Predator, Prey by Rob Sanders. Book Two in The Black Library's 'The Beast Arises' series, originally published January, 2016. Approx. 256 pages.
Last month, The Black Library kicked off their ambitious new series 'The Beast Arises' with the solid, but not stellar I Am Slaughter, by fan favorite Dan Abnett. That might sound a tad negative; perhaps I should say that it was Very Good, and not at all bad. For Volume 2, they enlisted the authorial skills of another prose powerhouse in their vast stable, Rob Sanders.
I'm guessing reaction is going to be mixed here; the BL audience is a varied group, and they have a crop of authors with diverse writing styles to match. This is something forever in BL's credit. So, although I can understand the wide excitement over Abnett's entry. I was personally looking forward to Sanders' entry more. To me, he is a defter wordsmith, and his masterful usage of figurative language is the best of all the authors in the Library.
But then, other concerns arise. Those regarding a "Book 2". All the initial framework was laid out in the first volume, would the second be simply a vessel to carry those storylines along until the next installment? Or would Sanders find a way to improve, intensify, and introduce more angles? Luckily, the answer is the latter, and the makes Predator, Prey a superior book to I Am Slaughter.
As far as continuations go, Sanders elaborates more on the initial appearance and immediate effect of the orks than on the progression of their hellish crusade. Where I Am Slaughter focused its narrative primarily between Terra and Ardamantua (site of the utter decimation of the Imperial Fists), Predator, Prey opens with a chapter-long battle report of planets, systems, and industrial sites that were obliterated by the appearance of the attack moon of the Beast. Sanders seems to have some fun here assigning clever names to worlds, and describing them fully in a sentence or two, before snuffing them out entirely.
From there, he splits his book between accounts of different characters, playing their parts in this grand tragedy. Some we are already familiar with (Vangorich, Wienand, and other players on Terra). Others are new faces, including:
Lux Allegra - an Imperial Guard commander on the aquatic hive world of Undine. She begins the story on an escort detail trying to extract the planetary governor amidst the unfolding chaos.
Urquidex - an Adeptus Mechanicus magos attached to a survey team gathering information on this new ork technology. Well, it goes deeper than that, of course. It also involves a nasty little mantra known as the Bystander Paradox, which is a clinic in terrifyingly callous logic.
Maximus Thane - a Space Marine of the Fists Exemplar (a Second Founding Chapter). As a Captain, he finds himself the senior ranking Astartes of his Chapter, and must rally them to hold through the night of impossible odds on their planet of Eidolica.
There are also some other chapters dedicated to characters who play supporting roles in this volume, including the Fabricator Locum of an AdMech forge world, and a Marshal of the Black Templars.
Let's take a look at how each of these arcs fare:
First of all, I enjoyed the scenes on Terra more in this second volume. Vangorich is a tighter, more focused character here; still revealing nothing while simultaneously plotting all options and outcomes. The political intriguing; a real low point of I Am Slaughter, is done in a slicker and more plausible manner. The cogs in some real power moves are beginning to turn; one involving a bold show of force by Naval Commander Lansung, and another regarding machinations and preparations by the AdMech.
The scenes on Undine are where Sanders hits both his highest and lowest points in the book. The world-building here is impeccable; involving socio-economic systems and factors, believable environmental considerations, and imaginative megafauna. The military forces are well-realized and the characters sympathetic. However, the emotional aspects are a little forced at times. There is one scene in particular, where Allegra snatches up a little urchin while squaring off against a greenskin monstrosity that was more than a bit reminiscent of Ripley and Newt evading the Xenomorph Queen. Also, some might feel that making Allegra pregnant (and continually rubbing her belly) is indenturing readers to an emotional obligation predicated on the usage of a growing baby as a convenient prop. Or not. I honestly liked Allegra and felt bad for her plight.
What did bother me were two scenes which were resolved via deus ex machina. Not that there isn't a time and a place for that particular plot device, but what was missed were two opportunities for Allegra to show her mettle in thinking on the fly and under extreme pressure.
Moving along. I really enjoyed the scenes with Magos Urquidex. Now, the less said the better here, due to spoilers and all. But, Sanders proves in these chapters why he deserves top consideration for AdMech stories. He knows how to bring for the best semblances of emotion from a faction that does its best to suppress it. And yet, he does it without compromising the legitimacy of the AdMech. Again, we have a very sympathetic character in Urquidex; one who takes issues with some of his protocols, yet follows his duty well.
This brings us to Maximus Thane. with the Fists Exemplar, Sanders creates another Successor Fists Chapter (his Excoriators, true highlights of Legion of the Damned, get a name drop here). The Exemplars embody Dorn's values, and like with his AdMech characters, Sanders makes these Astartes completely sympathetic, likable, and genuine, without making them any less "Space Marine". The world-building of Eidolica is nice, though not as thorough as Undine. The focus of these chapters is trained more on introducing these characters, and providing the bulk of the novel's high action.
Slight, potential SPOILER ALERT:
An eagle-eyed observation by user augustmanifesto over at bolterandchainsword posits a plausible potential story arc involving the Exemplars. I won't post it here, if you are interested, follow the link to the original post.
Just to round things out, I thought I'd mention that I really dug Sanders' take on the Black Templars. Marshal Bohemond is properly belligerent, surly, and ultimately wise. However, it seemed to be another case of cinematic inspiration that resolves a "who will Bohemond choose to assist" storyline; this time a lift from a certain scene in The Dark Knight.
That does it for the characters of the Imperium. The orks that Sanders gives us do their job well. He captures their manner and physiology well, shows their adaptability, and stresses the menace in their obscene technological capabilities. The Beast himself, however, does not make an appearance. These are still members of the rank and file green tide.
And there you have it. There are no resolutions to be had so early in the series, so we get the advancement of some and the introduction of others. It's a fair balance, and it keeps things fresh. The action is plentiful, and well-choreographed. The dialogue is sharp. The world-building, as mentioned, is a real highlight.
All of this adds up to another slim (but slightly thicker than the last one), tightly paced, solid piece of sci-fi. Whether you prefer Abnett's style or Sanders' more, I think most can agree that this series is getting off to a 2 for 2 start.
Again, absolutely love these covers. Especially the ork ones. You could argue that some of the proportions are stretched to excess, but certain things you just cannot get enough of....like dakka.
Here's the original. That is a print-worthy pic.
Cover Final Score: