Pariah by Dan Abnett – Book Review [Shadowhawk]

Pariah

Shadowhawk reviews the latest Inquisition novel from Dan Abnett.

“In the battle of expectations versus reality, it’s my expectations that got bombed to hell.” ~The Founding Fields

When Black Library announced last year that Dan Abnett was going to be penning a new installment for his Inquisition series, I was fairly excited. His novels with Inquisitors Gregor Eisenhorn and Gideon Ravenor are some of my favourites in all of Warhammer 40,000 and were my early reads as well. I didn’t like how the third novel in each trilogy ended, but the first two were spectacular. He put the war in warhammer in a very creative way by showing us life behind the frontlines of grand battles between two opposing armies. These books are more like crime/mystery thrillers rather than military SF as most Warhammer 40,000 books are. The new series is themed to be Eisenhorn vs Ravenor, which is a significant claim since Ravenor was once Eisenhorn’s apprentice before he achieved a full Inquisitor rank, and the two have a lot of history together, through thick and thin. And it being Dan Abnett, I had high expectations of the novel, in a series which is also called the Bequin trilogy, Bequin being the surname for one of Eisenhorn’s oldest allies, Alizebeth Bequin, a psychic blank who entered his service early on in his career, and became one of his firm friends, and a romantic interest that never reached fruition.

It’s fair to say that my expectations proved to be too much for the reality of the novel. Far too much actually. From the beginning of the novel, through to the meat of it, and all the way to the climax, Pariah was one disappointment after another. I’ve rarely had such a reaction to something by Dan Abnett. The last I remember is his Horus Heresy novel Prospero Burns which I didn’t even finish, despite trying to read it three times. I listened to the audiobook last year, and, to be frank, I consider that time wasted. The audiobook was an easier experience than the novel, but it failed to capture me at all. It is extremely rare for me to not finish a Black Library book, and Prospero Burns has that dubious honour, right alongside Eldar Prophecy by C. S. Goto.

Dan Abnett can be said to be a master of world-building. His settings are always detailed, with lots of nuance and meanings attached to almost everything. It’s what he excels at, and that’s fine, but only to a reasonable degree. He is also a master of what I, and many other people, call “domestic 40k”. That is, the more civilian side of the setting which is all about hive-world politics, Inquisitorial intrigues, local police forces, and so on. That’s what the Eisenhorn and Ravenor series so great. In Pariah he takes it all to an extreme. To be quite honest, the first 100 pages could very well be generic science fiction set on a densely populated world with a singularly unremarkable protagonist if not for the fact that he does drop words like “ordos”, “pariah”, and a few others at irregular intervals. I had a tough time coming to grips with this, to the extent that I was wondering if I was even reading a Warhammer 40,000 novel! There’s just too much focus on the everyday life of the protagonist, which reads more like a series of diary entries, rather than a cohesive story. Each chapter is almost episodic in nature and does little more than tell the reader about the protagonist’s acquaintances. At such an early point in the novel I want to find out about the protagonist, his/her motivations, what drives him/her, and behaviour and so on. I don’t want to read introductions to their daily companions. That’s too… banal for me.

Then there’s the fact that Beta Bequin is the most boring and unrealistic protagonist ever. Yes, there is a double-meaning to the protagonist’s first name, which is a contraction of Alizebeth. Yes, Dan Abnett has made a big twist out of the series title Bequin. No, it did not work for me at all. At least, didn’t work in the sense that I could never take her seriously. She is too accomplished, too sure of herself, too unquestioning of events as they happen around her, too trusting of people. To be clear, I don’t have a problem with Beta Bequin not being the Alizebeth Bequin I was expecting, just with her portrayal. She is raised up in the belief that she is being trained for future service in the Inquisition, that she does the work of the Holy Orders of the Emperor’s Inquisition in His name. Halfway through however, her entire life is turned upside down and a massive lie is exposed, one that has some severe repercussions on the narrative. And that’s where things go seriously downhill. See, for someone who’s entire life is exposed as a lie, said person should question everything and everyone, he or she should be high on paranoia, especially one who is trained as an Inquisition agent. But that’s not to be. Under the guise of mutual respect with a couple characters, and later, a “who cares attitude” with a couple other characters, Beta is ready to believe anything she is told. She really must be desperate to be an Inquisition agent, is all I can say.

