I Am Slaughter by Dan Abnett (Book Review)

The span of lore material that any novel, or a series for that matter, that is set in the vibrant chaos of the Warhammer 40,000 can cover is immense. There is a history of millenniums involved and Black Library has done a tireless and amazing job over the years of covering as much material as it can, whether we go back to the earliest days of the setting with the Horus Heresy mega-series or the more carefully planned and executed vignettes set in the 41st Millennium. The wonderful diversity, at its heart, is what makes all of this tick for me, and in that respect, the latest series from the publisher has not disappointed.

I Am Slaughter is the first novel in the Beast Arises series and is written by a veteran of the setting entire, Dan Abnett. Over the years, he has given some of the best work in 40K and I Am Slaughter is no slouch by any means. The story begins with the Imperial Fists Space Marines engaging in a massive planetary attack against a verminous xenos species, and it ends in rather surprising ways. As this is the start of the series, much is left to the reader’s imagination, but Abnett teases enough to keep you hooked and reading all the way through, though there are some rather typical missteps by the master.

Despite being one of the most prominent of the Space Marine Chapters, as they’ve been around since the founding of the Imperium, the Imperial Fists have rarely gotten a platform anywhere near the size of what some of the other major Chapters such as the Ultramarines and the Dark Angels and the Space Wolves have had. And usually they are the butt of a cruel joke as they seem to always die in droves. Coincidentally, Dan Abnett killed an entire company of Fists in the animated Warhammer 40,000 movie Ultramarines which came out in 2010. It was a rather sad affair for the Fists, and it does indeed sadden that they seem to get burdened with such a fate more often than any other Chapter. I Am Slaughter is no different.

The story starts some 2400 years after the Horus Heresy has ended, and relative peace has settled across the Imperium. The horrors of that disastrous conflict are a distant memory and the Imperium prospers even as vast wars are waged to keep it safe. But there is always some trouble that is more than it seems. This is where the Imperial Fists come in, as they deploy to a system six warp-weeks from Terra to eradicate a verminous xenos species called the Chromes. The celebrated defenders of Terra deploy en masse, almost at full chapter strength to prove to the Imperium at large that there are some wars that only they can prosecute. A political maneuver in many ways since the power of the Space Marines is waning in these troubled times. And this is when disaster strikes and the Beast Arises.

The one aspect of I Am Slaughter that I really liked was that we finally got to see the machinations of the High Lords of Terra. In the wake of the Horus Heresy, it was the High Lords who came to wield actual power in the Imperium, representing the most senior of all the institutions of united Mankind such as the Officio Assassinorum, the Imperial Guard, the Navy, the Navigators, the Inquisition and many others, twelve in all. And they’ve always been a rather distant presence in the 41st millennium. The closest we came to see them, IIRC, was in Bill King’s fourth Space Wolves novel, Wolfblade, and that proved to be one hell of a tease.

With Dan Abnett’s customary attention to detail, the High Lords are brought to vivid life and it is very fascinating to see how they function. The twelve members range across all spectra and their politicking makes for a good change of pace from the novel’s action scenes, which are plenty. Sometimes the effect goes too far however, as involves the Grand Master of the Officio Assassinorum, Drakan Vangorich. The narrative angle shifts considerably in his scenes and it is almost as if we are reading one of Dan Abnett’s Inquisition novels, which were very focused on spycraft and espionage in the Imperium at large. And knowing what we do of Vangorich’s later actions through older established lore, this is welcome, but as always the author also focuses on this a little too much to the detriment of the overall plot.

All the same, it was well done and I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing more of this amongst other Black Library. It is unexplored territory, relatively speaking, and I think it would be good for the fans in general since it is a completely different thing to the usual bolter-porn.

