Review: The Master of Mankind by Aaron Dembski-Bowden

Posted by DarkChaplain at 12/03/2016
As war splits the galaxy, the Emperor toils in the vaults beneath His Palace. But his great work is in peril, with the forces of Chaos closing in…

While Horus’ rebellion burns across the galaxy, a very different kind of war rages beneath the Imperial Palace. The ‘Ten Thousand’ Custodian Guard, along with the Sisters of Silence and the Mechanicum forces of Fabricator General Kane, fight to control the nexus points of the ancient eldar webway that lie closest to Terra, infested by daemonic entities after Magnus the Red’s intrusion. But with traitor legionaries and corrupted Battle Titans now counted among the forces of Chaos, the noose around the Throneworld is tightening, and none but the Emperor Himself can hope to prevail.
Tough review to write, though that is only fair considering how tough writing the book was on Aaron. Still, I'm conflicted on the result. This might also easily be the most depressing book in the series to date. Hear me out, I'll explain.

The Story:
"As war splits the galaxy, the Emperor toils in the vaults beneath His Palace. But his great work is in peril, with the forces of Chaos closing in…

While Horus’ rebellion burns across the galaxy, a very different kind of war rages beneath the Imperial Palace. The ‘Ten Thousand’ Custodian Guard, along with the Sisters of Silence and the Mechanicum forces of Fabricator General Kane, fight to control the nexus points of the ancient eldar webway that lie closest to Terra, infested by daemonic entities after Magnus the Red’s intrusion. But with traitor legionaries and corrupted Battle Titans now counted among the forces of Chaos, the noose around the Throneworld is tightening, and none but the Emperor Himself can hope to prevail."

The Review:
The Master of Mankind is up there with some of the best books in the Horus Heresy series. I have no doubt about that at the very least. It is a product of mountains of passionate work and hits all the right spots for presenting the Emperor to the reader, even if not a single scene is shown through his eyes. It manages to keep the Master of Mankind mysterious, enigmatic, while also revealing some things about him that will divide the fanbase. It is a book loaded with gravitas and feeling of the approaching end - not just for the Heresy, but also mankind as a whole. It manages to get the Custodes into the center of the Heresy for a change, and also the Sisters of Silence. It deals with a little bit of the Mechanicum's exile from Mars, and features Titan and Knight fights.

And despite all, I didn't love it as much as I thought I would. Somewhere towards the end, I started to feel apathetic, with the outcome so crystal clear even before the book even started, and the ramping up action in the webway. I got hesitant to feel invested in the characters it introduced, due to how many appeared seemingly just to die in battle against the horrors of the warp. While yes, this indeed as grimdark as it gets and iconic for the franchise, it felt a bit disappointing. Unrelenting battles, despite how well they are written (and here they are exceptional!) can become quite overbearing to me, especially when they are this one-sided. I often ended up wishing for the book to return to dialogue between characters and show me more of the drama, rather than the weaponsfire.

The big revelations mostly made up for it, of course, and I appreciate the book for what it did in regards to the Emperor, showing him as a vile being while also presenting his grandeur, his singular vision and melancholy. Throughout the novel I went from adoring the man to despising him for his actions and cold-blooded pragmatism. If anything, it both humanized and dehumanized the Emperor to the point of confirming biases on both sides of the fanbase - and I love that. He is the kind of superhuman monster that would reach those heights of Imperium where every other man would fall.
There is no denying his monumental power and vision - but the book makes sure that no sane reader would come out as a big fan of the man.

The protagonists come in the form of the Custodians Ra Endymion and Diocletian Coros, as well as Arkhan Land, Technoarchaeologist and Zephon of the Blood Angels. There are a whole bunch of other characters who receive attention throughout the story, but these I found to be the most significant and well-developed. However, people expecting Constantin Valdor, Rogal Dorn and Malcador as well as Jenetia Krole, commander of the Silent Sisterhood to make a big impact on the plot will be sorely disappointed - they all appear, but take a backseat for almost the entire book. I was especially surprised about Malcador being so negligible to the story.

Ra, it turns out, is chosen by the Emperor to experience scenes from the boss's life; moments that shaped his ambition and dreams, as well as the extent of his vision. It is almost entirely through him that we see the Emperor's actions and thought processes - and Aaron outdid himself with these sections throughout the book. I'd call it an almost perfect way to show the Emperor without making the reader too familiar with him.
The book is also chock-full of background on the Custodian Guard, the individual characters' close relationship with their duty to the Emperor, and their differences from the Legiones Astartes. If nothing else, the wealth of lore on the "Ten Thousand" given here is marvelous!

Additionally to Ra, Arkhan Land too offers a look at the Master of Mankind, which ties back into Dembski-Bowden's Betrayer in an impressive and impactful way.
Arkhan Land, who rediscovered the "Land Raider", has a mechanical pet pseudo-monkey. That alone makes him a very interesting character to me. But beyond that, he is a cynical bastard who gives the new Fabricator General (in exile), who we first saw in Graham McNeill's Mechanicum, a run for his money. Funnily enough, he is one of the most human characters in the book - despite his role within the Mechanicum.

The big antagonist comes in the form of the "Echo of the First Murder", a daemonic entity of Chaos Undivided that spells the End of Empires. It is a magnificently powerful entity that ravages the webway's defenders, to the point of forcing them onto their last legs, taking on Titans and Sisters of Silence alike. It was a fantastic antagonist to pick, especially considering the implications of its fate, and the sheer symbolism behind the daemon's existence. If you're on the fence about picking the book up, I'd urge you to at least check out the extract for it, as the echo's inception is described in it, and that alone had me excited as all hell for the full novel.

On top of that, there is a bunch of interesting lore-related stuff in the novel, whether it be about the Webway itself, or the Eldar who used it previously, or the exiles of Mars. There are throwbacks to other Heresy stories aplenty, and some age-old questions about the Emperor are answered. It most assuredly enriches the setting to an incredible degree, and might even settle some disputes within the fanbase. But all of it also contributes another level of melancholy, of lost grandeur and harsh reality.

Below every grand setpiece and character development here is a very depressing core story. It is the tale of the Emperor losing his dream. It is about the ultimate descent of the Imperium of Man, of how the spiral into decay truly starts. That made the book a little exhausting for me, because there really isn't much hope here at all. Whether it be Zephon of Baal's exile to the Crusader Host on Terra due to combat injuries and augmentation rejection, or the revelations of how the Emperor viewed his Primarch sons, or the way everything necessary is being sacrificed left and right to maintain one man's dying dream - this book is depressing. It is terrifying and puts the grim darkness into the Warhammer 40,000 universe. I love it for that, but I also hate it for being such an exceptional dream-crusher.

Without the war between the Legions, this book still manages to be one of the most definitive, defining stories in the series and franchise as a whole. It does so many things right, and the scope of it all is breathtaking. It is a must-read for sure, and it is easy to be impressed and even overwhelmed by the result of Dembski-Bowden's hard labor. But it isn't perfect. It is not a book I am likely to revisit anytime soon, unless I am really feeling like indulging in a magnificent tragedy. The Master of Mankind is a massive achievement for the series, a milestone to be proud of for Aaron Dembski-Bowden, but it is also a book that I find hard to love.

The Master of Mankind 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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