The post-Heresy mega project The Beast Arises kicked off with I Am Slaughter by Dan Abnett, telling a fascinating new tale of how a resurgent Ork threat threatens the very foundations of the Imperium. Although we start fairly “low-tech” and the Orks aren’t brought out right until the end, the build-up to that moment certainly kept me glued to the pages, and the novel was a great way to get back into the swing of reading Warhammer 40,000 fiction again, as I’d dropped off some years back.
The next installment in this multi-author series, Predatory, Prey is written by Rob Sanders, who has delivered some of my absolute favourite books of the last decade. The novel continues the story of I Am Slaughter, picking up in the wake of the events that followed therein and sets the stage for the return of the Orks as the biggest threat to the safety of the Imperium since the Heresy. While not the knockout I expected it to be, it was still a spellbinding read that touches on many different facets of the conflict and transitions to the larger conflict.
Note: Some minor spoilers from the previous novel and this novel are mentioned here.
As with I Am Slaughter, the second novel jumps all over the place since it deals with not just the Astartes and the High Lords and the tech-priests of Mars, but also with common civilians and law & order officials across the Imperium. Rob Sanders starts off by telling us how dire the resurgent Ork threat is, with the verminous xenos coming out of the woodwork all over Segmentum Solar, annihilating hundreds of worlds and armies and laying siege to hundreds more. The scope of the conflict is not limited to just a few people among the Imperial Fists now or the just the High Lords or even just a few worlds within a single sector. Got to think bigger, much bigger.
The first chapter, while absolutely dense with information on how the conflict has progressed in the days since the horrible debacle at Ardamantua which saw the Imperial Fists and the Navy assets involved in that battle decimated. Panic, shock, desperation, horror. This and more is what the chapter attempts to drive home and Rob pulls it off beautifully. Even as a reader you feel the strength of the narrative when you imagine a true green tide swallowing entire star systems and the Imperium is unable to act because the assaults are hard and fast, leaving little room to react and counter.
And yet, when you take it all together, you also feel a sense of remove, the lack of connection to everything that is going on. The conflict in its entirety is too spread out and there are so many questions that need to be answered such as how the Orks came to possess their new technology and where their seemingly inexhaustible numbers are coming from. Inquisitor Wienand in the first novel seemed to possess some kind of advance knowledge of what would happen at Ardamantua and even that goes unexplained here, when it really matters. In some ways, this approach hammers home the fact that the Imperium is spread out thin and is just too huge for something like this to really have a consequence in the grand scheme of things, and thus the stories told herein seemed petty in comparison.
All the same, that’s not to say that characters’ journeys are any less stirring. The story of Captain Lux Allegra of the Undine Maritime Guard is a particularly stirring one since it focuses on the more average citizen of the Imperium, compared to the focus on the Imperial Fists in the last novel. With her narrative, you have the story of desperation, helplessness, defiance and resignation. For Predator, Prey is not about the triumph of the heroes over the villains, but about how the villains utterly crush the heroes at every instance. It drives home the point that war is a desperate and brutal struggle for survival.
Rob carries over this theme into the narrative of how events unfold on Terra among the High Lords, who are still riven with their petty politics on how to respond to the Ork threat while also maintaining their pathetic shreds of power among the Imperium’s super-elite. It almost makes you feel frustrated that the power struggles would be so paramount at a time like this, but that is indeed what we see here, and while fascinating in its own right, through the character of Grand Master Drakan Vangorich of the Officio Assassinorum, you get to feel a different kind of helplessness and resignation. With the Officio no longer a part of the High Twelve, having been relegated to the sidelines in recent years, his power to affect change is limited and he has to wrestle with how to proceed without completely upending the Imperial government in the process.
Fortunately, even though the Imperial Fists were horrifically decimated at Ardamantua, we have other post-Human heroes to look forward to in this novel. The Fists Exemplar, who are a successor Chapter of the Imperial Fists following the breaking of the Legions at the end of the Heresy, lead the charge against the Orks when their homeworld of Eidolica is threatened by the Orks. Second-Captain Maximus Thane leads his brothers in this battle and it was good to see some good old Space Marine action again. Compared to the all-out assault in the previous novel, this time we have a defensive siege in process and it provides a nice counterpoint to how Space Marines wage war. I really liked Thane’s character and definitely expect more of him in the coming novels.
Thane’s arc also feeds into the hopelessness that is centerpoint in the series so far. One Chapter, a First Founding no less, has been utterly destroyed by the Orks and another is on the verge. How does the Imperium recover? It has already been made clear that the gene-forging technologies of the Great Crusade have either been lost or are on the decline and the Astartes of the current are not the same as those of the past. To see the Astartes brought so low is a gut-punch and I commend Rob on pulling this off so well in the novel.
Another aspect of the novel is when we get to the Mechanics part of the narrative, with the action taking place on the forge-worlds of Incus Maximal and Malleus Mundi as they are invaded by an unstoppable army of Orks. Parts of this narrative were really well-done, such as when Rob goes into the details of how the forge-worlds function and how the Mechanicus responds. But the narrative was also severely limited since we got to see such a small portion of the localized conflict. I wanted to see much more since the way that the Mechanicus fights is so different from that of the Imperial Guard and the Space Marines. To have more scenes actually showing how the Mechanicus resists the invaders would have been very much welcome. However, at the same time, the seeds are laid for a secondary arc where we see that the goals of Fabricator-General Kubik, the head of the Mechanicus Cult, are not so aligned to the goals of the rest of the High Lords and that he is very much off on his own. Where this will go is anyone’s guess, but this certainly spices things up considerably.
Finally, the novel ends on a very surprising note, a development which I did not expect at all given what happened in the previous novel but was hoping against hope would happen. It honestly restored my faith in the series at large, and I’m really glad for it. Of course, I would have preferred for this to have been… expanded but it is what it is, so I’ll take it anyway.
In the end, I think that Predator, Prey is a better novel than I Am Slaughter in some respects, but also very much similar in others. In either case, it is certainly no worse, and with all the new characters and factions introduced to the bigger conflict, the next few books are going to be wild reads for sure. And I hope that the so-called Beast who has whipped the Orks as a race into such terrible frenzy finally makes his presence known as well. The longer he is off-screen, the less a connection I feel to the narrative in general.
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