Intrepid Journalist Gets Inside the Story

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 pays his bills with tie-in fiction; that’s what he’s built his career on. Writing for other people’s characters and settings both in prose and in comics is what he’s mainly known for, his most celebrated and high-profile material is his Warhammer 40,000 work, he seems fairly comfortable with all this. Even so, it’s nice to see Angry Robot books give him a chance to put out some all-original material, if only so Abnett can prove to readers that he isn’t reliant on other people’s setting premises. Along with the Elizabethan-punk Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero, they’ve put out Abnett’s military SF novel Embedded, which Dan (our Dan, not Abnett) was nice enough to buy me as a present an embarrassingly long time ago.

The protagonist of Embedded is Lex Falk, a highly experienced journalist who specialises in reporting on military action out in the Settlement, the off-world colonies established by human beings under the aegis of the Settlement Office. In the very mildly alternate history of the setting, the US, China, and the Central Bloc (think a sort of evolved version of the Soviet Bloc) are the main off-world powers, with the Settlement Office acting as a sort of UN in space: in principle, they’re all working together to colonise space, in practice the Settlement Office makes sure American troops go to provide security for colonies the Americans have dibs on and so on. Falk has come to the colony planet Eighty-Six, where rumour has it that military actions against “insurgents” are beginning to resemble a full-scale war; moreover, the US troops on the planet might not be fighting anti-Earth separatists or dealing with renegade corporate activity, but might in fact be in a shooting war with Central Bloc forces. Falk wants to find out if this is true – and, on top of that, to work out what prize could possibly be worth igniting an interstellar war over.

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Selling Out To Chaos In Three Easy Stages

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.

Those of you who are new to the Warhammer 40,000 setting and perhaps have only been exposed to it my reviews might be inclined to ask “hey… why is the grim darkness of the far future so grim and dark in the first place?” Well, there’s many reasons. (“This universe has many themes…”) In fact, every single major faction in the galaxy is at once one of the worst things ever to happen to the universe as a whole and, at the same time, utterly and irreversibly fucked over and doomed. (Except the orks, who are perfectly happy with a grim dark future where there is only war because they consider war to be the height of lulz.) But from the point of view of humanity and the Imperium of Mankind in particular… well, there’s the fact that hyperspace is alive and hates us and wants to eat us, of course. There’s also the fact that the Emperor of humanity was basically Conan and Ferric Jaggar mashed together and cranked up to 11. There’s the way that humankind has for over 10,000 years thought to exterminate every single other culture in the galaxy expressly because of the Emperor’s guidance. There’s the fact that the venerated and adored peak of human perfection, the Space Marines, are a race of atomic supermen genetically engineered monstrosities created by the Emperor to take over the universe. There’s the way that humanity is only able to navigate the stars in the first place thanks to the daily sacrifice of thousands of psychics to the Emperor.

But the thing which really screws the Imperium over – the thing which transforms it from an abhorrent monstrosity inflicting random cruelty on the galaxy to an abhorrent monstrosity inflicting random cruelty on the galaxy to distract itself from the fact that it’s dying of cancer – is the current status of the Emperor. Kept on life support for the past ten thousand years and more or less incapable of interacting with the outside world beyond the occasional miracle (which might just be the result of humanity’s faith in him resonating in the Warp), the Emperor exerts no control over Imperial policy and yet every major policy is developed as a means of perpetuating his agenda, as interpreted by a monstrous theocracy who consider the war crimes of his crusade to conquer the galaxy to be holy writ. And yet, the fate of the Emperor is the fate of the Imperium. As long as he is alive and is manifestly responsible for the continued viability of space travel there is no real prospect of these fucked up distortions of his maniac designs being abandoned. But the steady state currently imposed on the Imperium as a result of his current predicament can’t last forever because sooner or later entropy will do its work and the Golden Throne will break down. (In fact, in current canon it’s specified that at the end of the 41st Millennium the tech-priests maintaining the Throne discover serious problems with it requring urgent repairs… for which they don’t actually have the spare parts.) When he eventually dies, space travel will suddenly become radically more difficult, if not outright impossible. The resultant shock in the Warp as a result of the Astronomican suddenly cutting off will almost certainly have consequences, but Games Workshop have never specified what they are. (Dan once ran a Dark Heresy game which implied that the Emperor would ultimately become the Chaos God spawned by the fall of humanity, like Slaanesh is the Chaos God spawned by the fall of the Eldar; this isn’t canon but it’s sufficiently consistent with the metaphysic that it doesn’t seem at all unlikely.)

