Ahriman: Exile by John French – Book Review [Bellarius]

Ahriman's never looked better. I don't know who did this cover-art but my hat goes off to them.

After much delay, Bellarius gives his thoughts on John French’s tale of the infamous sorcerer in Ahriman: Exile.

“A decent showing of Ahriman taking his first steps on the path of damnation, but not one without a few pitfalls.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields

Of all the factions to be found in the 41st millenium, easily some of the most iconic are the warlords of Chaos. Even among the ranks of the loyalist space marines there are few figures who stand out quite so well as the brutally unrelenting Ahriman, Kharn the Betrayer, the enigmatic Cypher of the Fallen Angels, or the dreaded Ahriman of the Thousand Sons. Each following their own ambitions and dark gods, these millennia old warriors have unlocked secrets which would strip the sanity of lesser men, drowned planets in blood and witnessed the death of humanity’s future. Any series covering a single one of these characters would be worthy of examination, yet Ahriman: Exile opts for a very different approach than what readers would expect.

Set in the wake of the Thousand Sons’ mistake in casting the Rubric, Ahriman is at his lowest point. Failing in his attempts to save his brothers and cast out of his legion, the former Chief Librarian is a far cry from the nightmare he will become. Hiding under a false identity among a vessel of scavengers and renegades, Ahriman is little more than a self pitying shadow of the man he once was. However, fate is unwilling to allow such a person to remain unnoticed. Someone is hunting the Thousand Son, and they will not give him up easily…

What’s most notable here is the semi-surreal nature of the work and the way in which French approaches the subject of Chaos. Taking a very different route from other authors, he presents it almost as a creeping horror much of the time. Even when it is displayed as a powerful force, it’s something more akin to John Carpenter horror films than the Evil Dead. This helps the book to stand out from the crowd and many of the best sequences are when he gives the story over to this, such as when the heroes are plunged into a world of unnatural darkness. At times it resembles the works of Moorcock himself and, while having a few definite weaknesses, the quiet nihilism found within the prose is reflected upon the characters especially well.

The individuals allied with Ahriman are figures relatively new to the Warp and barely beginning to step away from their loyalist roots. Chief among these are a very unusual breed of Tech-Priest and the remnants of a renegade space marine chapter, who serve to show the gradual slide to Chaos even better than Ahriman himself. Throughout the book they undergo a gradual shift away from their puritanical routes thanks to necessity, disaster or events beyond their control. In many respects they reflect the situation Ahriman himself is in, all are at their lowest point, slowly losing their former traditions and the values they once held so dear. By the end none escape unchanged and those who survive do so primarily thanks to their corruption or Ahriman’s teachings.

More interestingly still is what we see of the Thousand Sons legion through Ahriman’s eyes, as the book takes the time to examine the nature of sorcerers and the Rubric marines he created. Very early on, through Ahriman’s inner thoughts, the book gives a detailed insight into just what separated the sorcerers his legion from the clumsy shamanistic sorcerers of the Harrowing, the warband he is hiding among. It’s certainly an interesting angle to work with and helps show what made the legion so powerful in the first place. Atop of this, we finally have a novel which has the Imperium attempting to explore the time dilating effects of the Warp and doing more than merely guarding against it.

Unfortunately, while these ideas are extremely well presented, the book does have quite a few failings which can make it a slog to get through at times.

French’s ideas and his gradual development of the characters are all great, but his prose often feels extremely dry. Too often the environments of scenes feel nebulous or lacking in real description. His writing tends to work best when there is a single domineering theme in the environment or it can stop to focus entirely upon a single subject, but without that it can all to often seem featureless. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem were it not for the fact this was the Eye of Terror, and for the single most horrifying realm in the galaxy it all too often appears tame or unremarkable.

The dry nature of this writing also carries over to the characters themselves to a degree. While not as bad as some examples found in Black Library, all too often it seems that the ideas behind the characters are more interesting than their histories or personalities. Of the renegade space marines who join with Ahriman, we never learn their history in any significant detail nor even their chapter’s name. As a result, they feel too much like blank slates or walking examples of the book’s themes.

Both of these might have been fine were it not for two big problems.

Even ignoring the way the book occasionally plays fast and loose with the canon (such as fireball hurling sorcerers playing a major role in a Khornate warband of scavengers), many of the big events lack impact. The narrow focus of Ahriman: Exile and different style of Chaos means that there is a distinct lack of scale to many events or significant impact in certain battles. In the one time the book actually depicts the Rubric taking place, it is incredibly underwhelming and lacks emotive descriptions the sheer power, horror or details described in prior events. All too often it seems to be telling the reader this information rather than actually showing it.

The second major problem is that the book mishandles its main villain. While we are given an excellent introduction at the start, we see nothing of the one hunting Ahriman until the final few chapters and he makes very little impact. There’s no grand introduction or direct display of just how massive a threat he is via his mastery of the Warp, and instead it all too often seems as if it’s his minions who are the real threat. This could have served to build up mystery behind his identity and question just who could be so powerful, but the book lets this slip surprisingly early on. As a result, rather than appearing as an impressive foe he instead proves to be surprisingly forgettable, more a means to an end in Ahriman’s character arc than a real antagonist.

Despite these problems however, Ahriman: Exile is a solid tale which could please many Thousand Sons fans. If you are after great ideas, an interesting examination of corruption and the scars left on a veteran of the Horus Heresy, this is definitely one to pick up. Atop of the strengths outlined above, it sets some fantastic groundwork for a future series which will hopefully overcome the weaknesses of this tale. It’s definitely not for everyone however, and you should definitely take a look at a few extracts before choosing whether to buy this one or not.

Verdict: 6.5/10


Long time reader of novels, occasional writer of science fiction and critic of many things; Bellarius has seen some of the best and worst the genre has to offer.
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