Add to that another aspect of the novel I did not like at all: why is it that in a lot of Dan’s work, the characters know so much about the Horus Heresy, and about the old languages of Terra? To put the first into context, the Horus Heresy happened 10,000 years ago within the setting and is a time shrouded in mystery, half-truths, lies and deception. It is quite literally an age of gods and demi-gods. Yet one minor, random character in the novel is quite educated about this time. She herself is nothing more than a weak attempt to tie Pariah to Xenos (the first Eisenhorn novel). Her inclusion also rings alarm bells, given that her… family was pretty much purged already. At least, that’s the inference I made from Xenos. To contextualise the second point: Beta Bequin is an expert in French. The tutors at the Maze Undue (a play on maison dieu, translated as house of god ironically enough) know several old languages of Terra from a time that is more than 35,000 in the past! How does that work? There was already too much of this angle in Prospero Burns, with secret societies and such, and it is no different here. There’s only so much suspension of disbelief that is possible!

The whole angle of Eisenhorn vs Ravenor does not even come into play until the last 40-50 pages of the novel. Which is a big disappointment, and shows what is one of Abnett’s biggest weaknesses: his lack of a sure pacing. He spends so much time with his setup, with the world-building, with laying out the game board, that his endings appear rushed and ill-thought out. This happened for me in Brothers of the Snake, Only In Death, Traitor General, and even Prospero Burns. As a friend put it, Pariah appears to be the first third of a much larger novel. That’s very true, and again, very disappointing. Contrast Pariah to Bill King’s Angel of Fire, the first in a trilogy about Warmaster Solar Macharius, and the differences are outstanding. In spite of the disadvantage that Bill doesn’t have 6 novels and numerous short stories/audio dramas to draw upon, he still makes Angel of Fire an entry-level novel that stands on its own, despite being the first installment of a trilogy. In fact, he has to do even world-building since his characters are all new! Pariah just plods along from place to place, character to character, until it becomes little more than a sightseeing novel and characters flash by without making any impact. There’s no fun in that. What should have been the really good stuff, happens way too late, and is thus rushed to a very unsatisfactory conclusion. This is all compounded by the rumour that the sequel, Penitent, will not be out until December 2014, which is a two-year wait.

Does Pariah have any redeeming feature? Possibly. The introduction of Eisenhorn is fantastic. Given that the book takes place some hundred or so years after the events of Ravenor Rogue (the third Ravenor novel), a lot has happened over the years, but Eisenhorn is just as memorable as he was in Hereticus (the third Eisenhorn novel). Just as memorable and just as bloody awesome of an ass-kicker. And then we have Cherubael, the daemonhost that Eisenhorn began using in Hereticus, one of the reasons why he became a radical and an institutional pariah within the Ordo Xenos, and why he was declared Extremis Diabolus (if memory serves correctly). Cherubael has one line in the entire book that comes close to making the entire book worth the wait, just one line, right at the end (it is in fact the closing dialogue of the novel). I do say comes close, but the negatives have already piled up far too much.

To reiterate with emphasis: I do not mind reading a novel that focuses on the non-war side of the setting, a novel that is about the mystery and thrill of the setting, rather than the constant war, constant struggle in a lion-eat-lion type of setting. My problem is when it is overdosed for the reader, like Pariah is. Just as with Prospero Burns, Pariah could really benefit from the first 100 pages being cut down to about 60-70 pages of material. All that chaff really drags the novel down. It was a downright struggle to read the book. I didn’t enjoy any of the characters, period. Even Ravenor and his band, who had such a great outing in the first two Ravenor novels, are little more than stuck-up, full-of-themselves, self-righteous bastards here. It seems Ravenor has become all about blind devotion, and a massive jerk in addition. And given that we only see him in like the last 20 pages or so, there is absolutely no redeeming climax to explain this change in behaviour.

