I Am Slaughter by Dan Abnett. Book One in The Black Library's 'The Beast Arises' series, originally published December 2015. Approx. 238 pages.
The Beast Arises is The Black Library's ambitious project for 2016. It is proposed as a 12 novel (at least) series, centered on the greatest Waaaagh! of all; that of the monstrous warboss known simply as "The Beast", which put the Imperium on its heels in the 32nd Millennium.
At a time when many are complaining that The Black Library is losing it's focus, with too many short stories, audio books, and limited editions instead of just good old fashioned novels being released, The Beast Arises has the potential to be a refreshing throwback. It has a central theme, BL has committed some solid authors to it, the cover art and color scheme are excellent (in my opinion, at least. I've seen plenty of comments by those not so enamored with them). Kicking off the series is I Am Slaughter, a nice, trim little novel (another personal preference of mine. I usually prefer these succinct little novels over bloated doorstoppers) penned by 40K favorite Dan Abnett.
1500 years after the event of the Horus Heresy, there is a sort of "peace" born from laxity throughout the Imperium of Man. On High Terra, a High Council of Twelve, beset by all the expected conniving and power plays of any such ruling body, rules over the universe-wide affairs of humans. And on the planet of Ardamantua, roughly six weeks away from the Terran Core, the Imperial Fists are keeping in the practice of killing by engaging a race of insectoid xenos known as the Chromes.
As the purging of the Chromes progresses, a new anomaly manifests itself: massive noise bursts that accompany disruptive gravitic distortions. Is this a new weapon in the employ of the Chromes, a naturally occurring phenomenon of the planet, or the interference of yet another race?
The frequency and devastation of the noise bursts steadily increases, wreaking pure havoc on the world and atmosphere of Ardamantua, and putting the Imperial Fists - present in the near entirety of their Chapter - at grave risk. Will desperately needed help arrive from Terra in time? Or will the constant in-fighting and power grabs among the High Lords condemn the esteemed Chapter to oblivion?
Well, let's be honest here. We already know from the advertising blitz that there are orks involved. Tons of orks. But it's the hows and whys that matter. Does Abnett get us off to a roaring start here with I Am Slaughter? Or is this a stumbling start to a underwhelming series concept? I opt for the former. This is a very good, though not perfect novel. Let's take a look at the specifics.
Plot/Pacing: One of the things that has always distinguished Abnett is that he is not only possessing of an outstanding imagination, and solid concepts of speculative technology, but he is also a skilled novelist. All the authorial fundamentals are present: accessible writing, engaging characters and wordplay, and a complete story told by the end of the last page (well, to be fair, I Am Slaughter is an introductory novel, so the story threads are left intentionally open. But as an account of some opening moves in a grand chess game, it does its job well). I Am Slaughter moves along at a good clip, with no slogging or boring scenes. I will say, though, one thing that bugged me a bit is that Abnett uses a few too many cliffhanger endings to chapters.
I've seen some scattered dissent complaining that the big baddies - the orks, don't show up until too late in the proceedings. I disagree; Abnett made the best use of his time in establishing an overview of how things were going in the state of the Imperium circa M32.
World Building: An aspect where Abnett excels. He has been defining this universe and its denizens for two decades. Ardamantua, and its progression into decay, are detailed vividly. The images of High Terra are grand. And, best of all, the vessel carrying the ork Waaaagh! is extremely impressive (even though outstandingly ludicrous).
Characters and Creatures: A bit hit and miss here. Let's start with the creatures. The primary antagonist creatures for the first half of the book are the Chromes. With them, Abnett really captures the essence of "giant ant" creatures from sci-fi classics such as "Starship Troopers" and "Armor".
The orks are another big win, even given their limited page time. Abnett brings them to life in gruesome, vivid detail. If the rest of the series afforded them the same treatment that they receive here, then it would be an epic series indeed. That remains to be seen, of course.
As for humans and transhumans (the Space Marines), that is a far stickier matter. In my most recent rant, I mentioned how hard it is for even the best BL authors to make sympathetic characters out of the emotionally stunted Space Marines. Abnett is one of the few authors who can come close to doing so, on his best days. His Imperial Fists are enjoyable enough. Hell, all of Abnett's characters are "enjoyable". The thing is, Abnett has a very "cinematic" writing style. Meaning, his prose moves with the fluidity of a movie. Also, this means his characters are often presented in a manner most palatable for quick viewing, or, as is the case here, quick reading. All of these Fists have a distinguishing point of view, characteristic, or trait. And that is about all. One of the main ones, Slaughter (the Captain whose image graces the cover), is a solid enough character, but could have thrived much more with even two or three pages of solid detail. Another Fist, Daylight, one of the Palace guards on Terra, is a decent character as well. In a later chapter in the book, a moment of regret serves as the most emotional, and best written, portion of the book.
The weakest characters, however, are the humans on Terra. The main focus there is centered on Drakan Vangorich, Grand Master of the Officio Assassanorum. While not one of the High Twelve, Vangorich still weaves some high level of maneuvering and manipulation behind the scenes. The main issue that I have with Vangorich is that he is a prime example of the type of character that Abnett (and AD-B) so often writes: he is always the coolest cucumber in the room. His thinly veiled threats and promises resonate with a well-orchestrated combination of coolness, sarcasm, and snark. I mean, it's fine and believable that he is more efficient than almost anyone he comes across, but the character comes across as such by design, not as the result of a well-created character. The scenes with him become predictable; for example, one chapter opens with a page-long description of all the security measures in place in the residence of an Inquisitor. Before finishing the description, the reader can already predict that Vangorich will, of course, be in the room anyone. Why? Simply, because he is so awesome, I guess.
Something else that falls flat is the depiction of political intrigue. One example stands out glaringly. Vangorich and one of his allies are looking to convince the High Lord of the Imperial Navy to commit ships to the reinforcement of the Fists. Their grand plan? Phrase their proposal in a way that the High Lord will agree, in the hopes of grabbing glory. That's it. I mean,not every writer is effective in describing delicate power plays, but that is just juvenile. But, it all falls into the "cinematic" aspect. In a movie, that's how a situation like that would play out. In actual universe-spanning politicking, I highly doubt it.
The fact is, none of the characters here are well-rounded or thoroughly fleshed out. They all have good dialogue, and get their moments to shine, but that is it.
A few other things did not work well for me, either. I personally did not care for the concept of nicknames for the Imperial Fists. I don't know how long this has been canon, but it was a tad, well, corny to me.
Also, Abnett decides to have some "doubles" here. There are contrasting "Slaughters", both of whom get to utter the titular declaration.
To the detriment of the novel, this Slaughter did not make the final draft..
There are also two "Beasts", both of whom get a chance to "arise". I'm sure this all seemed clever in concept, but it isn't so much in execution.
All in all, I Am Slaughter is a solid entry book for this new series. It isn't Abnett's best (or worst) by any means, but it delivers on every promise that it makes, and it does so in a nice looking, trim novel. If the characterizations strengthen up in subsequent novels, this will be a great ride.
As mentioned before, I really like the cover art for these novels. The human and Space Marine ones are decent, but the ork ones are truly excellent. Lots of detail abound as well. I also personally like the white background with the green trim. A bookshelf full of these titles in hardback would look spiffy on any shelf. Here's a pic of the cover with its original background:
Cover Final Score: