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Monday, April 9, 2012

Book Review: Prospero Burns

 Hey there Chaos fanatics! Old Man Chaos is back with a book review. I have just finished Prospero Burns by Dan Abnett. Now, for me, while Dan Abnett is a great writer, I find that his work is often hit or miss. When he hits, he hits BIG. His Eisenhorn Trilogy may be one of the best 40K story arcs ever- the writing, pacing, detail, characterization, etc are all fantastic. It was the type of book that I didn't want to see end, since I felt so invested in Eisenhorn, Bequin, Aemos, and the rest. Equally good are Abnett's Horus Heresy books- Horus Rising is a great introduction to the series, and Legion has some of the greatest story twists of any Black Library book. However, Abnett does miss quite a bit too- for example, his Titanicus is quite underwhelming, with too many charcaters floating around and not enough Titan action. Also, though I loved the title character, his Ravenor series isn't nearly as good as Eisenhorn, which disappointed me. As for Prospero Burns, some fans have said that it doesn't focus nearly enough on the Battle of Prospero, and that it feels like you're just following some historian around for too long.

While I agree that the Battle of Prospero itself is a bit too short, the rest of the story is, in fact, very, very good. Indeed, I feel that it is one of Abnett's strongest to date. You see, there's multiple themes and stories running through this book. Yes, it culminates in the Battle of Prospero, but if you have already read A Thousand Sons, you already know the general contours of the battle itself, as well as the perspective of Magnus and the Thousand Sons themselves. This book is bigger than that battle, but in a fantastic way, Abnett uses the smallest, most insignificant character as a window into not just the fight between the Wolves and the Thousand Sons, but the bigger conflicts that are happening between mankind and the immaterium, as well as man's battles within himself.

I don't want to give too much away, so I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum. The story is about Kasper Hawser, a historian and archeologist from Terra. Hawser has had some academic success in making historical discoveries about ancient Terran history, and has even gotten Imperial recognition for his work. However, Hawser grows tired of the beauracracy of Terra (great foreshadowing of the future of Terra's administratum) and decides to leave it all behind and go to Fenris, the home-world of the Space Wolves (Or Vilka Fenrika, as they prefer to be called). The Wolves take him in and make him Skjald, a storyteller for their legion. Hawser gets swept up in the Great Crusade, sees battles, meets Leman Russ and other major figures, and gets involved to the conflict between the Russ' and Magnus' legions.

Now, of course, it isn't quite that simple. Now here's where I will stop on the plot, since I don't want to give too much away. There are some twists here that I don't want to ruin; the surprises here are very interesting and make one interpret the events of the Heresy in a new light (though it doesn't quite match the twists of Legion- boy, those are doozies). I don't want to dwell on those, so I will instead look at some of the major themes and concerns of this book.

The first, and perhaps most vital question that the book seems to ask is "What is the purpose of Knowledge"? For Hawser (and perhaps, the Thousand Sons), knowledge is essential- the phrase "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it" sums up his view. Hawser initially wanted to find the causes of Old Night, that time of anarchy when humanity nearly fell into ruin. Of course, Hawser suspects something sinister about the Warp, even if he is not sure what it really is out there. Of course, his own quest is mirrored by the Thousand Sons, who seek knowledge (ostensibly) for the benefit of mankind- learning about the esoteric and the Warp in order to master it.

The Space Wolves see knowledge a bit differently. To them, there are some things best forgotten. Too much knowledge is dangerous, even maddening. Traditions must be kept alive, stories of heroism and bravery must be told to inspire. But, knowledge just for the sake of it, can ruin people- excessive knowledge breeds corruption, ego, vanity. I would say that the Wolves value practical knowledge, but shun everything else. This philosophy is set up for some great contrasts between the two legions. And with that, one must question- did the Emperor go to far himself in the pursuit of knowledge and power? Should the Wolves feel the same sense of anger and disgust toward him?

Speaking of, the second issue of this book regards the purpose of the Space Wolves. Abnett goes out of his way to point out that the Emperor created each legion for a specific purpose. Some are made to fortify, others are made to be the Praetorian,  etc. The Wolves are made to be the ultimate deterrent. A weapon of war so terrible, that it could even take on a Space Marine Legion. It seems that the Emperor knew that this might be a possibility, hence the Wolves. Interestingly, the Wolves are not thrilled with their role. To them, this is a thankless task, which causes them to be looked on as savages by all others. They aren't- they are simply designed to be ruthless warriors, able to destroy anything without pity or doubt.

The third issue is that this calls into question just how "wise" the Emperor really is, especially when you combine this with the other Heresy books. After all, if he knows about the dangers of Chaos, why doesn't he warn his Primarchs more forcefully? If the story is true, why did he use the powers of the warp to create the Primarchs (The First Heretic)? How does he not know about the Twin Primarchs (Legion)? How is it that the Emperor condemns religion ("The Last Church") while still allowing the Wolves to practice their "paganism"? There are way more questions than answers, and I doubt we will get any more than that, which is OK- it allows us fans to speculate.

There are some issues with the book though- the pacing is sometimes spotty, and his characterization isn't as good as his usual (though he does a great job with Leman Russ, while Kasper Hawser is a cipher- on purpose). The action scenes are clipped, and I do wish we got to see the Battle of Prospero a little bit more. I do love how the last act is told as if the Skjald is telling the story after the fact though.

Ultimately, Prospero Burns is one of Abnett's strongest (though not his best). If you enjoy the Wolves or the Heresy in general, I think you will enjoy this book. I intend on reading The Battle of the Fang next, as it seems to be the final part of the war between the Space Wolves and the Thousand Sons, even if it takes place a thousand years after the Heresy. I've heard great things about this one, so after Prospero Burns, I'm excited to get it started! As for this one, I give it 3 1/2 Marks of Chaos out of 4.

Until next time....

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