Pandorax by C Z Dunn – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the debut novel from BL editor C Z Dunn, the first in a new series of Apocalypse-themed novels.
“A solid debut effort that offers some really cool moments, has Horus Heresy revelations aplenty, and shines the light on a lot of non-Space Marine characters for a change.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
Of late, my Black Library reading has been rather thin since I’ve been making an effort to read outside of Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy all year. In fact, I doubt if I’ve read more than 10 novels from Black Library at all this year, and even that might be stretching things a bit. Of course, that is in a stark contrast to last year where I was reading at least two Black Library each month, sometimes as much as four even. So a lot’s changed. I’ve definitely become far more picky about which books to read, only getting those that really interest me, rather than just jumping in and expecting the best.
Pandorax is the first novel from Christian Dunn, who is an editor for Black Library and has been around for a long, long time. He’s done some short stories before, and even an audio or two, all as C Z Dunn, and this novel marks his entry into the long-form side of things. The novel was just released this weekend, so its a fairly new release and after having just finished it about an hour ago, I hope that the buzz for this is incredible. As I mention in my pull-quote up top, this is a fairly solid debut novel, aside from a few flaws, and I would love to see Christian writing more novels. Though I expect that will clash with his role as an editor. Still, a novel a year isn’t so bad I think.
This novel is termed as “an Apocalypse novel” and that leads me to believe that there will be more such novels in the future, akin to the Space Marine Battles novels, which are all one-shots under that branding. That would be a welcome thing, especially since it can open up the way to include more novels about the Imperial Guard and other branches of the Imperium that are not Space Marines.
Which brings me to one of the best things about this novel. The novel starts off with the introduction of an Inquisition team lead by Inquisitor Dinalt. It then progresses on to prominently showcase several troopers of the Catachan 183rd regiment that has been stranded on Pandorax for a few years, and then it goes on to feature Imperial Navy characters. Loyalist Space Marines, of the Dark Angels and the Grey Knights both, are not the main focus of the story, even though they feature prominently in the second half.
And Christian makes all these characters stand-out, even though the nature of the novel means that we sometimes don’t see them for significant periods. Characters like junior Inquisitor Tzula, the jokaero K’Cee, Imperial Navy pilot Hagen, and several members of the Catachan 183rd such as Colonel Strike and Piet Brigstone made for fun characters. They are all unknowns and that imparts a significant tension to their scenes, compared to the characters like Chapter Mater Azrael of the Dark Angels and Supreme Grand Master Draigo of the Grey Knights, who are significant characters in the Warhammer 40,000 background and thus cannot be… killed off. It robs their scenes of a certain amount of tension since you know they are going to be okay by the end, alive and well.
I can’t really recall when it was the last time that female characters had such prominent scenes in a Warhammer 40,000 novel. I mean sure, there’s Lisbeth Bequin in Dan Abnett’s Pariah from earlier this year, and various other Inquisition characters from (also) Dan Abnett’s two Inquisition trilogies, but that’s really it. Perhaps Ben Counter’s Grey Knights would also qualify. Oh and there’s also the Ciaphas Cain novels which feature Inquisitor Amberly Vail. I’ll amend my statement. Female characters generally don’t get much prominence in Warhammer 40,000 fiction, since most of it is focused on the Space Marines, or their dark counterparts the Chaos Space Marines, and that leaves very little room for significant female characters. Gav Thorpe’s Eldar novels have done much to counter that, and its great, but I think it is still a significant thing when two of the primary “protagonists” of Pandorax end up being female.
Its nice to have that kind of a gender diversity in (the usually boys’ club) Warhammer 40,000 fiction. I like it. And I want more. Christian Dunn does well in introducing Tzula and Shira Hagen, and I’d like to see more of them as well. Perhaps in some sort of a sequel to Pandorax, which would be cool.
As much as I enjoyed the scenes with the non-Astartes characters, what really helped sell me on this novel was the fact that the author portrayed the Grey Knights and their leader really well. In the latest Grey Knights Codex, Kaldor Draigo was introduced as a new character and his power levels were just off-the-scale in terms of what he has done in the lore. Very much a marty sue in fact and his introduction led to a distinct antipathy for the character, since he was mentioned doing some really incredible, and impossible things. Just because he could. Christian gets around all that by showing us a… younger Draigo, one before earning all that infamy in-universe. And he is shown to be a compassionate man, as far compassionate as a Grey Knight can get. He reminds me strongly of Ben Counter’s Justicar Alaric, who was very much a similar character. Draigo as written by Christian is as if Alaric has made the leap from squad sergeant to Supreme Grand Master. It was really fun.
Added to all that is the fact that the novel is packed full of interesting tidbits about the Horus Heresy. That mega-event, which led to the Warhammer 40,000 setting as we know it, is currently the focus of a multi-volume bestselling series with contributions by multiple authors. Christian doesn’t deal in any heavy-handed revelations, but what he does offer are supremely intriguing nonetheless. For one, we learn more about the formation of the Grey Knights, specifically the few original members of this special brotherhood. We also learn something about the fate of these characters, which ties into several ongoing threads in the Heresy series and is thus of great interest to me.
Capping it all off is the revelation that the Dark Angels’ closely guarded secrets, carried on from the days of the Horus Heresy, are not as secret as they are presumed to be by them. There are other Imperial institutions that have some strong suspicions, and are close to the truths even. Given all the players involved in this novel, its no stretch to figure out just who these institutions are. This ties into another point that’s always bothered me about the Dark Angels: that the forces of Chaos know these secrets since the greatest enemies of the Chapter are those Legionnaires who turned traitor during the days of the Horus Heresy and fell to Chaos for the most part. The concept itself is nothing I’m against. It makes sense and it is logical that it would be so. However, the issue arises that the Dark Angels themselves would not be aware of this. I can’t recall any previous mention where this is acknowledged. Christian touches on this in the novel, in a most spectacular fashion and that was one of the things that made this novel worth reading.
Some of the, well, ridiculousness of the setting being addressed and acknowledged is something that should be exercised more.
The novel has some great cameos from other characters of note, such as Abaddon and Huron, who are two of the most powerful Chaos Space Marine characters from the background. It was initially a surprise to see both of them being featured here, but Christian does well by both of them, given the space he has, and his characterisation proved to be interesting as well. It is different to how they are shown in other pieces of Warhammer 40,000 fiction, and I think its great that the authors aren’t just sticking to one portrayal, but are switching things around. It is one of the things that makes this setting so great.
With some really good pacing, focus on an incredibly diverse cast, and some really cool action scenes (especially the space battles between the Imperial reconquest fleet and the Chaos fleet), this novel has my thumbs-up and my seal of approval. The only things that hold the novel back are: the thin characterisation of Azrael, a relative glossing over of characters such as Grand Master Asmodai and Ezekiel (two of the senior-most Dark Angels in the Chapter) and Castellan Crowe (another important character created for the recently updated Codex: Grey Knights), and that there are too many things going on here. Sure, it all makes sense under the “Apocalypse novel” branding, but the book is jam-packed with things, and some of it could have been cut out.