Monday, October 10, 2011

Reading Dan Abnett's "Salvation Reach"

Book Thirteen in the Gaunt's Ghosts series marks an end and a beginning. It has the feel of a great Navy ship turning about in a high wind and reminds me of something Norman Mailer said in a television interview he gave after the publication of his novel, Ancient Evenings (Abacus 1997), when asked about its length: "it takes me a hundred pages to turn a barge." What Mailer really meant was that his story and plot were so detailed and rich that it took him time and description to move it along. Salvation's Reach (Games Workshop Ltd. 2011) is not overly long nor complicated; in fact, I wanted more, but the novel does feel like a turning, a shift in the force, as it were: people die and new characters arrive; several new plot lines emerge; and new themes surface. No matter the new elements and the obvious thrust forward, there is also a harkening back to previous stories and the appearance of characters from previous novels that complicate and enrich Gaunt's life. As characters surface from Gaunt's past, the man alone is no longer alone.

Several months ago, I reviewed Nathan Long's latest novel in the Gotrek and Felix series,  Zombieslayer (Games Workshop Ltd. 2010), and made the following observation about long series. I believe the same applies to Gaunt's Ghost and bears repeating.

Growing up on the Louisiana/Texas border in the fifties, I use to watch men, women, and children picking cotton. The process involved their snatching the bolls and placing them in long bags that they dragged behind throughout the day. Every since I have imagined certain tasks (pleasant or otherwise)as metaphorical cotton picking. Usually, these thoughts emerge when the task becomes so tiresome, heavy, and unmanageable that its existence hampers my ability to move. When following long fantasy series, I sometimes see the continual accretion of volumes as being like the bag: the author over decades creates so many characters, so many themes, and so many plot threads, that the work becomes turgid and dense. More often than not I cease following the series, never to return. Sometimes, however, a series continues to be fresh year after year. Two series that continue to delight me are Gaunt's Ghosts and Gotrek and Felix. Both are from Black Library. Dan Abnett writes Gaunt's Ghosts and Nathan Long pens Gotrek and Felix.

The point of this quote is that long series present their own set of problems. Abnett, in both Blood Pact (Games Workshop 2010) and Salvation's Reach, seems to be freshening his series and preparing for closure. After all, this arc is entitled "The Victory."

The novel begins with Rawne and the creation of a new sub-unit within the Tanith Regiment: The Suicide Kings. The Suicide Kings, chosen by Rawne, are vying for the responsibility of protecting the double-triple agent Mabbon Etogaur. Mabbon, once an Imperial Guard, who defected to the Blood Pact and then to the Sons of Sek, a chaos war band, similar to the Blood Pact and loyal to Magister Sek, has devised a plan  with Gaunt and Lord Militant Cybon to create an internecine struggle between the Blood Pact and the Sons of Sek. The plot of the novel might simply be described as Gaunt's planting the cheese in the trap. The trap is Salvation's Reach, a massive construct of space debris, where the Sons of Sek are based. Once again, Abnett has created a fabulous, wondrous battleground.

To set the trap, the Tanith is joined by new units and three Space Marines. Once they arrive at Salvation's Reach great mayhem ensues; however, most of the novel is set in space aboard an ancient ship of the line, refurbished and released from storage, the Highness Ser Armaduke.

Abnett said in a recent video-blog on Youtube that he would like to write an Imperial Navy novel. In his description of the Armaduke's voyage through the Warp and its subsequent battles, he has displayed his sea legs; nevertheless, the heart-rending battle within the narrow corridors of Salvation's Reach is where Abnett shines. Without giving anything away, get out your handkerchiefs because I dare you to finish the novel without a tear.

Salvation's Reach, although transitional, alludes to almost all of Abnett's 40Ks work and creates new themes and introduces new characters that freshen the franchise and open the field for more novels and greater adventures.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Reading Dan Abnett's "Sabbat Worlds"

Dan Abnett begins his introduction to Sabbat Worlds, a collection of short stories set in his created portion of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, with the pronouncement: "It seems I can add 'world builder' to my CV." This statement of the obvious should come to no surprise to those readers that have waited with bated-breath for the  next installment of the Gaunt Ghosts series. Abnett has a unique voice and an uncanny ability to create scenarios that suck the reader in like a vortex at the lip of the warp.

