The galaxy is burning. The Emperor’s loyal primarchs prepare to do battle with Warmaster Horus and his turncoat Legions on the black sand of Isstvan. Such dark times herald new and yet more terrible things still to come, and when Astropath Kai Zulane unwittingly learns a secret that threatens to tip the balance of the war, he is forced to flee for his life. Alongside a mysterious band of renegades, he plunges into the deadly underworld of Terra itself, hunted like a criminal by those he once trusted. In the face of betrayal, Kai must decide where his own loyalties lie and whether some truths should be buried forever.
This was a tricky book, as it broke a lot of the norms we’d had in the Heresy thus far. It wasn’t a Big War Book, and the Space Marines were pretty thin on the ground. This was entirely deliberate. Like most things, be they novels, short stories, anthologies or whatever, variety in texture is always important. A book that is non-stop bolter death can get tiresome, just as a book with lots of long, endless conversations can be equally boring. A book needs highs and lows, constriction and release, action and time to breathe.
The Heresy as a whole is no different, and we’d just come of the back of A Thousand Sons and Prospero Burns, two Space Marine heavy books with plenty of action in them. So for my next Heresy novel, I wanted a change of pace; for myself and the readers. What I’d read so far in the series of Terra had intrigued me, and I wanted to tell a different kind of novel – a thriller novel, rather than a war novel. I also wanted to look at some characters we didn’t get to see a lot of in the Heresy (or 40k) except as handy Imperial e-mails. The Astropaths.
I’ve always liked the Astropaths, and have listened to many an impassioned rant from Alan Merrett about the nature of Astropathy, how it’s not just chatting over a long distance, but a horribly dangerous, draining, metaphysical experience. It’s throwing your mind into a blood-filled tank of sharks and hoping you don’t get bitten. It’s being assailed by horrifying visions of burning worlds, death and obscure symbolism that may or may not mean anything. It’s draining yourself to death over years for a culture that doesn’t openly value you and is taught to fear you from an early age. The very use of an Astropath’s powers destroys them.
I felt that was fertile ground for a story, and set about wondering how Astropaths worked, where they lived, how they trained and what the day to day life of one might be like. From those ruminations came Kai Zulane, an astropath traumatised by a warp-incident and sent back to Terra. “Seeing” the City of Sight through the eyes of someone who’d once trained there and hoped never to return gave an interesting angle for the reader to enter, and gave me the chance to write a character who, at first, was entirely unsympathetic.
The first half of the book concerns Kai’s time back in the City of Sight and the impending crisis of the looming Heresy as it’s perceived from Terra. We also get to see more of Terra from the ground level of its ordinary citizens, which was, again, a nice change of pace from what we’d seen recently in the Heresy.
At the halfway mark of the novel, the pace changes gear as the Crusader Host were introduced. I deliberately kept their origins and nature vague, as I wanted to let the reader fill in the blanks and leave a little room for each person’s interpretation. I wanted these guys to be an unknown quantity so that exactly what they were doing and what their real motives might be were kept in the shadows until most of the story was over.
Looking back, there’s quite a bit going on in The Outcast Dead; the machinations of those in command, the Outcast Dead and the hunters pursuing them. Add into the mix, Babu Dhakal and the Thunder Warriors and it became a very volatile mix. That all comes to a head in the Temple of Woe, with a big fight that leaves the reader with more questions than answers. Will we ever see the Thunder Warriors again? What happened to Severian? What will the Emperor do now that he’s seen what happens on the Vengeful Spirit?
And, it would be remiss of me not to mention what folk have said about the timing of Magnus’s arrival. On the surface, yeah, it looks as though it’s all wrong, but so many of the story seeds we’re planting in the Heresy won’t bear fruit until some time later. The first part of this seed has come out in Wolf Hunt, and another will appear in The Crimson King (with perhaps another appearing in something Ant Reynolds has written…). So any time you see a thing that makes you want to shout Foul! just bear in mind that it’s (hopefully) part of a plan that, some books down the line, you suddenly see what was going on. We don’t have these big sit-down Horus Heresy meetings for nothing, you know…