Review: Praetorian of Dorn by John French

Posted by DarkChaplain at 9/07/2016
As the first assault on the Solar System begins, the strength of the Imperial Fists and the seemngly impregnable fastness they have built is tested at last…

Recalled from the Great Crusade after Ullanor, Rogal Dorn and the VIIth Legion were appointed as the Emperor’s praetorians – but only after the Warmaster’s treachery was revealed did the full extent of that sacred duty become apparent. Now, the Solar System comes under attack for the first time since the war began, and many of the seemingly impregnable defences wrought by the Imperial Fists prove inadequate. With all eyes fixed firmly upon this new threat beyond the gates of Terra, who in turn will protect Dorn from the enemy within?
Praetorian of Dorn is the latest, 39th installment to the Horus Heresy series - and it brings the war to the Sol system and Rogal Dorn. It brings us up to date on the situation back at Terra, and doesn't pull any punches with its Alpha Legion shenanigans. However, it did leave me somehow conflicted...


The Story:
"As the first assault on the Solar System begins, the strength of the Imperial Fists and the seemngly impregnable fastness they have built is tested at last…

Recalled from the Great Crusade after Ullanor, Rogal Dorn and the VIIth Legion were appointed as the Emperor’s praetorians – but only after the Warmaster’s treachery was revealed did the full extent of that sacred duty become apparent. Now, the Solar System comes under attack for the first time since the war began, and many of the seemingly impregnable defences wrought by the Imperial Fists prove inadequate. With all eyes fixed firmly upon this new threat beyond the gates of Terra, who in turn will protect Dorn from the enemy within?"

The Review
Praetorian of Dorn is in many ways a great - and much needed - entry to the Horus Heresy series. In some ways, however, it left me wanting. I didn't quite know how to feel about the overall book when I finished it. I loved many parts, while others left me surprisingly cold or even disappointed.

My main complaint will boil down to what the novel set out to be, and how it approached that. This is the first actual Imperial Fists installment. Yes, they have been featured here and there (Dorn as early as Horus Rising, or the extremely cool novella The Crimson Fist from Shadows of Treachery, also by John French), but never actually had a novel to name their own. This was down to their position within the Heresy War itself: Rather than being out fighting and denying the traitors at every turn, Dorn and co were stuck at Terra, turning the Palace into a fortress.

So this should, by all rights, have been the Imperial Fists book, until the Siege of Terra begins. Surprisingly, it was not that. Its scope was very limited, and the constant threads woven by the Alpha Legion and their operatives just took much-needed pagetime away from the Fists in favor of constructing a complex network of feints and subterfuge.

We are treated to some very, very gratifying scenes featuring Rogal Dorn and the book's protagonist Archamus, master of his Primarch's Huscarl retinue, and for all intents, Archamus personifies most of the best traits of the Imperial Fists. He is a shining example of his Legion, so insights we gain through his role in the book reflect well on his Legion - but he is just one Space Marine. Even adding sergeant Kestros to the range of protagonists, as Archamus recruits him for his mission, we don't get to see much of the wider Legion, or even their labours on Holy Terra itself.

Whereas many other Legion-focused books in the series, especially when it came to first full-length outings, (re)defined their Legions' roles within the Great Crusade and Heresy and added a distinct character to them, I felt that Praetorian kinda failed at doing the same. I read a well-made argument that the perceived "vanilla"-ness of the Fists here is down to the Legion identifying themselves not by their Primarch's origin world, but by their duty within the Crusade and Heresy, which I can get behind, but even then the detail is scarce and the sample mass is too tiny to really judge that one way or another.

Looking at the Dramatis Personae list at the start of the book again after having finished it, not even half the listed Fists characters were really relevant to the story being told. I thought we'd get a good look at the overall Sol system's defences and the various Lord Castellans under Dorn, but while they are listed and certainly named throughout, their appearances, if they even entered the stage personally, were brief and as a result frustrating to me.

I enjoyed Archamus (see right), and the interlude chapters focused on his rise throughout the Legion. Seeing his recruitment, his reaction to meeting Rogal of the house of Dorn for the first time, his defiant nature during implantation and first training, it all added up to create a good picture of Archamus. It gives a solid feel of his role, and his importance to Dorn himself. John wanted to make this novel about Archamus, and he succeeded in that to a praiseworthy degree. I liked the character, his baggage, his stoicism, and his fears.
Even his relationship with Demetrius Katafalque, who we've seen before, made me smile. There wasn't much overlap between their paths here, but what there was of it was well handled and gave me an impression of shared history and loyalty.

Kestros, I'm afraid, didn't shine nearly as well next to Archamus. He came across as blunt, which admittedly was part of why he was recruited, but it made me less interested in him. Especially in his arguments with Andromeda of the Selenar cult I was swayed more towards the female's position than Kestros's. She contributed a lot to the plot and Archamus's deliberations, and is responsible for some chuckles here and there. From how she was being set up, I wouldn't be surprised to find her as one of the founding members of Malcador's Inquisition, and would love to see more of her. Kestros meanwhile played third fiddle in the trio, and came across as relatively forgettable.

