I’ll keep this review brief as The Master of Mankind generated a LOT of buzz when it came out and most people are very much aware of what the book is about and what it has to offer. While ADB novels are rightly treated as highlights each and every time we are treated to one, this was an exception, with TMOM being lauded as a masterpiece by many and Aaron’s portrayal of the Emperor in particular attracting a lot of attention.
Of course I had to patiently await the book coming out in paperback, and largely I have to say it was indeed worth the wait. However, whether or not the book was overhyped and built up by the furore on social media or perhaps my own expectations were raised too high, I failed to attain the nirvana like state of being that other readers have reported. So let’s get stuck into the The Master of Mankind.
One of the first things to say is that in some ways this is one of the LEAST Heresy-like books you will read, at least in comparison to what has come before. Space Marines and Primarchs very much take a back seat as ADB sets his sights squarely upon Terra and even at that a very specific area, the gate to the Webway and the Webway itself. In this respect it is very contained and focussed in its intent. The protagonists of the story are the Custodes and Sisters of Silence and given that they have not really been featured all that much in previous books APART from Aaron’s previous novels he is free to build upon his earlier work without obstruction and flesh them out to some degree.
I say to some degree as these mighty warriors are sadly devoid of any real character at all. Part of this is due to necessity. The Sisters of Silence are mutes and therefore by their very nature difficult to bring any depth to, the Custodes on the other hand are just wholly unlikeable and none of them are really given any space to endear themselves to us or anything in the way of development. Compared to the infinitely more numerous Astartes they come off as soulless automatons.
The biggest controversy over characterisation however is the Emperor himself, who given that he is the title of the book is also given curiously little page time. I imagine that the Emperor is a monstrously difficult character to write. Embellish Him too much and you risk destroying any mystery around the pivotal figure in Warhammer 40,000. Avoid Him too much and you are back to the perspective of the masses and there is little point in bothering at all. I must say in this respect ADB has done admirably as by the end of the book you have a lot more INFORMATION about the Emperor without feeling like you know him as a character, a difficult tightrope to walk. However, one thing that cannot be argued is that the Emperor will certainly not be viewed in the same way after reading this book. With regards to the Astartes and Primarchs, He is callous and unfeeling, even going as far as to refer to the Primarchs by number rather than by name. It is clear that He considers them little more than weapons or tools and indeed he remarks that He merely ALLOWS them to think of Him as their father and considers it a flaw built into their creation. It’s such a paradigm shift that one almost finds themselves rooting for Horus.
What the big E DOES care about is Humanity, as a whole, he is looking at the BIG picture and his Primarchs and Space Marines are merely something he uses as a means to an end. One could say however that the whole Great Crusade seems rather at odds with his grand plan for Mankind and kind of pointless but then, he is meant to be enigmatic. In addition the only warriors he does seem to show any paternity to are the Custodes, his ‘Ten Thousand’. Even going so far as to include one favoured warrior ‘Ra’ in psychic visions. This depiction of the Emperor is a bold move by ADB and though at times it does backfire he is to be applauded for taking on the character at all.
A large part of the narrative (and all of the action) is taken up by the conflict in the webway. Magnus’ folly has ruined the Emperor’s master plan for Humanity and ripped the webway asunder allowing the tides of Chaos Daemons and the Warp into what had previously been a safe haven. Indeed this book does illustrate adeptly the reason behind the Emperor’s fury and the true Magnitude of the damage wrought by Magnus’ ill-conceived attempt to warn his Sire. Still one cannot help but feel yet again, that the Master of Mankind could have handled things a little better with ‘Number Fifteen’ and perhaps had he done so could have saved himself a lot of bother.
I’ve failed quite miserably at keeping this brief haven’t I? Almost as badly as the Emperor failed at being a father. I shall attempt to be more succinct with the remainder of the review.
Suffice to say that while the battle rages on in the Webway between the invading Daemon horde and the Custodes (with one daemon, created from the first murder- a fascinating concept that is never really given its full due - in particular rampaging through all resistance and the opposing forces – even Titans) The Emperor is doing vital work himself comabting the forces of chaos in a titanic Psychic battle. Sadly it’s all a bit muddled and even though at the end of the book much is clarified and central parts of the lore are established and embellished upon, its all too frustrating in its shortcomings. The Engine battles are a definite highlight though.
It should have been a longer book, or maybe two. It certainly feels like a book that ADB had trouble writing (though I don’t know for sure) and the flow and construction of the book along with the strange characterisation are the main flaws that I identified.
That said, the writing itself, the prose and flow of the words is flawless and mellifluous and as always his work is a treat to read. This was not a book I struggled with at all and certainly not a book I could forget in a hurry. It is truly unique and though I had my problems with it I have to confess it was a brave and refreshing break from the norm that grounds and sets up a lot of the lore that we are already familiar with, almost acting as a prequel to many of the universe tenets that we accept as part of the background. I’m glad it exists and applaud ADB for writing it, I just wish perhaps that A: It had actually been written AFTER the Heresy concluded (as every other book in the series that I read is doomed to be compared to it ) and B: had actually been treated as Imperium Secundus, an arc of its own, rather than the one off that it so obviously is.
I shall summarise by saying this, The Master of Mankind is like a gourmet platter of unfamiliar and exotic food where some of it is sumptuous and mouth-watering and other elements are disappointing in comparison, at the end you are left wondering whether it really worked as a dish and yet are rather left wishing the time had been taken to make sure that there was more of it. At the same time I am forced to consider that maybe I have just been spoiled by conventional fare and maybe my palette is just not refined enough to appreciate it.