Review: Angels of Caliban

Posted: July 8, 2016 by in Books We Love (5/5 single_star) Meta: Gav Thorpe, Science Fiction

A long, long time ago in a galaxy… here… I read ANGELS OF DARKNESS by Gav Thorpe (Amazon). I’d been reading Warhammer 40,000 tie-in fiction for a short while but this was my first exposure to the Dark Angels. It was more thoughtful and considerate than I was accustomed to for a 40k novel. Don’t get me wrong, ANGELS OF DARKNESS stills packs the heavy hitting action the war-game is known for, but it also delves deeply into the history of one of 40k’s most mysterious factions. It’s been a long time since I read that book but it remains one of my all time favorites set in the grim darkness of the future. ANGELS OF CALIBAN takes place 10,000 years before ANGELS OF DARKNESS, during the Horus Heresy, and fills in more of the details of the I legion’s shameful past. It is also the third novel in the Imperium Secundus subplot of the larger Horus Heresy series, following Dan Abnett’s THE UNREMEMBERED EMPIRE (Amazon) and Guy Haley’s PHAROS (EBR Review).

If you’ve read my PHAROS review you’re aware that I’m a big fan of the Imperium Secundus subplot and ANGELS OF CALIBAN (Amazon) is (probably) the end of that specific era of the Horus Heresy. Unfortunately I feel as though the concept wasn’t explored nearly as fully as it deserved but it’s still a satisfying diversion from the main conflict of the galactic-spanning civil war and ANGELS OF CALIBAN is a powerful (likely) finale to the arc.

Here’s the Amazon synopsis of ANGELS OF CALIBAN…

Two infamous Space Marine Primarch rivals clash for the final time.

With the Dark Angels spread across a hundred systems, primarch Lion El’Jonson stands as Lord Protector of Ultramar – though his true motives are known to few indeed, and old rivalries on the home world threaten to tear the Legion in half. But when word comes of the Night Lords’ attack on Sotha, the Lion’s brutal actions bring Imperium Secundus once again to the brink of civil war. Not even the most fearsome warriors of the Dreadwing, nor any arcane secret of the Order, can guarantee victory if he sets himself against his loyal brothers.

ANGELS OF CALIBAN follows two storylines. The first thread takes place within the borders of Imperium Secundus as Lion El’Jonson continues to hunt his traitorous maniac of a brother, Konrad Curze. After the events of PHAROS, Lion is called back to secure the world of Ultramar where it appears Curze has been hiding the whole time. Here the primarch of the Dark Angels decides to flush out the Night Haunter by cracking down on the civilian populace and imposing martial law.The Dark Angels’ draconian security measures fan the flames of discontent and ignite civil unrest. Meanwhile back on Caliban the Lion’s adopted father Luther seeks to cast off the chains of the Imperium and the Dark Angels. To accomplish this Luther will have to navigate the questionable motives of his inner council, suppress any Space Marines loyal to Lion El’Jonson, and deal with the fleet of ships that have arrived unannounced in the solar system.

Apart from being the third book in the Imperium Secundus subplot, ANGELS OF CALIBAN is also the sequel to DESCENT OF ANGELS (Amazon — Book 6 of the Horus Heresy) and FALLEN ANGELS (Amazon — Book 11 of the Horus Heresy). It also references a number of events featured in short stories set in the series…needless to say ANGELS OF CALIBAN is not a standalone story and it is really not the place to jump into the series. I’ll include a similar disclaimer to the ones I’ve used for the last two Horus Heresy reviews I’ve posted: There exist some Horus Heresy novels that can be read out of their numerical publishing order but if you haven’t been following along with the series I would not recommend starting with ANGELS OF CALIBAN. It’s got even more sequel-ception going on than PHAROS. That said, I’ll try not to reveal too much about the book in case you’re intrigued by the Horus Heresy but uncertain about jumping into a series that is currently 38 books long.

ANGELS OF CALIBAN starts off very strong with a prologue set during the Great Crusade to reunite the galaxy under the Emperor’s rule. Horus holds a ceremony to congratulate the forces of a disparate coalition he cobbled together in order to quash a rebellion on a planet previously brought to compliance. Here Horus gives credit to all of the units who contributed to the hard fought victory and among those assembled is Luther and a few Dark Angels. Then Lion El’Jonson crashes the party, upset that Luther has disobeyed orders by heeding the Warmaster’s call and abandoning his duties on Caliban. The scene is powerful on multiple levels. Horus’s appreciation for the efforts of even the least consequential mortal auxiliaries is a firm reminder of why people are so willing and eager to follow his lead. On another level we come to further understand the frustration and hurt of Luther, kept from the glories of the Great Crusade and shamed by his adopted son in front of his allies for answering the Warmaster’s call to arms. It’s hard not to see Lion as an utter bully and this is a theme that continues throughout the story. And then there’s Lion’s sheer audacity to interrupt Horus’s celebration. Generally interactions between Horus and his brothers have been far less contemptuous, at least in the lead up to the actual Heresy.

