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Book review: Battle for the Abyss (Horus Heresy VIII)

This book has received many negative reviews in the past and overall is not viewed well compared with other books in the series. At this point, 14 years after its original publication, this review will be as much about answering the question of why the negative sentiment as the story of the novel.

Story first. The Furious Abyss is a mega ship constructed for the Word Bearers legion by the treacherous Mechanicum. The ship is revealed in Earth’s solar system and leaves for Macragge to attack the Ultramarines’ homeworld. The Word Bearers attack an Ultramarine vessel that gets in their way, and the distress call of this doomed ship brings loyal Astartes onto their tail. The loyalists, themselves representing two loyalist and two traitor legions, must come to view their differences as strengths and band together to stop the Word Bearers’ attack.

The story is something of a cul-de-sac, with limited connection to other Heresy novels. I think this is where the negative sentiment comes in. Rather than a book in a series, Battle for the Abyss reads as a ‘Horus Heresy adventure’ novel. The launch of the ship doesn’t reveal the treachery of the Word Bearers or the Mechanicum as both will be revealed in later novels. Neither are the Ultramarines massing at Calth made aware of what is about to happen. Success for the loyalists means a devastating attack on the Ultramarines will be not quite as devasting at it might have been.

The stakes of the novel are low, the character haven’t been seen before and won’t be seen again. No particular character of any legion is revealed here. The Space Wolves are short-tempered, the Ultramarines are noble, the World Eaters revel in combat. Overall this book adds more in length than in value to the series.

rating: 2 golden thrones

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4 comments on “Book review: Battle for the Abyss (Horus Heresy VIII)

  1. Wudugast
    July 31, 2022

    Ah, good old Battle for the Abyss – quite possibly the worst book I’ve ever read to completion (and I’ve read some stinkers!). You make some excellent points about why the book is a flop (the lack of stakes or impact on the wider narrative and the paper-thin characters especially) but I think the issue goes deeper than that. Firstly, and I think this is more important than is often acknowledged in reviews of this book, the standard of writing is incredibly low – it really is teenage fan-fiction level stuff. The text really is just a grab-bag of cliches poorly strung together (the daemon saying “you cannot defeat me puny human” was a real highlight) and if you made a drinking game out of every time the space wolves were described as feral your liver would explode.

    However I’d say the real issue is that this one had so much potential, and if it had been given to a writer with some skill it could have been outstanding sci-fi. We have a magnificent premise; the desperate, high-stakes pursuit of the vast traitor vessel through the troubled warp by a much smaller loyalist ship, whilst the disparate crew turn upon one another and daemonic entities sneak aboard and wreak havoc in the darkness. I always think of it potentially combining elements from Hunt for Red October and Alien – goes without saying that the result would have been really compelling!

    The pacing is all over the place too, there are plenty of moments where the tension could have been ratcheted up to breaking point (for example as the storms threaten to swallow the ship and the dead crew come crawling back to life) but these are skipped over because the author lacks the skill to write anything truly psychological so instead we just skip to another fast-paced, low tension, shooting match.

    The characters themselves though are the biggest wasted opportunity. This was an opportunity to see the Heresy in microcosm, with legions from both sides of the divide crammed together in the cramped corridors of a single ship. However because the author can’t write characters we just get this terrible one dimensional guff (Brynngar the Space Wolf is a drunken buffoon, the World Eater is angry, etc.). It should have been so much more though. How do the other space marines feel about having a World Eater on board, given that by this point in the Heresy rumours were already circulating widely that Angron’s entire legion had gone mad? If the other legions are uncomfortable about the idea of fighting other space marines how do they get along with the Space Wolf, given that these are “the Emperor’s headsmen” for whom killing other space marines is part of the day job? What would have happened had Mhotep of the Thousand Sons received a message from his brothers, telling him what the Wolves had done on Propero in his absence? How does Skraal feel about getting distracted and killing civilians? He might not care much about their lives but how does he feel about threatening the mission because he lost his cool? Were any of the Ultramarines at Monarchia? How do they feel about being involved in the shaming of the Word Bearers, and in facing their old rivals again? Is there any guilt there, or secret pleasure in proving that the Ultramarines were right and the Word Bearers were bad ‘uns all along? How would we, as readers, feel about seeing devout, bookish Word Bearers with a genuine grievance serving as the villains, whilst the heroes include a blood-mad killer like Skraal? After all, the best baddies are the ones you can sympathise with. How do the older Word Bearers feel about the changes in their legion? They would have joined the legion as devotees of the Emperor, but the men under their command would have been inducted into a legion already sworn to Chaos. How do these two sides get along? What about Kor Phaeron? Where was the bitter half-astartes who knows he has wasted his life in the service of a lie, the old man rebuilt to become the thing he most desired to be, yet never truly could – a space marine? Where was the iron willed warrior whose influence curbed Lorgar’s more mercurial elements?

    This book could have got under the skin of these people and it just didn’t bother and I think that’s why it gets such a slagging even all these years later – it’s not just a bad book, it’s a bad book that contains all the elements needed for an excellent book and they’re wasted, and the reader knows that and is left feeling cheated and bitter.

    Liked by 2 people

    • davekay
      July 31, 2022

      Yes, there was really no insight into the Word Bearers’ motivation here, and the book suffered for it. Also I think your point about what the book could have been is spot on. This book could have been great – tense, gripping, with some actual stakes on the line. Instead it just feels like a conveyor belt slowly taking us nowhere of interest.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Chris Kemp
    August 2, 2022

    Very Russian in temperament – the world is sad and everybody dies, Comrade! 🙂

    Your review is spot-on.

    Regards, Chris.

    Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on July 31, 2022 by in Books, horus heresy, Review and tagged , , , .
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