This is a review of a series of novels based on some British toy miniatures, authored by the guy who brought us the infamously bad Force Works comic series from Marvel. So why in the world should you care?
Because the books in question, the recently-completed Ravenor trilogy from the Black Library, wset in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, exceed their source material by leaps and bounds. They give us fascinating, carefully constructed plots, dazzling action, and characters that, if not well-rounded, are certainly vividly detailed and compelling to follow. Writer Dan Abnett had a popular run on DC's Legion of Superheroes and is writer on Marvel's Nova series with writing partner Andy Lanning. He did a bunch of work in the UK's Doctor Who and 2000 AD comics.
And hey, the source material in question ain't that shabby to begin with.
Tabletop miniatures game aside, the Warhammer 40,000 universe presents the far-future space warfare enthusiast with nearly everything one could want in a story setting. Think of something from the lands of SF, and it's probably already there. It's as if the Empire from Dune (or Star Wars) was invaded by Terminators, Aliens, and the Orcs from Lord of the Rings, and humanity met them in pitched battle for centuries, using everything from starships to telepaths to ground-pounding infantry on countless worlds across the Imperium.
Throw in demons (lesser and greater), giant robots, ancient artifacts from the "Dark Age of Technology," and a nice helping of basic, garden-variety psychopathic and/or megalomaniacal human beings, and you have the biggest SF warfare stew in all of literature.
Of course, all of that would be utterly wasted if the writing were not up to the task. Sadly, much of the Black Library's volumes don't cut the mustard in this regard, and rate as nothing more than cheap tie-in books, designed to help sell more miniatures.
Then came Dan Abnett to the 40K universe.
In the three Ravenor novels (number three, Ravenor Rogue, is just out in hardcover), as in the three critically acclaimed Eisenhorn novels that preceded them, Abnett gives us as our protagonist an Imperial Inquisitor. In the 40K universe, three great varieties of foes menace Mankind: heretics, demons, and aliens. The job of the Inquisitors is to root out all three in holy crusade before they can bring the Empire crashing down.
To do this, they recruit a colorful "warband" of hard-as-nails followers with various abilities (think the whole cast of Farscape, but more serious and less Muppety), they throw their weight and authority around a lot, and they kill a lot of people. An awful lot of people.
Ravenor Rogue finds Inquisitor Gideon Ravenor still hot on the trail of the heretic Zygmund Molotch, who trafficks with demons and aliens and whatever else the kids are doing today. Molotch has escaped Ravenor so many times, one might think him a former member of the A-Team. So now the Empire has ordered Ravenor to pack it in, fold up his tent, and call off the dogs (surely alien, telepathic mutant cyborg dogs, this being the 40K universe).
Ravenor exists as the shattered remains of a man, sealed inside a floating chair but gifted with vast psi powers (think Professor X, but actually sealed inside his floating wheelchair, and with Henry Peter Gyrich's government authority). He's about to comply with his cease and desist orders when, of course, Molotch surfaces once more. Now Ravenor must go (you guessed it!) rogue, to bring down the villain once and for all.
That's all the plot you need. For the plot exists mainly to set up the fantastic action set-pieces, after all. Again, in a lesser writer's hands, this would hardly make for a great read, much less a top recommendation. But here, it works. Oh, but does it ever work.
Those who have read the very worthy Eisenhorn trilogy, which included some of the same supporting characters as these books, might assume we are treading the same ground as before (if they did not follow my advice and actually did concern themselves with the plot). But here, again, Abnett surprises.
The story could have taken a turn toward "Ravenor is pursued by his own people. How will he ever escape and catch the real villain?!" To its credit, the book scarcely touches on this angle at all. Instead, Abnett keeps the focus tightly on Ravenor and his team, and on all the traumas they have to endure to catch up to Molotch and his wealthy sponsor and take them all down.
The final touch Abnett brings to this series, and a nice touch of irony it is, is to set up a number of conflicting agendas and loyalties within the minds and hearts of Ravenor's warband itself. If the job of an Inquisitor is to sniff out any disloyalty, any secret agendas, or any outside infiltration within the general public, what will happen when his own team becomes torn apart by such influences from the inside? Will he notice the symptoms in time? Can he survive all the carnage Abnett is throwing at him long enough for it to even matter?
The Eisenhorn and Ravenor trilogies represent the absolute best level of literature a game company could ask for in its tie-ins. Abnett's books exceed their source material and give readers a vast potpourri of action, characterization, and adventure.
I haven't played this sort of game in years, but I'm not letting that stand in the way of my enjoyment of, say, the moment when Professor X, D'Argo, and Aeon Flux battle a thousand slavering Aliens or a giant demon from Hellboy (or Lovecraft) while rugged troopers rattle away in their Cockney accents and light up the sky with lasers and artillery.
Is it derivative as all heck? Absolutely! Is it fun as anything? You bet! And in Abnett's able hands, it's extremely well-crafted derivative fun.