A Somewhat-Twisting Maze of Secrets – A Review of Pariah by Dan Abnett

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I’m one of those readers who enjoys a good twist in any story I’m reading. I like it when authors surprise me with something completely out of left field, when they catch me off-guard with something. I like it that way because I have a tendency to guess what will happen next – the result of reading far too many mysteries at a rather young age, I suppose. I’m willing to make room for certain genre conventions (such as the happily-ever-after for a couple in a romance novel), but any time the author does something I don’t expect, it makes me a very, very happy girl.

Of course, those twists and turns have to actually make sense, or else they come off as silly. Twists just for the sake of them aren’t any fun at all, and I hate pointless twists almost as much as I love a good, appropriate one. It really just depends on how the technique is used: used badly, a plot twist can make me groan in annoyance, but used well, and it can have me resisting the urge to scream at my book in a complex mix of emotions that can be very hard to describe except in the elegant language of keysmash.

Here’s the interesting thing, though: some books can have a bit of both. Some of the twists can be good, and some of the twists, while not bad, are poorly-placed. When that happens, it becomes a question of which there were more of in a book, along with the usual questions about characterization, plot quality, and so on. And though I can say that though Dan Abnett’s Pariah has both, the good mostly outweighs the bad – and that’s quite fortunate.

Pariah is the first book in the Bequin trilogy, Abnett’s conclusion to his Eisenhorn and Ravenor trilogies, and like those two trilogies is set in the Warhammer 40000K universe. The main character and narrator is Beta Bequin, a pariah, or Blank, who has the power to nullify psychic energies. At the school called the Maze Undue, she is trained in the arts of infiltration and deception, and she awaits the day that she can leave the school and become a productive servant of the Imperium. However, all is not as it seems, and Beta slowly comes to realize that something far darker, and far more dangerous, is afoot – and that everything she always believed to be truth, might in fact not be quite what she thought it to be.

One of the things I liked about the Eisenhorn trilogy – and what I missed in the Ravenor trilogy – was a compelling, distinctive narrative voice. As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, this is something I look for anytime a novel is narrated from first-person perspective: if I can’t stand to listen to the person telling the story, why should I even bother reading the rest of the book? Abnett’s already proven he can write a compelling first-person narrative voice in Eisenhorn, and since I didn’t get that in Ravenor I kept my fingers crossed that I’d find it in Pariah.

Fortunately, I did. Beta’s narrative voice is a good, solid one, and distinct (thankfully enough) from Eisenhorn’s, and very distinct from Ravenor’s (not that Ravenor got to do much narrating in his books). The reader gets a sense of who she is from the way she speaks, which I think is crucial in any first-person narrative because it’s so easy to assume that the narrator isn’t telling the truth. In my review for Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind I mentioned that it was quite clear from Kvothe’s narration that he wasn’t telling the whole truth, and Rothfuss certainly implies the reader must not take everything he says at face value via Kvothe’s own narrative voice. Beta’s voice, on the other hand, presents her as a strong young woman who is willing to do what is necessary, and willing to face headlong whatever challenges lie ahead of her, and with very little reason to conceal anything about herself, what she’s done, and what she’s about to do. This bodes well for the next book, considering that things will start building to a head by then.

As for the story itself, it’s rather slow to start, unlike the two trilogies that precede it. This is hardly a problem for me, as I’m very much used to that kind of thing happening in the books I read, but if the reader is coming to Pariah straight from the Eisenhorn and Ravenor books, the might still be too used to the more fast-paced development in those two series and may find that Pariah is not to their taste. But abandoning it for that reason alone would be a mistake, because things really start to get going by the latter third of the novel, with everything happening almost at once – which may or may not be a good thing, or rather both, in my opinion.

Now, on to the plot twists that are scattered throughout this book. For the most part, they’re good, but I do think that some of them could have used some work. For instance, I think that the reveal regarding Beta’s true identity could have been done much further into the book: if not towards the end, then at least midway through, as opposed to the first third of the novel. Learning that she’s not the Alizebeth Bequin from the Eisenhorn trilogy would have been far more interesting had that information been revealed when Eisenhorn himself was around, or at least at some point further in the novel than the point at which it appears.

In any case, a lot of other reviewers appear to be disappointed by the fact that she isn’t the original Bequin. I, for one, don’t care, since Beta isn’t half-bad as a character in her own right (pending further developments in the two remaining novels, of course), plus I appreciate that Abnett makes sure that when a character is dead (barring any interference from external forces), they stay dead. It’s so ridiculously easy for authors to pass characters through the metaphorical revolving door of life and death, especially when the setting is like that of the Warhammer 40K universe, in order to play to readers’ sympathies, but I’m glad Abnett doesn’t go that way. Alizebeth Bequin is dead, and she’s not coming back; Beta’s her clone, and she’s the one who’s around now, so deal with it.

Another thing about Beta that some readers don’t like much is how she’s “taken the stage” from Eisenhorn and Ravenor. Again, I don’t care, partly because Beta is a decent character, and partly because it’s high time a woman took the stage in this series, especially after what Abnett did to Patience and Kara in the last Ravenor book. Of course, how long Abnett can keep writing Beta as a decent character remains to be seen; in fact, some aspects of her characterization are already rather flawed in Pariah itself, but I’m willing to let those slide for now. Hopefully he doesn’t completely ruin her characterization further down the line.

One twist I did find rather questionable was the presence of Chaos Space Marines as primary antagonists towards the latter end of the novel. Talk around the Warhammer 40K fandom is that Abnett is one of those writers who doesn’t use Space Marines gratuitously (or completely mangle their characterization), so I was rather surprised to see not one, but two factions of Chaos Space Marines make their appearance in the latter end of Pariah. I suppose Abnett is looking to up the ante after the events of the previous two trilogies, but I do wonder if he’s making the right decision. Putting Eisenhorn and Ravenor on a collision course with each other, in which only one or neither of them may survive, is exciting enough as it is, so why add Chaos Space Marines to the mix? I suppose only the next two books will tell if Abnett was right to include them after all.

Overall, Pariah is not a bad start to a new series, but that’s all it is: a start. So far, Abnett’s characterization of Bequin is pretty decent and not totally objectionable, and his plot pace, while slow, is quite interesting and promises much in the books to come. Hopefully he doesn’t fall into any of the other issues I’ve had with his characterization of female characters, and hopefully whatever grand plot he has in store doesn’t get away from him too much. Of course, all of this remains to be seen, and I hope that next book comes out because I desperately want to know what will happen next – for good or for ill.

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