The Horus Heresy reaches the home of the Ultramarines legion, as the Word Bearers traitor legion launches an insidious sneak attack against their Ultramarine brothers on the world of Calth. By order of the Warmaster Horus, the forces of the Ultramarines space marine legion, including both the marines proper and their attendant Imperial Army regiments and Imperial Navy spaceships, are to rally and prepare to embark, along with their brothers in the Word Bearers legion, on a campaign against a fledgling Orkish empire on the fringes of Ultramarine space. The forces muster on the world of Calth, an earth-like paradise in the domain of Ultramar. The narrative follows several parties, including the Ultramarines primarch Roboute Guilliman, Captain Remus Ventanus, disgraced marine Aenid Thiel, Tetrarches Eikos Lamiad and Tauro Nicodemus, farmer (and secret immortal) Oll Perrson, and assistant Mechanicum server Meer Edv Tawren. The two legions have bad blood between them, stretching back to an incident in which the Emperor himself sent the Ultramarines to chastize the Word Bearers; to smooth over the problems, Ultramarine Honorius Luciel and Word Bearer Sorot Tchure, battlefield friends, meet as a diplomatic gesture. Speculation among the Ultramarines runs rampant, as it is widely known that the Orks on the fringes of Ultramar lack the strength to require such a large deployment of forces.
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As the embarkation progresses, the Head Server of the Mechanicum, Uhl Kehal Hesst, notices an injection of dangerous scrapcode into the datarealm of Calth. Unbeknownst to them, the code is the result of the sacrifices performed by cultists hidden within the Word Bearers infantry regiments, who use the names of daemons to create virulent infections to cripple the computer systems. While the Server is occupied with the infection, the captured Ultramarine vessel Campanile rams into the primary space docks of the Ultramarines, destroying many of their spaceships and eliminating loyalist control of the planetary defense grid. At the same time, Tchure ritually kills Luciel; he and the rest of the Word Bearer honor guard capture the cruiser Samothrace, and use it to help the Word Bearer ships attack the helpless Ultramarine fleets.
The surprise attack works as intended, preventing the Ultramarines from retaliating. Server Hesst is killed by the data overloads attendant to the disaster, and the Mechanicum control center is crushed by a Ultramarine cruiser shot out of orbit. Tawren, the second-in-command of the planetary Mechanicum, escapes the destruction with the aid of an elite Skitarii guard, but the vital computer networks that run the planet are destroyed, or fall into the hands of the Word Bearers. The Word Bearers ground forces turn on the Ultramarine forces and begin to slaughter them, although some survive. Captain Ventanus, with his Sergeant, Selaton, begins to rally what forces he can. Oll Perrson is visited by his immortal friend John Grammaticus, who claims that a time of strife is now upon the galaxy; Oll begins gathering what survivors of the initial attack he can, and heads to an island at the center of Calth.
On his command vessel, Guilliman assumes that the attack is a mistake, and frantically attempts to hail his brother Lorgar, Primarch of the Word Bearers. Eventually Guilliman is able to deduce that the attack is deliberate and treacherous. He confronts Lorgar via vox link, and the latter tells a set of half-truths, revealing the treachery of Horus and others, but claiming that the battle for Terra has already been fought and won. As a parting gesture, Lorgar uses his new warp powers to summon a set of demons into Guilliman's flagship, one of which explodes the bridge of the ship. Guilliman is lost to his command staff and presumed dead.
The rallied forces under Ventanus meet with Tawren and her protector, and decide to occupy a fortification, Leptius Numinus, where a smaller cogitation engine allows Tawren to begin gathering information about the remnants of the surface forces. They establish a link with the flagship, where Guilliman's command staff begin to coordinate the defense, despite being beset by warp-beasts throughout the ship. An unlikely force led by Thiel begins to fend off the beasts on the ship, restoring it to Ultramarine control. However, the flagship is being boarded by Word Bearer forces, and Leptius Numinus is attacked by a huge concentration of forces. Even worse, the final plan of the Word Bearers is revealed -- they are firing the planet's massive weapons at the system's sun, causing it to accelerate towards a nova state.
On the ground, Ventanus' forces hold off the attack of the Bearers long enough to discover the location of another engine which contains an antidote to the scrapcode created by Hesst before his death, and would allow the loyalists to regain control of the planet's defenses. The troops launch a desperate assault on the location of the engine. At the same time, the flagship's troops perform an extra-vehicular assault on the Word Bearers breech points; their assault is aided by the return of Guilliman, whose incredible Primarch strength has allowed him to survive in the void, even without a helmet. As the ground forces attack the engine, the ship moves to invade the orbital command center the Word Bearers are using, to enable the transfer of power to the ground control. Despite dangers, both assaults work, and Tawren is able to stop the planetary guns from firing; Word Bearer commander Kor Phaeron is critically wounded by Guilliman in the process.
Unfortunately, the success comes too late to save Calth. The star flares with deadly radiation. Oll leads his followers to the island, where he uses a ritual knife to open a portal to another world, saving them. Guilliman and his flagship rally what shipborn Ultramarines remain, and they head off-system to link with other forces and rebuild. And the forces led by Ventanus head to the planet's shielded underground, where they will continue to fight the remnant Word Bearer forces while the planet's surface is scoured of life.
Best part of story, including ending:
Abnett really lets loose with his action-filled prose in this book; hardly a page goes by without a battle scene. Those looking for an exciting and fast-moving mass-market action novel will find one here.
Best scene in story:
The betrayal of the Ultramarine Luciel by Tchure of the Word Bearers serves as a wonderful microcosm of the larger story.
Opinion about the main character:
The book largely uses an ensemble structure, but Captain Ventanus, who ends up leading the surface resistance, serves as the closest thing the book has to a lead character. He's a pretty generic Marine, with a devotion to duty and little else. A few moments in which temper peak through his careful demeanor give him a little appeal as a character; otherwise, however, the battle sequences are the meat of this novel.