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It was surprisingly hard to find this version of the cover art

Rating: A-

Length: 366 pages, standard paperback font, slightly larger than standard paperback page size

I happened to find myself in a bookstore one day (yes, physical bookstores still exist, shockingly enough), and my wanderings took me by their collection of Warhammer-based books. Most of the WH40K books I've read focused on Space Marines (of both standard and Chaos flavors), with the exceptions being the Ciaphas Cain series, but I'd heard a lot of good things about Dan Abnett's major series (Gaunt's Ghosts, Eisenhorn, Ravenor, and Eisenhorn vs. Ravenor). Of those, the only one with the first entry available was Ravenor, so I decided to give it a try.

Right off the bat, the story opens with some heretical dude named Zygmunt Molotch doing heretical shit. It doesn't explain who he is or what exactly he's looking for, but just from the way he and the other characters act, it's clear that he's up to no good. See, this is a good opening. Much in the style of other good writers like Robert Jordan, it launches straight into something exciting to catch the reader's interest and get them engaged in the story before bringing in the background exposition. It gives context clues to feed the reader enough information for them to follow along because the author doesn't assume that their readers are vegged out morons. Just as importantly, it's actually interesting, rather than simply feeling like something that happened before the rest of the plot happens. The whole thing works a lot like a Cold Open would in visual media. So, yeah, if you haven't gotten the hint by now, Abnett started out on the right foot with me.

Anyway, Zygmunt's main purpose for being is to introduce the reader to the various members of Ravenor's retinue; (in order of appearance) Carl Thonius, Kara Swole, Patience Kys, and Harlan Nayl; all the while as his own followers are killed off until Zygmunt himself falls in a plane crash. Conspicuously, Abnett went out of his way to mention that Zygmunt was still alive at the moment of the crash, so I wouldn't be surprised if he did show up again later in the series, as a sort of evil counterpart to Ravenor.

The reason why I say that is because Inquisitor Gideon Ravenor himself is a cripple who was burned alive and is now confined to life in an armored chair. Basically, he's a futuristic Stephen Hawking, if Hawking had been Jason Bourne with psychic powers before getting crippled. Of course, given that Ravenor is a strong enough psychic to project his awareness all over a planet while sitting on a spaceship in orbit, being confined to an armored chair really doesn't do a whole hell of a lot to limit him. He's got some emo moments where he laments about not being able to touch or taste things for himself anymore (and about how tempting it is for him to take over other people's bodies in order to experience such mundane things again), but for the most part, he's well aware that he's probably the most badass chair in the universe, and he acts accordingly.

As for the members of his retinue, they're a pretty cool bunch. Carl is the team nerd, along with being a dandy who tries to hide that he's easily the least brave of the lot (which isn't that bad, really, since it means he'll only fight when outnumbered no worse than three-to-one). Kara is a former gymnast who mostly serves to show how badass an unaugmented and non-psychic human is still capable of being (she's also the one who brings the most quirky lingo to conversations, and something about her term "ninker" as a substitute for "fucker" made me read all her lines with an Aussie accent). Patience is a sociopath who's also psychic, though not to nearly the same extent as Ravenor. Harlan is a former bounty hunter who fills in the Only Sane Man role. Later on, we also get introduced to Wystan Frauka (who tries to be an aloof playboy, probably because the fact that he's a blank [someone who naturally disables psychic activity in his immediate vicinity] makes him repulsive to other humans on a subconscious level) and Zeph Mathuin (a more amoral and augmented version of Harlan, basically). They've all got distinct personalities that work well together, and none of them crossed any lines that made me dislike them. All in all, it's a pretty solid cast.

But I digress. After Zygmunt's demise, the real plot kicks off, which is Ravenor's investigation into the source of a new drug called "flects", which are little shards of glass that fuck with people's minds if they stare at them. While Ravenor supports them from his chair, his retinue undertakes various missions on a planet to work their way through chains of users and dealers, with Harlan being tasked along the way to also pick up a boy named Zael who happens to have latent psychic powers. Given that he's some random teenage brat, he doesn't really do a whole lot of note for the rest of book aside from allowing other characters to deliver background exposition in a more natural way, but I'd imagine that he'll take on a more important role in later books as he becomes more psychically active.

The trail of breadcrumbs eventually leads to the team running afoul of other authorities, but since Ravenor is an Inquisitor and thus pretty much outranks everything in the Imperium of Man short of the God-Emperor himself, he's able to recruit some agents to grudgingly help him pursue the flect trade further into space. As this was actually a good book, I'll stop the plot description here to avoid major spoilers.

Now, on the plus side, aside from having an enjoyable cast of characters, Abnett also did a pretty good job of balancing the more methodical and exposition-heavy parts of the story with dynamic action. Despite being significantly longer than a "standard" paperback novel, as I'd tend to judge things, I never felt bored while reading it. There were parts that were a bit slow, sure, but they were either close enough to more exciting parts and/or building clearly enough towards the next major scene(s) that they didn't bother me. I can definitely see why Abnett is considered to be arguably the most talented author of anyone who's written official WH40K books.

That all having been said, there were three things about the book that I disliked.

First, Ravenor is presented as being one of the most powerful psychics that it's possible for a human to be. He's also quite willing to use his psychic powers to delve into the minds of others. Furthermore, as an Inquisitor, he's damn cunning and clever, too, to the point where he's shown using other interrogation techniques to manipulate people into revealing things that they're trying to keep hidden from his mental probing. Yet, when he runs into people who've got parts of their minds that are completely unreadable to him, it seems to be treated as being no big deal. I'd think that it'd at least raise some major red flags about what they're really dealing with, but nope, it's just something that gets swept under the rug as the team moves on to the next breadcrumb.

Second, the whole flect plot gets overtaken by something else for the final hundred-or-so pages. Now, I'm no stranger to sudden changes of plot like that, and when it's done well, it can be a cool surprise on a first reading which also lends itself to searching for foreshadowing if you decide to read the story again. In this case, though, it felt more like all of the build-up associated with the flect plot turned out to be empty promises. Right near the end, there's an explanation given that ties everything together to some degree, but even with that, there's no real payoff for the plot that drove the majority of the book, which is just disappointing. I'm hoping that something more is done with that plot thread in the sequel, which would soften the blow in the macro perspective, but as it stands, for this book by itself, it wasn't handled well.

Thirdly, one of the supposed high points of the climactic action scenes is a big psychic battle between Ravenor and another being who has him beat in terms of raw strength but lacks his finesse/expertise, turning it into an incorporeal version of a "brute Goliath versus skilled David"-type scenario. By itself, that's all well and good. The problem that I have with it is that its resolution relies on a character having been mistaken for being dead while in a room with at least four antagonists for hours. I won't go into further reasons for the implausibility of this, for spoiler-avoidance reasons, but suffice it to say that the whole situation ended up feeling far too contrived to be believed. Together with the second point, this all lead to a rather subpar feel to the end of the book.

Still, despite those complaints, this was an excellent book. I'll be picking up the rest of the series, along with keeping an eye out for the Eisenhorn books. Highly recommended to anyone who'd be interested in a sci-fi spy novel.

Rating: A-

Length: 366 pages, standard paperback font, slightly larger than standard paperback page size

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