Review: Fabius Bile: Primogenitor by Josh Reynolds

Posted by DarkChaplain at 12/12/2016
He is known by many names - Clonelord, Manflayer, Primogenitor. He is the epitome of deceit and perversion, and feared by man and monster alike. Once the Chief Apothecary of the Emperor's Children, the madman known as Fabius Bile possesses a knowledge of genetic manipulation second to none. Now a renegade among renegades, he is loathed by those he once called brother, and even the most degraded of Chaos Space Marines fear his name. Exiled for his dark experiments, Bile has retreated deep into the Eye of Terror, leaving a trail of twisted abominations in his wake. But when a former student brings word of the ultimate prize for the taking, Bile is unable to resist being drawn once more into the cauldron of war. For in seizing this prize, Fabius Bile might yet discover the one secret his has been unable to unlock... the secret which will prevent his inevitable doom.
For Black Library, 2016 appears to be the year that kept on giving. Not only did it provide a truckload of new Horus Heresy titles, but it also gave us some of the best books they published in years, including Peter Fehervari's Genestealer Cults and, in my opinion, Fabius Bile: Primogenitor.

The Story:
"He is known by many names - Clonelord, Manflayer, Primogenitor. He is the epitome of deceit and perversion, and feared by man and monster alike. Once the Chief Apothecary of the Emperor's Children, the madman known as Fabius Bile possesses a knowledge of genetic manipulation second to none. Now a renegade among renegades, he is loathed by those he once called brother, and even the most degraded of Chaos Space Marines fear his name. Exiled for his dark experiments, Bile has retreated deep into the Eye of Terror, leaving a trail of twisted abominations in his wake. But when a former student brings word of the ultimate prize for the taking, Bile is unable to resist being drawn once more into the cauldron of war. For in seizing this prize, Fabius Bile might yet discover the one secret his has been unable to unlock... the secret which will prevent his inevitable doom."

The Review:
Fabius Bile: Primogenitor is one of the most enjoyable books I've read this year. Granted, that is in large parts down to my interest in Fabius himself, as per his various depictions in Warhammer 40,000 and the Horus Heresy, but also because Josh Reynolds is one hell of a writer. Reading this on the heels of The Master of Mankind was also a good decision I've found, prodividing a nice contrast to Dembski-Bowden's more depressing work.

Throughout the Horus Heresy series, Fabius has been depicted as more and more unhinged, especially as far as his experiments are concerned. Father of mutants and "New Men", and creator of the proto-Noise Marines, Fabius stands for corruption, insanity and a lack of restraint, making him a perfect scion of Fulgrim.
There's a lot of baggage attached to the character, a lot of preconceived notions on him and his exploits, so what did Josh do? He took it all, skipped a few millennia ahead in the timeline to M34, and reassessed Fabius's circumstances and mindset to make him a pillar of sanity in an insane galaxy - and it works brilliantly.

Of course, the Primogenitor remains an unhinged individual, with his own beliefs and misconceptions, but also impressive insights and maybe the only true atheist in the franchise, after the Emperor's passing. In many ways, Reynolds manages to present Fabius as somewhat of an inheritor of the Emperor's grand dream of advancing humanity, and his rejection of the daemonic. To Fabius, daemons are no more than figments of imagination given form by some convoluted natural phenomenon - and he defies them without fear or particular respect. This serves as platform for a couple of amusing scenes in the novel, which shaped the experience quite deliciously.

‘And what does it mean to you? You are not even real,’ Bile said. ‘A bit of grit in the empyrean is what you are. Whatever message you have is worth less to me than the hiss of a lanced boil.’

As you can see from this short quote, Fabius is written with plenty of... bile and cynical comments on his surroundings. His tongue is sharp from start to finish, yet there is also a surprising degree of warmth in him when it comes to his creations. Whether they be the Gland-hounds, vat-grown, improved-upon near-humans who form a step between regular folk and the Astartes, or even the Kakophoni survivors of his Legion days, Fabius is a generous benefactor. He also has an odd fondness for his apothecary allies/disciples, including the other major PoV character, Oleander Koh.

Oleander returns to Fabius's fold at the outset of the book to propose a grand scheme: Helping the Radiant King, a high-ranking Emperor's Children general, take the Eldar Craftworld of Lugganath, and reaping precious samples for Bile's experiments in the process. Of course, Oleander has his own schemes as well, and clashes with his fellow apothecaries and his comrades under the Radiant King's command throughout. But he is also an idealist and his admiration for Fabius is clear. To the reader, he is an entertaining set of eyes to look through as well. He flirts with daemonettes, even reminiscing about a fling he had with one, and smoking warp essence through a wicked pipe. On top of that, he also hums songs here and there, which readers of Chambers' The King in Yellow might recognize...

