Thursday, 7 October 2010

‘Sabbat Worlds’ – Edited by Dan Abnett (Black Library)

I’m a big fan of the Black Library’s output, so feel free to take this with a pinch of salt, but there is one hell of a lot of good reading to be found here. I think that all the arguments about ‘tie-in fiction’ can be locked away and forgotten about by now. While some books might not hit the mark, the majority are just as well written as the mainstream stuff that you find on the bookcases.
Arguably the biggest deal on the Black Library’s roster, Dan Abnett is the man you’re most likely to come across if you’re looking for an entry point to the worlds of Warhammer and Warhammer 40K. The main reason here is that Abnett is nothing short of prolific in his writing. Close your eyes and pick a book up off the Black Library shelf in your local bookstore, more likely than not it’ll be one of his!
The other reason is that his tales of ordinary men fighting in the far future are big sellers. As much as we’d all love to be genetically engineered super warriors (or maybe that’s just me trying to get through another day at work) it’s the little guy that we all identify with. Abnett does a great job of popping that little guy on the frontline and showing us his state of mind after being shelled for sixty hours solid.

Illness prevented Abnett from being able to fulfil certain writing commitments so a decision was taken that it might be a good idea to let other authors play in Dan’s area of the 40K universe and give fans something to chew on in the meantime. That area is, of course, the Sabbat Worlds; a group of planets firmly under the control of The Archenemy (Chaos) and slowly being taken back by a combined force of literally millions of Imperial Guardsmen. My reading around the Sabbat Worlds Crusade has been woeful to say the least (just ‘Blood Pact’ and one other title that I can’t remember at the moment) and, given the size of the omnibus editions, I thought I’d give ‘Sabbat Worlds’ a go, both to see if it was a suitable entry point to the wider series and also to see what other authors made of Abnett’s setting. The end result was mixed but invariably entertaining. I now need to get going on this series more than ever!

While Abnett’s ‘Sabbat tales’ focus more on the exploits of Commissar Gaunt and the ‘Tanith First and Only’ (with the exceptions of ‘Double Eagle’ and possibly ‘Titanicus’) there is a lot more on offer in both the background and history of the Sabbat Worlds. There is a lot more to play with and the authors that Abnett has assembled go on to do just that with a mixture of tales that explore the very midst of warfare along with its aftermath.

That’s not to say that fans of ‘Gaunts Ghosts’ will be left feeling short changed though as Abnett finds the time to contribute two stories of his own. ‘The Iron Star’ and ‘Of Their Lives in the Ruins of Their Cities’. Both of these tales take place at different points in the annals of the ‘Tanith First and Only’ and a little prior reading is undoubtedly going to pay dividends in terms of these stories giving you deeper insight into a much wider picture.
Despite my limited background knowledge though, these two stories proved to be very accessible with their focussing on the characters rather than particular ongoing events. ‘The Iron Star’ gives its twist away fairly early on but this frees up the plot to concentrate on how a relatively dysfunctional unit of men and women can all come together in a time of crisis. You can really tell that these soldiers have spent a great deal of time together and there’s a real bond between them, even if certain of them can’t stand each other. ‘Of Their Lives’ comes about possibly a few years before ‘The Iron Star’ and goes some way towards showing how these relationships may have developed. At the same time, Abnett delivers a nice slice of armed combat that admirably confirms his status as a writer of quality military science fiction.

The rest of the tales deal mostly with the ongoing war in the Sabbat System. Graham McNeill opens proceedings with ‘Apostles Creed’, a spin off from Abnett’s ‘Double Eagle’ and a tale of life in the elite ‘Apostles’ squadron. McNeill writes blistering scenes of aerial combat (seriously, blink and you’re guaranteed to miss something) but the underlying message seems to follow a familiar path and doesn’t come across as particularly original, no matter how well it is presented.

Nick Kyme’s ‘Blue Blood’ and Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s ‘Regicide’ have a lot more to them, dealing with both a pivotal event in the crusade (Dembski-Bowden) and a situation that could well result in something pivotal if allowed to develop further (Kyme).
Dembski-Bowden’s tale deals with subject matter that long term readers will be familiar with but the way it is presented will make for a refreshing take, especially when the ‘twist’ occurs. Kyme’s recounting of the exploits of the Volpone 50th Regiment made for a gripping read (as the situation gets worse and worse for them) and I imagine that fans will be pleased to see the return of some familiar faces.

