Pariah by Dan Abnett – Book Review [Bellarius]
Running a few months late with this one, Bellarius gives his initial thoughts upon the end of Dan Abnett’s trilogy of trilogies, starting with Pariah.
“Hit and miss throughout, your enjoyment of this one will ultimately depend upon what you expect, and how much you value the masterpieces it’s built upon.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields.
The trouble when talking about Pariah is, well, it’s very existence. A great legacy hangs over the whole book, meaning that even when it stands out on its own you might be left feeling disappointed. It’s like that lesser sequel you’ll see to a smash hit, Psycho II for example. On it’s own and judged by its own merits it’s solid, perhaps even excellent. However, because it’s so intrinsically tied to something far greater, with knowledge of that work required to enjoy it, it becomes extremely hard to appreciate the work on its own merits.
Sprawling, secretive and operating in the shadows, the Inquisition has guarded humanity for countless millennia. Holding places of power in the most obscure worlds, it operates and trains its warriors in plain sight, waging its wars among an unknowing populace. This is the future which Beta Bequin expects to find before her, operating as one of the Ordo Malleus’ elite psychic blanks. Life continues as normal among the world, as she is taught to fight, hunt and slay heretics, until mysterious visitors begin to appear among the academy. All of who are very interested in Bequin, and the enigma behind her very existence…
Despite the opening title, this is very much Bequin’s story here. Serving as the viewpoint character throughout the entire book, the famed Inquisitors Eisenhorn and Ravenor appear very late on. Or, at least you might think so. As the start of a trilogy this is a very slow burner, gradually developing and focusing far more upon setting the stage than anything else. While this might seem like a criticism, it’s in fact a point of praise. With the Eisenhorn and Ravenor trilogies ending with such finality, Abnett needed to spend time building a new world for them to battle in and establishing the new ideas. This might have what put some readers off during their initial experience, yet when you actually focus upon the world building at hand, it becomes one of the best examples to date in M41. Sancour, as it’s known, is a very specific brand of hellhole, the sort which exemplifies Dark Heresy environments. Woven throughout the core narrative, we see each tier of its social structure, powers and examples of its history built up chapter by chapter. Even within a series best known for its world building, it puts many examples to shame, and trying to describe it here really wouldn’t do the book justice.
What’s also notable is how rapidly it fleshes out and establishes the major players involved in the invisible war going on, all the while developing them. As soon as one is introduced, within a few chapters some new secret or detail will be unlocked, and there’s rarely a moment when you’re not waiting to see some new angle in this universe unfold. It honestly starts to overtake the story at times and you might be left focusing upon this over the actual main story at times. It’s certainly helpful that so many of the side characters are so intrinsically entwined into each of these, and allowing them to be fleshed out as examples of their secret society without becoming mere figureheads of them. Compared with the likes of other books, which all too often simply turn their characters into examples of their factions, the groups here are far more three dimensional, and played out more as suspects in a murder case than figures in a war.
Being set amid an invisible war, the book is one of many twists, quite a few of which you will not see coming. There’s an odd kind of genius at play here, establishing many elements you would never suspect as important long before they’re revealed. There are at least three here on par with the famous twist to the Sixth Sense, and you’ll only pick up on them in following reads, yet even then the description, impact and delivery of such moments still makes them an excitement to look through.
So, with all this in mind, what are its problems exactly? The foremost one of these is the apparent reliance upon fan service. A great many times the book seems to divert or try to rapidly excuse some new element as a shout out to fans of prior works, not all of which go over so smoothly as you’d hope. Along with some rather hand-waved explanations justifying the return of characters who should have departed the series by now, old elements seem to be brought up purely for the sake of tying it closer to the old trilogies. One in particular, a rather famous enemy from Xenos, emerges long after they should have in all rights been soundly beaten. What’s worse is that this not only diminishes their impact, but the book actively makes them a shadow of their former selves. Silent Hill fans tired of seeing Pyramid Head wheeled out again and again will be all too familiar with this feeling. It doesn’t help that, atop of all this, the characters involved had a surprisingly in-depth knowledge of the Horus Heresy and the Imperium’s past. There’s little in the way of real emphasis upon the passage of time, and it really feels like ten thousand years are merely a few hundred at best. Something not helped by the addition of a Cold War rocket at one point.
Problems are further hampered by Bequin herself, who proves to be a rather underwhelming character. Prone to purple prose even more so than many other characters – far past the point of adding colour to the environment – she often seems utterly out of control. So often she’s so far out of the loop and without the ability to actively pursue answers that it becomes Lost levels of plodding, even with the gradual reveals. It doesn’t help that, unlike Eisenhorn and Ravenor, she doesn’t have a substantial history to fall back on and build her character, often leaving her extremely flat as a result. Speaking of the invisible war nature of the work, the fact she’s not a major player just means that the narrative so often seems oddly off kilter. It honestly feels as if the main meat of the book is always taking place just out of sight and, much like a certain Deus Ex title, the actual protagonist seems all too superfluous to the actual story.
Perhaps the final point truly worthy of note as a serious failing is that, as a starting point, Pariah is very lacking in many regards. It’s the first act of a story at best, and while a slow burning event is easily excused, this one concludes just as the story starts. It seriously starts to pick up the pace in the final chapters, seriously begins to be moving towards something substantial, and then abruptly ends with little fanfare. Also with some fan service, and the first actual acknowledgement of a major plot point which had been hanging over the minds of fans since the involvement of Eisenhorn was mentioned. Overall, it’s a long build-up, a lot of enjoyable side elements, but with the core narrative coming across as extremely short and relying upon sequel baiting.
If you didn’t get it by now, this is very much a book of extremes. Like so many others we’ve covered, it’s the background details, distinguished world-building ideas which help support the main story; yet it’s a little higher calibre thanks to the variety and quality of characters involved. If you honestly do want to see the story of this author’s most famous characters given the start to one final tale, definitely give Pariah a look. If you’re after an idea for writing Imperial worlds, give it a look. If you’re expecting something on par with the Eisenhorn trilogy itself, or even a full story, you might want to avoid this one.