Review: Descent of Angels by Mitchel Scanlon

Posted by DarkChaplain at 3/29/2012
I just finished Descent of Angels a few days ago, despite it being one of the older Horus Heresy novels. Originally released in late 2007, I'm over four and a half years late to being introduced into the Order, but I hope you'll enjoy my review nonetheless. Chances are you've already read it, which is a good thing in my opinion, but if you have avoided it until now, aware of the bad publicity it's been getting for the past years in fan-circles, this post might change your mind - if I'm doing my job here good enough.

The Story:
"The next instalment in the ground-breaking Horus Heresy series by Mitchell Scanlon, telling the tale of the civil war that nearly tore the human Imperium apart, ten thousand years ago. The novel explores the dark and mysterious history of the Dark Angels Legion and their Primarch Lion El’Jonson.
When the Imperial fleet rediscovers the planet Caliban, the Emperor is reunited with his missing son the Primarch Lion El’Jonson. As Dark Angels old and new join the Great Crusade, a chain of events is set in motion that will change Caliban, its people, and the Legion forever."


General Information
Yes, this is another Warhammer novel. Not Warhammer Fantasy this time, but Warhammer 40,000. The genre's not pure fantasy anymore, but rather science fiction - but then again, I'd classify Descent of Angels as 80% fantasy, 20% scifi in my mental library, so it should not be too much of a jump just yet. In fact, the people of Caliban, the planet the novel is mainly set on, are mostly oblivious to their terran forefathers and living in a slightly technologically-advanced medieval era. This makes for some interesting clash of cultures near the end of the novel and results in introductions to the "Great Crusade" material that is the basis of the whole 40k franchise, and the Horus Heresy subseries specifically.
If you've never touched the series and are usually a fan of fantasy novels, this one will ease you from one genre into the other and grant you a basic understanding of the setting. With Descent of Angels finished, you might just as well pick up the opening trilogy of the Horus Heresy series next. By then you'll have a basic understanding of what is actually going on.

Setting & Plot
Descent of Angels mainly focuses on a young knight supplicant and his way from joining the Order, a fairly young brotherhood of knights on the hostile planet of Caliban, to his eventual elevation to knighthood and later even his life as an Astartes, a Space Marine.

The planet Caliban itself has always been a feral environment, qualifying for being classified as "Death World" by the Imperium of Man. For the most part covered by thick forests, Caliban is home to a myriad of deadly animals, plants and insects, and the ways to find one's doom are countless - one careless step can cost a man his leg, if not his whole life, for Caliban is merciless. Yet that hostile environment alone is not what is the most dangerous: Caliban's forests are home to Great Beasts, twisted creatures that could have wiped out all civilization on the planet, if not for the knightly orders. The knights of Caliban fight to protect the commoners of their world, setting out on quests to slay any Great Beast that would threaten a human settlement. Calibanite tradition also dictates that a knight supplicant would need to declare and fulfill such a hunting quest to rise to the rank of knight in his brotherhood.
Breaking with the other brotherhoods' traditions of only allowing nobles into their ranks, the Order was founded to allow both nobles and commoners to join their ranks, based on their skills and determination. In the Order, all are brothers, yet there are secrets and knowledge only those who progress into deeper circles may learn of. At the center of this circle of hidden truths stand the man bearing the title of Lord Cypher and the Grand Master of the Order, whose rank would fall to the mighty hero of Caliban, Lion El'Jonson, eventually.

'The Lion', as Jonson is commonly called by his brothers of the Order, leads the brotherhood to newfound glory in his grand plan of ridding Caliban from the vile Great Beasts and reclaiming the lands for humanity. Jonson himself, having no recollection of his origins, was once found in the deep forests of Caliban by the one man who, if it wasn't for the Lion, might have been the greatest of all the heroes of Caliban: Luther.
Sealing his own life in the shadow of another, Luther decides to bring the Lion to civilization, teaching him all there was to their simple life, and to everyone's surprise, Jonson excelled in everything, quickly adopting language and becoming a master in everything he touched. Yet Luther loved his new brother, despite being outmatched by him, and never let his support falter - but will Luther be able to stay by his brother's side throughout the changing history of Caliban?

