Prospero Burns

Prospero Burns is another Horus Heresy book, and I think the best written that I’ve read so far. It’s a companion to A Thousand Sons – this time written from the point of view of the Space Wolves (Vikings in Spaaaaace!) rather than the Thousand Sons (Ancient Egyptians in Spaaaaace!)

I recently read an interview with James Swallow, one of the authors of the series, where he made the claim that despite the grim darkness of it all, they don’t portray the deaths of innocents. I’m not sure as that’s quite consistent with the opening of Prospero Burns, as a bunch of Vikings slaughter a fishing village, man, woman, and child. But it’s a decent principle, if only you could figure out who’s innocent and who isn’t. 

The reason the village is being slaughtered is because other villages have spotted a bad person drop from the heavens and land in that village. In point of fact, the bad person is Kasper Hawser, a remembrancer, the Imperial historian/journalists responsible for cataloguing the Imperium. He’s badly wounded and rescued by the villagers, who are almost all killed, before the last of them are rescued by the Space Wolves, and because we don’t like having sympathetic heroes, they pull the remembrancer’s eye out.

There’s a really well worked sense of mystery in this book. Incomplete flashback after incomplete flashback begin to convince Hawser that he is an unreliable narrator, that the repeated dream he has, repeated as a leitmotif in chapter after chapter, means something, without it being clear what. There are surreal dreams which play fast and loose with temporality, there are brutal battle scenes and, again and again, concerns about who you can trust and who is doing things for the right reason (and who isn’t).

Apparently A Thousand Sons were meant to be released in close succession, but there ended up being a year’s delay, and in this case bingeing is rewarding as you see the parallels between the two books and the alternate explanations for why things happen. In A Thousand Sons, the eponymous Sons are banned from using psychic powers as the result of an arbitrary decision. In Prospero Burns, there’s far clearer reasons why the Sons should be mistrusted and censured.

Prospero Burns also has a much more sympathetic character to build a point of view around. The Thousand Sons are all pretentious gits consumed by the idea of their intellectual infallibility and for most of the book that’s who we have to live with. Hawser, as a human being, even one with a name that is a joke with a hundred year pay-off, is a human being who knows suffering, loss and not just some clown playing dress up as a pharaoh.

Of course, it also hurts that you know what’s coming, and how bad it is for everyone at the end. Whereas with A Thousand Sons you want the battle to come, just to get rid of all those annoying idiot savants, with Prospero Burns the battle is something to dread, which is as it should be.

So, altogether nicely done. Of the three in this omnibus of five novels that I’ve read so far, far and away the best. 

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