Searching For a Voice Barely Heard – A Review of Ravenor by Dan Abnett

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During the last few weeks, I’ve hit something of a slump in my reading. Usually I can go through books at a fairly fast clip of a book every week or week and a half, but during this latter half of the year I’ve barely managed to make a book every two weeks. This has a lot to do with the kinds of books I’ve been reading. For the most part, I’ve been happy with them, but there is always something about them that trips me up: some flaw in characterization, or some plot point, that makes me want to take a long vacation by reading something else far less likely to make me feel exhausted and exasperated by the time I get to the end of the book. I was staring reading burnout in the face, and in order to remedy that I chose to reread some old favorites before getting back to the books in my ephemeral and constantly shifting To-Read list.

It was only a few days ago, reading burnout remedied, that I finally got around to picking up a new book. I was a bit tired of fantasy, so although I’d made a promise to my friend Chris to get started on Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles (especially since he’d already read the first two books of Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series at my insistence), I thought it was high time I paid heed to the call of the distant stars and read some science fiction.

Now, I had a choice here: I could start on Dan Simmons’ Ilium duology, which Chris suggested I read because I enjoyed science fiction and Homer’s epic poetry. But I wasn’t really up to that kind of science fiction. I wanted a world I was already relatively familiar with and wouldn’t take too much time sinking into, but I didn’t particularly feel like reentering Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga at the moment. That left me with just Dan Abnett and his Ravenor trilogy, so I picked up the first book, titled Ravenor, and settled in.

The Ravenor trilogy is set in the Warhammer 40,000 shared universe. I’m sure most sci-fi readers have at least heard of it, even if they don’t engage in it, likely because of the recent furor over Games Workshop (the company that owns Warhammer 40K) claiming to hold the copyright on the term “space marine”. The claim is, of course, ridiculous at best, since the term has been around for almost as long as science fiction has been around. Fortunately, the case that started the whole brouhaha has been settled, though the potential for trouble still remains.

The Ravenor books don’t get tangled up in any of that mess, and any Space Marines are kept somewhere in hazy memory and half a galaxy or more away. Instead, they, like the Eisenhorn trilogy that precedes them, focus on another prominent faction of the Warhammer 40K universe: the Inquisition, a group tasked with hunting down and silencing anyone that doesn’t subscribe to the Empire’s religion, which is focused on worshipping the God-Emperor of Terra. There’s a lot that can confuse the reader if they’re using this series as a jumping-off point into Warhammer 40K, so any further explanation they might need or want (or even not want) can be found in the two Warhammer 40K wikis online; I suggest they be used as necessary, but judiciously, as spoilers abound.

The eponymous character’s full name is Gideon Ravenor, who made his first appearance in the second Eisenhorn book Malleus. In that book, Ravenor was burnt almost to death, and though he managed to survive he must now live confined inside a force chair: something like a completely enclosed life-support system that moves around using anti-grav. Under normal circumstances, Ravenor would be forced to retire from his job.

However, that’s not the case, because Ravenor is a powerful psyker (psychically-powered person), and his enfeebled body has only strengthened his psyker abilities because he now has to rely on them for pretty much everything. This means that he continues to work as an Inquisitor – which is where the reader finds him at the beginning of Ravenor: on a world called Eustis Majoris, looking into the trade of a substance called flects. However, what seems like a rather routine investigation soon twists into something else, and his search leads him down a path that may prove far more dangerous to him and his crew than he ever expected.

Since I’ve read the Eisenhorn trilogy, it’s inevitable that I compare Ravenor’s story to that of his former mentor’s, and I have to say, I think I like Gregor Eisenhorn more than Ravenor – at least, in terms of his narrative voice. The Eisenhorn books are narrated by Eisenhorn himself, and though there are occasional slips into third-person limited perspective when another character other than Eisenhorn is narrating that particular part of the story, those parts are few and far between. For the most part, it’s Eisenhorn telling the story, and best of all, he has a strong, distinctive narrative voice – something that’s very important for me when I’m reading something told in first-person point-of-view. Eisenhorn’s narrative style is a mirror of the man himself: serious and determined, but with enough of a sense of humor to find things funny from time to time, and to relate those funny incidents in a manner that can elicit a chuckle or two from the reader.

