The Reading Canary: Ravenor

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Dan Abnett’s first Warhammer 40,000 trilogy centred around the activities of the Imperial Inqusition, Eisenhorn, by and large had a laser-sharp focus on the main character, but one of the more memorable supporting characters was Ravenor, Eisenhorn’s apprentice. In the second book of the Eisenhorn trilogy the cool and capable Interrogator Ravenor was caught in the middle of an air raid on a victory parade, which resulted in grotesque and crippling wounds to the young star of the Inquisition. We met him again in the third book, in which we find that whilst Ravenor was physically incapacitated, he was able to devote himself to developing his psychic powers to their fullest potential, and had become an Inquisitor in his own right – one willing to bend the rules just a little, but not to the extent to which Eisenhorn was breaking them at that point in time.

It was natural, after Eisenhorn’s trilogy had proven popular enough to demand a sequel, for Games Workshop to ask Dan Abnett to write a sequel, and it was natural, after Eisenhorn had reached a point at the end of his trilogy where he could no longer be a functional protagonist, for Abnett to have to find a new hero. Ravenor, as the only member of Eisenhorn’s retinue to make full Inquisitor, and as one of the most interesting characters in the first trilogy, was the obvious choice.

Ravenor

The prologue of Ravenor is split into two halves. The first half shows Ravenor’s agents successfully taking down a heretical archaeological dig, some unspecified time before the events of the rest of the book; the second half has Ravenor psychically probing a cross-section of society in a miserable hive city at the very opening of the investigation the book concentrates on.

The order there is very deliberate. The Eisenhorn trilogy was very much about Eisenhorn himself; his cadre of acolytes changed from book to book, with only a small core remaining consistent, and he was sufficiently powerful that he could upstage any of them. He was the best psyker in the team, arguably one of the best fighters, he was stealthy enough to go along on the sneakier missions – you get the idea. Ravenor, of course, isn’t like that at all: whilst his psychic powers are both potent and versatile (and occasionally reminiscent of Scanners), he’s physically confined to the black, featureless life support pod which is his chair. If he needs to directly, physically intercede in affairs – when only his masterful combat techniques will do the job, or when he absolutely, positively has to interact with the situation on the ground directly rather than speaking through his minions – he can “ware” one of his assistants, effectively possessing them on a temporary basis in order to kick ass. But that’s difficult and exhausting enough on both Ravenor and the poor schmuck being wared that most of the time Ravenor simply observes and advises whilst his acolytes do the dirty work.

It’s important, then, that Abnett establishes the various characters and their chemistry quickly. By and large, they tend to fit into various broad and stereotypical categories, interesting more for the interactions between them than as characters in themselves. Harlon and Zeph are almost interchangeable tough guys, the main difference being that Harlon has a bit more personality and Zeph is really, really bland – although there’s a plot point that Zeph is especially easy for Ravenor to ware, so that might be intentional. Kara and the ludicrously named Patience Kys, the two female team members, spend a lot of time wearing interesting clothes that give Abnett a chance to point out how hot they are; the ludicrously-named Patience Kys is a psyker with the sort of traumatic past kickass female characters in genre fiction tend to have these days, whilst the other woman on the team, Kara, has a refreshingly untraumatic past as a circus acrobat. Carl Thonius, the most interesting of all, is a foppish interrogator who is being groomed by Ravenor to become a fully-fledged Inquisitor, but might in fact be just flaky enough to compromise the mission – he is, in short, the weakest link.

The very fact that I can actually remember and name as many characters as I can should be evidence enough that Abnett’s characterisation has improved since Eisenhorn, even though the characters themselves are a bit thin (though that said, Ravenor himself is probably the best character Abnett’s ever written). Nonetheless, the real draw here is the exciting and carefully paced plot, which revolves around Ravenor and company investigating the source of mysterious “flects”, a strange new narcotic-like substance being smuggled from beyond Imperial space. The action ranges from grimy cyberpunk hive worlds to exotic and colourful market planets beyond the Imperial frontier, where rogue traders rub shoulders with humans and aliens from other civilisations beyond the usual scope of the average Warhammer 40,000 novel. It’s quite nice to catch a glimpse of that sort of thing, and not just because the recently-released Rogue Trader RPG has brought the idea of adventurous Imperial citizens venturing beyond the jurisdiction of the Administratum to seek the riches of the great beyond to the fore, but also because it’s a subject which has been canonically present in the Warhammer 40,000 setting since its inception but has barely been addressed in by the Black Library’s authors. (I do wish they’d actually do some novels based around a rogue trader crew, because it’s an obvious premise for adventure which has gone almost entirely untapped in the novels.)

