Pariah by Dan Abnett – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the latest Inquisition novel from Dan Abnett.
“In the battle of expectations versus reality, it’s my expectations that got bombed to hell.” ~The Founding Fields
When Black Library announced last year that Dan Abnett was going to be penning a new installment for his Inquisition series, I was fairly excited. His novels with Inquisitors Gregor Eisenhorn and Gideon Ravenor are some of my favourites in all of Warhammer 40,000 and were my early reads as well. I didn’t like how the third novel in each trilogy ended, but the first two were spectacular. He put the war in warhammer in a very creative way by showing us life behind the frontlines of grand battles between two opposing armies. These books are more like crime/mystery thrillers rather than military SF as most Warhammer 40,000 books are. The new series is themed to be Eisenhorn vs Ravenor, which is a significant claim since Ravenor was once Eisenhorn’s apprentice before he achieved a full Inquisitor rank, and the two have a lot of history together, through thick and thin. And it being Dan Abnett, I had high expectations of the novel, in a series which is also called the Bequin trilogy, Bequin being the surname for one of Eisenhorn’s oldest allies, Alizebeth Bequin, a psychic blank who entered his service early on in his career, and became one of his firm friends, and a romantic interest that never reached fruition.
It’s fair to say that my expectations proved to be too much for the reality of the novel. Far too much actually. From the beginning of the novel, through to the meat of it, and all the way to the climax, Pariah was one disappointment after another. I’ve rarely had such a reaction to something by Dan Abnett. The last I remember is his Horus Heresy novel Prospero Burns which I didn’t even finish, despite trying to read it three times. I listened to the audiobook last year, and, to be frank, I consider that time wasted. The audiobook was an easier experience than the novel, but it failed to capture me at all. It is extremely rare for me to not finish a Black Library book, and Prospero Burns has that dubious honour, right alongside Eldar Prophecy by C. S. Goto.
Dan Abnett can be said to be a master of world-building. His settings are always detailed, with lots of nuance and meanings attached to almost everything. It’s what he excels at, and that’s fine, but only to a reasonable degree. He is also a master of what I, and many other people, call “domestic 40k”. That is, the more civilian side of the setting which is all about hive-world politics, Inquisitorial intrigues, local police forces, and so on. That’s what the Eisenhorn and Ravenor series so great. In Pariah he takes it all to an extreme. To be quite honest, the first 100 pages could very well be generic science fiction set on a densely populated world with a singularly unremarkable protagonist if not for the fact that he does drop words like “ordos”, “pariah”, and a few others at irregular intervals. I had a tough time coming to grips with this, to the extent that I was wondering if I was even reading a Warhammer 40,000 novel! There’s just too much focus on the everyday life of the protagonist, which reads more like a series of diary entries, rather than a cohesive story. Each chapter is almost episodic in nature and does little more than tell the reader about the protagonist’s acquaintances. At such an early point in the novel I want to find out about the protagonist, his/her motivations, what drives him/her, and behaviour and so on. I don’t want to read introductions to their daily companions. That’s too… banal for me.
Then there’s the fact that Beta Bequin is the most boring and unrealistic protagonist ever. Yes, there is a double-meaning to the protagonist’s first name, which is a contraction of Alizebeth. Yes, Dan Abnett has made a big twist out of the series title Bequin. No, it did not work for me at all. At least, didn’t work in the sense that I could never take her seriously. She is too accomplished, too sure of herself, too unquestioning of events as they happen around her, too trusting of people. To be clear, I don’t have a problem with Beta Bequin not being the Alizebeth Bequin I was expecting, just with her portrayal. She is raised up in the belief that she is being trained for future service in the Inquisition, that she does the work of the Holy Orders of the Emperor’s Inquisition in His name. Halfway through however, her entire life is turned upside down and a massive lie is exposed, one that has some severe repercussions on the narrative. And that’s where things go seriously downhill. See, for someone who’s entire life is exposed as a lie, said person should question everything and everyone, he or she should be high on paranoia, especially one who is trained as an Inquisition agent. But that’s not to be. Under the guise of mutual respect with a couple characters, and later, a “who cares attitude” with a couple other characters, Beta is ready to believe anything she is told. She really must be desperate to be an Inquisition agent, is all I can say.