Planetary occupation is the theme for the remainder of the tales and it is dealt with from more than one perspective. Nik Vincent opts to take the more traditional approach with ‘Cell’, her tale of life under the occupation of the Archenemy. Vincent captures the paranoia of the resistance cells perfectly; a little too perfectly in fact as I had trouble working out what was going on sometimes... Matthew Farrer’s ‘The Headstone and Hammerstone Kings’ did the job a lot better for me with sides that were a lot more clearly defined and stakes to be played for. Here is a tale where the ending really had me wishing that there was more to come.
My favourite ‘occupation story’, and possibly favourite in the novel altogether, was Sandy Mitchell’s ‘A Good Man’. Any tale that riffs so successfully off ‘The Third Man’ gets my vote and Mitchell makes it even more of a fine read by managing to keep the mystery going even though the influences can hint at only one outcome...

While ‘Sabbat Worlds’ didn’t quite hit the target for me on all fronts, it is nevertheless a collection of tales that manages to fully capture the essence of system wide warfare in this universe of the far future. Very much recommended for fans of Abnett’s work and I’d say it’s a good place for newcomers (like me) to jump on board.

Eight and Three Quarters out of Ten


Anonymous said...

im still iffy on the 'tie-in fiction' aspect of it. is it anywhere as good as lynch, abercrombie and the rest.

suneokun said...

You should read more Sandy Mitchell ... he's my favourite author after Abnett. Atmospheric and very very funny.

Adam Whitehead said...

I don't know about the other WH40K authors, but Abnett is certainly batting on the same level of writing quality as Lynch and Abercrombie (now, anyway, he took maybe until the third GAUNT'S GHOST novel to find his feet and the first two are a little weaker, though still readable). I just finished the first EISENHORN novel (which is more of an SF thriller than a war novel) and he's not far off the quality of Morgan's Kovacs novels either with that.

There are many degrees of tie-in fiction. Those that force the writer to use the same stale characters and cannot change the fictional universe tend towards weakness (STAR TREK novels, for example). The WH40K novels, OTOH, only have a shared background history and technology. The individual characters, stories and worlds are the creation of the individual authors, who take greater ownership of the stories as a result and make them better and more interesting.

Richard Hayden said...

@Adam Whitehead. I completely agree with your assessment of Dan Abnett being head and shoulders above the other Black Library writers, some of whom, I feel, are not even good enough to be in print, much less compared with Lynch, Abercrombie, etc.

But Abnett definitely is in this class as can be evidenced now by his non-media tie-in release Triumff and the forthcoming Embedded.

One final word. The first two Gaunt's Ghosts novel may read a little jerkily because they are mosaics formed out of a series of short stories he wrote for Inferno magazine. Necropolis was the first to be written specifically with the novel format in mind.

Adam Whitehead said...

I've flipped through the first CIAPHAS CAIN omnibus and Sandy Mitchell also looks like being very good. If GAUNT'S GHOSTS are SHARPE in the WH40Kverse, then the CAIN books are FLASHMAN in the same setting. Looking forward to reading it properly.

The only other WARHAMMER author I really want to read is Graham McNeill, after meeting him at the Gemmell Awards (where he'd just won the main award).

Graeme Flory said...

suneokun - I've had the first Ciaphas Cain omnibus on the go for about three years now! It's very good but there's something stopping me really getting into it. It might be time for another go...

Adam - Graham McNeill's 'Ultramarine' books are worth a read but, for me, McNeill really comes into his own with his entries in the 'Horus Heresy' series ('False Gods' and 'Mechanicum' in particular). There's a lot of reading there though... ;o)

Graeme Flory said...

Oops, forgot to say...

Anon - Pretty much what Adam said really. It's all subjective really but I'd say Dan Abnett is on a par with those authors. You could make a case for Graham McNeill as well and possibly James Swallow ('Nemesis' was excellent). Aaron Dembski-Bowden is one to watch out for as well.