Abnett does a decent job, doesn’t waste the reader’s time, and makes sure that the revelation both of the true nature of the flects and the real crime which the flect trade is just an unintended byproduct of is sufficiently striking to justify the buildup. Whilst I might have liked Ravenor a bit less if I were reading the book when it came out – it’s very slightly lacking in closure – as the first third or so of an omnibus it’s pretty damn good.

Thorn Wishes Talon

The first short story in the omnibus is a brief connecting tale linking Ravenor and Ravenor Returned, set more or less midway through Ravenor and his team’s journey from the endpoint of the first book to the beginning of the second. It takes its name from the recognition code used by Eisenhorn to contact Ravenor back in the Eisenhorn trilogy, so I suppose it isn’t much of a spoiler to reveal it’s about Eisenhorn contacting Ravenor to arrange a meet – specifically, Eisenhorn, bound to a demon, half-mad, and on the run following the conclusion to his own story, has come across information vital to Ravenor’s investigation, and needs to urgently impart it to him. There are, of course, those who are absolutely desperate to prevent this from happening.

This story takes place between Ravenor and Ravenor Returned, and was published between them in the compilation What Price Victory. If I’d read it in that context, I’d have probably found it intensely irritating, since the characters aren’t going to mean much to anyone who hasn’t read Ravenor and there isn’t really any closure beyond Eisenhorn dropping off his info – it would essentially read like an advert for Ravenor Returned. In the context of the omnibus, however, it holds up quite well as a transitional piece; it introduces one of the major factions involved in Ravenor Returned, the Divine Fratery, and in fact provides some juicy information about them that isn’t really made clear in Ravenor Returned itself. At a mere 19 pages, there’s not really much else to be said about it.

Ravenor Returned

At the close of Ravenor the Inquisitorial team discovered both the true source of the flects and learned about the true menace which the flects were a mere sideline to, a threat that goes right to the top of the government of the local subsector. Returning to the grimy cyberpunk city the novel opened in, the action eschews the travelogue format to focus both on Ravenor’s investigations within the hive and the machinations both of the sinister cabal behind the whole grim affair and the Divine Fratery, whose Chaos-inspired visions have prompted them to meddle in the affairs of the city for their own reasons.

As well as killing off one of the least interesting members of the cast, introducing a few more interesting ones, and giving a bigger role to a fun minor character from the last book, Ravenor Returned ups the stakes considerably, as the dire purpose of the conspirators becomes clear; a lot of Inquisition-themed stories have involved villains and heretics in positions of authority, but I think this the only one I’ve read which has really considered the sheer scale of the abominations which could be wrought by a cabal who’ve achieved a firm grip on the levels of power in the Imperium. Though he does find some time to slip in some really nice tangents – a flect addict scrabbling for another hit and stumbling across something he shouldn’t have found, a Magistratum officer’s interactions with her uncle who’s gradually losing himself to senility, and the interventions of Orfeo Culzean, a freelance occultist hired by sinister cults across the galaxy to advance their vile goals – Abnett by and large keeps the plot building to a fantastic and apocalyptic climax, as well as slipping in some horrifying revelations – one of which turns the end of the book neatly upside down. Were it not for this one secret that Abnett spills about a member of Ravenor’s team, Ravenor Returned would give the impression that the trilogy had peaked too early – that the culmination of the bad guys’ schemes had already taken place, and all that was left was to chase ’em down and take ’em out, but as it is Abnett leaves the reader dreading what’s waiting for the Inquisitor and his crew – and dying to know what happens next.

Also, it’s nice to see that the apparently-irrelevant prologue to the first book wasn’t so irrelevant after all.

Playing Patience

This is the novella from Let the Galaxy Burn which I skipped when I read that anthology because I wanted to read it in the context of his omnibus, and I think I made the right choice. It’s essentially an origin story, and the thing about origin stories is that they work a lot better if you already know the character in question and have a mild curiosity about their origins.

