Tuesday, 9 November 2010

‘Battle for the Abyss’ – Ben Counter (Black Library)

On the whole, the Black Library’s ‘Horus Heresy’ series has done a sterling job of outlining the course of events that led to Mankind’s most devastating civil war and the emergence of the brutally oppressive regime that governs the Imperium of the forty first millennium. I may have my issues with certain books but the quality of the overall series is such that you’ll always find me eagerly looking forward to the next instalment (which, unless I’m mistaken, is Dan Abnett’s ‘Prospero Burns’; look it early next year...)
It’s typical of me then (with my ‘so many books, so little time’ attitude) that there’s a gaping hole in my ‘Horus Heresy’ reading that comes right near the very beginning of the series. This isn’t such a big deal in itself as most of the series can be read ‘stand alone’ (although you’re going to get a lot more out of it if you go for the big picture) but it’s still a ‘hole’ and some holes just have to be filled; that’s what this month is all about!
The plan then is to finish off my ‘Horus Heresy’ reading this month, that’s only three books so I should be able to do it! First up is Ben Counter’s ‘Battle for the Abyss’...

Warmaster Horus has fanned the flames of rebellion but any fire will take time to spread, the galaxy won’t be engulfed by warfare just yet. This sense of false security is what ultimately aids the traitor Word Bearer marines when the mighty warship ‘Furious Abyss’ is launched, in sight of Terra itself, on a mission to break perhaps the mightiest legion of all. When loyalist forces finally learn of the ‘Abyss’, it may already be too late to make a difference but the attempt will be made anyway.
Loyalist forces race to intercept the ‘Furious Abyss’ but their journey takes them through the Warp, a dangerous trip at the best times but now more deadly than ever... The fate of an entire system hinges on their success.

‘Battle for the Abyss’ was a fun read and just the thing to get me through a weekend where taking it easy was the order of the day. Having said that though, whereas most of the ‘Heresy’ books leave me feeling satisfied to one degree or another, ‘Battle for the Abyss’ left me feeling strangely hollow and in need of something a little more substantial.

I think half the problem, for me, was the marked similarity that ‘Battle for the Abyss’ had to James Swallow’s ‘Flight of the Eisenstein’. Both books are essentially about loyalist marines trying to avert catastrophe by making a perilous journey through the warp and dealing with the denizens of Chaos en route. The broader context does differ but that’s what’s going on at the root of it all. If I’d read ‘Battle for the Abyss’ first then I’d more than likely be saying something different here (so perhaps it’s not the books fault as such) but as it was, I couldn’t help thinking that I’d read this story before. Swallow did it better as well, realising that there is only so much that you can make out of a journey through warp space and making a lot more of the ‘real space’ passages than Counter did. Counter brings his protagonists out of the Warp for a brief fire fight then throws them back in again for more of the same with various daemons and warp entities. The pace is certainly frantic enough and the terror of the Warp well portrayed but it did fall slightly on the wrong side of being repetitive.

Another area where I felt ‘Battle for the Abyss’ was a little lacking was its connection to the rest of the ‘Horus Heresy’ series. I know that I’ve already mentioned that one of the strengths of the series is that its component parts stand alone but there’s also a strong connection to the rest of the series that just didn’t seem to be there with ‘Battle’. Thinking about it, I’d say that this is probably down to ‘Battle’ focussing on a prelude to one of the side plots of the Heresy rather than a main event. Any Warhammer 40K fans are more than welcome to correct me here but that’s how it felt when I was reading the book. Things just felt a little too removed from the main business for the book to gel with the rest of the series and that sense of disconnection really played on my mind.

