Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Dan Abnett - Ravenor: The Omnibus
The Ravenor trilogy, collected in this Omnibus, takes place in the bleak setting of Warhammer 40,000, where there is only war. Oddly enough for a 40k story, however, Ravenor has no war in it (though that's not to say no action). This is not a frontline tale of the Space Marines holding back the Tyrannid swarm but rather a story set in the heart of the Imperium most of the setting's novels are working so hard to protect. We follow the crippled but psychic Inquisitor Ravenor and his band of heroes and killers as they work to investigate, expose, and destroy heresies and foes. As a result, Ravenor shows us a great deal of the Imperium's fascinating internal workings, and it also reveals the consequences – both small and galactic – of the setting's reality-altering (and smashing) events and players. But for all its successes, Ravenor is badly crippled by plot.
When reading at the pulpier end of the Science Fiction spectrum, it's generally fair to expect mediocre prose glossed over by a rip-roaring plot. Abnett thwarts both expectations. The prose, I'll come back to. Right now, though, let's look at the series' chief failing: Dan Abnett cannot plot. The plots of all three books are simply a string of setpieces. Each one exists solely to get us to the next setpiece. As soon as that next setpiece is reached, the previous one becomes irrelevant, its purpose served. Though its cast might be considered detectives of a sort, these are totally linear narratives, moving ahead (albeit in an oblique fashion) and never looking back.
Sometimes, it gets to the point where it feels like all the reaction shots were simply edited out. A character is grievously injured at the end of the first novel, Ravenor, and on the point of death. Come the start of the second (Ravenor Returned), he's just fine. A recovery is understandable, but it would have been nice to have at least a single line mentioning it, and it's not the only case. A character's death in Ravenor Returned is felt until that novel's climax, but, by the third novel (Ravenor Rogue), he might as well never have been. After part of the crew is sent an unimaginable distance in Ravenor Rogue and somehow manages to return, we get a single instance of a reunion scene, and then everyone moves on as if the rules of space and even time had not just been proved worthless. The sense that the characters not only do not feel the wonder of their situation but seem clinically deprived of any sort of emotional response at all serves to dampen those responses in the audience as well.
These narratives of disjoined pieces are tied together by the goals of Ravenor's investigation, with each novel, at least in theory, broadening the scope and investigation and further testing Ravenor's resolve and integrity. This works well at first. Ravenor, my favorite of the trilogy by far, focuses on the investigation of flects, a deadly drug that looks just like a shard of glass. Since the reader is as in the dark as the investigators, the piece by piece nature of the storytelling doesn't jar much, and there is a sense of progress as we learn more of the flects' nature and origins. The story's scale is here one of its greatest parts. The Imperium is vast, and, while the flects are dangerous, they are a localized problem. The climax is gritty, brutal, and restrained. It's devastating for a few and irrelevant to most.
The overall goal, however, is not nearly so successful at tying together the parts of the later two novels. In large part, this is because the scale is expanded massively. Things are, in those two, properly and regrettably apocalyptic. Ravenor Returned features a dastardly plot to seize ultimate power through a secret language that can make and unmake reality, and it ends with all the hooded ritual and bombast that one might expect. Here we get viewpoints from the evil characters as well as the good and, while that does broaden the story, it also removes its mystery. The protagonist's ignorance, then, just feels like killing time.
At the novel's end, we discover that Molotch, a villain who died in the prologue, is behind everything. Oh. Uh, that's nice. The conflict with Molotch is also the heart of the final volume. Molotch, you see, is Ravenor's nemesis (p. 656). The two are twined in destiny (ibid). Now, here I'm going to have to plead ignorance a bit. Dan Abnett wrote a prior trilogy about Inquisitors, Eisenhorn, which I have not read, and many of the characters overlap. Maybe Molotch is established and developed there. I hope so, because he isn't here. There are constant references to his brilliance and cruelty and skills and all that, but he's offstage for the entirety of the second book and cooped up for most of the third, save for a single scene where he does get to shine a bit. The rest of the time, however, we simply have to take everyone's word that he's so great and, worse still, take everybody's word that he and Ravenor have some kind of special relationship. All we've seen them do, after all, is shoot at one another a bit.
Ravenor Rogue's problems don't, alas, end with its vague but extreme villain. The first book was driven by the protagonist's investigation, the second by the villain's plan. But, in the third, both sides are reeling, and neither is doing a great deal of great planning. Save for a clever trap or two, everyone basically stumbles around until the climax, at which point what might be supposed to be the trilogy's central arc comes to a climax. Throughout, the characters see and hear ominous hints of the demon Slyte 's birth, which is prophesied to involve both Ravenor and Molotch. The reader, however, need not rely on such hints. We are shown the demon's rather undramatic birth in Ravenor and then get to sit through hundreds of pages of characters poorly ruminating as to who it might be. The pre-revealed reveal, when it comes, does not have, needless to say, the power of a twist.
