A ROTDOG Read: Pariah by Dan Abnett – Craven & Mr. B Tag-Team Review

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, Astartes and Aspect Warriors of all ages…

ROTDOG luminaries Craven and Mr. B are teaming up for a full spoilers review of Dan Abnett’s latest offering from the Black Library, Pariah! 

This continuation from the Eisenhorn and Ravenor trilogies couldn’t come sooner for fans of the series and has been out for nearly a month now.  Those of you who picked it up are probably like us and finished the whole thing in a day or two.  So again, we’re reiterating this is going to be a FULL SPOILER review with our reactions of the nittiest, grittiest detail and revelation. 

You have been warned.

Mr. B:  OK, for me, the wait for this book had been an excruciating trial in trying to ignore the publication date lest I obsess over it versus the sheer joy of the prospects within said tome.  Ever since the end of Ravenor Rogue, I’d been lurking on the interwebs to see if Mr. Abnett would be continuing any adventures into this part of his realms again.  At first there were some teases about a short story collection that would include several different vignettes from characters we loved: more from Eisenhorn & Cherubael, a few extra precious pages that might include Arianhrod Esw Sweydyr, and the infamous ventures of Nathan Inshabel on Elvira Cardinal. At long last, however, the announcement came: there would be a trilogy of books to end a trilogy of series with Alizebeth Bequin in the middle.  Eisenhorn vs. Ravenor!!  I was completely ecstatic.

Craven: A duel review? This team up is, believe it or not, possibly even cooler than Nicki Minaj and Justin Bieber’s latest collaboration. I know, right!?

I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t even aware this book was coming out. The first I heard about it was seeing a picture that Babbers posted on Facebook. This strikes me as odd. I often cite the Eisenhorn/Ravenor books as being the best literary work of science fiction of all time.  I have been known at times to personally harass Dan Abnett on Twitter about when he is going to write more. So for a new book actually pitting the two against each other to emerge without any fan fare from me is an oddity that I hope never repeats itself.

Mr. B:  Pariah came by FedEx and within ten minutes of its arrival I was in its pages, taking a first look at Queen Mab, the setting of this tale.  I noticed two things at first: this did not feel like the Alizebeth Bequin I knew and I felt Queen Mab was a city that suited this tale very well, although maybe it was too familiar. 

This Bequin goes by Beta, which is anagrammed within Alizebeth, but she spoke differently.  She was young & mysterious, but also curious about her own surroundings.  I was confused.  I couldn’t tell if I was in the past, pre-dating the Eisenhorn series, or in the dark future of a possibly-cloned Alizebeth Bequin.  I feared that this book was not going to be the book I wanted it to be – the one where Bequin wakes up from her Hereticus–induced coma and talks some sense into the warring Gregor Eisenhorn and Gideon Ravenor so they could become best of friends again and defeat Horus reborn and resurrect the Emperor and everything would be candy canes and butterscotch and fluffy white…    sorry.

This new setting, the city of Queen Mab, felt very familiar.  It was part Thracian Primaris from Malleus, part Eustis Majorus from Ravenor’s travails, and part twentieth-century London from the Abnett’s own world of Triumff (which is hilariously great – go read it now).  Queen Mab is the same sort of dark, decayed place that Abnett does perfectly.  The rich are luxuriously rich, fat, and blubbery and the poor are huddled & scabbed with lunatic drug problems and a lurking chaotic-ness.  After a few chapters of reading did I realize that this was a culmination of his exploration away for the pages of the Black Library, an evolution.  If it’s at all possible, Dan Abnett is getting better at this thing called writing and the setting for Pariah is evidence.  He got to stretch his legs with two novels of his own imagination and this one back with the Black Library doesn’t feel exactly Warhammer 40K anymore.  It felt all Abnett’s, and that was a very good thing.

Craven: I stumped up next day delivery on Amazon and similarly, was straight into the book at the earliest opportunity. I saw the words Alizabeth Bequin and my hairs on my arms stood on end. I then subjected my other half to a run down of exactly how significant this woman was in this literary world.

Bequin and Eisenhorn is one example (of many) of the sheer wonder Abnett has brought to the 40k universe. Bequin represents an example of Abnetts creative genius, the whole concept of a psychic null in the 40k setting is a simply sublime idea. But, the fact that Bequin stands as one half of possibly the greatest love story I have ever read says all you need to know: Abnett doesn’t write 40k novels. He makes 40k real.

Eisenhorn confessing all to the inert, comatose form of Alizabeth is one of the greatest passages of prose I have ever seen. A good friend, Tank, once said to me, “This is like Shakespeare, with guns.” He couldn’t be more right.  Harlon Nayl paying a visit to her still immobile body in Ravenor carries huge weight, the emotional resonance of knowing how she ended up like that infusing the scene with far more than the words on the page suggest. So to see Alizabeth moving, talking, living a life that you didn’t know about piqued my interest in this story far more than I could have anticipated.