Our protagonist, Zahariel El'Zurias, will have to work hard to rise through the Order's ranks and throughout his life bears witness to the deeds of the mightiest heroes of their time: The Lion and Luther. He might even get closer to his heroes than he'd ever have imagined. Through his eyes we see the inner workings of the brotherhood, calibanite society and what it takes to have just a little bit too much luck. From his youthful rivalries with his cousin Nemiel to the declaration of his hunting quest to slay the Calibanite Lion of Endriago and the war with rivaling knight orders, the reader is being put into the shoes of Zahariel of the Order, following not only in the shadows of greater men but making a name for himself, to the point where he forges personal bonds with his heroes.
But when one day the Emperor's angels descend on Caliban and the Lion is reunited with his father, everything changes and events are set into motion that might bring doom to all the knightly Order has fought to protect...

Final Words & Verdict
Despite the novel not exactly telling of the Horus Heresy, playing long before any of the events that would engulf the Imperium in civil war into motion, it is setting up just the right flags for the Dark Angels' further fall from grace.
Those who are looking for 40k-typical "Bolter-Porn", to use the coined term, will be disappointed, as only the last part of the book actually features Space Marines. But then again, the Heresy series has been more about revealing unknown motivations and tragedies than pure action in the first place.
Descent of Angels is more of a tale of the origins of the Dark Angels, their Primarch and the traditions which would still carry on even ten thousand years later, during the actual 41st Millenium. Those familiar with 40k will already know that the Legion won't be able to hold on to its unity, for the seeds of doubt have been spreading too deeply through their ranks.
Scanlon wrote as much of a story about honour and glory as about brotherhood and what it takes to live in constant rivalry with one's peers. Of course, there's a lot of action, as would be expected. It just gets delivered a bit differently than usually.

Maybe it was awkward to read such a story, far from Horus and the battlefields of Isstvan III and V, Calth, Signus Prime or Terra, with the label Horus Heresy on it. With the opening trilogy, Flight of the Eisenstein and Fulgrim preceeding it, Descent of Angels surely makes for an odd choice. Now, over 4 years later, this does not strike me as severe anymore. The Dark Angels have gotten another novel dedicated to their fall in summer 2009 and there is sure to be more material down the road. Looking at the novel that way, it seems more like a setup to a larger sub-series to the sub-series that is the Horus Heresy - and I clearly think it did a great job bringing the Legion closer to my attention and sparked my interest in their development throughout the civil war. This may have been a setup-novel, but it surely stands very well even on its own.

I knew only a few bits about it before starting to read, like for example it playing on Caliban for the most part, but in the end did not mind that fact at all.
The characters are nicely placed, from Zahariel to his cousin Nemiel, who in some ways resemble the relationship between Lion and Luther, to the first Legion coming to Caliban, or the other named knights of the knightly orders. All got their places in the wider picture and are sure to return one way or another.
Scattered throughout the book are interesting, even thought-provoking dialogues and quotations that, alongside quite a bit of foreshadowing, made this book fairly easy to invest time into. If only you can set your typical Horus Heresy-expectations aside, you'll most certainly get your time's worth out of Descent of Angels. And isn't it exactly the way the series adds unexpected twists to established background that keeps it interesting to this very day and will continue to do so for years to come?

I have yet to read the successor-novel 'Fallen Angels', which was not written by Mitchel Scanlon but Mike Lee instead, but I'll make sure to elevate it some tiers higher on my reading list. For the Lion! For Luther! For Caliban!

Descent of Angels on the Black Library Website

About the Author

I'm known as DarkChaplain across the internet, and call myself a passionate gamer and book enthusiast. I have been blogging mostly about games for a couple of years, but finally found my way to reviewing a different medium: Books. Honestly, I prefer that job so far.
Follow Me on Twitter @TheDarkChaplain


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