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Fear To Tread by James Swallow – review
James Swallow, author of one of my favourites from the Horus Heresy Series, Flight of the Eisenstein, returns once more with Fear To Tread, the long awaited tale of the Primarch Sanguinius, his Blood Angels, and the growing horror of Horus’s betrayal.
After fighting side by side with them against a repugnant xenos race called the Nephilim, Horus is present at an incident that reveals a genetic flaw at the core of the Blood Angels. Months later, with the Blood Angels engaged in a frustrating support action for the Alpha Legion, Horus reveals to Sanguinius a possible solution to the flaw, found on a Nephilim-held world in the Signus cluster. Arriving in the Signus cluster, they are witness to phenomena for which they have no explanation, and it is soon clear that they face an enemy they have never encountered before. As the scope of Horus’s betrayal reveals itself, the Blood Angels are thrown into a desperate battle against the stuff of humanity’s worst nightmares; and the stakes? The very soul of the Blood Angels and their angelic primarch.
You may have noticed that I’ve categorised this novel as SF Horror. That’s because Fear To Tread has within its pages some classic horror themes that really add a great deal to an already gripping tale. The scene set by Swallow, as the Blood Angels enter the Signus system and witness a twisting of reality that their secular Imperial Truth says cannot be, is masterful. There have been horror elements in other Horus Heresy novels but, to my eyes, none so strong or central as to merit the SF Horror label, until now.
Swallow has populated his novel with an excellent cast of characters. From the mighty primarch Sanguinius, whom he portrays beautifully, to a selection of the legion that gives an excellent cross section of the Blood Angels as a whole as well as some fascinating character studies in and of themselves. The antagonists are unrepentantly evil and, juxtaposed with the hard-won nobility of the Blood Angels, provide a wonderful contrast. For me the Word Bearers came to represent all that was awful and shameless about those who had betrayed the Imperium, and they do lend themselves well to the role of the villains you love to hate.
Amongst the Blood Angels, two characters in particular call out for mention: Brother Kano, a former Librarian re-tasked as a first company adjutant after the edict of Nikea, and Apothercary Meros. Amidst the galaxy-spanning consequences of this story, their friendship, sacrifices, and struggles really formed the heart of the tale for me. This is quite surprising in a book that contains no less a luminary than Sanguinius himself. Don’t misunderstand, this book is one of the few I’ve read that felt like it was a duology (if not a trilogy) crammed between the covers of a single volume. It is an immense saga with a large, well-thought-out cast and many scenes that would make the greatest action movie directors weep with jealousy. And yet, in my mind these two characters stand out as the beating heart of the story.
Swallow also gives us a peek into the grim darkness of the far future by pointing out the origins of certain 40K staples. The Blood Angel wardens, harbingers of 40K era Astartes Chaplains and, much to my delight, Brother Captain Amit of the fifth company, whose bloody deeds have earned them the nickname of ‘Flesh Tearers’…. Okay, I said two characters, but Amit is another fantastic personality. His aggression and bloodthirsty fighting style, symbolised in his unadorned and battle-worn warplate as well as the skinning knives carried by his company, hides a clarity of vision and a courage to say the things that others won’t. That Sanguinius recognises this and keeps him close for his unvarnished opinion and insight brought forth some really commanding scenes that stand out in a book replete with deeply emotional set pieces.
This is a very strong entry into the annals of the Horus Heresy series. Written by a veteran writer with a profound gift, it has earned its place in my heart as a firm favourite. I have many of the fantastic scenes in the book clamouring for attention as I write, but I don’t want to take away from the horror or mystery of the unfolding story.
Fear To Tread is an absolute must read.