Ath Re-Reviews: Fulgrim

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Ath Re-Reviews: Fulgrim

Postby Athelassan » Sun Mar 18, 2018 9:24 pm

As I mentioned elsewhere I'm getting rid of most of my BL books but there are a couple I wanted to give another go before sending them on their way, and few have cast a shadow quite like Fulgrim.

To those who've come to the Heresy more recently it may be hard to explain fully the excitement and impact associated with the early Heresy novels. Despite being the most significant event in 40K history we knew remarkably little about the detail. The few paragraphs in Index Astartes about the Heresy were wrung dry by fans searching for any scrap of new information. The card game had given us some new content, but it was confused and contradictory, and a lot of the associated writing was, to put it bluntly, dreck. Even after the opening trilogy there were still huge question-marks hanging over all sorts of issues to do with the Heresy itself.

Fulgrim arrived on the scene with a weighty thud. It was the longest novel hitherto published by BL and the first to show us anything outside the "core" story of the Luna Wolves and Isstvan III. It was also our look at one of the Legions and Primarchs which had inspired most interest and debate. Fulgrim was an oddity in that he was one of the very few Primarchs (along with, iirc, Vulkan) who wasn't a warrior before he was picked up. There was a tragedy in the Emperor's Children's backstory. They were considered by some to be the best of all the Legions, both in geneseed and temperament. They had tried to end the Heresy through negotiation and fallen along the way. We couldn't wait to hear more.

The book itself felt like a failure of ambition; despite its length it seemed it was bursting at the edges with story that the author couldn't quite nail down; a concordance of themes which didn't quite knit together fully, but nevertheless a glorious failure. Whatever its shortcomings, it felt like it was striving to be great and if it fell short, it could be forgiven for that.

That feeling stuck with me, and that's why it was the one book of the fifteen or so Heresy novels I'm giving away that I felt the need to re-read. On a re-read, would it hold up?

The answer, sadly, is no.

Part of this comes with experience. That story that started in False Gods and continued in Fulgrim rolled on into The Reflection Crack'd and Angel Exterminatus and, having seen where it's going, the story in Fulgrim itself looks much less impressive.

Part of it, too, is doubtless because the 500+-page BL novel is no longer a treat. Fulgrim was the first but there have been many more since. What felt at the time like an epic now feels regular-sized.

With that in mind, the story feels unaccountably rushed in many places. When it comes to character development in particular, it feels like we're skating through the salient points without really digging down into anything meaningful. The main issue, though, is that with only a couple of exceptions, the Emperor's Children all come across as such tossers at the beginning of the book that it's hard to feel too sorry for them. Not enough time is spent making us like them for the period afterwards where we're made to dislike them to have the impact.

Then there's the inadequacy of the plot itself. The ship has long since sailed on making me care that the Emperor's Children were well on the way to Chaos before they even met up with Horus, though I do still think it's rubbish. But the point that the late Thaluikhain made quite stridently, that almost none of the characters have any apparent agency in their own fall, rings loud and clear. If you enter the Chaos temple, you turn to Chaos. No exceptions.

Then there's the prose, which is often lumpen. Admittedly the book isn't helped by the need to retain some ghastly passages from other sources, such as the infamous "what is this? you are not a Fulgrim! Are you a spy? If you are a spy, I am a big. I am not a weakling like the Fulgrim!" scene, but, particularly in the early passages, the dialogue remains leaden. Characters explain the plot to each other or otherwise talk in soundbites. It's one of the problems with engaging with the characters.

Once the characters are fully over to the dark side, that improves - mostly. Unfortunately, the apparent need not to cover the same ground as False Gods leads to most of the interesting stuff at Isstvan III happening off-page, and to characters who've only appeared as relative cameos in this novel. Isstvan V is decent enough, but short - very short - and this was the only glimpse of it we were to see for years afterwards. Even then, many aspects of it are ignored. Where are the Imperial Army? Where is the naval battle for control of the air? The numbers feel estranged from their context. It's not quite "ten thousand dragons"-worthy but it's not quite believable either.

And then the final twist and the allusion to Oscar Wilde - well, this I liked, right up until the very next story in the series when it turned out that it had all been resolved between stories with no explanation and all the character depiction of Fulgrim done at the end of this one was completely and inexplicably undone. I oughtn't to hold that against this book, but I do, because if that was always the intention then the ending here is cheap and disingenuous.

Was it possible this book could have ever made me happy? Yes, because The First Heretic did. That was the book I had wanted Fulgrim to be. But it doesn't bear comparison.

A disappointment twice over. Alas.

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