Honestly, I cannot recommend the novel at all. It starts off as a novel that can really put someone to sleep. The middle is just a chaotic mess of tangled loyalties and betrayals. The ending is so rushed that it is all a massive info-dump to explain away the Eisenhorn vs Ravenor theme. A mess of characters. Too much of the domestic. Read the novel if you really, really want to. Otherwise, you are better of reading the Eisenhorn and Ravenor omnibuses.

Rating: 2/10

Shadowhawk is a regular contributor to TFF. A resident of Dubai, Shadowhawk reads, reads and reads. His opinions are always clear and concise. His articles always worth reading.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=506641178 Marc Collins on Facebook

    Ho ho ho.

  • Niall

    I actually thought Angel of Fire was pretty weak, probably Bill King worst novel for Black Library.

    • http://twitter.com/abhinavjain87 Abhinav Jain

      I finished it in like a day and a half. It was super-fun.

    • http://darkchaplain.com/ DarkChaplain

      I actually rather loved Angel of Fire and consider it one of my favorites in 2012.

      • http://sonsofcorax.wordpress.com/ Shadowhawk

        Same with me!

    • Duke_Leto

      The Space Wolves novels are far far worse IMO. Awful in fact. Childish (although I suspect written for a younger audience when BL was a fledgling outfit). Angel of Fire is solid but not remarkable. I enjoyed it but not in my BL top 5 for 2012.

      • http://sonsofcorax.wordpress.com/ Shadowhawk

        Grey Hunter was the 1st BL book I read, and I love it. The whole series even, the Bill King penned novels that is. The second book is quite weird and can drag on at times though. The less said about Sons of Fenris, the first book in the series penned by the writing duo named Lee Lightner, the better. Wolf’s Honour was a commendable effort to get the series back on track but the damage had already been done sadly.

    • http://www.facebook.com/StefanFergus Stefan Fergus

      I was less than impressed with Angel of Fire – I think King’s much better at WH.

      • http://sonsofcorax.wordpress.com/ Shadowhawk

        I find his work far more approachable than that of most other authors, whether inside or outside BL.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=505611824 Greg Smith

    “His opinions are always clear and concise. His articles always worth reading.”

    I am afraid that I must take issue with both of these statements. This review could not be less concise if it tried. It frankly rambles, stumbling from unrelated point to unrelated point. The whole part about Prospero Burns serves little other than allowing the author to have another moment of soapboxing about a previous book he didn’t enjoy.

    I will preface the rest of my comments by saying this – I did enjoy this book, and my comments here have NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with the score, or the ‘reviewers’ personal opinions, and everything to do with what has to be the most poorly executed example of a ‘review’ that I have seen in quite some time.

    For starters, there is plenty here that simply doesn’t make sense – for example the statement that Dan ‘puts the war in warhammer’ by ‘showing us the life behind’ the endless battles – I’m sorry but what?

    I would also point out that depsite the fact that this ‘review’ carries no warnings of spoilers, it provides plenty of them. Anyone who has not yet read this novel and does read this diatribe may as well not bother, as the ‘reviewer’ has given away most of the main plot points, twists and clever doubles crosses that Dan has painstakingly created.

    There are additionally issues with the grammar, syntax and just plain missing words – again I appreciate that you do this ‘as a hobby’ but that’s really no excuse when you sign off with statements like ‘Honestly I cannot recommend this novel at all’, and when the site itself makes bold statements such as that quoted above.

    This is NOT a review – its a random jumble of stream of conciousness ranting that fails to do anything other than illustrate the authors ignorance.

    I say all of this because as TFF holds itself out as a major reviewing site, whose opinions should be trusted when it comes to Sci Fi literature in general and BL fiction in particular, then I feel it should set itself a fairtly high standard. On the evidence of this ‘review’ it does no such thing. As angry as I feel with the author of the ‘review’ for their pointless rambling, I feel angrier still at a wesbite that publishes it, which clearly has little in the way of quality control if it can’t even spot errors as basic as ‘Otherwise, you are better of reading the Eisenhorn andRavenoromnibuses.’ as part of it’s editing processes.

