Ahriman: Sorcerer by John French – Book Review [Bellarius]
After a break between books, Bellarius returns to John French’s Ahriman series, looking into its second installment.
“Proving that the Thousand Sons are one of the best ways to explore Chaos, Ahriman remains one of the most underrated hits Black Library has seen in years.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
There seems to be a running trend in Chaos novels these days. In several of their bigger successes of late, the objectives seem to be less focused upon a thrilling tightly written narrative than the ideas it can accomplish or explore as the story goes on. This can be seen as the case again for Ahriman: Sorcerer, as the overall arcing plot feels very much like the first book. It follows a very direct story, the threat and overall objective are obvious, and once you spell it out the main narrative is rather simple. The real meat instead stems from the political intrigue within a Chaos warband and the drama between such a diverse array of characters.
Set some time after the events of Ahriman: Exile, the former Chief Librarian of the Thousand Sons now serves as a leader for many of his kind. Having abandoned all efforts to bury himself, dying quietly in some forgotten abyss within the galaxy, his goal is now to finally mitigate his greatest failing. Yet even as he gathers the tools required to make the first step on this new journey, old loyalties and ambitions drive others to bring the sorcerer low…
Despite ending on a relatively high note in the previous novel, this latest book clearly establishes just how monumental a task is before him. French manages to simultaneously acknowledge his new role, all the while maintaining the hollow sense of hopelessness building a nihilistic atmosphere. Much of this comes down to the descriptions and slow burn of the novel, opting to create a bleak darkness which encompasses the entire story. While many choose to describe Chaos as a living infection, some virulent thing which crawls between the pages, the nature here makes it cold and oddly ethereal; a theme which befits the nature of the Thousand Sons in this story.
While Ahriman himself is still the core focus here, much of the tale slows down to better establish a new ensemble of characters on both sides. As opposed to the handful of renegades from before, what we have now are a wide variety of extremely different loyalist and traitor characters to help better flesh out this part of the universe. There’s a real sense of the story gradually carving out its own mini-narrative in a manner akin to the Gaunt’s Ghosts and Soul Drinkers sagas, serving as a mini-universe within a much larger setting of sorts. It allows the series to better stand out on its own, and as we grow to see some of these characters develop and shape this mini-verse, it permits French more freedom. It allows the saga to be more open about certain departures from previously depicted events and even certain facts, as it has a solid an definitive personal identity unto itself without dramatically breaking from the entire canon. While this might sound like something expected of every story, we so often see such attempts going wrong that it’s only right to praise an effort which accomplishes this while maintaining such stellar quality.
Many of the book’s scenes, even as they deal with certain characters or ideas, help to better explore the metaphysical aspects which are so often at the core of any Thousand Sons story. For much of the book the subject of knowledge, the Warp’s impact upon the universe and the question of loyalty is examined from every possible angle. One of the best such examples stems from a slave bound to the Thousand Sons and a conversation he holds with one of his masters, covering several such points in surprising detail. While it ultimately does not directly further the plot of Ahriman’s goals or the main themes of the story, the points it discusses build a real sense of mysticism and depth to the setting, and to the Thousand Sons legion itself. It’s quite the accomplishment that, while doing so, he makes so many seemingly irredeemable monsters sympathetic even at their worst moments.
The actual fighting and action itself largely comes down to a few specific moments, primarily just before the end. Save for a handful of duels between single figures and a lengthy psychic interrogation, much of the explosive warfare the setting is best known for is saved for the finale. During this we see combat on a much bigger scale than in the previous book, with multiple factions engaging in a massed void war even as Ahriman fights for his life on a world far below. While highly detailed, much of the carnage maintains an odd poetic quality which stops just short of presenting a truly vivid image yet uses oddly archaic language, descriptions and sudden twists to keep things interesting. It might be bolter porn at these points, but it manages to be a unique form of bolter porn – a high quality, dactylic style of bolter porn. The kind of action which seems more Guillermo Del Toro than it is Michael Bay.
However, while the book is beautifully described and narrated, it does have a few notable shortcomings in some obvious areas. The first and most infamous among these is how many narrative plot points from Ahriman: Exile are abruptly dropped or abandoned entirely. Even those which served as a stinger, a major twist and hook to ensure the audience returned for another read, are ignored for most of the story and then very abruptly resolved. This can make for an extremely frustrating read, and the lack of real call-backs to the prior events save for Amon’s leadership makes this feel more like an isolated episode than an ongoing story. While the sheer number of characters on offer can make this feel like a Song of Ice and Fire affair, with anyone at risk, it’s hard to overlook just how many specifically tied into the first novel’s events. Others even seem just abandoned, disappearing entirely from the story towards the end.
As mentioned above, a great deal of what is found here is ultimately buoyed up by its side stories and secondary events than its core narrative. These prove to be extremely interesting to be sure, yet at the same time all too often the story seems to be relentlessly dragging things out. The lack of real progression, especially after the prior novel seemed to truly establish the story was going somewhere, can turn it into an exercise in tooth grinding frustration as you hope things would just move on. French’s themes and ideas are fun to be sure, but having finished this it’s hard not to wonder if he would have been better off penning a series of short stories rather than a full novel.
One thing which is sure to infuriate many however, is the treatment of certain factions within the book. While a little weighed against Chaos worshipers of a Khornate nature (and given this is following a Thousand Sons character, it’s to be expected) the story was relatively balanced in terms of depicting the forces involved. Here though, it’s a little different, and a few of the older story’s more negative aspects seem to have been exaggerated. Ahirman in particular was a wreck in the prior story, which much of his old knowledge and power intentionally locked away. A husk of his former self, the story showed him at his weakest and on the verge of death at every turn, but ended on an apparent return to form. Despite that though, Ahriman here seems to be as weak as ever, and many straight forwards spells, acts and psychic abilities seem to rapidly burn him out, with a constant emphasis upon his near-death state. This could have had a point, but he’s not alone, with many marines on traitor and loyalist sides being written with human frailty. Sure, not every astartes needs to take an entire clip to the face to show they’re tough, but there’s only so many times you can read about astartes reacting in terror, being one-shotted or having limbs ripped off by bolters before they stop feeling like post-human brick shithouses. Combine this with treatment of the Space Wolves which just makes them seem like utter morons, and it really seems that the astartes are all too human at the best of times.
Ultimately, while Ahriman: Sorcerer has some distinct flaws though, it’s nevertheless an enthralling read. Even at its slowest moments you’ll find something worthwhile among its pages, encouraging you to appreciate some of the deeper elements of the setting and the Warp itself. Its less action driven dramatic scenes provide a very distinct theme not often seen in Black Library, and as a Chaos book it’s a definite essential. If you’re after something Thousand Sons focused, you could do far worse than this novel.