Asurman: Hand of Asuryan by Gav Thorpe – Book Review [Bellarius]
Sticking to the website’s wheelhouse, Bellarius delves into the latest novels focusing upon the Phoenix Lords, Gav Thorpe’s Asurman: Hand of Asuryan.
“Another case where fantastic lore, concepts and plans are brought to bear, but they fail to fully overcome weak characterisation and a problematic narrative.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
Whether or not you’ll like Asurman: Hand of Asuryan comes down to an incredibly simple question – Did you enjoy the last work Gav Thrope produced for the eldar. If you did, you’ll love this. If you didn’t, you’ll find a few interesting qualities here and a few improvements, but not enough to really justify the purchase. Really, there’s nothing else to say about this, and really it has the same strengths and failings we can cite as last time.
The story follows the first of the Phoenix Lords, Asurmen as he silently traverses the Webway. Waging his isolated war to ensure his race’s survival, his travels eventually bring him into contact with a small band of exiles. Requiring the assistance of a maverick Farseer, all but exiled from his craftworld, and the skills of a pilot fated to helm a powerful warship, they must fight to ensure Chaos is defeated on an unexpected battlefield. However, what drives the ancient warrior, and what horrors lurk in the depths of his mind? What’s more, after the ten thousand years of war, after so many serving as a host for his essence, is there anything truly eldar left beneath his helm?
Now, if there’s something to clearly praise here, it’s that the book is more than willing to tread into territory ignored by other authors. In much the way that the Night Lords saga was a relatively straight forwards tale used as a vehicle to examine the legion, we see the same here in terms of the eldar race. Many points previously touched upon at the most are gone into some detail here, ranging from the eldar state of childhood to the way they wage war. The latter, while a subdued point, proves to be an specially interesting concept, which while brief details how rival states clash in proxy wars, manipulating other species within their sphere of influence. Atop of even this however, it then branches off into new levels of detail surrounding exactly why certain eldar have their preferred strategies, and their ways of war fit into their precognitive nature. Then even atop of that we have insight into why so many of their kind find contact with humanity to be a distasteful subject at best.
The book’s greatest success really is building up the entire race by giving greater detail focusing upon their existence. This leads into the story delving into points such as the symbiotic relationship between eldar (living and dead) with their technology, and even how their race behaves during childhood, prior to stepping upon the Path. While it never goes into vast levels of detail a-la Dune or The Grudgebearer Trilogy, it provides enough satisfactory examples to make you retain better insight behind such themes. Covering so many widespread subjects, it’s praiseworthy that these could be juggled without ever getting in the way of the core story and backing it up with some excellent action. Those of you who felt Alaitoc was being jobbed in Thorpe’s past books will be glad to know the race is on full form here, being treated more on a level with the astartes than Imperial Guard.
Typical of his prose, the battles are big, dynamic but fast paced and delivered in sweeping details. While it does ultimately focus in upon a few characters at a time, there’s an ever present push to present a clear sense of scale and sheer ferocity in the wars. While certainly a little clunky in places, it carries a lot of the charm of the Third Edition and the sort of writing which really got the Black Library going. What’s more is that, even in these moments, Thorpe still manages to balance information and characterisation with the conflict, a point which becomes especially evident when it goes into details surrounding a Wraithknight crew in combat.
Now, the unfortunate thing really is that, while it retains fantastic depictions and great ideas, much of Asurman: Hand of Asuryan doesn’t really work as a novel sadly. As with the past examples, all too often the characters involved feel as if they are simply archetypes for a certain role within the race or suffer from flat characterisation. This was a particular problem which plagued Path of the Warrior, and it sadly strikes home again here. Few characters truly stand out at all, and it hits Asurman especially hard. While he’s certainly presented as being extremely disciplined and experienced in war, it never feels as if it’s more than any other Exarch. There’s little here to personally distinguish him as being a Phoenix Lord, and looking into his mind really proves to be surprisingly uninteresting. Lacking the sheer presence of the primarchs or near mythological sense of awe they should inspire, he sadly proves to be oddly underwhelming. Matters are only made worse when the book delves into the Fall itself, which proves to be easily the weakest part of the tale, and lacks the impact you’d expect Slaanesh’s birth to convey. It was one point readers were the most tempted to discover new details about, and it honestly proves to be sadly underwhelming and downright dull at times.
All too often the plot seems to bounce back and forth between characters, but lacks the space needed to really better established or define them. For all the time spent following the aforementioned Wraithknight crew, they never felt fully rounded out or properly developed, and all too often the narrative’s structure made you feel as if you were missing out on points. This might have been fine in some regards were the story itself at least stronger, but even then many of the bigger plot points were underdeveloped, with too many taking time away from others. The very warship itself which takes up a core part of the story could have been far better realised given the weighty implications which surround it, as do many of the aforementioned concepts cited above. They’re good in many respects, but many seem to always fall short of delivering some of the critical information you’d like.
Having read four novels by Thorpe on this xenos race now, it’s evident that he’s a man who clearly loves the eldar and is knowledgeable of them. However, it’s hard to tell if these sorts of novels are really the best way for him to explore this race. Every strength cited here would have been better delivered in a book free of story constraints, more along the lines of the Tactica books or at least with a more distant approach like the Imperial Armour series. Despite what many cited surrounding a certain Codex: Chaos Space Marines, he was always at his strongest producing lore for these sorts of books, and events such as the Age of Apostasy stand as proof of that. As a result, it’s hard to truly dislike this novel, but you’ll probably finish with an ever present niggling fleeing this could have been presented in a vastly better way.