Monday, November 18, 2013

Battle for the Abyss by Ben Counter

Battle for the Abyss by Ben Counter is the eighth book in the Horus Heresy series published by the Black Library. A synopsis can be found here. Abyss is an ambitious novel that shifts away from planet-wide narrative scope and instead focuses heavily on a small, mixed Legion group of Loyalists. Abyss largely fails in this endeavor, resulting in a clunky book that fails to connect with the larger Horus Heresy series. Worst of all, it fails to capture the unique flavor of the Horus Heresy time period.

Abyss’ bright spot is the characterization of the Thousand Son, Mhotep, and the World Eater, Skraal. This is the first time individuals from either Legion have been covered in any detail. Mhotep in particular was very interesting. The inherent nobility and sense of sacrifice that is intrinsic to the Space Marine character was on full display. The tiny details of his preparation were a fascinating counterpoint to the traditional Space Marine preparation and really brought home the sorcerous nature of the Sons of Prospero.

The characterization of the Ultramarines and Space Wolves unfortunately falls flat. The core issue is that very little is done to differentiate the Horus Heresy era Ultramarines and Space Wolves from the 40K equivalents. It creates a cognitive dissonance that is a constant drag on the story. Compounding this issue is the tendency by Counter to tell and not show in regards to the loyalist character development. Cestus in particular falls afoul of this issue. The end result feels like 40K Space Marines have been transported back in time to the Horus Heresy. Lost is the chance to highlight the subtle differences between 30K Legions and 40K Chapters.

The low point of the novel's cast of characters is the Word Bearers. As the novel’s antagonist, they fail to add much to the story. The Furious Abyss itself is a better villain, and its sinister purpose remains the only effective sense of agency. The Word Bearers themselves are almost criminally inept and border on parody.

The greatest flaw of Abyss is its structure. In particular there is a nasty habit of breaking the narrative tension through deus ex machina moments, cutaway scenes, and abrupt plot changes. I am fairly tolerant of deus ex machina moments. But, there were a few in Abyss that were simply excessive. In particular Cestus, Brynngar, and Skraal miraculously reuniting at the closing moments of the story bordered on comical.

The cutaway scenes were particularly grating and excessive. The tendency to break the flow of key scenes was even worse. Just as various plot threads were reaching culmination, Counter would frequently break to a cutaway scene that I presume was meant to add depth via a metaphorical philosophical point. Instead of adding depth, it simply deflates the scene, draining it of its tension. The worst offence is when these cutaway scenes hide the death of key characters. Breaking the scene, killing a character out of frame, and then returning back to see the aftermath nearly caused me to put the book down it irritated me so much.

The novel’s greatest flaw is its puzzling and sudden breaks in plot. Just as events seem to be coming to a head, they suddenly fizzle out and transition to several chapters of tedious plot development. Whether it be the original assault on the Furious Abyss, the conflict at Bakka Triumveron, or the final warp passage, each build to a crescendo only to then abruptly stop. The novel feels like several short stories stitched together. The plot is wildly uneven in terms of pacing as a result. It also makes the novel feel repetitive and tedious as the plot essentially repeats itself several times. The protagonists attempt to board the Furious Abyss several times, fail, retreat, and try again.

The end result is an underwhelming novel. Battle for the Abyss attempted to present a change of pace, devoid of Primarchs, Chaos Gods, Emperors of Mankind, etc. In doing so, Abyss attempted to place the spotlight on a small group of Space Marines and how their actions changed the course of the Imperium. It is a very interesting premise. Yet, the novel fails to execute this vision. The novel’s structure and character development are simply insufficient to sustain it. Abyss’ bright points are few and far between. For die hard fans of the Warhammer 40K setting, the book is a worthwhile read simply due to its importance to the settings canon. For all other readers, skip it for the far superior Mechanicum by Graham McNeill.

Black Library: Battle for the Abyss by Ben Counter
Review Copy: Self Purchased
Image Source: The Black Library
ISBN: 9780857870339

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