Review: Angels of Caliban by Gav Thorpe

Posted by DarkChaplain at 6/23/2016
The First Legion go to war, and their primarch's brutal actions threaten to tear apart the fragile alliance of Imperium Secundus.

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 continues the trend of reinvigorating the Horus Heresy by wrapping up story arcs and progressing characters and Legions in a satisfying way. It juggles two quite different plotlines, Imperium Secundus and the growing revolt on Caliban, and does so well.

The Story:
"The First Legion go to war, and their primarch's brutal actions threaten to tear apart the fragile alliance of Imperium Secundus.

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."

The Review
I've always defended Descent of Angels. A lot of people online seem to dislike it, with the biggest complaints being that it doesn't have much to do with the Heresy itself, and instead plays out more like a fantasy novel than science fiction. To me, that always seemed more appealing, and learning more about the Dark Angels on Caliban, their culture and the seeds of doubt that would lead Luther to turn on the Lion, was great. In Angels of Caliban, those aspects are picked back up at long last, and there are a lot of additions and expansions to the Dark Angels' background and characterization.

Some of this is down to ForgeWorld's plans for the Legion in the Horus Heresy tabletop game, which added more info about the different Wings (we knew about some, the Ravenwing and Deathwing most prominently, but now there are six total), and new armaments for the First in general. But there is also plenty about Caliban, and Luther's life specifically, that comes to light here. Before, Luther has always been a bit of an enigma. We saw him through the eyes of Zahariel and Nemiel, for example, but this time he has scenes of his own, contemplating and weighing options.

There is a lot more depth to Sar Luther, Grand Master of the Order, thanks to this book. It sets the mood for him as a character in the wider Legion history, giving a sense of tragedy and good intentions, an idealist whose hand is ultimately forced by an ever-increasing web of schemes all around Caliban. As the book ended, I still found myself feeling sympathy for the Lion's adoptive father-brother, rather than see him as the arch traitor he is considered in the 41st Millennium. He is as layered as the Legion/Chapter itself, and for that I salute Gav.

The bigger surprise was Zahariel's role in it all. He shifted in tone and motivation quite drastically since we last saw him. Once more we see the good intentions of the Calibanites, while also seeing the tragedy their actions summon to their world. Considering that Zahariel was the protagonist of the previous two Legion novels, his change to antagonist left me somewhat gutted, but I loved the execution and am eagerly waiting for the resolution of that can of worms (see what I did there? No? Read the book!).

Gav also weaved in events from his scattered short stories, like The Lion, which introduced us to Tuchulcha (who obviously appears again, and is creepy as ever, with some dialogue parallels to The Unforgiven), but also saw the execution of Nemiel, Zahariel's friend and cousin. This stokes a lot of fires on Caliban, once Zahariel learns of it from Chapter Master Belath, who we've seen initially in contest with Astelan in Call of the Lion, and later alongside Corswain (who, sadly, only gets mentioned here).

Everything is tied together in Angels of Caliban, so you'd better read those stories first. Thankfully, they are all part of the numbered series by now, and not exclusive to audio formats or event exclusive anthologies anymore. On top of that, the Legacy of Caliban trilogy, and Gav's debut Dark Angels novel Angels of Darkness, which set the tone for the Legion ever since, are all connecting to this installment in one way or another.

While this book does reveal a few things that fans were wondering and theorizing about for years, it also opens up more questions. My big disappointment in that regard was the lack of Lord Cypher reveal - but at least that might yet come to pass in a follow up, retroactively. Many things are implied, few are outright stated, and a lot of them are pulled directly into question again.

A big reason for that is Merir Astelan. Everything he says or does has to be taken with caution. He is unreliable as a narrator, as has been shown many times since Angels of Darkness, but also blatantly lying to his supposed brethren, always gambling for his own advancement and willing to drop all loyalties for personal gain and glory. If anything, he might be the biggest architect of the fall from grace the Unforgiven experienced, by playing all sides at once. If you haven't come to hate him so far, chances are you will with this book. But then, he is also superbly intriguing and has a lot of knowledge to reveal - if you dare trust any of his words.

It is that sort of ambiguity and lies wrapped in truths that make the Dark Angels so appealing to read about. They are honorable, but also untrustworthy. They are proud, but also insanely fickle and paranoid. They might invite you to a glorious feast in one moment but already be planning your execution behind your back. Angels of Caliban has the potential to be very divisive for the Legion's fans - which is as well, looking back at the legacy of Gav's original story, and the eternal discussions about the Fallen themselves.

On the other hand of the galaxy, we have the Lion still hunting for Konrad Curze in Ultramar. The plotline kicks off parallel to Guy Haley's Pharos, and shows the Lion's purge of leftover World Eaters/Word Bearers fragments across the 500 Worlds, and how he and his commanders deal with the regular folk.

These early chapters also provide a stage for the Dreadwing, who are the bad boys of the Legion. Chemical warfare and utter annihilation of the enemy are their bread and butter. "We have come. We are death" isn't just some idle mantra to them.
Originally, Dreadwing was announced as a novel by Dan Abnett, but for various reasons, that was scrapped and rolled into Gav Thorpe's Angels of Caliban. As a matter of fact, I am glad this happened, as Gav's take on the Dreadwing was interesting and noticeably different from the Ravenwing or Deathwing action from his 40k novels, or even the Raven Guard.
It provided him with ways to explore the Legion's nature, and the Lion's unrelenting hunt, which stood in stark contrast to Guilliman's diplomacy, which obviously led to the two brethren butting heads.

In general, the tension in Imperium Secundus is rising. The Triumvirate is barely holding together, but the Primarch dynamics are out of balance. The Lion goes out of his way to subvert direct orders and rulings, feeling slighted where no insult was intended, and it all spirals out of control from there.

The Lion himself seemed both less and more likeable in this installment than in previous stories. I have a big antipathy for him. He is twisted by nature, arrogant and disconnected from his own Legion and his brothers. His social skills are that of an iron mace, and his pride and paranoia are constantly getting the better of him. But then, he is also using those aspects to achieve his goals in the hunt for Curze, which ended with a very cool showdown that feels like a natural conclusion to their rivalry that has been going on for far too long now.

But then the Lion also surprises with some very genuine moments of introspection and regret for his own being and decisions. He is aware of his failings, but also alone in bearing them, with no one to trust or turn to in earnest. He has no real equal. His brothers are rivals in some ways, and his gene-sons are wary of upsetting him, especially after learning of Nemiel's fate. In one moment he will encourage one of his officers to disagree and speak plainly, the next he will grow furious about it.
The Lion is broken in many ways, and the end of the book symbolizes that marvelously.

Guilliman, Sanguinius and Curze are all competently written - as was Horus during the prologue. In fact, that prologue was an excellent way to set the scene which filled in blanks and made new connections for the future, and set the Lion's and Luther's relationship front and center. It is full of foreboding, but also gave a glimpse of the Horus-that-was, beloved by all (but the Lion).
All things considered, I think Gav's grip on the Primarchs involved was very solid and satisfying, taking all the right cues from previous depictions.

That is what it comes down to: Angels of Caliban managed to pull together many disparate strings of story and weave them into an exciting and layered book that offered a lot of insight into the big players involved, while introducing new characters with potential. It solved some problems while creating numerous others for the Legion, and hammers home the sense of tragedy and misunderstandings that is so central to the Dark Angels. It shows that the road to hell is paved with good intentions - I loved it.

Angels of Caliban on Goodreads

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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