I was surprised to see how quickly the plot moved away from a direct threat to Terra and the Imperial Palace, just to move towards Pluto, too. It seemed odd to me just how quickly the Alpha Legion pulled their presence off Terra, when they had the knife at the Imperium's throat already - to the point of issuing a direct challenge to Rogal Dorn, within the Palace's inner sanctum.
I know, I know, the Alpha Legion is all sneaky and confusing, lies within lies within schemes and betrayels, but still. They were in, then were out, and while there are plot reasons that would indicate why that is, it still felt odd.

However, as negative as this review may sound so far - I really enjoyed Praetorian of Dorn. It had a lot of twists and turns that should be the hallmark of AL warfare by now, but also had some neat flashbacks to pre-Heresy events focusing around Archamus. Rogal Dorn comes across as the idealist he was supposed to be, and John did a marvelous job depicting his uncompromising nature, especially in the final chapters.
Dorn shone in every scene he was in, which made me wish he was in more parts of the book and didn't leave the stage in favor of Archamus trying to unravel the Alpha Legion plot at his request. I understand that French probably didn't want to expose us too much to the Primarch himself, and I can generally agree with that, but I'd also say that those sections were the best parts of the whole novel.

The author's passion for the Alpha Legion, dating back years even as far as his Black Library contributions are concerned, is clear as day. The Legion's schemes were constructed in an exciting manner, with many elements working together so perfectly that, while it requires a certain dispension of disbelief, it had me at the edge of my seat. The first few chapters start off extremely chaotic, almost disjointed, but soon intertwine and drip-feed the reader answers, steadily building up to twist after twist until the big reveals start dropping.
I'd go as far as to say that John's rendition of the Alpha Legion was brilliant. From the range of operatives, the small cogs assembling into a gigantic machine of treachery, to the eventual strike for the throat, I was happy with what he did, even if some fans are dismayed by the big climax at the end.

But that sheer brilliance when it comes to the Hydra is the big reason why I was disappointed by the Imperial Fists. I cannot say for certain, but it felt to me like more pages were dedicated to Alpharius and co than to the Fists, and the collective actions of the sons of Dorn paled in comparison to what the Alpha Legion accomplished here. "Alpharius" took the spotlight, and Dorn struggled to keep up.

Likewise, I would have liked to see more of Malcador and his agents, and the complete absence of the Adeptus Custodes felt jarring. On top of that, with the book ending parallel to where Chris Wraight's The Path of Heaven left off, and the novel being set firmly after Vengeful Spirit, the Space Wolves should still have been around Sol - yet no mention or appearance ever dropped in the book.

Yet still, the author pulled some pretty incredible void battles out of his hat, and fleshed out the Sol system in a variety of ways. Details from the ForgeWorld books were worked in, and some of his 40k Alpha Legion characters feature here - one being in an odd spot by the end that definitely needs following up on.
The book gave a good view of where the system stands, and the degree of readiness, weariness and sense of duty everybody involved in the fortification of Terra seems to feel.

I just wish there had been more of those things and some of the Alpha Legion involvement had been shorter, or less spread out. Every chapter jumps from place to place, often between the AL's many operatives, whereas I might have prefered a stronger focus on the Fists. I noticed that I enjoyed the book's first half considerably more than the second, despite, or maybe because of, the operative subplots. Once the threads converged and Dorn and co sprung into more decisive action, the plot was firmly rolling and couldn't really slow down to flesh out the Imperial Fists' Legion character much, whereas the Alpha Legion's characterizations shined because of said action. It is another instance where the Fists' static, robust nature works against them, I believe.

The more I think about the book, the more little points I spot that bug me. Overall the novel is very strong and full of good stuff, but these smaller misgivings add up for me. I wish I had enjoyed this more than I did. Heck, the night of release I could barely sleep because of how excited I was for it. I ended up listening to The Lightning Tower again, which features Dorn and Archamus and was one of John French's primary inspirations for this book. I've listened to it so often over the years, I can speak along chunks of dialogue without much trouble.
And where he tackled Dorn's idealistic nature, Archamus's defiance, or the Legion's history, French absolutely succeeded. I loved that. I loved seeing Dorn tell Alpharius off, pre-Isstvan. I loved seeing Dorn take charge and calm the rising panic of the Palace's defenders. I loved seeing him in action and explaining his father's vision to a young recruit.

If only the Alpha Legion hadn't been so dominantly represented and made up so much of the book's action that there was no choice but to react left for the Imperial Fists, I would have easily given this one a top spot in the series to date. It is still a really powerful book as far as the Horus Heresy is concerned. It is worth reading, and I recommend it. It just isn't what I expected it to be, and didn't cover all the bases of what the series needed this book to be for the Praetorian of Terra and his collective sons, even though it struck gold with Dorn's own Praetorian.

Praetorian of Dorn 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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