Getting Caught in the Crossfire of Good Intentions – A Review of Ravenor Rogue by Dan Abnett

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Cliches become cliches because they’re over-used, but that doesn’t mean they don’t hold a nugget of truth in them: in fact, the reason a turn of phrase becomes cliche in the first place is because it holds so much truth in it that it keeps being used again and again in a variety of situations. In that sense, cliches have a kind of power that makes them difficult to stop using.

The statement “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is a hoary old warning, something everyone has heard in some way, shape, or form throughout life, and it’s something one will continue to hear for the rest of one’s life. It’s meant to prevent one from meddling in another person’s business, a reminder to leave a situation well enough alone unless one is invited to do so. Sometimes, poking one’s nose into another’s business, no matter how well-meaning one’s intentions might be, can prove to be incredibly disastrous – especially if one doesn’t know what one is doing. Actually, even when one thinks one knows what one is doing, it might be best not to interfere. The statement is a reminder that there’s a time and place for everything, and knowing the difference of when to interfere, and when not to, can make a world of difference in a whole host of situations.

There are plenty of examples of this in fiction – really, all one has to do is pick a genre and an author and it won’t be long until one comes across a situation that suits the spirit of the statement. It crops up a lot in nonfiction as well, but I’m biased to its interpretations in fiction because it often comes across as a little less moralistic that way.

At any rate, the latest work of fiction to play with the possibilities of that cliched but very true statement is Ravenor Rogue by Dan Abnett, the third and final book in his Ravenor trilogy. Set several months after the events of the second book, Ravenor Returned, it opens with Ravenor deciding to quit his hunt for Zygmunt Molotch, whom he thought dead at the beginning of the first book, Ravenor, but who was confirmed to be alive in the climax of Ravenor Returned. However, Ravenor is forced to return to Thracian Primaris to answer for his involvement in the destruction of Eustis Majoris, leaving the hunt for Molotch up to another Inquisitor and her retinue. Unfortunately, but typically, things don’t turn out quite as they should, and Ravenor goes on the hunt again – this time as a rogue, since he is conducting it without the permission of the Inquisition. This decision leads him down a dark road that, though there is triumph at the end of it, is also poisoned by trust betrayed and secrets revealed too late.

I found it interesting that, in a way, this novel paralleled Hereticus, the last novel in the Eisenhorn trilogy. Just like his mentor Eisenhorn, Ravenor makes a decision that affects the lives of those around him, and which leads him down a very dark road. The only difference, however, is that due to the choice of narrative perspective Abnett uses for the Ravenor books, Ravenor’s fate is not as clearly telegraphed as Eisenhorn’s in the Eisenhorn trilogy. At the end of the second book Malleus, it’s clear what sort of fate Eisenhorn is going to meet, what course of action he’s going to take, and the events in Hereticus only serve to make clear to the reader just what happens to him, because the reader is already knows what Eisenhorn will do, but not how.

In contrast to that, it is only at the end of Ravenor Rogue that Ravenor’s fate becomes clear – or rather, Ravenor claims to know what lies ahead for him, but it quickly becomes apparent to the reader that his journey hasn’t quite ended yet. There’s a very clear suggestion that whatever befalls Ravenor at the end, it is not what the reader thinks it will be, though how that might be the case isn’t exactly detailed and is left as a cliffhanger of sorts. This comes as no surprise, since Abnett has started writing a third trilogy called the Bequin trilogy, and in the blurb for the first book, titled Pariah, it’s made clear that Ravenor doesn’t exactly meet the fate he suggests he’ll meet at the end of Ravenor Rogue.

And speaking of narrative perspectives, I know that I complained in my review for Ravenor that I wasn’t too happy with Abnett’s decision to swing between third-person limited and first-person for the Ravenor books, but I revised that statement in my review for Ravenor Rogue, saying that once Abnett’s reasons for his decision were made clear, both the second and first books made perfect sense. However, it is in Ravenor Rogue that Abnett’s decision becomes, I think, legitimately questionable. I can understand why a third-person limited perspective would work great for the kind of story he tells for all three of the Ravenor books, but then why still use the first-person perspective at all when third-person limited would do just as well? The only thing that comes to mind that the first-person perspective would be useful for would be the psyker-versus-psyker battles Ravenor has to wage, but even those could have been told just fine from the third-person limited perspective. Even Ravenor’s inner anguish over a whole host of things – from questioning his decisions to wondering at his own envy over Kara’s relationship with Belknap – could have been worked out in third-person limited, without losing any of the power they have in Abnett’s first-person narrative. I’m entirely aware that I might just be nitpicking, but it does make me wonder.

Something I don’t think I’m being too nitpicky about is the way the female characters have been portrayed. I’ve liked Kara Swole since she was first introduced as one of Eisenhorn’s retinue, and I continued to love her throughout the Ravenor series, despite – or perhaps because of – her decision to keep secret something she learned in Ravenor Returned. I did, however, question the point of her relationship with the medicae Belknap in my review for the second novel, and I hoped that it would prove to be something more than just something thrown in for kicks and giggles.

The events in Ravenor Rogue prove my worries were justified. While I am entirely aware of how people can change once they get into a relationship, I’m not entirely sure of how Kara’s relationship with Belknap has changed her from someone who is usually far more sarcastic and sharp and flippant into– Well, someone less all of the above. I know that a great deal of it can be viewed as consequences of the events and decisions she made at the end of Ravenor Returned, but I’m not entirely sure if it’s just that, either. I know that people in love get softer around the edges, but I don’t think someone like Kara Swole, who’s been characterized in a particular way, would get that soft. I also don’t appreciate how Kara’s relationship with Belknap is used as a point of angst for Ravenor.

And speaking of angst and Ravenor, I don’t appreciate how Ravenor is a point of angst for Patience Kys, either, all things considered. I know that there’s plenty of angst to be played there, and I really enjoy that kind of thing, but I do expect that any unrequited romances and angst to be done right. Eisenhorn’s angst over Alizebeth Bequin in the Eisenhorn trilogy was done right; Patience’s angst over Ravenor, not so much. I suspect this is because Abnett is trying to write complex emotions from a woman’s perspective, but that’s hardly an excuse: if he couldn’t write it well, why write it at all? Why not just write it from Ravenor’s perspective (and Ravenor does have some unrequited romantic feelings for Patience) and at least get it relatively right? I think this lack of ability to write complex emotions from a female perspective is the reason I have so many issues with his portrayal of Kara in a romantic relationship; it certainly explains a lot about how odd the whole thing feels, at any rate, especially since it’s Kara who narrates that particular relationship.

And then there is Angharad Esw Sweydyr. This is where Abnett’s characterization of women really falls apart, because it’s so very obvious that Angharad is meant to be nothing more than a further point of angst. She is the niece of Arianrhod Esw Sweydyr, Ravenor’s lover who got killed in events just before Ravenor himself got burned and confined to his force chair, and is characterized as being like Arianhrod brought back to life – except now, instead of being with Ravenor, she’s chosen to be with Harlon Nayl, one of the warriors in Ravenor’s retinue. Theirs is one of those passionate affairs that they try to keep secret so as not to hurt Ravenor’s feelings, but of course Ravenor knows about the whole mess, and angsts about it from time to time. Most of the time for Angharad’s sake I wish she had been introduced in some other book entirely, or had simply not been created at all, because she seems like she could have been such a spectacular character in other circumstances – or in the hands of a more capable writer.

The only female who escapes any of the above mess is Maud Plyton, who joins Ravenor’s retinue after the events of Ravenor Returned. In many ways, she is who Patience and Kara were, before Abnett tried to write them having emotional complications, and I’m glad Abnett didn’t try to give her any great emotional entanglements. She’s possibly the only female character on the protagonist side that he hasn’t spoiled.

The only characterization that I really appreciate in this novel isn’t for any of the “good guys,” but instead for one of the antagonists. Orfeo Culzean was introduced in Ravenor Returned, but really comes into his own in this novel. Oftentimes, in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, characters have a very clear moral stand. To illustrate using the Dungeons and Dragons alignments chart: most characters are either Good or Evil, but rarely ever Neutral. Culzean is one of those – the first I’ve encountered so far, actually – who might be considered genuinely Neutral. He pursues his own interests at the expense of everything and everyone else: no one is more important to Orfeo Culzean than Orfeo Culzean, and all his scheming and plotting and manipulating all serve to benefit him, and him alone. I wish there was more of this character type in the Warhammer 40K books, but of course this could just be me and my fondness for rogues coming through – though surely, one book about a heist pulled off by a charming Rogue Trader and her crew would not be too much to ask for?

As for the plot, it’s not as spectacular as the plot for Ravenor Returned, but it serves its purpose – and, more importantly, has quite a few really fun twists that I didn’t really see coming. I thought that the whole plot line involving the magic door was a bit too deus ex machina, but I won’t deny that it was ridiculously fun, and I was reading those parts with a smile a mile wide on my face because it reminded me so very much of Doctor Who – except more prone to error and with far, far more bloodshed.

Overall, Ravenor Rogue is a pretty good conclusion to the series. It’s not as extraordinary as I might have wanted it to be, but it does deliver on its intended purpose, and it is a satisfying-enough read that I can let it stand as a decent conclusion to the entire trilogy. However, it isn’t without its problems, particularly in the characterization of some of the female characters: Abnett proves that he’s not a very dab hand at writing women experiencing complex emotions, and I hope that he learns how to write them well as soon as possible, since otherwise his female characters aren’t all that objectionable. Everything else is relatively tolerable, even fun to a degree, and certainly there’s enough incentive to go and find a copy of Pariah to find out just what happens next to Ravenor and his crew.

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