The Beast Arises: I Am Slaughter by Dan Abnett – Book Review [Bellarius]
With the start of a new saga, Bellarius sees what Dan Abnett has to offer with I Am Slaughter:
“A solid start but an extremely rushed ending speaks for itself.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields.
In many regards, I Am Slaughter is an extremely unusual Black Library product. Besides the rather goofy name, it’s the rare example of not only an Imperial Fists novel, but a book set in the Sol System itself and during the era of humanity’s decline. The empire found here has only recently lost the last of the primarchs, and still resembles the society Robute Guilliman established with only the first signs of real rot starting the set in. However, this is what makes it so fascinating, and manages to become its greatest selling point. It’s a look into what the Imperium might have become, the empire which might have been left behind, were it not for the coming of the Beast.
Having yet to face the nightmares of the Black Crusades and left unmolested by major alien threats, the vast wars and bloody conflicts of the Horus Heresy are little more than a distant memory. It’s a time of relative peace, where the astartes are less the crusaders of old or guardians of old night than they are leftovers of a time long gone. Some question if they are even needed, but soon every warrior under the Emperor’s command will be forced to fight for their lives. The orks are coming, numberless and possessed by a terrifying, all consuming hunger for war. At their head stands a figure unlike any greenskin seen since the days of Ullanor…
In many respects this can be seen as the Horus Rising of a new era, and not just because it kicks of the new series. As that little intro established, a great deal of time is put into world-building and setting the scene for this unexplored time. Half the joy of reading this book is seeing the Imperium at a time where the gothic and neo-feudal elements have yet to truly set in, and the universe as a whole is still relatively sane. This is established fairly early on via Mechanicus forces and the Imperial Fists themselves, both of who only retain trace elements of their later selves. In fact, the very name of the book serves as a double meaning (much like most of the Horus Heresy books) and refers to the Imperials as much as the orks.
As you would expect from such a book, a great deal of time and effort is put into establishing a broad selection of figures, many of who serve as examples of this era. Along with Slaughter himself (that will make more sense if you actually read the novel) we see everyone from low ranking adepts to members of the High Lords of Terra themselves. Those familiar with Abnett’s past works know he is an expert when it comes to balancing a vast cast and making each of them memorable, and he does not disappoint here. Besides a few who die off very early on, there are few here who fail to leave some considerable impact, and it’s often the power plays and dynamics between characters which results in some of the most exciting scenes. Strange as it might sound with the impending threat of a few trillion orks, but it was the events among the High Lords of Terra which proved to be the highlights of the book.
Unfortunately, while these qualities do hold up even upon re-reading the book, it doesn’t take long before a few flaws start to really set in. To stick with the Heresy comparisons, this feels like what Horus Rising would have been if it were handed in as an early draft. You have the same qualities present, the same good ideas and solid concepts – not to mention some great depictions – but the structure is way off and many details seem to be oddly contradictory. For example, the book can’t seem to decide if the orks are humanity’s greatest foe or just a bad joke, and characters seem to jump back and forth on this point. It would be one thing to consider them the latter only to discover the horror which awaits them, but there’s little logic or real reasoning on who is saying what at each time.
On many occasions, descriptions and details seemed oddly brief. Much like Graham McNeill, Abnett is best known for being able to truly build up vivid imagery and details in his works. Here though, many parts seem to just cut off as if they had been rushed through. It’s not even a case of someone visibly trying to avoid purple prose, but instead they just seem to abruptly end in places. That could summarize the entire book really, as outside the first act there’s a sense of events being heavily truncated and squished down. The second act seems to be rushed through, and the action heavy third ends on an extremely abrupt open ending which makes it feel like I Am Slaughter: Part 1. It’s not so much the start of a saga as just part of a story, lacking that same chapter or individual feel books in a series should retain.
What makes matters worse is how certain events happen between pages, or retain events driven by plot rather than common sense. The Imperial Fists die unfortunately, and they really are the sacrificial lion being offered up here to make the Beast look powerful. That would be irksome in of itself, but so many die out of sight and are abruptly forgotten about, it’s almost insulting to read. Half of it seems to only happen because the book apparently forgets about their siege or defensive expertise, and by the time the dust settles the orks seem less like a credible threat than a foe handed their victory. A damn shame given the excellent, ominous build-up there was prior to their arrival, establishing some real dread.
Perhaps the biggest problem however, bigger than all else, is the treatment of the canon. Now, it’s easy to overlook a few contradictions, mild or small for the sake of drama. We’ve had plenty of contradictions in the big series, and even sticking to the massive events of the Imperium’s timeline, the odd slip-up is to be expected. Personally, I was willing to even overlook the fact the Black Crusades should have shaken the Imperium to its core at about this time, but then there are bigger problems. The book, more than once, refers to the Imperium being at peace for millennia at this point and any major battles at all seem to have been forgotten. Even the fate of Rogal Dorn himself seems to be repeatedly skimmed over, mostly to justify the apparently complacent feeling of the Fists, and by the end it just seems like so much has been ignored or pushed aside to help justify this storyline. That can be fine if the story is great, even good, but we’re only getting a flawed novel out of it.
If this seems like a review of two halves, that really is because the book seems to shift gears partway through. There’s a truly excellent start, and a great running sub-plot involving the Officio Assassinorum, but it really seems like only certain bits were truly thought out. The rest really seems to have either been rushed or has the feeling of being re-done at the last minute, and can leave you feeling as if you’ve been cheated out of a story. Yet, for all that, I can’t say the book is bad, not truly bad anyway. For all its problems there is some genuine fun to be had here and it offers some great flavour text to inspire hardcore fans, but it’s not the smash hit most were probably hoping for. Definitely pick it up on softcover release, but wait to hear more about its follow-up books before deciding if you want to go all in with a hardcover purchase.