Book Review: Nemesis

By James Swallow

I’ve been thinking of writing a book review for a while now, so I thought I’d review a book I read a few weeks ago.  It’s not really a new one, but time is a bit plastic here on the interwebs – kind of like the warp – so I don’t think that matters so much.

In real life my work is mostly heavy reading, so I tend to pick up Black Library books when I need something fun to read, based solely on whether the subject matter interests me.  I certainly don’t read them all.  There are a few exceptions – I’ll read anything with Caiaphas Cain, for example.  In the past I’ve also particularly enjoyed Dan Abnett’s Eisenhorn and Ravenor, the Shira Calpurnia novels by my fellow Canberran Matthew Farrer, and the books of another fellow Aussie, Henry Zhou.  I don’t really go for the ones about Space Marines of any kind, or books about the Heresy.  I guess I like the original recipe pessimistic vision of the 41st millennium the way it is, and I just don’t really like the idea of demi-gods flying around having superman battles against each other with giant hammers or whatever.

That means that Nemesis was an unusual choice for me.  I’m very interested in the Officio Assassinorum but not really interested in the Heresy era.  In the end the coolness of the assassins won out and I gave it a go.  I’d heard interesting things though about Nemesis being more of a detective novel, like Farrer’s Arbites books.  That turned out to not be entirely true.  

This was a pretty good book.*  The opening was great.  After that the Heresy-ness started to freak me out and I became worried that I wasn’t going to enjoy it, but it soon picked up again.  Swallow did an excellent job with very difficult subject matter.  After all, we know that Horus was not cut down by assassins before he reached Terra, so we know the heroes are going to fail in their mission from the very beginning.  Not only that, but Assassinorum agents are bio-engineered living weapons trained since childhood, and that doesn’t make it easy for an author to write them sympathetically.

Swallow did a great job of solving both potential problems though.   Of course the agents fail, but they also accomplish something at least as important as slaying the Warmaster.   When the assassins first showed emotions and flaws I thought that they seemed too human, but then I started to realize that this was actually more believable than if they’d been robotic killing machines.   After all, they are humans.  Highly trained and exceptional humans maybe, but still humans.

So what did I think of my first Horus Heresy novel overall?   Interesting, and not as bad as I’d feared!  I suppose this one was light on the marine and primarch action.  The backdrop was much more like that of a traditional sci-fi.  It was definitely odd reading a Black Library novel set in an Imperium where religion is outlawed, and Chaos is not yet recognized for what it is.

I only had one “excuse me, established canon states – ” moment, and that concerned the way the Culexus assassin’s powers functioned.   I find this is a problem with Black Library authors in general though – they never seem sure whether Pariahs are some sort of negative psykers or anti-psykers, and they are often presented as both in the same book as the plot requires.   It irks me, because I love the idea of Pariahs and I don’t think I’ve ever been truly satisfied with the way they’ve been written.  Dan Abnett’s depiction in particular, of there being different “levels” of Pariah, boggles my mind.  You can’t have more or less of a void.  Either something is a void, or it has something in it.  What, is a low-level Pariah just a person with a tiny soul?  Probably the best depiction for me is Jurgen in the Cain books.   I imagine a Culexus is just a guy like him who was unlucky enough to get snatched by the Assassinorum when they were a kid and weaponized.  But I digress.

Overall this was a good read, and I recommend it for fans of the grittier, more human-focused Black Library stories.   I should mention though that if you’re thinking of picking it up for a younger reader, Nemesis is pretty gruesome.    If I’d read it when I was twelve it would have freaked me out a little.  Black Library books are always violent of course, but there were a few moments where I thought “OK, I know you’re evil and all, but was it really necessary to do that to the poor guy?”

*Wow.  I should be a professional reviewer, with piercing insights like that.


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