Sunday, 29 January 2017

Fabius Bile: Primogenitor by Josh Reynolds (Book Review)

Primogenitor is an oddity among Black Library's various series. While you can usually fit one novel or another into a certain category, even when it does come to the often over-saturated astartes books, this one manages to somehow escape this curse. That's neither praise nor a damnation of the work, but the moment you think it's leaning towards a certain typical trope, it immediately veers into something else. Then again, given the protagonists involved and the setting itself, that was likely the whole point.

Set far apart from The Howling Ship, this story ties into a key event within the canon: The Chaos raid upon the eldar craftworld of Lugganath. Having harried and confronted the servants of Chaos for some time, a band of Emperor's Children now seek to lay siege to the city and scour it in the name of She Who Thirsts. However, this is not easy task, as the many weapons of war at the disposal of the eldar can devastate every vessel they throw at it. To overcome this failing, one former Apothecary seeks out one with the dark genius to ensure their victory: Fabius Bile.

Now, let's get one thing clear before we get into the meat of things: This isn't Talon of Horus. That might sound like an odd thing to say, but it's an easy mindset to get stuck into while reading this thanks to the similar plot structure, varied legionaries and direction. However, if you try this you're likely to just end up disappointed. While both are explorations of what can become of the Long War's veterans, the nature of the Eye, daemons and a warrior hunting a single legendary figure capable of granting them victory, the book opts to follow a much darker and far more twisted path than Iskander and his comrades.

Given that Apothecaries are a dying breed among the traitor legions, the book follows their remnants as much as Bile himself. While Bile ultimately drives the story and often takes centre stage, his former apprentice Oleander Koh introduces the story and often has large chapters devoted to himself. It's an odd choice to be sure, but it works to give the story more variety thanks to the fact he's well written and visibly corrupted in a different manner. As with any of the characters present, the nature of his corruption and association with the Ruinous Powers affected him differently, and we more frequently see him taking joys in slight sensations over others. This contrasts him well against the Word Bearer, World Eater and Iron Warriors characters, each of who differs from their usual stereotype in a few ways. It honestly seems as if this book was planned to show as much of the Eye as possible, and a broader variety of the locals, while keeping the tale focused upon Bile itself.

The wandering nature of the book is best seen in its locations and the obstacles put in front of the protagonists. Many chapters are brief pauses as they visit worlds, damnable locations within the Eye or even converse with daemonic powers, turning them almost into a slice of life story at times. A horribly corrupted and twisted beyond recognition to be sure, but there is life here, and the book tries to express this fact. While it thankfully never goes far enough to remove the mystery of the Eye itself, or expresses the point that the entire Eye of Terror is this civilized or mapped network of worlds, what we get is a brief look into how civilization can endure here. The "marketplace" is the most obvious, and the most striking in terms of descriptions, and it manages to hit that exact balance between abstract weirdness and familiarity to make it work here.

More interestingly still, a minor running theme within the book is how the astartes have individually coped with life in the Eye. This is one of the books which seems to have realised best that no single legion is still whole, and many are effectively cultures unto themselves. So, when Bile and co, do arrive with the remnants of several companies, they're presented as having diversely altered and shifted away from even what the typical Slaaneshi cultist would view as typical of their kind. Combined with minor comments from the characters themselves - which ranges from a surprising revelation that Bile is effectively an atheist despite all he has seen, and even a few oddities surrounding his creations - it grants more insight than almost any other book in Black Library.

What is perhaps most surprising, however, is that Primogenitor manages to also be one of the funnier releases of late. Please don't misread that, the humour here is often quite dark and barely registers on the Ciaphas Cain (HERO OF THE IMPERIUM!) scale, but there are some genuinely funny moments to offset the darker points. Perhaps two of the best which arise quite early on range from a creation of Fabius repeatedly demanding a Keeper of Secrets leave the their ship, to the death of one slave via their daemon possessed gunship. It manages to strike that careful balance between quirky jokes and serious moments which is rarely found beyond a Discworld book, and it definitely helps make a very dark tale far more manageable as a result.

