Sunday, June 26, 2011

“Atlas Infernal” by Rob Sanders (Black Library)

Sanders-AtlasInfernal

A new hero of the Inquisition?

Inquisitor Bronislaw Czevak is a hunted man. Escaping from the Black Library of the eldar, Czevak steals the Atlas Infernal – a living map of the Webway. With this fabled artefact and his supreme intellect, Czevak foils the predations of the Harlequins sent to apprehend him and thwarts his enemies within the Inquisition who want to kill him. Czevak’s deadliest foe, however, is Ahriman – arch-sorcerer of the Thousand Sons. He desires the knowledge within the Black Library, knowledge that can exalt him to godhood, and is willing to destroy the inquisitor to obtain it.

A desperate chase that will bend the fabric of reality ensues, where Czevak’s only hope of survival is to outwit the chosen of Tzeentch, Lord of Chaos and Architect of Fate. Failure is unconscionable, the very cost to the Imperium unimaginable.

I thoroughly enjoyed Sanders’s first novel, Redemption Corps, and ever since hearing about this novel I’ve been eager to read it. I’m a big fan of the Inquisition, and Sanders has done some interesting things with Czevak. However, I’m sad to say I struggled with this novel, and didn’t love it as I had expected to.

The novel opens with the aged Inquisitor Bronislaw Czevak and his team at an archaeological site on some far-flung world, digging among the ruins of an Eldar craft. He is accompanied by Deathwatch Space Marines, Imperial Guardsmen and his personal retinue as well. Events quickly spiral out of control, as Czevak’s style and approach to his job come back to bite him, and also Eldar Harlequins appear. Instead of slaughtering everybody, they offer Czevak the opportunity to go with them to the Black Library of Chaos – the greatest depository of lore on the Ruinous Powers. Naturally, as the inquisitive soul that he is, he accepts the invitation and disappears from the realms of men. The story then jumps a few decades, and Czevak’s second in command, Klute, has taken over the Inquisitor’s operations, and is using all the resources available to him through that office to locate his missing master. Only, Czevak has picked up a number of decidedly less friendly pursuers, and when the two are reunited, events once again spiral towards conflict and disaster.

The actual story of this novel is pretty interesting – I love the idea of putting the Black Library more central to the story (although, I would have liked to maybe see some of it). As Czevak and those chasing him try to out-manoeuvre each other, they hop around the galaxy, searching for anything that will give them the edge over the Thousand Sons’ most powerful sorceror. Sanders’s characters are equally interesting – from Klute’s pragmatic acceptance of the more radical elements of the Inquisition; to Czevak’s wholehearted, wilful insubordination and to-hell-with-everyone-else attitude. Echoing Dan Adnett’s Inquisitorial trilogies – Eisenhorn and Ravenor – the inquisitor’s retinue is made up colourful and interesting characters, working together towards a common cause, even if they do have questionable methods and motives: Hessian, the angelic-looking daemonhost; Torqhuil, a disgraced Space Marine from a radical chapter who had embraced the theory of using Chaos to fight Chaos; and a drug-addicted warp-seer, Epiphani, to name just a couple. Each has their part to play, and add a good deal of colour to the novel, showing that Sanders’s has fully grasped and made the most of the fact that Inquisitorial retinues offer huge scope for variation and diversity in character-creation.

The novel does, however, have one major drawback: the writing style Sanders has chosen for it didn’t really work for me (I know it did work for others, though). Where Redemption Corps was taut and streamlined, breathlessly action-packed, Atlas Infernal is sadly over-written. There are far too many passages in the first half that exhibited an obsession with describing everything, giving far more information than necessary, and thereby slowing down the pace and also really frustrating this reader. For example, I do not need to know the specifics of the history of Klute’s sawn-off shotgun and how its previous owner used it. Some of the details offered for Klute’s first meetings with his eclectic team, likewise, offers details that meant absolutely nothing to me, and just irritated me (specifically, how he came to recruit Torqhuil).

There is a level of detail in evidence that is exhausting – names, places, events, battles, jargon and terminology are thrown about like they’re going out of fashion, but having never heard of much of them before, they added very little to the story, and just frustrated me as I waited for the story to kick into gear. His descriptions of things Chaotic, however, were pretty great – and showed a restraint not in evidence in other areas (which is odd, given how mutable everything Chaotic is). Longer passages of dialogue were very welcome when they appeared, as the story moved forward and the exposition and explanations in Czevak and Klute’s discussions were much tighter written and fully grabbed my attention.

The fact that I kept reading, despite my frustration with the level of exposition is a mark of how good and interesting the underlying story is. And it’s also true that things improved in the second half of the novel, as events pull the reader on through at a better clip. Sanders even included a couple of throw-away comments that made me chuckle (the novel-equivalent of seeing something amusing happening in the background of a movie or TV show).

I can see this giving birth to more of a series of novels based on the exploits of Czevak – he’s certainly an interesting and engaging character, and I know Sanders can write more fluid and balanced (actually, great) fiction. But for the series to work, in my opinion, there will have to be a serious tightening of the writing and exposition. (I cannot say if this is because of a need for authorial or editorial self-control.) I will read Sanders’s next novel – be it another Czevak novel or something entirely different – but I perhaps will approach it more cautiously.

I really wanted to love this novel, but I can’t lie about struggling with it. Amongst the florid prose and quite excessive levels of detail and background to insignificant things, there’s a great sci-fi novel in here. There are some moments which show Czevak to be quite the genius tactician (if a tad improbably so), such as their meeting with a Khornate raider (which had some devilishly pragmatic solutions). There are some scenes throughout the novel that reminded me of the stronger passages in Redemption Corps, but they were fewer and further between than I would have liked. (It’s interesting when Ahriman appears in some flash-backs, for example.) I’ve read some of Sanders’s short stories, and those have shown the same plotting tightness and solid prose that Atlas Infernal does not. If the author can tone down the florid descriptions, trim the extraneous details (i.e. write it more in the style of Redemption Corps), then a Czevak series could work extremely well, and rival Eisenhorn and Ravenor.

If you love novels featuring the Inquisition, and are familiar with their background and works, then Atlas Infernal will appeal. If you are new to the Warhammer 40k setting, I would not suggest you start here. A solid story, let down by the author’s desire to fill in all the details and background.

[For an alternative perspective, I urge you to read what Graeme’s Fantasy  Book Review had to say about the novel – it’s a very good review. Interestingly, where usually we have similar tastes in Black Library fiction, when it comes to Rob Sanders’s work, we have the opposite opinion – I preferred Redemption Corps, where he prefers Atlas Infernal. This is one of the things I like most about the genre-end of the blogosphere – the diversity of opinions offer a great discussion on so very many books.]

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