Eisenhorn's band in the sands of time…

(Art like this can be found on Aerion-the-Faithful's DeviantArt Gallery)

Mr. B:  Besides the set-up and some fleeting glances at some of the characters we once knew, the first two hundred pages of Pariah had me scratching my head.  “Where is this going?” I said.  “I like it, but where is Eisenhorn?  Where is Ravenor?  Who’s on who’s side, anyway?”  The questions kept on adding up and just before I felt like a tired Costello asking Abbot what was going on, a shining cameo reared its head…   wait, that was Eisenhorn, wasn’t it? The book was obstinate in its refusal to acknowledge our previous cast of characters, but let you in with a subliminal wink every now and then.

Craven:  The questions soon started coming for me, too. I quickly made a few assumptions. This was an origin story, all the rage nowadays. Beta’s continued missions where she poses as a role in order to expose a target, obtain information etc. would eventually lead to her being found by Eisenhorn and Fischig. Then, perhaps some kind of jump to “the present day”. But, about 60 or so pages in I started to doubt myself.

Then, a kine blade wielding, beautiful black haired woman shows up and starts a fight. The moment she produces a long silver pin from her hair I thought, “Hang on, Patience?” Pretty soon after that the distinctive form of..


…appeared on the page and I momentarily lost all grip on reality. Then, with no ceremony or pre amble, Patience is plunged to her death. By Page 80, when Ravenor shows up briefly I had literally no idea what was going on. Alizabeth predates the accident that resulted in Ravenor being confined to his life support machine, so this cant be an origin story. Just what in Sam Hell is going on?

Queue some frantic re-adjustments to my expectations. Is this going to be some kind of Inception-like, dream penetration story? Have Ravenor and his band infiltrated her sleeping mind in an attempt to wake her? That would explain Beta’s inability to place her own origins. The concept is a bit out there, but Abnett pulled off time travel with Ravenor before, this isn’t that far out there surely?

I was wrong with that too. Finding out just how wrong I was one hell of a ride though.

Mr.B:  I had some qualms with who and how Beta Bequin interacted with some of the characters that crossed her path.  I really like Renner Lightburn, the Curst lowborn man.  He felt like one of Abnett’s other amiably likeable characters like Gall Ballack or Duj Husmann, but the first two-thirds of this book was as frustrating to me as it was to him – Bequin just wouldn’t do the things I wanted her to do. I felt her submission to the Blackwards, the merchant clan intent on selling her to the highest bidder, was too painless and easy-going.  She had escaped the rigorous forces of the Inquisition or the Cognitae, but these guys had her captured?  I didn’t think so.

Craven: The setting is classic Abnett, but like all the novels he writes, it’s the little touches. People don’t carry just pistols, they carry Lammark Combination Thousanders. The history and impact of St. Orphaeus is so authentic, the way the city and its denizens are shaped by him, that its almost as if this is some of kind of obscure history of Renaissance Spain. Beta holds up at an art studio that for all intents and purposes could have been set in a Victorian slum. 

Mr. B:  I don’t know about Craven, but there was a single, note-worthy point where my skepticism and anxiety all peeled away and I prepared to buckle down for the ride: the lower chambers of the Basilica Saint Orphaeus.  Since Beta’s a bona-fide untouchable, the corrupt members of the clergy get her to pronounce several bits and pieces of the creation-linguistic, Enuncia.  I saw the word Enuncia and it was my turn for hairs to stand on end. 

Craven: Pretty much the same for me, yes. The Basilica Saint Orphaeus is the turning point, where things start to slot together and the otherwise unfamiliar elements of the new trilogy melt into the old. For me, it wasn’t Enuncia (cool as that is). But, perhaps I’m particularly more sloppy as my wedding approaches, the moment we see Eisenhorn watching Alizabeth sitting in the pews. I read that paragraph a couple of times over, it was sublime. Its been a long time since we have seen Eisenhorn properly, the short story ‘Thorn Wishes Talon’ aside. I think it’s incredibly poigniant that when we do see him its in the context of the love story that I mentioned before.

Mr. B: And then I might have said, “YES!” when the traitor marines of the Word Bearers were revealed.  I had some feelings like I had back in Xenos with Eisenhorn facing down Mandragore.

Craven: That has to be worth noting of course: Space Marines. I don’t think since he wrote Brotherhood of the Snake has Abentt put so many Space Marines in one place. He really, really knows how to write them. When Beta is being pursued up a long, spiral staircase by one of the Word  Bearers, you believe it. You appreciate just what it means to have a Space Marine on your tail. Subtle, background flavour of the 40k universe goes out the window for a prolonged glimpse of the earth shaking, genre defining poster boys of Games Workshop. Its quite something.

Teke, a character that emerges towards the end of the book, is superbly introduced by a clever play on words that eventually stuns you with the revelation that this is a member of the Emperor’s Children. Right after you wonder just how many more agents of the Arch Enemy are going to wade into this mess, you are treated to a display of just how terrifying a chosen of Slaanesh can be. 

Mr. B:  The last third of the book read itself, I could barely keep up.  Even more than the scene at the Basilica, there was one last moment in this book that cemented it within this series, one more moment of absolute jaw-dropping stunners that knocked me sideways.  My girlfriend can tell you this, I read a three word sentence, put the book down, made several inarticulate attempts at speech and then went to lie down somewhere. 

Those three words were the reveal for the character of Deathrow, “I am Alpharius.”

If you haven’t been keeping up, go read Legion from the Horus Heresy series.  Because of the nature of the Alpha Legion, I’m not going to label that one a spoiler.  When it comes to the Alpha Legion, nothing is a spoiler, it’s all propaganda.  However, the sheer ballsiness to drop that in there with the whole “is that – no, it can’t be – but Alphar – it could be anyone” nature of that Astartes legion shook my core.  It was brilliant.  Not hokey, brilliant.  That said to me that Eisenhorn’s not playing around and things will ABSOLUTELY go up a notch when the next book, Penitent, comes out.  Cherubael on the last two pages wasn’t even a surprise, it was expected and it was exactly how the book was supposed to end.

Craven: I knew something was up with Deathrow! I did wonder whether he was an Astartes given how many people he seemed to stuff early on in the book. But Alpha Legion? I didn’t think Eisenhorn could possibly push his Radical bent any further than using a Daemonhost, but a Traitor Legionnaire? Oi vey!

The final third of the book was my favourite. The hints and the subtle clues are dropped and one by one all the old favourites eventually reveal themselves. Eisenhorn, joined by Medea Bantacore and Harlon Nayl. Ravenor, with Patience (who survives!) and Kara (thankfully not in as bad a position as we last saw her in Rogue). The conversations that take place brought back to me just how much I loved these characters, especially Nayl’s brief eulogy for Patience. Having read the Omnibus versions of the books back to back a number of times, coupled with the skill at which they are written, its hard not to feel a genuine bond to these people.

The way they operate, the banter, the relationships between them and the fact that when the time comes, they are professional and dangerous puts me in mind of a number of things. Soldiers must feel like this; it reminds me of some of the people I work with, how we can snap from silly to trained and serious in a heartbeat. You want to have a friend like Nayl; a boss like Ravenor.

Seeing them back, but in a different alignment to when we last left them, makes even this ensemble of old characters feel new, fresh and more than able to carry this story forward.

Inquisitor Ravenor & retinue…    Boy, these are good, aren't they?

Mr. B:  Overall, Pariah gets a solid 8.5 out of 10 from me.  I was a little disappointed with how things developed – mainly how slow the first two thirds of the book were – but the payoff at the end was all worth it.  It’s a fantastic setting & world, the new characters are great, and the direction in which the story is pointing is sublime.  Oh – did we discuss that?  That’s right, the bad guy of the book, the unidentified King in Yellow, wants to gather up all of Enuncia to learn one word in particular: the name of the God-Emperor and use it destroy him once and for all.

Craven: Its an 8 for me. Time for some qualms. Briefly, the story does take on a bit of an artificial tone and certain elements of the mystery are given up in a slightly lazy fashion. Similarly, Alizabeth does seem to take the revelation given to her by Eisenhorn regarding her origins quite well. I know this is the far future, but is finding out you are cloned from the genetic material of a missing Inquisitorial Agent really that easy to digest? Also, meeting Ravenor; not every day a floating chair talks to you, she takes that quite well, too.

I also found some of the conspiracy theory stuff, especially regarding the Yellow King, the Eight and who exactly who wants Beta and what for a bit of a jumble. I’m sure that is probably intentional, given this is part one of three, so I will sit back on that one. My final qualm is the length of the book. I don’t expect to finish a book in less than 24 hours of reading time. The previous books, whilst in their Omnibus form, did not take on average three days to read. I don’t know if it’s Black Library enforcing a word count, or maybe Abnett just producing less than usual, but damnit I want more!

However, what we do have here is something special. I don’t know of anyone who has read Eisenhorn and Ravenor and hasn’t been pulled in by the cast, the story and Abnett’s take on Warhammer 40,000. This book will not disappoint fans of the series. Is it an ideal point to start off with these characters? No. Absolutley not. In fact, you couldn’t do anything worse than start here. This is for established fans, newcomers will not appreciate the weight of some of the exposition in the last third of the book, and that would be a shame. Because it really does set things on its head.

I’ve often wondered, who is my favorite? Would I want to work for Eisenhorn, or would I rather be under Ravenor’s caring, psychic gaze? I think such a conundrum is going to become very important as this series progresses. Eisenhorn states his case to Beta, sometime later Ravenor does too. I believed both of them. The fact that the teams have been shaken up is also tough. If Eisenhorn is wrong (and maybe, is the Yellow King himself!) then that means Nayl is a bad guy. If Eisenhorn is right, then Ravenor is truly a bumbling idiot, which isn’t right either. What happens when these guys inevitably go toe to toe? Ravenor vs Eisenorn, Harlon vs Patience? This is the tip of the iceberg.

Mr. B/Craven: Can’t wait for Penitent!

-Craven & Mr. B @ ROTDOG


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