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Abnett’s Lost Momentum

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.

Hey everyone, it’s time for more Dan Abnett joy in the form of The Lost, the third omnibus of his long-running Gaunt’s Ghosts series.

A quick recap of my previous two reviews: in The Founding Commissar-Colonel Ibram Gaunt arrives on the planet Tanith to recruit men into three new Imperial Guard regiments under his command, the regiments in question being intended to head out and fight in the ongoing Crusade to free the Sabbat Worlds region of space from the encroachment of Chaos forces. The recruitment efforts are cut short by an attack by a vast Chaos armada, and following the destruction of Tanith there are just enough recruits to form a single regiment – the Tanith First-and-Only, who go on in First and Only, Ghostmaker and Necropolis to forge a name for themselves as one of the best recon units in the Sabbat Worlds Crusades – nicknamed “Gaunt’s Ghosts” due to their unparalleled skill at stealth and scouting.

By the end of Necropolis, the Ghosts have taken on a bunch of new recruits from the shattered hive-city of Vervunhive, which leads into the action of The Saint. Across four novels – Honour Guard, The Guns of Tanith, Straight Silver and Sabbat Martyr, Abnett manages to match the potential I saw in The Founding in telling the story of how the new recruits manage to integrate with the Tanith old guard, whilst Gaunt has to win over Victor Hark, a Commissar sent to keep an eye on him by high command, and the regiment as a whole ends up embroiled with the events surrounding the reincarnation of Saint Sabbat.

By this point in writing the series Abnett had realised that The Founding made a little plot arc, and he’d deliberately engineered an arc into The Saint; with The Lost, he seems to have tried to continue that approach, but… well, just read and see.

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This! Is! Ithakaaaaaaaa!

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.

Despite being responsible for a large chunk of the Black Library’s Warhammer 40,000 novels, Dan Abnett hasn’t written much about the Space Marines. It’s a credit to the Black Library editors that they’ve not pressured him to write more – and, in fact, they seem to have recognised the point he made with the Gaunt’s Ghosts series, that the rank and file of the Imperial Guard can be just as interesting as the superhuman Marines. It appears to be part of a broader understanding that the audience for the novels and other spin-offs from Games Workshops’ wargames aren’t necessarily the same as the audience for the wargames themselves, and quite likely have different priorities. If one puts aside his contributions to the multi-author Horus Heresy series – which takes place in the distant past of the 40K setting (Warhammer 30,000, if you will) – then Brothers of the Snake is the only Space Marine novel Dan Abnett has written to date. That in itself makes it significant.

Like the earliest Gaunt’s Ghosts books, it’s more a collection of linked short stories than a single, cohesive novel; whilst the first six are reasonably brief pieces, the final story Greenskin, is a novella which takes up about half the book and provides some closure, as well as tying up some loose ends from the very first story (Grey Dawn). The protagonist is Priad, a member of the Iron Snakes Space Marine chapter. The Iron Snakes are an invention of Abnett – I wouldn’t have expected him to be completely content writing about canon chapters – and adhere to a vaguely Hellenic aesthetic. Their names sound Greek, they keep slaves, their headquarters is on Karybdis, a moon of the ocean world Ithaka (which you just know has another moon called Skylla, even though it’s not mentioned in the novel). The chapter takes its name from the giant sea serpents that live in the waters of Ithaka, and which they hunt as part of their training, and they have taken a sacred oath to defend the worlds of the Reef Stars against alien and otherworldly threat, and in writing about the Abnett takes great joy in cooking up Homeric-sounding epithets to apply to them (though he doesn’t use them repetitively like Homer did, presumably because he’s not writing the text to be memorised and recited).

