'The Outcast Dead' is Graham McNeill's latest contribution to the Horus Heresy series and is perhaps one of the best novels in the whole series. For me it provided a breath of fresh air to what has become a bit of an up and down series (although it still has more ups than downs). However, I'm not surprised to see that this is not a universally held opinion, with the book getting quite a lot of flak on here. Hopefullly I'll be able to explain why I feel this below and give some idea of what I got out of it.
I think that 'The Outcast Dead' represents another change of direction within the 'Horus Heresy'. 'Tales of Heresy' hinted at a change. The subsequent novels, to a greater or lesser extent, explored the notion of faith, loyalty and belief in the previous held notions of the Imperium. Likewise, for me, the loose theme of 'Age of Darkness' was that everything that was known is questioned. 'The Outcast Dead' appears to be continueing along this line, starting with the main character.
Kai Zulane is presented in a very different way to previous 'Horus Heresy' series characters. Init he is not portrayed as a hero, but simply a member of the Imperium who has managed, to his dislike, to be caught up in events above him and beyond his control. While previous 'Horus Heresy' novels have attempted to present the Remembrancers views of what Astartes are doing, Kai is different in that he is does not seeek otu or have an active interest in the action, he is simply unfortunate enough to be caught up in it due to his position as an astropath and gift (or curse?) as a talented psyker.
This has allowed Graham McNeill to begin to explore, but not needing to focus on, the perspective of non-military, non-political citizens of the Imperium as the Imperium collapses. While this was tried without success in James Swallow's 'Nemesis' (and also with a lot of success in his excellent short story 'Liar's Due') it works well because the events of the Heresy at first appear to be out of control and beyond the control of Kai and the other characters early in the novel. The recieving and sending of astropathic messages inform of the progress of the Heresy but the characters have no say in the action of the Heresy. This allows the slow building of Kai's character ad the establishment of what he likes, his poor temper and the fact that he is a long way from the usual character which willingly sacrifices themselves in the Imperiums wars.
Of course this does not continue and the big turn comes with the chaos that arises after attempts his warning to the Emperor. The political results of this are well documented in other novels. Once again, to Graham MacNeill's credit, the novel looks at the effect this has on people who would of been long forgotten by the 41st. Millenium instead of moving the focus on to the power players of the heresy (i.e. the Primarchs etc.)
In Kai's case the main result of Magnus's intrusion was the lodging in his head of a vision of the final battle between the Emperor and Horus. This vision is hidden due to earlier psychic trauma and can only be viewed by Kai overcoming this trauma. The Imperium becomes very interested to find out what has been lodged in Kai's and promptly send him off to have it extracted.
It is at this point that the novel changes pace with the introduction of astartes who have been imprisoned for being Astartes on Terra at the start of the Heresy. While the continued escape with Kai provides the bulk of the action, the escape keeps the idea that this is a book about people caught up in the Heresy who are overlooked by the central narrative but still caught up in it. The Outcast Dead are made up of Astartes who were honoured representatives of their Legions. The heresy changed that and they are now a threat to be removed. Unlike the Astartes on the Eisenstein, they are unable to prove themselves important enough to redeem themselves and with all the Emperors tools, are beyond their usefulness.
This is further emphasised with the encunter of the Emperors previous heores who have been written out of history and the death cult who work on the logic that death is the one constant factor in life and so is the only true factor which should not be fought or sought out but accepted.
As you can imagine, Kai's character is developed and moves through hating the Emperors use of humans as tools in hsi empire, to accepting this is the way it has to be to build the greater good of human survival. Yet this acceptance also provides the interesting ending. While Kai possibly delivers the prediction of the Emperor is he simply closing off options for the Emperor forcing him to accept stalemate. While I read the 'Outcast Dead' as an exploration of individuals caught up in events beyond there control and the treatment of them if they are not main players this raises the question (which is delibrately not answered) of whether surrendering to events or delibrately tryign to take control and interact is the best way forward.
It is the subtle weaving of this into the novel that provides its main strength and only really workd because of the paceing. The novel needs to slowly build up adn let you get to know the central character who is not a bold hero or even someone in the shadow of a hero. It allows the introduction fo the astartes in the second half to work as a contrast to this. It also works in emphasise aspects of the astartes, such as Tagores bio-neural implants. While Tagore argues that these enable him to fulfill his asigned role and make him a greater warrior, it also destroys him and enslaves him to his assigned role as a killer. It also makes a welcome change to the World Eaters being protrayed as mindless killers, suggesting there is alot that could be told about their role in the heresy.
This approach is one of the reasons I rate the novel so highly, but it is also possible that it will put off alot of readers. The 'Outcast Dead' is very slow if you simply want an adventure featuring battles and as such, it is probably not the best starting point for peopel new to the Horus Heresy series. Likewise, the novels developments of the series continuity are most obvious to those who have read the other novels. I feel some of these developments are major plot devices that will be returned to and turn the previous conceptions of the Heresy upside down.
One of the key ones is the imprisoning of the astartes. It makes clear that the imprisoned astartes were not all from the rebel legions and they were all imprisoned simply for being on Terra. Atharvas legion is still loyal when he was imprisoned. This suggests that all on Terra feared the Legions and aimed to remove them once their usefulness had passed (as with the Thunder Warriors).
Finally there have been complaints about the chronology of the 'Outcast Dead' and how it fitted into established time lines. I at first was annoyed by this, but thinking about it it does still fit but it suggests that actions were taken before it has previously been accepted. For example, from tis novel you can argue that the Space Wolves had been sent to Prospero before Magnus attempted to warn the Emperor! I'm sire alot of people will disagree with this, but it fits the general tone of the novel which shakes up all that was previously known while showing how events suck in and trap people.
I'm sure alot of people will disagree with this review and also dislike the 'Outcast Dead'. However I thoroughly recommend it. It is an intelligent, well paced and well thought out novel that gradually builds in pace while presenting a very different perspective from the hero driven novels in the rest of the series.
"Throughout the Imperium, priest and zealots preach that the rise of so many alien foes is Mankind's punishment fro heresy, for straying from the Emperor's light. Elsewhere, in darkened chambers and scriptoris, Inquisitors and their peers express a deeper fear; Mankinds time is drawing to a close and these new powers have risen to fill the inevitable void that the Imperium will leave behind."
In other words things are bad and getting worse. No amount of optimism will change that
Last edited by darkreever; 12-14-11 at 02:42 AM.