stories about them – I discussed this long ago in a response piece to something Cadian Shock wrote. You get massive, city-leveling combat, but with an identifiable cast of characters in the form of the Princeps and Moderatii. It’s like Star Trek (an analogy shamelessly stolen from the Sons of Heresy podcast) – yes, these are massive warp capable vessels which, if the creators were paying attention to physics, could destroy entire worlds by hurling asteroids down a gravity well. But it’s the bridge crew you care about and follow through their adventures.
Here, Titandeath shines. There’s lots of Titan combat, interspersed with human moments about what it’s like to actually be crew – how do you eat, what do you do when you’re on a particularly long mission, what it feels like to be integrated with the Machine Spirit. Compared with some of the classic Titan-related works like Titanicus, I think Haley does a particularly good job in making the Titan crews feel like people, with feelings and petty rivalries and MIU-withdrawl related headaches. And there is plenty of outright combat, from a few personal-feeling engagements between maniples and single Titans to a few absolutely epic engagements, where multiple Knights having their reactors go critical is used as offhand set dressing. For people who were disappointed by the lack of Titan combat in Gav Thorpe’s Imperator: Wrath of the Omnissiah, which reads much more like a submarine movie than what I think may people were expecting, Titandeath may be considerably more to your liking.
If I had a criticism, its that we didn’t get to see much of the Imperial Hunters in their native element, as ambush predators. There are allusions to the idea, but to me they’re told rather than shown, and I still don’t have a really good feel for how they’d fight, save that lighter maniples are more maneuverable. You don’t get that feeling one got from Betrayer with Legio Audax having a really distinctive feeling style. There are a lot of mentions that this is not the kind of war that they were meant or intended to fight, but that was a little disappointing.
But over all? Good times and Volcano Cannons are had by all. And the bit at the end with a traitor Titan turning into the out-and-out daemon engine we’re familiar with in 40K? That bits awesome.
Titandeath‘s Place in the Heresy
Here’s where things go a little off the rails. Haley’s Afterword is one of the most insightful looks into how a book happened I’ve read in awhile. Below are some salient parts:
“The book that you hold in your hands very nearly didn’t happen.
Let’s go back in time, not far. A few years, that’s all. It’s about 2015 or so. The Horus Heresy was due to enter its final phases. The walls of the Imperial Palace were looming upon the horizon. Legions of loyal readers eagerly awaited the attack on Terra. A decree came down from on high that it was time to give it to them.
Beta-Garmon is an important waypoint on that road… ”
“Unfortunately, there was no room for another book. In the desire to bring about the conclusion to the saga of Horus’ betrayal, the small matter of Beta-Garmon was put to one side, an unfortunate casualty of scheduling as much as of war.
Time moved on. Things changed. In due course it was decided that, perhaps, the conflict of Beta-Garmon should be detailed after all. Beta-Garmon is the fight that flings open the doors to Terra. Had Horus lost there, then the Emperor might never have fallen, and the galaxy would be a different place. The Great Muster. The Titandeath. The Great Slaughter. The Sea of Fire. These are names that resonate throughout the background. They had to be covered, surely? Yes!
Only, now the end was even nearer. Black Library’s publication plans were already set. A space had to be found.
A tight space.
That’s when I got the call.”
Guy Haley is known for his ability to write with extraordinary swiftness. I can’t remember where I’ve seen this, but as I recall, Aaron Demski-Bowden believes he writes five times slower than Haley. He is the person you’d call for “We’re missing an entire section of the Horus Heresy and we need it now.” And he’s done a good job of it.
So what I’m about to say should not be taken as a critique of Guy’s work, but rather the Heresy series’s path as a whole. Titandeath feels…rushed. Like one part of a much larger story, shoehorned in to make sure that Beta-Garmon is mentioned, but at a time when the ship has already sailed. And this is the only treatment of it we’re going to get. The Legios get, by and large, taken off the table. That’s all. There is a massive theater of war here, and it’s being skipped over entirely. That’s a little painful in a series that has, to be frank, its share of filler material. Titandeath leaves me wanting more – but not in the good way.
And that’s where we get to…
The Imperial Idiotball
At times, in 40K fiction, someone needs to be duped, stupid, or otherwise incompetent to make the story work. Usually, you can wave your hand and go “The Changeling Did It”. Not so here.
In nominal command of the theater on the Loyalist side is Sanguinius, accompanied by the Khan, who shows up briefly and then does…things…I suppose, entirely off-screen. And he does get a really cool scene of an aerial assault on an Imperator Titan. But as a commander, the plotting makes me feel…underwhelmed. Or something stronger than that. It left me feeling like the Angel is a moron. He’s consistently outfoxed by Horus, not because Horus is written as particularly clever, but because Sanguinius is written as willfully not clever. Important objectives are left entirely unguarded. Imperial forces are led into traps.
At the end of the day, Beta-Garmon doesn’t feel like the grim and bloody holding action it was set up as, using the system as a way to bleed the Warmaster’s forces and wait for the Lion and Guilliman to arrive. It feels like a rout. Perhaps that’s what Haley intended it to feel like, and the fact that we are leading into the closing acts of the Heresy means he’s somewhat boxed in, but it rang a little hollow for me.