This is all great fun and is important to what makes Brothers of the Snake work; Space Marine chapters get bland if they aren’t associated with a striking and distinctive culture, and the idea of Space Marines as Homeric warriors of the far future has a lot going for it. The differences between the Iron Snakes are, however, more important than their similarities. Abnett hasn’t lost sight of the fact that a Space Marine’s chapter culture is just that, their culture – it’s not a single personality imposed on every member of the chapter, which is a common misconception. (So common, in fact, that Deathwatch – the new Space Marine based RPG from Fantasy Flight Games – includes an entire subsection on how to give Space Marines a distinctive personality because many gamers either don’t know how or simply don’t believe you can.) The Iron Snakes are not a series of cookie-cutter characters – although the front-line troops can be a bit indistinct, the officers all have distinct personalities, and those personalities often clash – Abnett does this to great effect in Crimson Wake, a murder mystery set in the chapter headquarters against the backdrop of new recruits being selected for one of the Snakes’ most prestigious squads.

The protagonist of the novel is Priad, an Iron Snake who is introduced in Grey Dawn as he goes on a solo mission to prove himself by clearing a small infestation of Dark Eldar from the world of Baal Solock – as well as introducing Priad, the story’s also a fascinating depiction of the relations between a backwater feudal world of mostly medieval technology and the Empire. By the end of Black Gold, the second story, Priad has become sergeant of his squad – Damocles Squad. As one of the Notables, the most prestigious units in the chapter, Damocles gets sent on some of the most dangerous jobs that come up – but when a horde of orks blunders into the Reef Stars in Greenskin, they’re faced with a problem that might consume the entire chapter.

To be honest, I think Abnett made the right call in making this a stand-alone novel rather than trying to spin it out into a series – not that I wouldn’t be happy to read more about the Snakes, but I think Priad’s character development comes to a natural conclusion at the end of the novel. (The fact that I can write about a Space Marine having character development is pleasing in itself.) Whilst only the novella provides room to really explore Priad’s and the other squad members’ personalities, the snapshots we get of them in the earlier stories lays the groundwork for the developments of Greenskin nicely; the short stories also manage to be diverse enough to maintain interest, and are actually a bit more varied than the first two Gaunt’s Ghosts books. At the same time, my gut feeling is that Abnett has already run through most of the major possibilities for the Snakes; without an ongoing plot, like Gaunt’s Ghosts’ ongoing hope of winning themselves a new homeworld, there wouldn’t be anything to sustain a full series. Then again, because he isn’t trying to stretch the story or character development out over a whole series, Brothers of the Snake might just be my favourite Dan Abnett novel to date.

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.

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Never Turn Your Back On A Dark Elf

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.

The vast majority of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 fiction published by the Black Library focuses on the human (or superhuman, in the case of the Space Marines) factions of the game. This is a deliberate policy of theirs, and it is a sensible one. Having taken care to establish exotic and alien backgrounds and psychologies for the various nonhuman creatures in the relevant settings, Games Workshop don’t want that undermined by stories which treat the groups in question as just human beings in funny costumes. They try their best to make sure that those few novels and short stories they do publish from a nonhuman perspective are written by authors who truly “get” the faction in question, and can write about them in a way which gets across the essential differences between them and humans and which is true to the atmosphere, philosophy, and general theme that the faction is based around.

Unfortunately, accurately replicating the psychology of a particular faction doesn’t always lend itself to telling a rewarding and interesting story.

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One Galaxy’s Burning Hatred For Humanity

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.

Once upon a time, between 1997 and 2004, the Black Library published a bimonthly magazine of short stories based on Games Workshop games, entitled Inferno! Indeed, the Black Library was originally created in order to produce Inferno! – it was only later that they started producing novels based on the work of Inferno! authors and reprinting the previous range of Games Workshop tie-in novels, starting down the road which would eventually make them the tie-in fiction juggernauts they are today. And in those early days of their slow and inexorable rise to power, the Black Library published three compilations of what they considered to be the best short fiction from Inferno! – well, the best short fiction which hadn’t been siphoned off to form the basis of novels, at any rate. These collections – Into the Maelstrom, Dark Imperium, and Words of Blood – are now out of print, but for the delight of readers everywhere Games Workshop have produced Let the Galaxy Burn, which collects all the stories from the earlier collections and also includes three brand new tales, The Fall of Malvolion and Playing Patience by Dan Abnett and The Tower by CS Goto.

For our delight, editors Marc Gascoigne and Christian Dunn have arranged the stories into seven themed sections, each focusing on a different aspect of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, so I may as well tackle the stories theme by theme.

Continue reading “One Galaxy’s Burning Hatred For Humanity”