ANGELS OF CALIBAN is full of affecting moments like this. There’s some thrilling bolter porn for the action junkies but like ANGELS OF DARKNESS, this novel is a much more considerate and thoughtful read. The interactions between the characters, especially the interactions between the primarchs, make for a memorable read. The conflict between Lion and Roboute Guilliman as Lion exerts his authority as Lord Protector of Imperium Secundus is great. As mentioned earlier Lion El’Jonson really can be a bully and while I can’t agree with his methods I find it easy to appreciate him as a character. In contrast to the practicality of Lion, Roboute comes across as naive. They pose a good foil for each other and it’s a shame that their brother Sanguinius has had so little to do in the Imperium Secundus subplot. Sanguinius shows up at the very end of THE UNREMEMBERED EMPIRE and is crowned emperor. Then there’s a brief bit in PHAROS where he’s nearly assassinated and in ANGELS OF CALIBAN he’s too preoccupied with his visions of the future to do much more than intervene when Lion and Roboute come to a an impasse. Otherwise Sanguinius is pretty inconsequential to the whole arc.

The interactions between Luther and the Dark Angels on Caliban also propel the novel along with the velocity of a Thunderhawk gunship. Luther has allies of circumstance but it becomes increasingly clear as the story progresses that while they may have similar goals, none of them are perfectly in alignment. Luther wants to free Caliban from any who might seek to rule over it, Zahariel wants to release the Ouroboros which he believes to be the spirit of Caliban, Astelan wants to do what’s best for Astelan, and who the hell knows what Lord Cypher wants. I’ve had friends say it’s the Horus Heresy equivalent of GAME OF THRONES. I can’t disagree with that assessment and I wish I could take credit for making it. There’s even a banquet scene that would make George R.R. Martin proud…

Switching between the politicking on pseudo-Medieval Europe Caliban and the Lion’s heavy handed policing of pseudo-Roman Empire Macragge keeps things interesting. Through Astelan we learn more about the I legion’s history dating back to the Emperor’s Six Hosts of Angels. Through voted-lieutenant Farith Redloss we learn about the previously unknown Dreadwing of the Dark Angels and readers are treated to watching the relentless way they do battle. Dark Angels fans are going to love all these tasty little morsels that Thorpe bakes into the plot and those who aren’t currently fans of the I legion may come away with a new appreciation for them. ANGELS OF CALIBAN serves as a hearty reminder of what separates the Dark Angels from other Space Marines.

Thorpe’s greatest triumph in writing ANGELS OF CALIBAN may very well be writing Konrad Curze in a way that doesn’t make me want to rage quit the book. Despite my adoration of Aaron Dembski Bowden’s NIGHTLORDS series (Amazon), I have no love for Konrad Curze. The Night Haunter was the worst part of THE UNREMEMBERED EMPIRE and PHAROS. Fortunately Thorpe manages to write him in a way that’s sinister and insane without crossing the line into cartoony. The encounter between Lion and Curze is exhilarating in a way that the majority of the primarch duels have so far failed to grip me.

During the Horus Heresy, and full of details of the I legion's shameful past. Also the third novel in the Imperium Secundus subplot of the larger series.

All of this leads to what I consider the best part of the novel but be warned, spoilers follow so you might want to skip the next paragraph

The trial of Curze is short-lived but AWESOME. I never would have considered it possible for one of the traitors to mount a feasible defense of their crimes in court but Curze doesn’t do too badly for himself in exposing Lion’s war crimes. Better yet Thorpe delivers an acceptable reason for not executing Curze and that was always going to be the hardest part to swallow, at least for me. Anyone with background knowledge of Warhammer 40,000 knows the circumstances surrounding Curze’s death so it should come as no surprise that he is not executed at the hands of Sanguinius, Roboute, and Lion. Still, it’s aggravating that they have a traitor primarch in their grasp and fail to kill him but Thorpe manages to make the pill far less bitter and bring Imperium Secundus to a satisfying conclusion. Watching the dissolution of Imperium Secundus and seeing the realization of what they’ve done dawn on Roboute is distinctly poignant.

Spoilers end here.

There are so many great titles in the Horus Heresy so far so it feels disingenuous to say that ANGELS OF CALIBAN is “one of the best” so instead I’ll say that I expect it to live on for a long time in my memory in much the same way as ANGELS OF DARKNESS. I love Thorpe writing the Dark Angels and I cannot wait to see the eventual cataclysmic confrontation between Lion El’Jonson and Luther.

  • Recommended Age: 16+
  • Language: Nothing too severe
  • Violence: Some bloody combat but less than might be expected.
  • Sex: None

You can buy ANGELS OF CALIBAN hardcover, eBook, or audiobook from BlackLibrary HERE.

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