The galaxy is burning. The Emperor’s loyal primarchs prepare to do battle with Warmaster Horus and his turncoat Legions on the black sand of Isstvan. Such dark times herald new and yet more terrible things still to come, and when Astropath Kai Zulane unwittingly learns a secret that threatens to tip the balance of the war, he is forced to flee for his life. Alongside a mysterious band of renegades, he plunges into the deadly underworld of Terra itself, hunted like a criminal by those he once trusted. In the face of betrayal, Kai must decide where his own loyalties lie and whether some truths should be buried forever.
Stomping on with the Horus Heresy Read-a-long with Dave at Wordaholic Anonymous with book number 17 in the long-running Warhammer series. Again, I give Dave my eternal gratitude for reading this series with me and providing motivation for continuing.
The Outcast Dead picks up another thread in the Horus Heresy timeline, subtly picking at parts we have already seen in other books in the Heresy series and adding to the overall storyline in its own way. The reader follows the story of Astropath, Kai Zulane, and through him, we are shown some of the darker aspects of the Imperium of Mankind. We’re also shown the concept of renegade Space Marines – The Outcast Dead – who are stuck on Terra, aiming to rejoin their Legions, while persecuted by members of the Imperium for belonging to Legions that have sided with the traitor Horus.
I came into The Outcast Dead with something of a negative approach. It was mentioned that this book posed similarities with Nemesis so I was dreading reading through it; I really disliked Nemesis. So, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the story and the characters within. While Nemesis deals with explaining the Officio Assassinorum, The Outcast Dead focuses on the members of the Astra Telepathica, the Psykers of the setting – we’ve touched on this theme in A Thousand Sons, but Terra does it somewhat differently to the Astartes Chapter, all of which is detailed within the books narrative and delivered in an entertaining, but informative way. Having a bit of a fascination with this theme within 40k helped me to enjoy this book a lot more than Nemesis, but it wasn’t this alone.
I fully admit to being enamored by Kai Zulane, the main character of the novel. An astropath that has recently been returned to Terra after being broken during his service on the Argo, an Ultramarines space-ship. I don’t know if the events of the Argo served any purpose other than setting up Kai’s tragic tale, but I do feel a trick was missed if the Argo was purely backstory to allow The Outcast Dead to happen. Being smitten by him so early in the story – his exchange with Chirurgeon Tortega about gaining his dirty little secrets through touch made him an instant hit – gave me a real thirst to continue reading his story and discovering more about his life and place in the Imperium; all of which the rest of the novel fits around.
There are other interesting characters in the bunch also; the renegade Astartes that have banded together from various traitor legions bring their own talents and personalities to the rag-tag bunch. Even the two World Eaters; twins, add their own distinct differences. Even their sergeant, another World Eater who has taken the Butchers Nails adds another flavor to what often feels like a carbon copy in a book dedicated to a certain Chapter or Legion.
The Outcast Dead deals in detail with the inner workings of how the Psykers organize themselves and how their particular talents work. I found this aspect of the novel absolutely fascinating. Seeing into the mind of Kai Zulane and his Dreamscape, where his mind has been broken and the descriptions of such, were a marvel in their own right but how this dreamscape-space added another layer to the story was brilliance and I am eager to see if this technique is employed in books further down the line, too.
While I found the overall plot of The Outcast Dead a little jaunty and disjointed, I still appreciated the exploration of different areas of Terra; from the vast sprawling construction go the Imperial Palace to the darker, dangerous, underbelly of the city. These glimpses were insightful and added to the feeling that there are no good guys in the Warhammer universe. Even those at the bottom of the pecking order only have their own interests at heart, as illustrated with the punk style gangs that terrorize the various citizens that they share their home with.
To elaborate, I was fascinated that The Outcast Dead brought back the feeling of ‘levels of grey’ to the Horus Heresy. For so long we have been told that Horus is the Traitor and ultimate enemy of the setting; as a reader, I have slowly started to root for the Imperium; despite the feeling towards characters established earlier on in the series. As the story of The Outcast Dead progresses, this attitude towards the Imperium shifted. What sort of good guys keep characters incarcerated in a maximum-security prison purely because the Chapter they belong to has turned traitor? What sort of good guys torture innocent, loyalists for information locked within them? What herald of Imperial Law makes up one rule for his sons and doesn’t apply it to their own? Do as I say, not as I do. It really made me question the purity of the Imperium and reinforce the sentiment that there are no real good guys within the Warhammer setting, just varying levels of intention.
Within The Outcast Dead we’re also enlightened to the fate of the Thunder-Warriors, the precursor to the Adeptus Astartes – which also brings forth more questions about the purity of the Imperium; this element to the book was surprising and added another layer to the novel, taking it from a fear-filled romp around the depths of Imperial Terra to one of informative enlightenment; answering a few of the questions that have arisen throughout the series. Of course, more questions replace it, but that’s what keeps the series interesting.
The Outcast Dead does leave a feeling of pointlessness behind once finished with, much like Nemesis. It feels as though the whole story is set up to bring about hints to what is to come after it; reading an entire book that has a large chapter section geared towards vague foreshadowing could come across as hollow; however when there are such strong characters involved, it softens the blow.
It isn’t quite all praise for the novel though, as it did leave questions of continuity in its wake. The Emperor has banned the use of Psykers and sent Magnus packing back to Prospero in shame, only to have the largest collection of Psykers still in use on Terra. There’s also the timing of Magnus’ message/return to Terra that didn’t feel quite right to me.
Also, while I don’t tend to pull books up on this, I don’t feel like it can be left unsaid in this case. The Outcast Dead is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors that if the author missed their editor should have picked up. Simple things like using the word; meet instead of meat. There were a few sentences that I had to read a few times over in order to make sure I was reading it right.
However, the continuity and editing errors didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the book as a whole. I absolutely loved Kai as a character, his sarcasm and wit carried me through the parts of the book that didn’t ‘click’ with me. After the absolute disaster that was ‘Prospero Burns‘ It feels like The Outcast Dead has more than made up for the short-fall. Answering questions that Prospero somehow, miraculously, didn’t cover.
A good delve into how the Astropathic Elements of the Imperium work around the rest of the Imperium. A good story with strong characters that help to carry a book that leaves the reader with a sense of futility. The Outcast Dead, brings back the feeling of ‘There are no good guys in Warhammer’ back, that was a bit amiss in other books in the Horus Heresy series.