Book Review – “Vulkan Lives” by Nick Kyme


Among the tie-in fiction set in Warhammer 40,000 universe, the Horus Heresy series always stood apart. Long an opportunity for Black Library’s most promising authors to flex their literary muscles, the Heresy novels tend to be measured by a uniformly higher standard than much other Warhammer 40,000 fiction. Their plots tend to be more complex, their characters deeper and more conflicted, while the scale tends to be epic even in a universe where galaxy-spanning civilizations routinely come into conflict, worlds die on a daily basis, and trillion-strong populations can be forgotten due to a simple clerical error. As such, any time I buy a Horus Heresy novel, I expect a thrilling ride through the mythologies and origin stories of everyone’s favorite grim darkness of the far future.

This brings me to “Vulkan Lives”.

While I enjoyed Nick Kyme’s Salamanders novels set in “contemporary” 40K (as well as “Fall of Damnos”), I did not know if he could write a full novel up to Heresy standards of quality, where battles were interceded with character development, psychological struggles, and interesting tidbits/interactions – his previous Space Marine novels explored aspects of Adeptus Astartes archetypes, which, while enjoyable in their own right, do not make for great Heresy novels.

As such, I approached the novel with a bit of apprehension, fearing that it might be another action-driven romp without substance. Instead, Kyme delivered a work that reads and feels like a Horus Heresy novel with all the nuances one would expect from the series, and more than a few surprises (not to mention several MASSIVE cliffhangers at the end). More than anything, he proved without doubt that he is up to the task of writing Horus Heresy novels, and doing it well.

I thought that the characters had distinct feel to them, and carried their individual themes pretty well. Numeon and his men were a study in trauma and PTSD – adrift with little direction and somewhat of a death wish, lashing out like a wounded and cornered beast yet struggling to keep to their sense of purpose. Vulkan himself was the rare instance of the Primarch done right – it takes skill to keep him as a larger-than-life figure without making him too difficult to relate to. Yes, some of his struggles against the “monster” within felt a little contrived, but overall, I thought he was a sympathetic character with some depth.

Curze was, well, insane, and his death wish was very well done. I can see how far gone he was even during the events at Kharaatan, and by the “present” time he was essentially the Heresy series’ own Hannibal Lecter. His mind games were interesting, and his unbalanced nature showed through to great effect.

I was glad to see John Grammaticus make a comeback, and think that Kyme did him justice, but at times Grammaticus felt more like a plot device than a character. Still, his presence was not an eyesore, and overall he fit within the novel’s overall theme of trauma and dealing with emotional injury. Similarly, while some of the Word Bearers (Elias in particular) felt like caricature villains, Narek was the Legion’s redeeming factor, making the sons of Lorgar seem less like stand-in baddies and more like a complex group that is not as united as one would think. I really hope to see more of Narek in the future Heresy stories, as he was an interesting character. Yes, Erebus felt a little of deus ex machina, but I also wonder how much he knows about the Cabal’s plans… and what those plans might be. I would really like to see a novel about Erebus at some point in the Heresy series, as he has a lot of potential. It would take a lot of skill to write him as an interesting, multi-dimensional character, and not as the series’ moustache-twirling villain, but it is doable by a skilled author.

Some may not be crazy about the use of flashbacks, but I thought they filled the story nicely, both providing some background to Vulkan’s relationship with Kurze, giving glimpses of how the Salamanders Legion was before Isstvan V, and also going into some depth of what caused the trauma exhibited by the surviving Salamanders (and their Iron Hands/Raven Guard cohorts) during their segments. To me, the flashbacks felt like an integral part of the novel, and not as action scenes to take up word count.

While “Vulkan Lives” may not be the best Heresy novel, it is definitely in top quartile by my account. I have really enjoyed it, and hope to see more Horus Heresy from Nick Kyme.

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