As a consequence of Dan’s focus on the High Lords, it is perhaps not all that surprising that these characters are all much more fascinating than the Imperial Fists. This continues the sad trend where the Fists rarely get a good outing unless it is all part of the Horus Heresy mega-series, where they’ve been rather spectacular in all ways. If you’re looking for a novel that solidly explores the Imperial Fists, then you will be sorely disappointed as most of it is just battle scenes with very little in the way of what would pass for an exploration of Chapter culture or mentalities. They are good defenders, which is drilled into you by the characters every so and often, and that’s about it really. Their superhuman psyches don’t offer much in the way of excitement given this approach since the human frailties and politicking of the High Lords offers a completely different narrative. You identify more with it because it is not visceral and in-your-face as reading about a handful of Fists killing Chromes by the dozens.

One of the many ways in which Dan Abnett has set himself apart from the other writers who have contributed to the Warhammer 40,000 setting is the way in which he personalizes the factions that he writes about. He did it with his Gaunt’s Ghosts novels where different worlds got entirely different cultures, with the Ultramarines in his Heresy novels, and more besides. Each Imperial Fist is given an “honorary” name that has something to do with how they perform in a battle or some other significant title. One of our main Fists character in the novel for instance is called “Slaughter” and another is called “Daylight”. The latter has his name because he is the guardian of the Daylight Wall of the Imperial Palace on Terra, while the former has his name because, well, he is good at slaughtering the Chapter’s enemies I suppose. And each company of the Fists takes its name from one of the many locations of the Imperial Palace that the Fists defended during the War on Terra, such as Daylight Wall or Anterior Six Gate.

This kind of personalization has become a little tiresome because it doesn’t offer any nuance into the Chapter. I wanted to read more about the nature of the Imperial Fists and not on some archaic naming convention and philosophy of their Chapter. Additionally, it made for a confusing read since it was hard to actually identify with the characters involved. For the more line-troopers these symbolic names were used but for some of the more high-ranking ones their actual names were used. There was no particular consistency to it, which made for a disjointing read.

However, in all of that, what I liked was how the big reveal of the true enemy is built up. Granted, the methods used by this enemy to wage war on the Imperium are unconventional even for them, but all the same it was a fascinating read. Dan Abnett is good at building up suspense like that in his novels and it definitely shows here. His Inquisition novels, especially the Eisenhorn trilogy, is really good at this and stands as one of the best series from Black Library to date. I was always at the edge of my seat since while I knew what the true enemy was (the cover makes that pretty clear) I wasn’t able to reconcile with what I was reading, and that dichotomy and tension kept me going. Could there really be another player involved? How would that actually play out for our good guys? Could they win through in the end? Would the enemy be all-triumphant.

The release of all that tension comes just a little bit too late because the mystery is dragged out for a few more pages than it needed to. And also because there wasn’t enough depth to the characters who were on ground zero for the entire debacle. But what a release! The true enemy hits out in all of its brutal and animalistic glory and it is fantastic to read. You can just imagine each event as it happens on the pages. The description of the narrative is extremely vivid.

And for all this build-up, the novel ends too soon. I Am Slaughter sets the stage for the rest of the eleven novel in the series, and it does it well enough I suppose but I would have loved to see more for everyone involved. The ending is rather shocking and ominous, as befits a series of this stature and scope with the talent involved, and I wasn’t really prepared for it to end as soon as it did.

Which just goes to show that Dan Abnett crafted a good story and told it well. I am already deep into the second novel Predatory, Prey by Rob Sanders and I am very excited for what is to come. I Am Slaughter has some rough edges to it but seems to be a good intro to the series and since it is an Imperial Fists novel ostensibly on top of that, I’m all for it. In a meta-sense, all the characters were interesting and the human mortals make out like bandits.

Rating: 7/10

More Dan Abnett and Black Library:

  • Eisenhorn vs Ravenor #1: Pariah by Dan Abnett (Review)
  • Thorn and Talon by Dan Abnett (Review)
  • Horus Heresy: Know No Fear by Dan Abnett (Review)
  • Horus Heresy: The Unremembered Empire by Dan Abnett (Review)

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