The Emperor Expects by Gav Thorpe. Book Three in The Black Library's "The Beast Arises" series, originally published Febraury 2016. Approx. 215 pages.
After two very solid installments to kick off their Beast Arises series, we come to the third volume, The Emperor Expects, by Gav Thorpe. Would Mr. Thorpe continue the high level of quality laid down by Abnett and Sanders, or would we start to see some of the chinks in the ceramite of the power armor?
Maybe we should start with a bit of a preamble regarding Mr. Thorpe. Gav has always been sort of an enigma to me as a writer. I see a lot of vitriol pointed at a lot of his works, but I've never considered him a bad writer (there are only two writers I've sampled from The Black Library who I'd say were "bad writers". I won't mention any names, but I'll just say that one of their last names rhymes with "rhyme"). Thorpe actually strings together coherent sentences in a meaningful manner. And yet, for some reason, his stories almost always fail to engage me in any way whatsoever. Due to this, I have a fairly large collection of unfinished works by him, compared to only one finished book (Grudgebearer, which was enjoyable and yet fairly unmemorable). But, I see a lot of anger directed towards him and his body of work on the interwebs, which I don't get.
Well, we'd see with this one. I am committed to finish this series, so The Emperor Expects would be the Gav Thorpe acid test.
What was the result? Well, it's a decent book; good in some ways, and pretty bad in others. What went wrong, and what was still right?
With the groundwork and preliminary framework already laid down, The Emperor Expects focuses primarily on two story arcs; in one, High Admiral Lansung and a large contingent of the Imperial Navy take the fight to the orks. In the other, a power struggle has erupted within the ranks of the Inquisition on Terra, with Inquisitor Weinand caught squarely in the middle.
There is also a small section dedicated to Captain Koorland, aka Slaughter, the Last Imperial Fist, just for a sake of keeping a low flame under that story until the next installment (we get a hint at something known as "The Last Wall" protocol, which also happens to be the name of the next book).
What this all means is that The Emperor Expects is first and foremost an Imperial Navy book (which I personally love, although individual tastes may vary). Thorpe makes the right decision in approaching this as "naval battles, just in space", yielding some fairly spectacular ship on ship combat. Or should I say ships on ships? There are a lot of ships involved.
Those are the best scenes in the book. It should also be noted that apart from one scene (in my opinion, the best action sequence in this volume), there are no appearances by the orks themselves in the flesh. Don't know if that will be a deterrent to any potential readers.
Now that we've mentioned the things that work, it's time to get around to the elements that didn't. WARNING: SOME SPOILERS LURK AHEAD.
First and foremost, the characters. Strong characters will lift the flimsiest of material, across any genre. Poor characters will sink any work, no matter how lofty the aesthetics. Such is the case here. The characters are flimsy at best, out and out bad at worst.
Let's start with Vangorich. I personally couldn't stand the snarky omniscience which Abnett utilized to realize him. Sanders did a much better job; making him what he should be: the smartest man in the room at all times. Sanders' Vangorich is investigating multiple issues simultaneously, and constantly running simulations to determine the best possible assassination options for high-value targets.
Now let's look at Thorpe's Vangorich: he gets verbally manhandled by Lansung not once, but twice in the same debate. Why? His best argument, when seeing that Lansung was gaining too much influence, was to challenge him with something along the lines of "Oh yeah, if this big battle is so important, why don't you just lead the fleet yourself then? Hunh?" Seriously.
Later on, someone is also able to actually sneak up on him. Again, seriously.
I'm not saying this because I have any emotional investment in preserving the integrity of Vangorich's reputation. It's just that if I am to believe that he is capable of doing what the Lexicanum says he is capable of doing, then showing him committing a series of bush-league mistakes isn't the way to do it.
There are some things that didn't sit well with me regarding Esad Wire, aka "Beast Krule", Vangorich's top assassin. Keep in mind that this man is not only a top assassin, but also worked for years with the Adeptus Arbites in some pretty seedy areas. And yet, during a briefing with his boss, he seems surprised that he should keep tabs on an Inquisitor, because, "she's on our side, right?"