Add to that another aspect of the novel I did not like at all: why is it that in a lot of Dan’s work, the characters know so much about the Horus Heresy, and about the old languages of Terra? To put the first into context, the Horus Heresy happened 10,000 years ago within the setting and is a time shrouded in mystery, half-truths, lies and deception. It is quite literally an age of gods and demi-gods. Yet one minor, random character in the novel is quite educated about this time. She herself is nothing more than a weak attempt to tie Pariah to Xenos (the first Eisenhorn novel). Her inclusion also rings alarm bells, given that her… family was pretty much purged already. At least, that’s the inference I made from Xenos. To contextualise the second point: Beta Bequin is an expert in French. The tutors at the Maze Undue (a play on maison dieu, translated as house of god ironically enough) know several old languages of Terra from a time that is more than 35,000 in the past! How does that work? There was already too much of this angle in Prospero Burns, with secret societies and such, and it is no different here. There’s only so much suspension of disbelief that is possible!
The whole angle of Eisenhorn vs Ravenor does not even come into play until the last 40-50 pages of the novel. Which is a big disappointment, and shows what is one of Abnett’s biggest weaknesses: his lack of a sure pacing. He spends so much time with his setup, with the world-building, with laying out the game board, that his endings appear rushed and ill-thought out. This happened for me in Brothers of the Snake, Only In Death, Traitor General, and even Prospero Burns. As a friend put it, Pariah appears to be the first third of a much larger novel. That’s very true, and again, very disappointing. Contrast Pariah to Bill King’s Angel of Fire, the first in a trilogy about Warmaster Solar Macharius, and the differences are outstanding. In spite of the disadvantage that Bill doesn’t have 6 novels and numerous short stories/audio dramas to draw upon, he still makes Angel of Fire an entry-level novel that stands on its own, despite being the first installment of a trilogy. In fact, he has to do even world-building since his characters are all new! Pariah just plods along from place to place, character to character, until it becomes little more than a sightseeing novel and characters flash by without making any impact. There’s no fun in that. What should have been the really good stuff, happens way too late, and is thus rushed to a very unsatisfactory conclusion. This is all compounded by the rumour that the sequel, Penitent, will not be out until December 2014, which is a two-year wait.
Does Pariah have any redeeming feature? Possibly. The introduction of Eisenhorn is fantastic. Given that the book takes place some hundred or so years after the events of Ravenor Rogue (the third Ravenor novel), a lot has happened over the years, but Eisenhorn is just as memorable as he was in Hereticus (the third Eisenhorn novel). Just as memorable and just as bloody awesome of an ass-kicker. And then we have Cherubael, the daemonhost that Eisenhorn began using in Hereticus, one of the reasons why he became a radical and an institutional pariah within the Ordo Xenos, and why he was declared Extremis Diabolus (if memory serves correctly). Cherubael has one line in the entire book that comes close to making the entire book worth the wait, just one line, right at the end (it is in fact the closing dialogue of the novel). I do say comes close, but the negatives have already piled up far too much.
To reiterate with emphasis: I do not mind reading a novel that focuses on the non-war side of the setting, a novel that is about the mystery and thrill of the setting, rather than the constant war, constant struggle in a lion-eat-lion type of setting. My problem is when it is overdosed for the reader, like Pariah is. Just as with Prospero Burns, Pariah could really benefit from the first 100 pages being cut down to about 60-70 pages of material. All that chaff really drags the novel down. It was a downright struggle to read the book. I didn’t enjoy any of the characters, period. Even Ravenor and his band, who had such a great outing in the first two Ravenor novels, are little more than stuck-up, full-of-themselves, self-righteous bastards here. It seems Ravenor has become all about blind devotion, and a massive jerk in addition. And given that we only see him in like the last 20 pages or so, there is absolutely no redeeming climax to explain this change in behaviour.
Honestly, I cannot recommend the novel at all. It starts off as a novel that can really put someone to sleep. The middle is just a chaotic mess of tangled loyalties and betrayals. The ending is so rushed that it is all a massive info-dump to explain away the Eisenhorn vs Ravenor theme. A mess of characters. Too much of the domestic. Read the novel if you really, really want to. Otherwise, you are better of reading the Eisenhorn and Ravenor omnibuses.