    Shame on you all – you bring disrepute to the whole concept of blogging and reviewing, as well as the BL community in general.

    • http://twitter.com/abhinavjain87 Abhinav Jain

      Ah Greg, you could not be cuter if you tried really hard. Shame on you for using a comment on a forum by someone who agrees with my views as the opener of your post. Tsk tsk.

      • http://thegoodthebadtheinsulting.blogspot.co.uk/ Bellarius

        No offence Jain but I think he’s making some good point here. About this article at least and some of the flaws within it. I’m hardly saying he’s entirely right but you might want to take a look at a few of his criticisms before dismissing his comments.

        He is being more constructive and less insulting than most hate posts i’ve seen trying to shame some reviewing sites.

        • http://www.facebook.com/nick.i.sharps Nick Sharps

          “Less” insulting than outright name calling perhaps. The comment is still pretty insulting – to the author and the website. It’s a frothing mess. There are constructive criticisms to be found in the comment, yes I’ll admit that, but you can hardly see them through the rabid dislike for the author. I agree with Shadowhawk less than half the time and despite that I still don’t take to personally attacking him or The Founding Fields.

    • http://sonsofcorax.wordpress.com/ Shadowhawk

      Oh and another thing, a recommendation more like: Actually read that line about war in warhammer with a cool head, then come back and tell me if it doesn’t make sense.

      EDIT:

      Also, thank you for being mature enough to slag off all the people who work with the blog for my apparent mistakes. I certainly can see you from your reaction how mature the entire BL fan community is. Alas, the times we are in.

      By the way, when is your review blog going up? You left the group so suddenly and without a response to my challenge, except to tell half the people in the group that we needed therapy, desperately at that. Thank you so much for being a vocal representative of the fans. You are the man.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=505611824 Greg Smith

      I have already requested via FB that the above post be removed.

      Whereas I stand by the relevance of the points that I made – spoilers, bad spelling and grammar etc, I fully acknowledge that the above could have been better expressed, and I have already apologised both to the reviewer and the site for the tone of my comments.

      Thanks

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=505611824 Greg Smith on Facebook

    Comment posted on your site, so I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that I was unimpressed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=505611824 Greg Smith on Facebook

    Nope. Still doesn’t make sense.

    • http://sonsofcorax.wordpress.com/ Shadowhawk

      Then I truly feel sorry for you. The small bit about “He put the war in warhammer in a very creative way by showing us life behind the frontlines of grand battles between two opposing armies. These books are more like crime/mystery thrillers rather than military SF as most Warhammer 40,000 books are.” That confuses you? Really? Did you skip over the words “in a creative way”?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=505611824 Greg Smith on Facebook

    It doesn’t confuse me. It just doesn’t make any sense. How can one ‘put the war in’ something by showing something that isn’t focussing on the war? You wouldn’t say ‘puts the jam in the jam sandwich by using marmite’. Or at least, I wouldn’t.

    You can harp on this point all day tho fella, it’s kinda the least of the points I raised :)

    • http://sonsofcorax.wordpress.com/ Shadowhawk

      Least of the points? I’m really struggling to see any of your points as valid beyond the minor typo issue you raised, for which you condemned not just me but the entire site and the other people who help run it. And feel free to rant all day. As I said, it’s amusing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=506641178 Marc Collins on Facebook

    Surely it’s more of a ‘shadow war’, a look at the conflicts which rage beneath the surface of huge war-zones and planet-spanning conflicts. The very point of the Inquisition is that humanity is always at war, they are beset by forces that defy explanation and that can only be fought and destroyed in the shadows.

    He takes you away from the warfront, but you’re no less at war- because as the novel shows there are always forces moving in the darkness, subverting and corrupting mankind in secret.

