For better or worse, I have an aversion to reading media tie-in novels. I think it stems from the many mediocre Star Trek books I read as a kid, so when the good folks over at The Black Library sent us a bunch of novels, all based either the Warhammer or Warhammer 40000 miniatures table-top games, I was leery about digging in. However, our own Tim has raved about how good author Dan Abnett’s Horus Heresy novels are and then Chris Roberson named him one of his underrated authors. I looked at our stash and picked out the first book in the Ravenor series, entitled, appropriately enough, Ravenor. I’m glad I did.
The first thing you notice is the setting. Ravenor is set in the Warhammer 40000 universe. Warhammer 40k has been going strong for decades and, as such, there is a huge amount of backstory and history to the setting, much of it written by Abnett himself. As a result, you can’t help but feel the depth and breadth of the universe Ravenor takes place in. It’s a big, sprawling, Gothic-style universe, filled with high tech, SF goodness with a liberal dose of decay and squalor. There’s also a fantastical element to the setting, which is touched on the book, that comes into play via Chaos, which is a parallel dimension, used for FTL travel, that is filled with creatures that are manifestations of human emotions. Abnett does a bang up job of detailing the various settings in the book and bringing the universe to life. It feels lived in, alive.
The story is about Inquisitor Gideon Ravenor and his team of operatives. The Imperial Inquisition is charged with finding and rooting out heresy against the God-Emperor of Man. Ravenor and his team have a very wide latitude when it comes to the actions they can take. This story is basically a special ops/wetwork style story, and not what you would normally think an inquisition style story might be about. Here, Ravenor and company are tasked with discovering and stopping the smuggling ring that is responsible for distributing a new, highly destructive substance called ‘flects’. These ‘flects’ aren’t a drug, per se, but what they are ties back into the idea of Chaos rather neatly, and is the hook to get the team into all sorts of problems. If there’s one thing Abnett does well, it’s write a kick-butt action sequence, of which several are littered throughout the story, with the ending set piece particularly interesting. There’s good deal of action, violence and bloodshed, but Abnett never crosses the line into gratuitousness. The investigative sections are a bit slower, but the entire book is filled with Abnett’s appropriately descriptive prose that makes this book into an interesting SF novel, not just a media tie-in novel.
The issues I had are fairly minor, and some are a result of Ravenor being a sequel of sorts to the previous Eisenhorn stories. As such, most of the main characters are given short shrift development-wise. We aren’t given much backstory on them, as that was covered in earlier works, and the bad guys are ‘bad’ because they story demands bad guys to fight against. Of course, they are interestingly bad so it’s a minor quibble. Another issue I had was with the setting. Yes, it’s vast and detailed, but as one not familiar with the Warhammer 40k setting, there are things mentioned that fans of the universe would probably know but first time readers wouldn’t. Things like various military groups, the political power structure, the various alien races, and such. Again, not a big deal as they don’t play a big role, but there none the less.
The biggest issue I had was what I would call the ‘miracle’ escape. The characters would find themselves in seemingly impossible situations, only to escape because the story demands it. Deus ex machina, in other words. This is very apparent as the story rushes to its climax with the various characters strung out and encountering their own difficulties. The resolution contained a couple of improbably events that didn’t sit well with me. And, of course, the book ends with you knowing there is a sequel, or two, in the offing. Which there are.
I’m glad I picked this novel up. I found much more than a mediocre media tie-in novel. I found a book that I enjoyed quite a bit and I think any SF fan would like, especially if you like psuedo-military SF with an emphasis on skullduggery and special operations. And if that gets you interested in the game, then it’s really done it’s job.