In this case, it’s the origin story of Patience Kys, the telekinetic acolyte with the traumatic past. Surprisingly, it doesn’t involve rape, which seems to go beyond the grain of most traumatic pasts of female characters in SF/fantasy these days – instead, she’s the graduate of an extremely strict hyper-Victorian orphanage which rears children for sale to various criminal enterprises – and in her case, she was sold to a narcotics baron who likes to turn orphans such as her loose in the grimier areas of the city and place bets with his friends on who’ll kill them first. Congratulations to Mr Abnett for coming up with a properly grim traumatic background for a character that doesn’t fall back on the cheap shots of rape or child rape; that doesn’t happen much these days, does it?

Some may be irked by the fact that this appears out of chronological order, but personally I think it makes perfect sense to place it between Ravenor Returned and Ravenor Rogue. It was, after all, published in the three-year gap between the two (an unusually long gap, especially considering that the first two books in the trilogy came out in the same year), and in the context of the omnibus it provides a refreshing interlude between the intense ending of Ravenor Returned and Ravenor Rogue, which looks to be even crazier.

Ravenor Rogue

Ravenor Rogue begins with Ravenor and his team ready to throw in the towel. As much as they hate the fact that their nemesis has escaped them once again, the disaster at the conclusion of Ravenor Returned was of sufficient magnitude that they can no longer justify keeping up the chase – they have to go back and help clear up the mess, and justify their action to the Inquisitorial authroties. Meanwhile, the Napoleon of heresy (in the company of Orfeo) is intent on throwing Ravenor off his tail, and consequently arranges things to that he can fake his own death, in a raid led by one of the Inquisitorial teams sent to fetch Ravenor and friends home. A betrayal here and a surprise survival there mean that Ravenor sees through the ruse instantly, and he and his team are soon on the chase again – but by pursuing this lead they are directly defying their superiors in the Inquisition and going rogue.

Fatally, however, Ravenor’s party are not the united team they used to be – the stresses and strains of the past few books are beginning to show, Slyte is hiding in one of them, and yet another is a mole working for the same conspiracy that produced Ravenor’s arch-enemy. Although the novel is named for Ravenor’s willingness to break the rules and turn to increasingly dubious sources of information in the hunt for his quarry, it’s driven by the interactions between the various characters, both in his team and the associates of his enemy, with the result that by the time the climax is reached what should have been a straightforward confrontation is an absolute minefield. In contrast to the end of Eisenhorn, where it was pretty clear that Eisenhorn would go renegade and exploit the demon Cherubael to achieve his ends, the final conflict in Ravenor Rogue begins with the reader having absolutely no idea who it’s going to turn out – but in a good way. Having clearly established the violently conflicting motives of the various members of the cast, Abnett reveals the faultlines that the dawn of Slyte will blast open, and it’s not entirely clear who’ll fall out on which side.

This is a technique which Abnett has used before, of course, along with his knack of establishing a bunch of apparently unconnected (but still exciting and fun) subplots earlier on in the novel whose relevance becomes obvious at the conclusion. But he does an especially good job this time around. There’s always a sense that the book is going somewhere, even if you can’t quite see where, whereas at some points in The Saint (to pick an example out of thin air) I found I was often wondering what the point of a particular scene was. Although two characters are written out before the finale in a somewhat disappointing way, by and large Ravenor Rogue provides a climax to the series which merits the buildup.

The Canary Says

For the simple reason that it manages to make the entire Inquisitorial team relevant rather than having all the characters eclipsed by the Inquisitor himself, I would say that Ravenor is a superior trilogy to Eisenhorn. What’s more, in Eisenhorn you can work out what’s going to happen in the third book by the end of the second (and can have a pretty good guess by the end of the first), whereas in Ravenor you’re never sure what’s around the next corner – and yet at the same time I never felt that Abnett had cheated in any way by pulling a plot twist from out of nowhere.

On the other hand, Ravenor is a sequel to Eisenhorn, and consequently doesn’t quite make as much effort to include people who are new to the Warhammer 40,000 setting as the first trilogy did. My advice is this: if you know nothing about Warhammer 40,000 at all, you might want to read Eisenhorn first. If you’re familiar with the setting but want to read Abnett’s Inquisition novels in order, read Eisenhorn first. If you don’t care about reading the books in the right order, read Ravenor first. If you’ve read Eisenhorn and didn’t like it, you mighty enjoy Ravenor more if you were turned off by the first trilogy’s strong focus on the titular character and lack of attention paid to the other characters. If you read Eisenhorn and did like it, you’ve probably already read Ravenor anyway, but if you haven’t you needn’t be shy – you’ll probably like it better than the original too.

One thought on “The Reading Canary: Ravenor

  1. Pingback: The Fall of the House of Strock – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

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