Recently, I’ve decided to dive into reading two lengthy, in-depth fictional series at once for my leisure reading: The Wheel of Time and The Horus Heresy. About 3.5 books into these series, I’ve managed to stay focused on the wider story arcs of each while alternating between them. And so far, I am astounded at how brilliantly these two series are written, and how differently from each other.
False Gods is book II of The Horus Heresy, the prequel canon for the Warhammer 40,000 universe, a tabletop battle game that I played around ages 11-15. I always knew that this science fiction universe — “set in the grim future of the 41st millennium” — had a deep lore (The Horus Heresy alone spans 31 books as of April 2014), but halfway into book II, I am just now realizing how little I really understood.
The Story of 1,000 Stories
Each vignette is pieced together around a certain event to give the reader a three-dimensional view of how the narrative develops. Instead of organizing sections in linear fashion, Graham McNeill (and Dan Abnett, author of book I, Horus Rising) structures his micro-timelines based on the impressions he wants the reader to have. Check out how the sections of the first five chapters are organized (in very basic, non-spoiler detail):
Chapter 1.2 – The book almost immediately opens with a description of war preparations; a machine commander going through his checks, in fact. We don’t know why they’re going to war, but this section makes the conflict feel imminent, pulling the reader in almost from the first word.
Chapter 2.1- Suddenly we’re in a training session with Captain Loken, visibly angered over something. But, we are seeing Loken after the battle, and there is tension between he and some of the other captains.
Chapter 2.2- Then, we find out that this is not the first war that has been fought on this moon of Davin, and the question is posed to the reader: why return now?
Chapter 2.4- We meet up with our captains again just two hours after they make planetfall on this moon, and neither they nor the reader knows why they have been ‘summoned’ there by another Astartes.
Chapters 2.5-4.1- Several sections over more than a full chapter concern the penultimate moment of the battle; Warmaster Horus holds a public council on the moon of Davin, and the audience of officers, civilians, and the reader see him make his final declaration of war upon this world. These sections come from many different perspectives, giving the reader numerous interpretations focusing on various aspects, but it is — thankfully — in chronological order.
Chapter 3.1- In the midst of the immediate lead-up to the battle is a scene in whcih Captain Loken has a revealing conversation with a trusted friend. But this scene actually takes place a day before they even make planetfall on Davin’s moon.
You get the idea. I won’t bore you by summarizing every section. Just know that we do not get to the battle itself until the end of chapter five, and the conflict rages well into chapter eight.
The Narrative Puzzle
This narrative structure is chaotic, and its tone builds that chaos as it edges closer and closer to the imminent battle. What is remarkable is that this structure does not leave the reader feeling bogged down by exposition. Each section — some shorter than two pages — is another piece in the story’s puzzle, driving the story forward with a new detail or new information, even if that information is contained in narrative exposition. At the very least, each section leaves the reader with more unanswered questions. In this way, the story proceeds in fits and starts, drawing the reader in until the reader and the characters alike are brought suddenly to the dazed aftermath, the clearing smoke of the battle revealing only the havoc wreaked and still more questions.
I have thus far forged my story’s narrative in a very linear fashion, and I think that’s appropriate for the content. However, False Gods has shown me how these vignettes can be used to progress the narrative, while leaving the reader and the characters uncertain at every turn. I’ll stow this style away for future use.