No. You assume that no one is on your side. I know that and I'm not even an assassin.
Later, he draws a blank at a name which turns out to be Wienand's body double. Don't ask me to believe that the fact that there are body doubles in play wasn't part of the Officio Assassinorum's intel packets. If the Assassins are using intricate camouflage, body doubles, and Mission Impossible-style face masks, you have to assume that the other guys are too.
Rule 1: Trust no one.
Rule 2: Assume that the enemy has the same (if not better) resources at their disposal that you do, and approach them as necessary.
As far as the Navy storyline is concerned, the characters were enjoyable. A lot of the focus is on a Captain named Kulik, and his First Lieutenant, Shaffenbeck.
My issue with these characters is that they feel somewhat manufactured. They are cobbled together with all the qualities that the author assumes makes them likable; the are always capable, tough when they need to be, caring without being soft, able to hold their own in a fight, and they always have a cutesy remark to make at just the right time to break the strict pressure of command. Don't get me wrong; it's entertaining. It makes their scenes very readable. But they never feel like "real" people.
While I'm talking about them, it reminds me of another issue I have with the book....the tone.
Often, during the Navy scenes, even though what I am reading can be called good ship warfare, and even good sci-fi, it doesn't feel like Warhammer 40K. I get it that Thorpe wants us to see Kulik as a noble man in the midst of a vainglorious Navy, but his concern for his men goes beyond a believable norm. The fact that he outright balks at the thought of an Admiral friend being comfortable with maneuvers that would cost lives is pretty funny. Noble commander or not; there is a basic tenet in all military service that your troops are disposable resources. You know that your moves will put a set number of them at risk; your charge is to minimize that loss.
That's pretty much it with my assessment of the characters. I should mention that some of Koorland's dialogue is fairly treacly as well.
I can see now how some might have a problem with Thorpe's writing style. He does indulge quite a bit in the wordy descriptions of backgrounds, clothing, etc. This doesn't bother me per se, but it becomes an issue when there are situations where more detail would've been greatly welcomed. For example, when armsmen on the ship are heading off to repel boarders, we get a full paragraph describing their uniforms; from the stripes on the pants to the piping on their jackets. Great! I love detail like that. On the other hand, a lot of the description of the ships is simply boiled down to what class they are. Think of some of the amazing design work on Imperial Navy ships; why not spend a few paragraphs on contours and crenellations and whatnot. Also, even though Thorpe describes some of the orky ships (and the attack moon) quite well, why not some more details of their pugnacious, haphazardly jerry-rigged monstrosities? I mean, the orks do these things to such great excess that an author should be like a kid in a playground when tasked with describing them all.
One issue I did have with the writing here: exposition. When Thorpe wants to convey an idea, he does not demonstrate it, he does not imply it, he outright explains it. In excrutiating detail. For example, when describing how the Senatorum is supposed to work, he mentions that the end result is something ideally similar to a system of checks and balances. He then explains, in full detail, what a system of checks and balances is. This is done often through the book.
I don't want to complain about that too much. I think to myself; if I got this book when I was, say, 10 or 12, like many are when they get into 40K, I'd probably find it all pretty informative and feel a bit smarter after reading it. So, I understand that there is a sizable swathe of the potential reading audience that this style might resonate with. If you aren't in that slice of the pie chart, consider yourself warned.
I know, there's a lot of nit-picking here; but for the most part, I enjoyed the read. The only section which I'll say I really didn't care for was the "Wienand Chase Sequence".
But, other than that, The Emperor Expects has a lot going for it. There is great pacing; with a nicely balanced ratio of action to story advancement. Thorpe paints backgrounds and realizes people and places with aplomb; he has been an influential force in crafting this universe for many years. This is where all of that detail has a definable, enjoyable yield.
And, it all ends with a nifty cliffhanger.
Looking forward to The Last Wall.
I like these covers, but I'm not sure who this is supposed to be. Is it Admiral Lansung (too skinny)? Is it Beast Krule (why the uniform)? Is it Admiral Acharya (but he's only a minor character)?
Cover Final Score: