Wednesday, 12 October 2011

'The Outcast Dead' - Graham McNeill

The blurb of The Outcast Dead immediately caught my eye. Most Warhammer 40k books on my read pile featured space marines as the main characters. This one is different. Kai Zulane is an astropath, a psyker strong enough to transmit and receive messages light years away, and he carries a terrible truth. I know little about the astropaths and the best way to find out more is to read a book about one. Thank you Black Library for sending me a review copy.

When it comes to world building The Outcast Dead excels. Everything is done on a grand scale, with just the right sense of gothic doom and gloom you expect. The lore of the Warhammer 40k universe is absolutely stunning. I can't even imagine how intimidating it must be to write a novel, when you know what you have to live up to. Graham McNeill takes the bull by the horns, but then he is not exactly a spring chicken. He has around twenty books under his belt for Warhammer 40k and Warhammer.

The Outcast Dead is part of the Horus Herasy series, which aims to shed light on the events which was the pivot point for the empire. Horus, one of the Primarchs, has betrayed the Emperor, and started a civil-war. News of the betrayal has just spread, and we are back on Terra awaiting news from the fleet dispatched to crush Horus and his fellow conspirers.

Kai Zulane was an astropath on a ship, which suffered a terrible accident while navigating through the warp. The shields were breached and the creatures from the warp entered the ship and turned lose on the crew. Tens of thousands died in torment, while Kai Zulane was safe in a secure compartment. Safe from the creatures, but forced to listen to the mental screams of his friends as they died. Since then he is unable to send messages and is sent back to the City of Sight for therapy.

I really like the chapters where Kai Zulane is treated. We get a lot of insight into how psykers work, and their role within the empire, but also a lot of facts about The City of Sight itself. As with anything in the empire there is a surprising amount of politics involved. Due to their constant contact with the warp psykers need to be guarded in case they become possessed or let something out. This role falls to the Black Sentinels, elite soldiers with helmets protecting them from psychic attacks.

During such an incident Kai Zulane is the unfortunate recipient of a terrible gift. The gift of truth. The truth of the outcome of the betrayal, which is implanted deep within Kai Zulane's mind. Not even Kai Zulane himself knows what it is, or he would have told his superiors. He is instead sent to the highest security risk prison on Terra to have the information forcefully extracted. He is not expected to survive.

It's a complex plot with a lot of characters involved, and Graham McNeill allows all of them at least 15 minutes of fame each. Even the characters who don't get much time in the limelight feel convincing. It's far from certain to whom the characters will give their allegiance to. This makes The Outcast Dead different from other books, as Space Mariones are normally fanatics. This was a very different time, and full of uncertainty. Graham McNeill juggles both plot and characters with great skill, and it all comes together in the end.

The stakes are very high, and it is very much a story about choosing sides, loyalty and dedication. This not only applies to Kai Zulane, but also his fellows prisoners. The other prisoners have not themselves done anything wrong. Their Primarchs betrayed the Emperor, while they were on the other side of the galaxy. The Outcast Dead, and other Horus Herasy books, paints every event in shades of grey instead of black and white.

It's a very intense read, packed with action, but also with difficult choices. One minute people are being torn limb from limb, and the next scene is a wise and insightful conversation. Every battle is a fluid chain of moves, almost like a dance, and always gripping. The awe you expect from such a momentous event is delivered by Graham McNeill. If you only ever read one Warhammer 40k novel, it might as well be The Outcast Dead.

The Outcast Dead weighs in at 416 pages and is published by The Black Library. It is scheduled for release on the 10th of November 2011.

Recommendation: must read


  1. Hmmm. So you're saying this is one of the good Graham MacNeil books?

    I've been hesitant to read his stuff since I got burned by his Fulgrim and disappointed by his Mechanicum. I know, not everyone is Abnett or ADB but...People has never been MacNeil's strong suit.

    Do you really think it's worth buying?

  2. Hi Mark,

    I have not read those two books. I don't think the characters are amazing, it's more the atmosphere, the combat and the plot. I really liked reading about psykers and their role within the empire.

    Have you read any of the books you bought on my recommendation so far?

  3. Fulgrim and Mechanicum weren't McNeill's best works, but he went back in form with A Thousand Sons, which comes close to False Gods in terms of scope. It's vividly imaginative, descriptive, the characters are solid and while it pales to Dan Abnett's Space Wolf counterpart Prospero Burns, A Thousand Sons is still easily one of McNeill's best works.

    My personal favourite of McNeill's work in the Horus Heresy continuum is the short story The Last Church in Tales of Heresy. It's a lengthy philosophical discussion with practically no action whatsoever.

  4. I would defiantly have to disagree with Mark's comments on Graham McNeill. McNeill is my favorite Black Library author, Fugrim and A Thousand Sons are my two favorite Horus Heresy books, Mechanicum was just ok and his Ultramarine books are Great. Abnett is great and all (I lost a little respect for him with his boring screen play for Ultramarines) but I always enjoy McNeill's books much more than his.

  5. Fulgrim was in my opinion one of the best books in the whole series. Many agree. Mechanicum was also a brilliant take on the whole HH. Especially the ending when it all comes together and we see just how the Emperor has manipulated the evolution of mars from the very beginning.

  6. Burned by Fulgrim? You're probably the first person I've heard say that. Fulgrim is a masterpiece far beyond anything one could have expected before the HH series began. The depth of the downfall is staggering. I also found Mechanicus to be slow at times, and McNeill isn't an author that has yet to miss like A D-B, or has such a great track record as Abnett, however I think judging him harshly based on a novel that might be one of the best not only in 30K but 40K as well is strange

  7. I beg to differ. Fulgrim was not bad, but it wasn't amazing either. It was predictable, and the final parts felt ripped off The Portrait of Dorian Gray.

    The Ultramarines novels were fun, but outlandish and formulaic. Uriel Ventris will get shot, beaten, battered, humiliated, but he'll always win in the end. And Dead Sky, Black Sun was a terrible novel with an utterly unbelievable plot.

    Yes, Chaos is unpredictable, but to snatch two Ultramarines from a shielded ship in the warp to bring them to the Eye of Terror in the bid to slay a rival demon hiding in a fortress full of Iron Warriors is plain rubbish. Parodying Star Wars, having Emperor-worshipping mutants inside the Eye and sneaking in heavy metal lyrics only added to the trash. I loved the idea of a Storm of Iron crossover, but Dead Sky, Black Sun was an insult to that and Honsou's character. The short story The Heraclitus Effect captured the enmity between Honsou and Uriel far better than Dead Sky Black Sun ever did.

  8. Hi Erik.
    I have a number of Warhammer books on my shelf that I've never read. They've mostly been bought for me by other people. Not sure why I've never bothered with them. Possibly thought they might be a bit contrived and cliched. However, after reading your excellent review, I might just give them a try. Great blog by the way. Found you through Book Blogs. I'm following.


  9. The MAJOR timeline issues in this book are difficult to get by. How did editing ( or Graham McNeill)not see how bad this clashes with earlier books.