The Serpent Beneath Review

This is from Index Nocturnus, whose review and podcast site can be found here.

"The Serpent Beneath by Rob Sanders

A Horus Heresy novella review by Sam. Published in The Primarchs.

I am liking the work of Rob Sanders more and more, because unlike most Black Library authors, you never know quite what you are going to get. If he was the money or the box, you would always go for the box. That’s quite a surreal image. In this novella, he is let loose on the Alpha Legion, who are by far the most interesting bunch of Marines when it comes to narratives (unfortunately they are dead boring on the battlefield, but because our job is review stories, we love them here at Index Nocturnus). And you can bet Rob loves them too, they are one of Abnett’s most genius fleshing-out-ofs (I’d say ‘creations,’ but that’s not accurate, so back off geeks).

“Your mission, Jim, should you choose to accept it …”
Diddle dum, diddle dum, dum dum.

The Alpha Legion are the Black Ops sneaky gitz of the Marine legions, and this novella demonstrates that fact even better than Legion or Deliverance Lost (see podcast of the latter). The story opens with Omegon, the ‘good’ Primarch who is surreptitiously battling his twin for the final direction the legion (Horus or the Imperium), discovering that a great big alien pylon that is supposed to channel psyker power (the exact purpose is vague) is being built under cover by his legion. The project must have been started by Alpharius, and Omegon decides to shut it down. He defines the mission (diddle dum) to loyal supporters around a boardroom table, and the narrative continually cuts back to them brainstorming ideas on how to knock out an installation of their own legion, with all the cloak ‘n dagger that implies.

Step one is to find some truly Spy vs Spy legionnaires, Right Little Worms, whom we cut to making a nuisance of themselves with the White Scars on some backwater planet. They then all stop to play basketball.

With the what now?

The squad in question are “running interference on the 915th Expeditionary Fleet.” Evidently the White Scar sergeant has the ball and is passing back and forth on the three-point line. He drops back, SHOOTS and is DENIED by some tenacious D by the Alpha Legion backs. Boo yeah! Alpha have the ball, approaching mid-court, a bodacious pass out wide, in to the hoop and DUNK! Although using jump packs is clearly cheating. The crowd goes wild – literally – they lay about with chainswords. These White Scars are bad losers.

This phrase, "running interference," is so indelibly dated to our own era that it stands out like a gibbon’s cherry-red ass. If only the turmoil of the loyalist and traitor legions could be solved by shooting a few hoops. But no, it’s just the Alpha Legion jive-talking, muva-faka, amongst themselves. What they meant n’ the hood is that the squad of Annoying Little Tits are blowing up canyons to force clans of Orks together, so the Orks can present a united front against the advancing White Scars and keep them busy. The end goal here is that the Khan’s men are too busy fighting greenskins they do not finally figure that there is a Heresy going on. The White Scars are, of course, riding bikes, and get butchered by the Perfidious Little Backstabbers.

Back to the boardroom: we have our operatives, the Weaselly Little Snots, Lord Omegon sir. One of them even looks like Tom Cruise and can go on the movie poster. Check.

Right, next up, we need an Alpha-level psyker, as they grow on trees. Cut to Xalmagundi, this waif little girl wreaking havoc on a whole hive (that’s how it reads!) by toppling entire spires. My understanding of a hive spire is that it is basically a long polnty sky city, population several billion. So this girlie is pretty serious. She throws around spires like Pick Up Sticks but can’t seem to take out a Silent Sisterhood gunship that is trying to bring her in. Probably because it is full of nulls. The Alphas summarily blow the gunship out of the air with a missile launcher, thus Gaining Her Trust.

I told you Rob Sanders was whack, didn’t I? Devious Little Toerag.

Cut back to Omegon: we have the Alpha-level psyker. No, we’re the Alpha legion, she’s the alpha psyker. Who’s on first? Check.

Now we need the Mechanicum magus who has gone rogue and is building the pylon thing (remember that?). Cut to Auguramus the magi wandering through a fauz-Arabian market flanked by four fighty servitors (“Crush, kill, destroy.”). All the Underhanded Little Grots have holo-amulets that allow them to pass as normal humans, which explains a great deal and is a fantastic idea, as it always bothered me how hulking great Marines get away with all these clandestine shenanigans. That’s how. In a sensational piece of sleight of hand, the Dubious Usual Suspects attach their amulets to the servitors, making them look like Marines, so Auguramus panics and yells “Don’t come near me,” thus mindlocking his own guardians. This is one of the cleverest ploys to come out of the Black Library in at least seven centuries, and I was in stitches. Rob Sanders, I drop to my knees and worship your giant pulsing red-veined brain in a jar.

Have magus. Check.

Then we’re into the third act, where Omegon leads his band of Nefarious Little Gimlets into the asteroid where the pylon is. The asteroid is being mined by demiurg, the new Squats of the 40k universe, with huge insect robots, just to add another layer of crazy to the mix. The Lying Little Scrotes have somehow previously gotten Xalmagundi incarcerated in the facility, break her out, point her at the (bad) Alpha Legion starship hangar and set her to kill. After much double, triple and quadruple-think, they manage to knock out the installation, stop anyone escaping and wipe out all of the Alpha Legionnaires who are manning the base. Omegon then pots Xalmagundi, who has suddenly become surplus to requirements.

But wait, there’s more …

Omegon then reveals he isn’t actually Omegon, but one of the Primarch’s offsiders who drank the blood of Omegon and thought he was. It’s a play on the whole “I am Alpharius” riff, but taken to another level. It turns out that the Snivelling Little Scuzzbuckets are not going to be extracted from their mission, they are there to die with everyone else and tie up any loose ends. It’s a short and brutal life in the Alpha Legion, even when you do accomplish your mission (diddle dum).


The novella is sometimes a little hard to follow as it is just so dense, and is full of the Sanders hallmark cool made-up words and perverse proper names. We have verminipeds, ratcrap, ghostspire, neckflesh (which is like ‘mouth-parts’), immeteorology, counterclonically, auspectra, opti-sockets, assimularum, subalterix (and his friend Obelix), astrotelecommunications, suprahormones, humpshuttles (sounds rude) and magnareactors. And my personal favourite, the Seventh-Suckle Parthenari Shieldmaidens. Gotta get me some of them some time.

Rob Sanders ekes out a pitiful living as the Head of English at a British secondary school. Sounds ghastly. But speaking personally, why did I never get an English teacher who wrote cracky pixie-stick military scifi on the side? I blame the Australian school system. If I had, I may have ended up writing this stuff, rather than reviewing it. Sniff. 4¾/5 well-earned, a fraction of a point off for intentional fouling. Robert. More please."

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