    I disagree with the review as well, but on the basis that I liked the novel and understood its nuance- I don’t have to tear a review, reviewer or site to pieces in my critique because I really don’t care about reviews. People will make up their own minds, no matter what anyone says semi-professionally on the internet.

    To each their own :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=505611824 Greg Smith on Facebook

    If that’s what was meant, then ‘puts the war in Warhammer’ was an incredibly poor way to express it.

    Ultimately I couldn’t give a flying fig what a reviewer thinks, because everyone is entitled to their own opinion. What I do feel however is that a site like TFF, which is well known and often referred to by authors – I.e is a site that holds itself out as ‘trustworthy’ should exercise a certain amount of quality control over its output. Poorly expressed opinions, nonsensical phrasing, appalling sentence structure and grammar are not the hallmarks of a site doing that job properly.

    Like I said, no issue with the score – each to their own. But the spoilers, the awful writing, the random unrelated points made all just detract from the ‘semi professional’ tone.

    But hey, it’s not my site so what the hell? Just my opinion 😉

  • Duke_Leto

    Couldn’t disagree more with Shadowhawk (and we have debated this on various fora). Totally respect Shadowhawk’s views but they are at the other end of the spectrum from my own. Pariah is an excellent book. For me it is very 40k and I particularly love being away from the battlefield. I love the world building and the characterisation. The only points I will agree with SH on are a) Bequin being a little too accepting/trusting. b) the rushed climax (a particular weakness of Dan Abnett). Otherwise, if you love 40k and want something different to the normal bolterporn then I would recommend this book!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=120370921380176 The Founding Fields on Facebook

    Hi there Greg, I’m pleased to see you leave your opinion, regardless what it may be. It’s an integral part of my PR base. I’m always eager to hear opinions and criticism of the site at large. If you’d care to, feel free to drop me a line at commissar.ploss@gmail.com, I’d like to chat some more about it. Cheers! Thanks again for your valued opinion. -Dave Ploss

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=505611824 Greg Smith on Facebook

    Hi Dave

    Thanks for taking the time to respond. Will send you an email later.

  • http://www.facebook.com/StefanFergus Stefan Fergus

    I’ll have to read this soon so I can compare impressions. We deviate on some BL and other novels, but generally are pretty in synch. (Although, I think I’m more of an Aaron DB fanboy than you are…)

    I loved the first three Eisenhorn novels, and thought the Ravenor novels were good, but not *as* good, in my opinion. I didn’t get very far at all with Double Eagle. Generally speaking, I find Abnett a good bet, but there have been some recent developments and authorial mannerisms (I’m not sure if that’s the right phrase) that have niggled. For example, the fact that every new novel has Its Own Phrase that gets over-used… (“wet leopard growl” springs to mind – not bad as a phrase, but when it crops up THAT much…?) Perhaps he’s got to the point when editors aren’t comfortable reining him in? His most recent novels – while I have enjoyed them – have often had chapters or sections that have come across as self-indulgent. This, I think, BL authors like Aaron DB, Nick Kyme, Josh Reynolds and Will King generally don’t do. (Although, sometimes King is perhaps a little too sparse…)

    I hope this doesn’t disappoint me as much as it did you. I’ll bump it up the TBR pile.

    • http://sonsofcorax.wordpress.com/ Shadowhawk

      If there’s an author I’ll fanboy for, that’s Nathan Long and Matt Forbeck 😀 And I hear you on that editing comment.

  • on Facebook

    I will happily admit on reflection that my comments were a little strong, and that I should have moderated my tone and perhaps submitted my points with a bit more respect. Though I stand by the points that I made, they could have been made with a much greater amount of decorum, and therefore apologise both to Shadowhawk himself and to the owners and other staff of TFF. I will say that I found some of the comments that were made about me and on my direction by certain individuals in response to my post were unnecessary, but I have no wish to press the point – what’s done is done. I would respectfully request that my post be taken down by the site, as I seem unable to access it for editing, and I have no further wish for it to be there. Many thanks. G

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=120370921380176 The Founding Fields on Facebook

    Will do. Hopefully we’ll get to chat again sometime in the future.