I've read most of his work and I'm still trying to define the Abnett "voice" or  Abnett "style." With Sabbat Worlds, he presents us with an opportunity to enter his universe once again, not only through his own writing and his own voice, but through those of six others. He has gifted us with two tasty treats of his own and six other stories that complement the Gaunt series. These stories explore current themes emerging from Abnett's world and introduce new units and planets to the campaign, while presenting other venues of the war against the Ruinous Powers.

One of my favorite Abnett novels is Double Eagle, a story of the air war. And although it is science fiction, the novel reminds me of the World War II aerial-combat movies I loved as a kid. The first story of Sabbat Worlds, "Apostle's Creed," by Graham McNeill, follows the film formula perfectly but harkens back to an earlier mime--that of the combat ace of World War I. And instead of Phantine XX squadron in Double Eagle McNeill focuses on the Apostle Seven, an elite squadron of ace Thunderbolt pilots. McNeill captures the spirit and excitement of aerial combat in a story that is quite familiar to those of us who love The Blue Max, Dawn Patrol, or Wings.

Matthew Farrer's "The Headstone and the Hammerstone Kings" is the second story in the collection and it is a completely different take on the Sabbat Worlds. Suddenly, we find ourselves in the detritus of the war, following the machinations of the Adeptus Mechanicus. One of the reasons the 40K universe attracted my attention in the first place was because of its dark, Gothic tone; it is a universe of treachery and deceit. Farrer creates a feeling of claustrophobia and angst through his prose style and tone, as he drops us into an alien environment through his use en medias res. As we struggle to understand what is happening, it becomes quite obvious that Farrer is steeped both in the mythos and fluff of 40K and its underlying pathology of paranoia and anxiety.

Aaron Dembski-Bowden's "Regicide" employs the image of  the chess-like game that pops up regularly in the Gaunt series. In this story, we are re-introduced to the Blood Pact and we see the death of Warmaster Slaydo, Gaunt's  mentor. The story reminds me of early Gav Thorpe with its focused battle of wits between a Blood Pact witch and a member of the Argentum, another elite Imperial Guard unit. "Regicide" delineates some of Gaunt's history before the Ghosts.

The next story in the collection, "The Iron Star," by Abnett also fills in some of the blanks. This story, which I will not discuss in detail, is emotional and poignant. I dare you not to cry. It serves as a bridge between Only in Death and Blood Pact.

The "Cell" by Nik Vincent, similar in tone and style to Abnett's work, shares themes with Traitor General, my favorite Gaunt novel. The story is intimate in scope, well-written, and appropriately creepy in a LeCarre sort of way.

Nick Kyme's "Blueblood" is solid 40K, Imperial Guard fiction, focusing on a Volpone Battalion, arriving on a planet in preparation for an invasion. Even behind enemy lines, however, the Ruinous Powers are at work. 'Blueblood" furthers the religious themes that are prevalent throughout the Gaunt series and introduces strong characters that deserve further exposure.Kyme shows he's in total control of his material.

Just as McNeill's story was a bit of a pastiche, so too is Sandy Mitchell's "A Good Man." He very carefully delineates a 40K story following the plot of Graham Greene's and Carol Reed's "The Third Man." There is even zither music playing in the bars and tavernas of the ram-shackled Verghast. A lot of fun and very well-written.

The final piece of the collection is a novella by Abnett, entitled "Of Their Lives in the Ruins of Their Cities." I will not spoil the story for you but simply say it is a brilliant piece of writing. It is a truism now to write that Abnett writes well about soldiers at war. But unlike many hard-core military science fiction novelists, he has a sentimental streak and a heart, which reminds me of John Ford and Rudyard Kipling.

This collection could have been twice the length.  I hope there are additional volumes.