Thursday, 1 September 2011

Battle for the Abyss (Book Review)

A forewarning to all about to read this article: The book i’m about to cover is widely despised throughout the fanbase. As such this won’t be a traditional review so much as an answer to many criticisms. Before reading this I would suggest looking for a few negative reviews to understand how people see this novel.
This is also going to be the last Warhammer review for quite some time as Space Marine comes out on the 6th, so we’ll soon see if it stands up to its hype or not. Until then, enjoy.

The Book’s Plot

It starts when the Heresy has just been put into motion. Not everyone is aware of Horus’ betrayal due to problems with communications and the Warp, isolating many of the Imperium’s defenders. The largest of the Space Marine legions, the Ultramarines, are located far from Terra and not knowing Horus’ treachery have followed his orders to mobilise on the planet of Calth.
One of the traitor legions holding a grudge against the Ultramarines, the Word Bearers, are tasked with ambushing and wiping them out. Commanding the most powerful human warship ever built, the Furious Abyss, a detachment of Word Bearers are directed to spearhead the attack.

Encountering an Ultramarines warship by chance, the Fist of Macragge, the Abyss destroys it en route to its target but an astropathic death scream alerts loyalists on the Vangelis star port to what’s happened. Responding to this apparent threat, an honour guard of Ultramarines along with Space Wolves, World Eaters and Thousand Sons band together. Forming as strong a fleet as they can and hunt it down.
It is not long before they uncover the true scale of the enemy they face and even as alliances break down the astartes are forced into a desperate race against time. One in which the entire outcome of the Heresy could hinge upon their victory.

What Worked?

What worked the most in this book was combining together characters of very contrasting background. Each of the legions are total opposites of one another and it helps to give a more varied cast of characters. The story does not specifically focus upon the differences, but uses it to further the characters. This a missed opportunity in a lot of the earlier Horus Heresy books or overlooked entirely, but in Battle for the Abyss it’s given the right amount of focus.
It’s especially effective when trying to highlight some of the more noble aspects of the Ultramarines in comparison to the Emperor’s other servants. Something which I think they needed considering how commonplace their chapters are in the current timeline and allowed for a much more diverse cast of characters.

There are also some good descriptions given to all the loyalist legions within the books. The Space Wolves are more or less the same as the ones in the 41st millennium but we get some good impressions of their more spiritual nature. The World Easters are frequently focused upon as full blown berserkers who are more bloodthirsty than Klingons on a ‘roid rage. And the Thousand Sons are depicted as being detached, calculating and more willing to go against their orders if they think it is the right choice.
All of them get some very characterising moments, especially the Thousand Son leader, which seems to reflect more upon the individual characters than the legions they represent. Something which is good as it makes them feel more like characters than just symbols for each space marine faction.

What helps perhaps the most with having the multiple perspectives is how they view the Thousand Sons and the Warp. As a result of the Council of Nikea and the Emperor’s lies the book makes it clear that almost none of them have any idea of just how perilous Warp travel is, and just how necessary psykers are to their survival.

As is it should be with all books in this series, Battle for the Abyss feels extremely pessimistic. Right from the first engagement the heroes are clearly the underdog and at no point do they ever achieve anything which can be called a victory until the very end. Counter’s long experience with displaying the very bleak and failing aspects of Warhammer made him the perfect person for this, and he does build up an extremely grim atmosphere.
The battle scenes are viscerally detailed in his usual style, with explosive engagements on both sides and some extremely descriptive engagements between both sides. The highlight of the whole book is definitely its endgame because of this and the pitch battle in attempting to bring down the Furious Abyss is suitably violent.

As for the Furious Abyss itself, it actually makes the Word Bearers much more intelligent than the Collected Visions had depicted them. Previously it was suggested that the vast majority of the legion, thousands of warships, somehow managed to sneak into the Ultramar system and ambush the entire Ultramarines legion. In addition to this, rather than just bombing all 300,000 of them from orbit, the Word Bearers landed and then proceeded to take them on in open battle.
The novel reveals that this was a desperate gamble and what the original plan involving the Furious Abyss was, it makes them look much more cunning and a lot more intelligent. They had never intended to face any of the Ultramarines in an open battle and would have killed the entire legion in a single strike were it not for the novel’s protagonists.

Where Did It Fail And Why Was It Badly Received?

I think it was so badly received for two main reasons. The first was the author Ben Counter. Counter has extremely contrasting views of his works within the fandom. Some love him and some hate him, with there being no middle ground. So upon hearing that he was making this book some fans would have already written it off in an instant.
The second is due to the way Counter writes his characters. In his books there are never any noble or actually good characters, many of them are only slightly better than the villains. Concerned with holding the Imperium together, survival or revenge. He was simply the wrong person to do a book about the blue-blooded Ultramarines.

Another problem was the setting. This was the first time the Ultras from the Great Crusade were depicted in any novel and we only see a small isolated group of them. Unlike the Horus trilogy, Fulgrim, or any other book in the series we see nothing of the actual legion itself or even any sign of their primarch. This means besides the most basic of aspects of the legion, we see very little of what they were like. In fact the Ultras just come off much like their current selves in the 41st millennium. We learn more about their leader, Cestus, in a few pages than we ever do about his legion.
Actually, we’re given more details about the World Eaters than the Ultramarines in this novel. It’s not a good thing when the secondary characters are given more details and prove to be more interesting than the protagonists.

What’s more is that the combat, while well written, does become repetitive before the end as the space marines keep fighting one another in very similar ways. The heroes always attempt to directly board the Abyss and fight their way on it, the villains always use the Warp in some way against them. Either through daemonic threat, psychers or causing shockwaves in the Warp itself to slow down the pursuing ships.

Speaking of the villains, I will address one common complaint here: the portrayal of the Word Bearers. Many people complain that the book is too black and white in its portrayal of the heroes and villains. This is perplexing for two reasons, the first being that all of the Word Bearers we’ve seen, admittedly mostly Erebus, have all been utter monsters with no ambiguity about them. The second being that this is supposed to be the legion behind the downfall of the Emperor, the first one to fall to Chaos, the first one to begin setting the stage for Horus’ fall, the first one to actively make deals with the Warp.

That being said, the Word Bearers here are moustache twirling generic villains. They don’t stand out enough and they simply don’t have enough impact to be truly memorable in any way. While they are competent fighters, they do make some intelligent decisions, they also make some incredibly stupid ones and don’t have a defining characteristic. They aren’t shown to worship Chaos; they seem to treat daemons more as tools rather than aspects of their gods. They come across as being more like the Black Legion than they do religious fanatics.
Even during the final moments of the book they do nothing to help make them stand out and they just seem like basic stock characters. It’s something which is all the more noticeable when compared to the larger than life heroes of the book.

Is it worth reading?

There’s no doubt that Battle for the Abyss is one of the weaker books of the Horus Heresy but it’s not the abomination people seem to think it is. It’s an average Black Library story and only seems to be bad in comparison to previous books in the series. Had it not directly followed epics like Fulgrim, were there not so high expectations being placed upon it, the novel would likely be much better received.

I’d suggest giving it another shot and reading it as an entirely separate story rather than a direct part of the Heresy.
It’s easy to breeze through the book in a few hours straight, and I think that’s how it was intended to be read. Go into it with no preconceptions and it can prove to be an enjoyable if somewhat forgettable action novel.


Warhammer 40,000 and all related characters and media are owned by Games Workshop and Black Library.

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