Abnett's piecemeal and disconnected plotting also serves to hamper Ravenor's themes. One of the main ones surrounding Slyte's birth is how we do not notice evil when it is close to us, how we are blind to darkness amidst our friends and home. Aspects of this succeed, particularly a scene where the infected manipulates a companion to near the point of suicide and wreaks havoc on the streets while speaking to Ravenor, and the good inquisitor remains blind. This also does explain why Ravenor's suspicions never settle on the demon's true identity. Then again, those suspicions are never shown to do much. It would be powerful if he launched a detailed search for the infected and missed it because of his relationship with the guilty party, but having him never think much about the question leaves it just as much at the door of lazy investigation as at the feet of closeness. Finally, what should be the theme's knockout blow falls flat due to passing in between books. One crewmember discovers the demon's identity but, unable to injure her close friend, can't bring herself to reveal it. This should have been a powerful moment, but we don't see a second of her struggle, just vaguely hear about it from a distance.
The novel's other key theme is how far one may go to combat evil. Though weakened by Molotch's flaws, Ravenor's growing obsession with his nemesis' arrest is powerful, as he moves farther and farther from the bounds of procedure and maybe even right with the passing volumes. When, in Ravenor Rogue, he declares: I am no longer an Inquisitor. Perhaps I'll be damned, but I'll surely be damned if I don't know (p. 725), the reader feels his pain and his boundless determination. His counterpoint, the crewmember infected with the demon, is not nearly as effective. Despite its heretical presence within them, they remain loyal, but they don't reveal the demon. They seek to master it, to bind its powers to the Imperium's cause. Needless to say, this doesn't end so well, but that's not where the arc's weakness comes from. No, it's weakness comes from the fact that we never see it at all. There is no witnessed struggle to stay in control, no growing realization of failure. We just hear him mention it in conversation, calm and removed from the battle of will that is raging inside of him. Not exactly a visceral living of theme, that.
Despite these myriad flaws, I read the three books of Ravenor straight through over just four days. Ravenor has three main successes. First, its characters. None of the cast here is spectacularly deep, but they are all well defined, and their interactions with one another are believable and often a joy to watch, a mixture of killing edge and care. There are a great number of players here, but Abnett quickly differentiates each with central characteristics before, as they act and proceed, delving deeper into their psyche and actions. Little quirks give them life and the book warmth. The teenaged Zael refers to the crippled Ravenor, who lives encased in support systems and mechanisms, as "the chair." When Ravenor goes gunning for one of his foes, Zael says: "I think someone's about to have a really bad chair day," (p. 205, Ravenor) a line that got both a groan and a genuine laugh from me. While on the subject of characters, I should point out that Abnett seems to have developed something of a crush for the acrobat-cum-killer Kara Swole. Since I started counting just after the first volume's end, he describes her as "voluptuous" no less than five times (pp. 278/322/357/578/649).
Second, there is the matter of the trilogy's setpieces. I know, earlier I criticized the plot for being nothing but. I stand by that criticism. But that's not to say that the setpieces themselves are not amazing. Whatever his faults over the course of the novel, Abnett is downright excellent at plotting out a thrilling scene. As he does with the carnival Carnivora setting, Abnett can evoke the vibrancy and character of a setting in just a few pages. In just as few, he can then set a dozen pieces in motion. And then he can tear through the stage he's just created, a cascade of well written action, clever planning, unanticipated consequences, and an absurd amount of fun. The aforementioned Carnivora, the mechanical and soul-crushing Administratum in Ravenor Returned, the quickly coming and passing displacements of time and place in the final volume, and a dozen others are all simply awesome.
Finally, we come to Abnett's prose and diction and, coming forth from those, the atmosphere he can create. Abnett writes relatively short scenes with frequent changes in perspective, which serves to not only speed up the pace but provide frequent and well done contrast. The most striking of these perspectives by far is Ravenor's own. In stark contrast to the traditional (past, limited 3rd) point of view of everyone else, his part of the story is told in present tense and first person. His tone is educated and powerful, longing from the restraint his ruined body forces upon him, menacing, and powerful. His every utterance feels memorable; he is a monolithic figure in his own world portrayed well enough for the reader to feel that he, without question, deserves his status there as not only a strong man but a wise one as well.
40k novels have by now developed a fair amount of jargon to cement the setting's feel, and I, a relative newcomer to the setting, can't say how much is common ground here, but setting-specific phrases like "dehyd," "cogitator," "kitbag," and "tintglass" combine with expertly odd uses of general language like "decruited" to give everything an inescapable, strange, blunt, and oppressive feel. Moving above the level of individual words, Abnett has a gift for powerful phrases, such as when Ravenor says a madman is illuminated beyond the remit of sanity (p. 103) or that Hindsight is a worthless toy (p. 577).
The story arcs and themes of Ravenor meander about and fall apart over its length. Nonetheless, the individual scenes and prose are fantastic. Though not perfect, Ravenor sheds light on a seldom seen part of the Imperium, does so with style and strength, and is well worth reading for any fan of the setting. The first novel, in particular, is a great example of dark and gothic Science Fiction.