Still, many of you are likely wondering about Bile himself. Well, the honest truth is that his depiction here is almost as strong as the one from The Howling Ship. He retains the same detached mentality as there, the same polite pragmatism and lack of care for anything beyond his own work, with a few new expressions attached. We see in him what Abaddon would have likely become had he not succeeded in his grand vision; a powerful and very talented man with far too many enemies and too few allies within and beyond the Eye. When dealing with anyone beyond his close knit group of allies - a few of who are even then quite reluctant to follow him - it is almost guaranteed he'll bump into someone who desires his death. While the idea of a renegade among their own kind is admittedly one we have seen before, this take is less Snake Plissken and more John Constantine. Bile is often staying ahead of his foes via a mixture of personal genius, tenacity and his own sharp tongue over unrelenting badassery or unparalleled skill at arms. It's entertaining to read to be sure, but some of you likely paused at the "almost" mentioned above.

While Bile is still an engaging character here, he has lost some of the initial impact of this depiction. It's more stretched out and overexposed at points, and his story does meander a few times too often. This is particularly evident with his introduction, which is brilliant when it comes to its atmosphere, scope and ability to outline the secondary characters; however, when it introduces Bile himself it's oddly toned down. It expresses what he is, and shows his great skill, but it's not quite the stark impression you might want. In trying to express more about him, to shed more light on the character, it unfortunately seemed to stretch the idea, resulting in the story meandering in a few places. So, even when it is well written, certain scenes almost seem as if they're dragging out the tale.

What also doesn't help is how the core story almost seems like an arbitrary addition at times. It's a key event within the legion's history and a long established moment of conflict against the eldar, but all too often it can seem like an excuse to string things along. In fact, it's only mentioned a scant few times throughout the first half of the book, with every other moment focusing more upon weird and wonderful sights of the gigantic Warp storm. Now, while other stories also have the habit of doing this as well, it's usually better worked into a core plot point. Talon of Horus did carry out a similarly loosely linked series of scenes, but many points served to tie into Abaddon's argument and reinforce the book's exploration of the Black Legion's rise. Here it tries to do the same, and somewhat succeeds, but it lacks the more cohesive and strong ties to hold it all together.

However, the final point here might seem as if it's going against the praise offered above: The scenery. What we get is wonderfully weird and warped (or Warped if you want to be pedantic) but it doesn't work it into the story as well as you might hope. Often, there seems to be a divide between the moments where it explores and outlines the setting, and the bits where the story moves forwards. Now, this can work brilliantly with some authors - Graham McNeill and Dan Abnett both come to mind - but it almost seems truncated here somehow. As if, once again, the details weren't being so richly outlined and described as somewhat stretched out for a few paragraphs, before pressing ahead with the story and never using them again. This makes the market have something of a strong start, but the rest of the chapter doesn't quite do enough to really follow up on it. At least perhaps not as well as one would hope.

While there is no denying that The Howling Ship was the stronger story thanks to its tighter focus and surprising twists, Primogenitor is nevertheless a stand-out success. It overcomes many of the expectations you might have for such a narrative and finds a way to make Chaos' followers sympathetic without crossing the line into turning them into borderline heroic figures. You might root for them, you might want them to succeed and even find reasons to be saddened by their deaths. With all that said though, Reynolds isn't ashamed to present many of them as complete bastards or wholesale monsters, and there are still enough villainous moments to make the book seem unashamed of its source material.

If you're a fan of the Night Lords or Word Bearers trilogies, this one is definitely well worth adding to your bookshelf. Or, if you're someone who joined for the Horus Heresy saga and wants to see a book with strong links to that era, but feels like more than just a few years have passed between then and M34, this is also worth picking up. Either way it's a great novel for any 40,000 fan with an investment in Chaos.

Also, as a final note, if you are interested in buying this one, I personally highly recommend the special edition version. It's the one depicted at the start of this article, the thing which looks as if Ash Williams should be trying to destroy it. Even as someone who isn't fond of this stuff, the quality of the cover, extended intro and the additional short story we previously covered makes it well worth the extra cash. Those interested can find it here.

Verdict: 7.5 out of 10

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