Ravenor, unfortunately, isn’t like that. The parts narrated by Ravenor himself – again in first-person point-of-view, like the Eisenhorn books – are few and far between, and though those are fun enough to read, they get lost in the third-person limited narrations of the other members of his retinue. By the end of the book, I didn’t think I was as familiar with Ravenor as I wanted to be. I’d come to know his crew, to be sure, and to know something of the enemies he faced and will face further down the line, but the man himself continues to be something of a mystery. I guess that’s acceptable, given that Ravenor’s in that force chair all the time and therefore mystery is a part of his general image, but I did find myself disappointed that I didn’t learn more about him this first book – which means I’m not as attached to him as I’d like to be.

This is completely unlike the Eisenhorn books, wherein I got to know Eisenhorn through the way he told his story, and not just through the story itself. By the time I got to the middle of Xenos (the first book in the Eisenhorn trilogy), I was invested enough in him that the things he did and the things that happened to him genuinely mattered to me, and I wanted to know what would become of him further down the line. That attachment to Eisenhorn was more than enough to see me through the rest of his trilogy to the very tragic end. This also proves that Abnett is more than capable of writing characters in a way that’s capable of hooking the reader all the way to the bitter end, which kind of makes me wonder why he didn’t do that with Ravenor: a character with enough tragic backstory behind him and adventure (and blood and torture and death and all kinds of fun things) ahead of him that, by rights, he ought to be compulsively readable – but he’s not. The members of his crew are all a fascinating lot (especially the girls, Patience Kys and Kara Swole), but Ravenor himself is, sadly, rather bland for my tastes.

Aside from that, though, the rest of the book is actually quite fun – especially since it goes into territory that wasn’t covered in the Eisenhorn books. As I mentioned earlier, Ravenor is a powerful psyker, and that power isn’t used just for making things levitate and pushing himself around in his force chair: he can fight with them too, and when he does, he’s utterly terrifying to behold. It’s part of the reason why he doesn’t regret the loss of his body much: his psyker powers are more than adequate for him to continue on fighting, whether physically or against other psykers. There are a handful of psyker versus psyker battles in the novel, and those are reminiscent of the battle of Proteus and Menelaus from Greek mythology, or the many djinn versus djinn battles in the Arabian Nights, in the best possible way. They prove that Abnett’s capable of writing a good fight wherever he chooses to set it: physical realm or ethereal realm, it doesn’t matter, Abnett’s got it covered.

As for the plot itself, it’s rather slow to start, and feels rather small, especially when compared (again) to the first book of the Eisenhorn trilogy. It’s interesting, to be sure, and quite a fun thing to read, but it just feels like it could have been a far larger, grander creature than it is. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I did rather feel the lack. My friend Steven (who got me into Warhammer 40K in the first place) has reassured me that the Ravenor series is really slow to start, and as someone who’s read more than a few series that are slow to start, I can live with that, so I’ll let this particular aspect slide as long as the other books in the series can deliver.

Overall, Ravenor isn’t the most promising beginning for a new series. Ravenor himself lacks a distinctive voice, which I find invaluable in a story told from the first-person perspective, and though the other characters make up for his relative reticence, the reader gets to the end and still feels as if they don’t really know Ravenor. This may or may not have been intentional, but I, for my part, wish that Abnett had given his own main protagonist more airtime, just so the reader can really, truly get attached to him and care about what happens to him further down the line. The other characters can potentially make up for this weakness, but it’s certainly not enough: after all, the series is called Ravenor for a reason – it’s just that the reason doesn’t seem very obvious in this first book.

Despite that hitch, though, everything else is quite fun to read, if one doesn’t mind shades of purple prose (which is pretty much de rigueur for any book written in the Warhammer 40K universe, so it shouldn’t be held as a mark against the Ravenor series). The plot might seem a bit small at first, though this might only be a problem for those who’ve read the Eisenhorn trilogy and know what those books are like. Otherwise, it’s a pretty fun ride, and promises much for the next book, which will – hopefully – take care of the issues this book has, and prove that this is a series really worth getting into.


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