Speaking of weird fiction references, Reynolds managed to throw a couple more in. None of them felt shoehorned to me - if anything, Josh's extensive knowledge of Weird Fiction helped build a dramatic atmosphere and underline the inherent weirdness of Fabius and his experiments, and the extravagant nature of the acolytes and daemons of Slaanesh. Oleander's songs, Fabius's penchant for classical music and art, the Radiant King's joyful parties, they all play into the theme of decadence that the Emperor's Children are known for, while maintaining Fabius's own indulgences on a more reasonable level than the rest's.

The daemons, too, feel wicked yet playful, threatening but with a sense of irony. They play with their food, and invite the characters to dance with them. I've found Slaaneshi daemons to be hit and miss in most stories, with some authors pulling them off damn well, like Chris Wraight in The Path of Heaven, while others, like James Swallow in Fear to Tread, completely disappointed me. To my delight, Josh Reynolds nailed them, making them the fickle, whimsical creatures they need to be, hiding their terror and hostility under a veneer of humor and fondness for the subjects of their attention.
In contrast, the Emperor's Children in the book are mostly made up of opportunistic, backstabbing ingrates, ever chasing for greater pleasures and stimuli. Oleander straddles the line for the most part, and Fabius's desires are of a very different nature, but especially the underlings of the Radiant King are in constant rivalry and showcase the degeneracy of the Legion after Fulgrim's apotheosis just right.

Next to the obvious followers of Slaanesh, the novel also gives some attention to a mute Iron Warrior apothecary with a strong belief in brotherhood, a World Eater who speaks to the skulls of his rivals and a Word Bearer forced into service after a failed attempt on Fabius's life - and the Chief Apothecary rewarded him with implanted bombs. The Word Bearer felt as preachy and arrogant as I've envisioned them to be, post-Heresy, attempting to spread their faith across the galaxy once more. But a real surprise to me was the aforementioned Iron Warrior, Tzimiskes, who has some oddly uplifting "conversations" with Oleander and co, and even a PoV scene towards the end. I liked him a lot!

Fabius Bile himself is explored in far greater depth than ever before. I loved Nick Kyme's story Chirurgeon, which gave a lot of background on him during the Heresy and before, but Primogenitor goes far and beyond with how it redefines the Clonelord. Self-reflective yet driven. Critical but appreciative of others' advances. Reclusive yet surrounding himself with like-minded individuals. Harsh to outsiders yet surprisingly caring for his own. Rejecting authority yet constantly defiant. Broken yet unyielding.

The whole novel celebrates Fabius's achievements yet puts him into a position where he is both highly disagreeable but also incredibly likeable as a protagonist. It dials back a lot of the crazier elements while making them an intrinsic part of the character's development. Even Aaron Dembski-Bowden's The Talon of Horus factors into the book, due to Bile's involvement, his experiments and the effects the defeat at Canticle City had on the Legion at large.
Josh's Fabius is the culmination of everything that has come before, while making him into a fresh, innovative character all of his own. It puts him into the spot he needed to be in my opinion, while setting up many paths for him to tread in the future of the trilogy and the franchise as a whole. That on its own is a marvelous achievement in my eyes.

The main antagonists come in the form of the Eldar, both raiders and the dwellers of the Craftworld Lugganath, and, most enjoyably, Harlequins. The latter give Josh yet another opportunity to write excellent dialogue, playing to his strengths and showing the Laughing God's children as twisted, wicked jesters.
Everything about the Harlequins is a performance, a dance, an act, and it is expertly staged and complements all the themes throughout the book.

Prick his flesh, crack his bones, that’s the way the story goes. Urge him up, strike him down, call him out and pass him round. Out

Despite all its grim themes, Fabius Bile: Primogenitor manages to remain upbeat, moving at a steady pace, with its characters circling one another and orbiting Fabius, highlighting the Primogenitor in ways that made the entire book a joy to read. It had me "joybound", theorizing about the twists and turns Reynolds might yet take the story, and wishing for a revamped miniature of Fabius himself to put on my shelf next to the trilogy in the coming years. My only regrets about the book are that I didn't get the Limited Edition of it, which comes in an amazing dress-up and includes an additional short story. Everything else I absolutely adored, and I cannot wait for more.

Fabius Bile: Primogenitor 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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