You know what though? Despite these issues I found that I had to keep reading ‘Battle for the Abyss’. As I’ve already mentioned, the pacing is frantic and pretty much grabs you by the scruff of the neck to drag you along for the ride. Space Marines are invulnerable when placed against ‘normal’ protagonists so the only way to make things interesting is to have them go up against each other. Counter gives us some bone crunching moments as Marines go at it and marries this into the former rivalries between Legions that are now turning into all out hatred. It’s in these moments that Counter does well to tap into the feeling of brotherhood betrayed and lost. There are some lines that can never be crossed once you take that first fateful step over them and Counter really captures that feeling of something irrevocably broken. ‘Battle for the Abyss’ may not gel with the rest of the series particularly well but what’s inside made me want to read more of the books.

If all that wasn’t enough for you, Counter does an amazing job of showing us the ongoing battles between the ‘Furious Abyss’ and the ships pursuing it. You really get an idea of the scale of combat involved between these behemoths and Counter captures that balance between seemingly innocuous damage done to the outside of a cruiser and the absolute chaos that it wreaks within. I want to read more like this.

‘Battle for the Abyss’ carried some notable flaws that left me feeling ultimately unsatisfied but I had good fun reading it through to the end. Confused? I was but, like I said, it was just the thing to get me through the weekend. I probably wouldn’t rush to get hold of Counters other work (although ‘Galaxy in Flames’ was very good) but I’ll give them a go if I see them.

Seven and Three Quarters out of Ten


Nick Sharps said...

This wasn't Ben Counter's best work. You should check out The Grey Knights series and The first three books of the Soul Drinkers series. The one part of Battle for the Abyss I did enjoy was the loyalist World Eater. That is just not a common sight.

Anonymous said...

Agreed, I also felt that this book could have been skipped in the series, it doesn't really add much to the big picture (neither does Nemesis come to think, except possibly for the creation of the Assassins), and if the HH series decides to bog down too much into these details, we'll never get to the siege of the Emperor's palace. Which might be the BL's point, to stretch how many books they can write in their best-selling flagship series.

I usually like Ben Counter's stuff though, so don't discount him yet.

If you're looking for great space battles in 40K, you absolutely must check out Gordon Rennie's The Gothic War omnibus (his novels Execution War and Shadowpoint). Counter's second Grey Knights book also features some memorable ship-to-ship action, as do some of his Soul Drinkers novel. And in the Horus Heresy series, the second Dark Angels book, Fallen Angels, also has space battles, I expect you'll be reading it soon anyways.



Graeme Flory said...

Nick - I enjoyed the bits with Skraal in as well, Counter did have me wondering if he was going to stay loyal...

C.B - Cheers for the recommendations :o) I've actually got the two 'Dark Angels' books on the pile waiting to be read, hope to pick them up fairly soon.

Anonymous said...

the dark angel books you can skip them your not missing much from the big picture there good but not woohoo

Graeme Flory said...

Anon - I'll probably give them a shot, just to say that I've finally read all the books in the series (so far). Thanks for the heads up though ;o)

Anonymous said...

Hey, when do you anticipate reviewing Prospero Burns? You always seem to get copies of the book before their general release,


Graeme Flory said...

I think 'Prospero Burns' is due for a January release so, judging by when the advance copies normally arrive, I might be looking at a possible review sometime in December. I'm talking 'possible' in terms of timescale, not whether I review the book or not :o) This one will definitely be read!

Anonymous said...

I liked the Dark Angels books. The first one was especially interesting in that it describes life on the planet with the Primarch before the Crusade gets there, and the second afterwards. Those books delve into the tragic events at the origin of the DA's schism and entire raison d'ĂȘtre in the 41st Millenium, why they've been driven so for 10K years. They needed to be told to understand the First Legion. They're also a cautionary tale on the consequences of hubris (so many of the fallen Primarchs are) and jealousy.

I would have liked more origins stories like these, before the Emperor gets reunited with his lost sons. Or heck, the stories of the Emperor's consolidation wars on Earth. Where does he even come from?


Andrew said...

This has to be worst of HH series so far. Only things worth remembering were space battles and some scenes involving Skraal and Mhotep. All else can simply be forgotten. Fallen Angels is little better followed by Descent of Angels. Those are bottom of the list and this book is worst