Every ending has a beginning. It's an often repeated message but quite an accurate one, and it seems to be the mantra Games Workshop has been repeating while working on this project. Even as Cadia itself was torn asunder, the company was visibly making a massive push to enforce massive changes on the Imperium's side, and the company hasn't exactly been keeping quiet about this. This was clear even in Abaddon's moment of triumph, and the brief interlude to look into the world of the eldar did not change that in any way. In fact, Games Workshop promptly went the extra mile by all but plastering "GUILLIMAN IS BACK!" all over their website.
This is the first step towards the time foretold, with the return of the primarchs and the final war against Chaos. Old myths, prophecies and suggestions of a new age are coming to pass, and with the revival of the Avenging Son, it suggests that there might be more truth to them than we first realised. The question now is, even if he has returned, is there still enough of an Imperium left for him to command and help save?
Even as the story does move about the galaxy, there is far more purpose and time spent on each point than anything we received with Fracture, and a few even pause to flesh out certain concepts. Rather than merely blitzing past existing settings, someone seemed to be going "Okay, but have we talked about this before?" and adding some nice details into the flavour text. This is especially evident early on during the events surrounding Fortress Hera, where the Ultramarines are under siege, and the story pauses to get across the grandeur of the moment.
The book also seems to remember that Chaos often strikes in indirect ways. So, while we are still treated to the Black Legion mounting a full scale assault upon a world, or even just bombing the enemy to hell at long range, it does pause to offer more subtle methods of attack. Sorcery, plagues, curses and a few rather nasty twists which turns the fate of the loyalists against themselves all come into play alongside daemons and the like. It gives more of a sense of humanity fighting against the daemonic hordes of hell itself, and of the dark powers which desire them dead. While Fall of Cadia might have featured daemonic ascensions and more than a few moments filled with mind bullets, Rise of the Primarch is the one which introduces the likes of the Weeping Plague, which causes soldiers to cry themselves to death. Trust me, that's sparing you some very gory descriptions found within the book.
The balance between characters and armies is far more solid than anything we have seen before, and while it does still lean heavily in favour of protagonists, there are some good exceptions. On multiple occasions the book will take time to shed some light on the lesser armies noted to be backing the bigger forces, or even cover some of the skirmishes which follow in the wake of larger conflicts. A particular section titled War Zone Ultramar is effectively an action montage in written form, covering the arrival of displaced Imperial forces, and it does just about enough to convey the size of the ongoing formations taking place. While certainly not nearly as effective as the efforts found in Battlefleet Gothic - and lacking the fine detail on certain troops, civilians and resources to help it stand out - it at least tries to give the impression that the conflict is a full scale war rather than merely a bum rush of troops.
Surprisingly, Guilliman himself also proves to be a major source of goodness all throughout the tale. It's true that Games Workshop has a notorious habit of over-promoting the primarch and his sons, often to the determent of everyone else. While Matt Ward's contributions will often be pointed to as the chief problem behind this, even the otherwise fantastic Horus Heresy rulebooks and novels have an irritating habit of dipping into this over and over again. Yet, despite this, Robute is in fine form here. He's still the demigod we know, still the expert strategist and tactician who rebuilt the Imperium, but the writers rarely feel the need to push this. They let him punch the heads off of traitors, regroup his forces and turn a losing battle into an abrupt victory but never feel the need to add something like "and thus this proved the Ultramarines were better than all others" or have him kill an entire Titan Legion with a glance. Oh, don't roll your eyes at that, we've seen stupider things in the past.
The primarch we get here is a good, solid character and some of the book's best moments come from the choices he is forced to make. A major one stems not from him pummeling traitors to dust or acting at an army's head, but instead coming to terms with all that has happened. While it only lasts one page, and a brief note of how he pauses for several days after Macragge is freed from traitor presence, it shows him reflecting upon the world he has awoken to. Not one which is the hopeful realm he left, but a borderline feudal and despotic state of near hopelessness, held together only by the tyranny of those above him.
As a final major strength, Rise of the Primarch does press to resolve a few big outstanding questions and make use of established ideas. It doesn't merely pull a number of abrupt twists out of its hat, nor even shoehorn in a metric ton of irrelevant elements, and most of what it adds is pushed in an attempt to flesh out the world. It seems to truly ask how the universe would react to the return of a loyalist primarch, from the forces of Chaos to those on Terra itself, and what course of action he would be forced to take in order to re-rail the Imperium back onto its intended course.
So, whatever else is to follow this, the book was a genuinely solid effort to explore some much discussed ideas. While I am going to heavily criticise many points from here on, the book does still have a few gems to offer, and its failings shouldn't be allowed to completely overshadow that fact. It's just a damn shame it has so many failings that we need to cover here.
