Reviewed in the United States on April 9, 2017
Magnus the Red: Master of Prospero is, overall, a damn good novel for all manner of reasons. I have some gripes which relate to the usual issues with Graham McNeill's works, but at the end of the day, it worked. It felt like a fresh story, with early Great Crusade Legions still growing into what they'd become by the Heresy. Out of the three Primarchs novels out so far, I might like this best (though admittedly I stopped reading Leman Russ for the time being; the action-heavy start just didn't get me fully invested).
To get my big bugbear out of the way first, though: Yes, McNeill once again "recycles" his characters from previous books. Not only do we see Ahzek Ahriman, Hathor Maat, Phosis T'Kar and Atharva, who at least make sense being here in a Thousand Sons novel, but Graham also included his old Storm of Iron/Angel Exterminatus cast; Forrix, Obax Zakayo and Barban Falk accompany Perturabo, and while Forrix at least made sense considering his rank, I found the inclusion of Zakayo and Falk to be... redundant.
I didn't feel it added to the plot, and their roles could have easily filled by other, non-established Iron Warriors. In fact, I cannot recall a single, lasting Legion character of either TS or IW that we did not see before in another McNeill novel. Where both David Annandale and Chris Wraight have made efforts to play with a new roster of fresh characters, Graham is, once again, resting on his old creations. It strikes me as lazy, even if I can see why he would do it. Adding to that somewhat on-the-nose foreshadowing for Forrix and co, regarding Storm of Iron, didn't help me feel good about it.
Be that as it may, though, the rest of the book was pretty unconventional. Rather than big warfare, we get a logistics problem here. What fighting there is tends to be limited to short scenes, not drawn-out engagements, and McNeill implies more of the overall conflict than he clearly spells out. I bloody loved that!
I've talked about "battle fatigue" a few times before, and after seeing both previous Primarchs novels being heavy on action, this came as a pleasant surprise and relief. I didn't have to trudge through chapters full of bolter shells and psychic fizzing, but got to see a desperate evacuation of a doomed world that allowed for plenty of character development for Magnus, his sons and even Perturabo.
That isn't to say that the action was unsatisfying, not at all. It was on point and had a purpose beyond ticking checkboxes for the editors. There are spectacular scenes here, showcasing the psychic might of the Thousand Sons and their Primarch, and Forrix kicks ass. But everything serves the plot and the greater moral dilemma. McNeill made the correct choice going this route, in my eyes. It is too easy to fall into the trap of writing superhero-Primarchs doing everything by themselves. True enough, Magnus goes far and beyond what you might expect here, but it is all well-grounded and comes at a price. What he does here shapes his character in a way I didn't expect, and Perturabo too has some great scenes, including lines of dialogue that I'd quote here if they didn't involve spoiling some very well-handled scenes.
Where the book really shines in my eyes however is in depicting the youthful naiveté of the two Legions. They are still highly idealistic and think they can do no wrong. Many lines have not yet been crossed, and Perturabo and his Legion aren't worn down yet by disregard and being used as blunt tools of siege warfare. The sons of Magnus are still a little reluctant to show the full extent of their powers to the other Legions. It was refreshing, really, to see some characters like Ahriman still a little uncertain of their true potential, though I am a little disappointed in how his role grew exponentially throughout the book, taking the spotlight from Atharva. I'll really have to re-read A Thousand Sons soon as well, I think, even if just to see if Hathor Maat was as much of an annoyance there too...
The scale of the story, the early look at the Legions, the well-paced action and awesome twists that link back to the Sons' search for lost knowledge all made this book a truly enjoyable experience for me. I can overlook my nitpicks about recycled characters and heavy-handed foreshadowing if the overall framework and many of the close-ups of the story are as satisfying as with this novel. The book stands on its own pretty damn well, while offering readers of A Thousand Sons and Angel Exterminatus some really neat looks behind the curtain. If you've ever been interested in reading more about the Sons and their early days, this is about as good as it gets.