Titandeath as a Feminist Work
“One of the biggest decisions I took was to make the Heresy-era Imperial Hunters entirely female. The Horus Heresy, being a war of Space Marines, is naturally skewed towards the male perspective. When we do meet female characters they are mostly individuals surrounded by men. I wished to avoid that and try something a bit different. I could bang on about the inherent narrative tensions of female characters negotiating male power structures, but suffice it to say, having female characters with real power was great to write about in the setting, and you don’t get more powerful in Warhammer 40,000 than the Grand Master of a Titan Legio.”
I’ve got to laud Guy Haley for setting out to do this deliberately, and I will say that the Imperial Hunters are awesome – and awesome in a way that feels relatively natural. They exist in the setting for the greatest of all 40K reasons – an unexpected twist on someone being too clever for their own good. In this case, a King and a bit of youthful indiscretion on the part of his daughter letting him think he was going to outwit the Mechanicum by sending the daughters of his court off to whatever fate they had in store for them, while the men stayed behind with their awesome and newly rebuilt Knights.
A good idea, until one learns that the fate those daughters were destined for was piloting Titans.
The Imperial Hunters aren’t portrayed as perfect. They have their advantages – born of their heritage, as well as the fact that unlike other Legios, they still recognize familial bonds and, having been part of a close knit group to begin with, have a sort of tangled relationship with one another that manifests itself for both good and ill. Which is especially interesting as a Mechanicum-aligned force that hasn’t completely abandoned the notion of humanity. They have agency in the setting, both as women and as commanders of some of the most powerful forces the Imperium can bring to bear. They feel interesting, and it’s not just because they’re women. They have a distinct culture – one that I feel like the White Scars would feel right at home with, which makes the absence of fast moving Scars-Legion Solaria scenes all the more disappointing. And yes, at times there is a fair amount made of the bond between sisters, and between mother-and-daughter, but how many novels have we had now touching on the mystical bonds of brotherhood? Or the fact that the entire Heresy series is predicated on emotionally absent father figures?
There are however also some problems here. One is the near absence of female characters elsewhere in the book. If a mono-gendered Legio is an exceptional thing, we should encounter women elsewhere in the many Titans gathered at Beta Garmon. As far as I can tell, we encounter one, and she’s dead by the time she’s introduced.
“There is a Legio that is composed entirely of women. Can you imagine such a thing?’
That was the first Terent Harrtek had heard of the Legio Solaria. It had been Averna who told him, a princeps he respected well past the moment he had to kill her.”
The soldiers on Beta Garmon are male. As are their generals, even those who don’t have the out of being Astartes. The major tech priest characters, on both sides, are male. While Haley should be commended for the conscious effort to work more female characters into a male-dominated setting, he misses the mark on introducing female characters who aren’t remarkable for their femininity.
And then there’s the end – where the Legio is rewarded for it’s efforts in feeding itself into Sanguinius’s meat grinder.
“We have survived this test. Through your skill and dedication, the name of the Legio Solaria will continue.’ Her vox feed blared with sudden static, breaking up her words, though she did not notice and spoke on. ‘…ever more in defence of all we hold dear, but it will not be the same Legio. Our gene stocks are exhausted. New crews must be found. If the magi of Tigris return to Procon, which they most surely will, then the terms will be renegotiated with our ancestor houses. The Knights of Procon will not be deceived again. They covet the power of the god-machines for themselves. Men will come among us. This era of the Imperial Hunters is over.”
I suppose this is meant to be poignant and evoking the loss of so much of the Heresy-era potential of humanity, but it ends up just feeling sort of hollow. “Here’s this interesting set of characters, intended to redress a bit of a failure of balance in setting, but now that this story is done, we’re taking it back.” It leaves the sacrifice of the Imperial Hunters – both in terms of lives and Titans – as especially empty. The nature of their legion hollowed out for a loss. And it’s a fate not consistent with other parts of the setting – it’s often been made clear that Knight worlds (like Procon) that are sworn to the Mechanicum are not exactly in the position to renegotiate. A slow rebuilding, sure. And end to their part in this war? Absolutely.
I’ll admit to not liking to end on that sour of a note. I was hyped for Titandeath, and when it comes down to it, it was a good book. Good, but not great. Which, given the apparently last minute nature of the book is a probably all that could realistically be hoped for. And it does provide some excellent Titan combat scenes, both from the perspective of what it means to serve as a Titan’s crew, and also Titan combat on a scale significantly larger than seen previously (even Titanicus sort of handwaves the big battle at the end. And I think Guy Haley accomplished what he set out to do with the Imperial Hunters – create an interesting and multi-dimensional collection of female protagonists, tasked with navigating a setting that is undeniably male-centric, and doing it in a way that felt – well – like Warhammer.
It is the end of the book that lets it down – where much of the previous building is torn down, with little to show for it narratively. The potential is there – the elements are in place, and there are some truly enjoyable scenes. It just doesn’t quite reach the mark.
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