The one thing you will find arising time and time again throughout this book, is that whoever was behind it didn't want to ever go into any massive amount of detail. On anything. Often making the mistake of trying to turn events into a novel over an ongoing conflict between armies, for every genuinely great moment of fantastic characterisation there seemed to be one missed opportunity. For every time it did remember the likes of the Ultramar Auxilia existed, it would reduce them to the role of mere cannon fodder or shove them aside for most of the book. There was a constant sense of Rise of the Primarch wanting to briefly deal with certain concepts, but never cared enough to actually commit to them at any point.
The issue of actually focusing upon a story and sticking to it is made all the clearer when you see just how quickly previous story ideas are abandoned. The distrust and hatred between Celestine and Greyfax is dealt with in little more than a paragraph - a secondary one of the skippable type at that- meaning that it amounted to nothing in the long run. Rather than tying into the conflict of a cynical Imperium reacting to prophecies or a primarch's return, or even the elements which would need to be culled, it is all but forgotten about save for a few brief comments. The same goes for much of the Archmagos' own actions, as he spontaneously seems to pull a new suit of power armour and a primarch fixer-upper out of his riveted arsehole, with little done to really question where in the hell this stuff came from. Oh, we get a few small comments, but it's so rapidly hand-waved aside that you'd be forgiven for missing it first time around.
That's just the Imperial stuff as well. The eldar have it even worse, as they are all but irrelevant here. Rather than actually being the second part of a larger narrative arc, apparently everything in Fracture of Biel-Tan was merely a side-story, and with it over and done with we're back to the Imperium. They exist purely as an excuse for certain characters to pull off certain things, and to lazily avoid plot holes via the easiest means. As the book opens, their presence and involvement is downsized rapidly, with Eldrad promptly disappearing from the story along with everyone else, until only Yvaine and Viscarch remain. So, for those wondering, yes the entirety of the last book was little more than an unnecessary diversion to the big story.
The issue of the story just going for the most direct means possible, flaunting logic and canon alike, is evident over and over again. If something needs to happen, then it just happens no matter the lack of any explanation or logical flaws. If something contradicts the path the book is set on, well, screw it we're just going right ahead with it. If you want to see this at its finest, just track the Black Templars during the opening act of this story. The book features them tolerating alien uber-psykers with little more than basic dislike (with the Marshall even dueling one of them in a friendly practice bout), but promptly gets major storytelling traditions wrong by having someone abruptly becoming an Emperor's Champion for having survived a major battle. Please, facepalming is permitted upon reading that, and actively encouraged.
It's something I personally like to call the Steven Moffat effect, where things happen just because they can and the story needs them to. Personally, I wouldn't harp on this so much, were these not basic things which should have been easily ironed out of the book but arise so many times that it reads like an early draft which has yet to be run past an editor.
There is also a very, very obvious effort not to actually fully deal with the consequences behind certain actions or even the big issues which should be taking center stage here. Guilliman is back, right? Okay, so everyone bows before him. What then? Does he comment upon their ultra-narrow adherence to the Codex? Does he ask after incursions like the Tyranids? Does he even question the various conflicts now raging across the stars? How about his sons, how do they react to this? They bow, yes, but what else? You effectively have the second coming playing out right here, a demigod from the Imperium's founding made flesh once more and with xenos assistance no less. Do something with it!
Instead, what we just get is a bunch of Imperial forces gathering about Ultramar, paying their respects to Guilliman, and treating him like some great general. It's nothing more than we would see of a returning Chapter Master, and as great as the writing about Guilliman is, the world around him always seems to fall short. In fact, it reaches the point of parody when every major Ultramarines character is sidelined a few pages after they are introduced, and cut off entirely from the plot. So, not only does Rise of the Primarch actively avoid confronting the issue of past vs. present values or conflicts, but it actively flaunts it when it doesn't even have them object to Guilliman launching a crusade back to Terra. Really, what we get basically amounts to this:
Guilliman: I'm going to Terra.
Calgar: Isn't that rather dangerous right now? And impossible?
Guilliman: Yes, but I have an idea, and it involves leading our entire fleet into that Maelstrom place owned by the Red Corsairs!
Calgar: Welp, have fun with that, we'll hold down the fort until you get back.
I would joke further about this, but that little exchange is far more than anything the book give us. It never seems to fully know what to do with certain people, to the point where a large number almost read as if they were forced upon the writers. Kairos Fateweaver shows up to do one thing, and then buggers off for the rest of the story, while Celestine remains ever in the background doing next to nothing and Cato Sicarius is mentioned to be hitchhiking with the fleet, but he doesn't actually do anything of worth. This sadly even goes so far as to extend to the two other big characters. Grand Master Voldus contributes nothing of real worth to the story save for one clever moment analysing Nurgle's actions, and Cypher might be as awesome as ever, but the tale simply doesn't know what to do with him. Also, if you're wondering, no, he asks to be taken to the Throne Room of Terra but is promptly barred before he can get there, meaning we have no answers and he's effectively here for fan service and little else.
