Wednesday 13 January 2010

Horus Rising - Dan Abnett

Horus Rising is a novel issued by Black Library, the first in a series chronicling the Horus Heresy. The blurb from the back states: "It is the 31st millennium. Under the benevolent leadership of the Immortal Emperor the Imperium of Man has stretched out across the galaxy. It is a golden age of discovery and conquest.

But now, on the eve of victory, the Emperor leaves the front lines, entrusting the great crusade to his favourite son, Horus. Promoted to Warmaster, can the idealistic Horus carry out the Emperor's grand plan, or will this promotion sow the seeds of heresy amongst his brothers?"

To give a little background, I am a casual Warhammer 40K gamer so I have some familiarity with the terms that Abnett employs (such as drop pods and bolters), but, up until now, I have not been interested enough to delve into the rich background to the game - so I knew little to nothing about the events this novel covers.

In my opinion, this is probably the worst possible placement for a reader of Horus Rising! If a reader tries this book with zero knowledge of the 40K universe, they can enjoy it as a commendable sci-fi novel in its own right. If they are already acquainted with the background, then this becomes a wonderful extension of what they already know. I found myself being just au fait enough to have moments where I was jarred out of the story: "Huh, Abaddon is a good guy?! Is Luna Wolves just another name for Space Wolves then?" Readers in my position need to bear in mind that this novel is set long before the events dealt with in the tabletop game.

I'll deal briefly with the parts of the novel I was not fond of (that way, we can finish the review on a high!) There are not many, in all honesty...

Personally I found the pacing of the novel to be a little 'off'. Every time I just got settled into the (usually explosive) events, the battle would end or the viewpoint switch, and it would then take a small amount of effort to immerse myself fully again. A particular example of this is when we follow Karkasy (the poet remembrancer) out onto the surface of Sixty-Three Nineteen for what seems a redundant chapter or so.

Speaking of Karkasy I became deeply confused by the fact that he seemed to die when set upon in the bar, but then we find him dealing with Loken later in the novel - this could have done with more clarity, especially since the sentence "...Ignace Karkasy was no longer pontificating. Or breathing" seems very final. Unless Abnett particularly wrote in Karkasy's character for a future novel, I'm unsure what he brings to the narrative and I think he could easily have been left out with no real loss to the overall story.

My last flaw concerns the presence of too many characters. At four hundred pages or so, it is a slimmer novel to those I am used to but it still required a Dramatis Personae so that I could keep track. Some of the characters suffered greatly from a lack of 'screen time' and were written in a very two dimensional fashion. Many minor characters were completely interchangeable because they had been so under-developed - I put forward Qruze and Marr and Kibre as examples. I like to think that, because this is the first in a long running series, these guys will feature more prominently later.

While addressing characters, let's move on to the positive elements of Horus Rising. The main characters - Loken, Abaddon, Sindermann and a number of others - were well-written, fully developed and felt real in their dialogue, motivations and actions. Which is a damn good job by Abnett considering most of his characters are super human soldiers developed so as not to suffer emotions or know fear! They were very human, for want of a better word, especially Loken who embodies the doubt and frustration of a weapon that has started to think about what he does. I confess to feeling a bit of a fangirl thrill when I saw names that are familiar from my gaming, such as Abaddon.

I enjoyed the way that Abnett described the clear differences and the burgeoning politics between the Space Marine Legions, sowing the first seeds of dissension - I thought he handled the characteristics in a concise manner that helped to develop the story (Imperial Fists being exceptional at defence; Emperor's Children being overly proud and haughty), rather than dumping in all the information in an artificial manner.

Speaking of info-dumping, I found this was kept to an admirable minimum. Despite the sci-fi terms scattered through the text, Abnett never stops to explain. Instead he uses his characters for this purpose - and not in a "Let me sit you down, son, and tell you all about lasguns and the battle formations of Space Marines" manner either. He utilises Mersadie (the remembrancer attached to Loken) very effectively, since she encourages Loken to talk about his experiences which puts across a lot of what the reader needs to know in a very natural manner.

I don't think Dan Abnett will be offended by the fact that I found his writing very much "David Gemmell-esque in space", especially his battle sequences which were simply awesome and very cleanly-written. They definitely brought to life some of the gaming events I am familiar with - like Terminators striding unscathed across the field of battle, and massed bolter fire taking down hordes of enemy xenos.

On a serious note I do feel as though Abnett records some fine thoughts on the nature of war and its never-ending cycle, with sentences such as: "We will spend our lives fighting to secure this Imperium, and then I fear we will spend the rest of our days fighting to keep it intact" describing the utter futility of war.

And more comical touches? He may not have intended it so, but I found Abnett's use of the 40K game tagline amusing: "In the far future, there will be only war". Was this just popped in as a nod to the fans?

Abnett also has a soldier's sense of humour - and it would not surprise me to learn he had served in the forces. This line in particular made me chortle: "He began to wade out towards the islet, hoping that his feet wouldn't suddenly encounter some unexpected depth of submerged crater and so lend comedy to this solemn moment". I guess the thought of a massive Space Marine in power armour tripping over his own feet just tickled me.

We are dropped right into the action from the first page and it takes a little while for the coherent, linear storyline to emerge. The first thirty pages or so are a breathless and, at times, bumpy ride while new characters and ranks are thrown in. I would urge everyone to muscle through this because the reward for your effort is massive. It deserves to be read by all gamers as a superb complement to the background already available - but it should also be picked up by those who haven't even heard of Warhammer 40K. It is a superior slice of pulpy sci-fi - never less than deeply enjoyable.

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