Perhaps the greatest issue above all else, however, is how the battles are handled. Say what you will about Fall of Cadia but, while the book did have legitimate failings, the battle scenes were excellent and there was a push to show more than simply a list of models people could buy. This isn't the case here. Over and over again the book forgoes the more obvious choices of how a battle should play out, or even the units which should be involved, to shill existing models.
You'll notice this trend pretty quickly as, in stark contrast to Fall of Cadia, almost everything ship related in the void battles is skipped entirely save for relentless glorification of the Stormhawk Interceptors. Really, when the book enters a pitched battle we get more descriptions of "entire wings" of these damn things launching attacks runs or giving the enemy hell than any battleship, and it moves away from said ships as fast as narratively possible. Even when the book does require fleet engagements, it promptly goes the extra mile to focus on resolving everything through boarding actions and little else. In fact, the few times anything which isn't a modern model shows up, it's usually only so it can quickly be killed off.
Models need to be sold, sure, and no one will argue that in the slightest. Yet, when the story is so hell-bent upon shoving them into the tale that they're supplanting more obvious choices en mass, it shatters that ever vital suspension of disbelief. Perhaps if they could hide this well, that might be one thing, but the book seems to push any questioning move right to the forefront of this tale. Along with suggesting that the Ultramarines apparently retain Stormhawks in the hundreds, we repeatedly have astartes carrying out menial or nonsensical jobs which goes against their very role on the battlefield. Terminators are noted at one point to be patrolling battlements rather than being at the forefront of any fighting, and the book uses Marines in place of Guardsmen so often that you're left questioning if there's one or ten thousand of the blue armoured bastards.
Even a gigantic firefight in front of Guilliman's resting place is hard to take seriously thanks to its staging. There's no rhythm to the combat, no structure and no staging. It fails to strike the drama of a general retelling of the flow of battle or even the more structured person-by-person conflict of a massed engagement; instead opting for Fracture of Biel-Tan's bizarre trend of listing units off one at a time. It's such an artificial structure, such a poorly staged sequence, that at no point can you possibly hope to keep track of where everyone is or become engaged by any part of the battle. It's the literary equivalent of shaky-cam, jumbling up and messing with something which could be a competent sequence until it becomes incomprehensible.
Surprisingly, the art found within Rise of the Primarch is easily some of the best we have had in a long time. While certain images are once again re-used, they veer towards the less commonly seen options, and there are always enough glorious new images to stop you complaining about the lack of any content. While these vary heavily in terms of style and subject matter, no single one manages to feel inadequate or out of place, and the few splash-pages thrown in feel earned rather than serving as an excuse to pad out the page count. The fact they're carefully placed directly in combination with the right moments means it's hard to ever object to their presence.
In addition to this, it's also one of the very, very few books to use the current army layout to a good cause. Rather than using pages upon pages of colour-swaps to pad out the book, we receive only one page and it's put to good use. Examining and covering the details behind the Fallen Angels, it adds in minor quirks and traits to show that this is an army of individuals. No one astartes has the same goal or fate, and there seems to be an equal number of traitors and repentant warriors among them. It helps to flesh out the army without becoming tiresome in the slightest.
"Flawed" is a word used often on here, but it's hard not to think of a more suitable one for Rise of the Primarch. The entire narrative seems to take a step forwards and then two steps back at every turn, with plenty of great ideas hampered by poor placement within the larger story. It would be easy to downplay its every success as a result of this, but there is still some good in here. It's just a damn shame it's so badly timed and staged you have to stomach so much to enjoy it.
More than anything else, this book needed to be held off for a while longer. Jumping back to the Imperium now, resolving almost every plot from the first book and rushing through so much was just a storytelling mistake in too many ways to count. While we'll be getting into this more in the final part, this trilogy needed to be a quadrilogy or even a minor saga. It needed to pause again, either to have a book squarely focused upon Chaos and the doom they would truly bring to the universe, or at the very least to add some questions as to how badly humanity was losing this war. Well, that or possibly to add some much needed variety to the conflict by adding in a few more xenos races. As it stands, everything seems so utterly simplistic and underwhelming for an event on such a vast scale, and it lacks the punch, weight and sheer scale of events it so desperately needed. It could have been worse, certainly, but it also should have been a hell of a lot better.
So, that's the story done (for now). Join us here as we move onto the rules.