Atlas Infernal Review

This is from Index Nocturnus, whose review and podcast site can be found here.

"Atlas Infernal by Rob Sanders

A 40k novel review by Sam.

Before I start this review, I just want to go on record in saying “Well done Black Library!” “What’s that?” you gasp, “That’s it, he’s finally lost it…” But no! There hasn't been a pure Inquisitorial story since the on-going Eisenhorn/Ravenor/Pariah cycle, and it was a long time between drinks for the last part of that. Prior to Abnett’s masterwork (which I am an unabashed lover of and I believe puts Gaunt in the shade), you have to trek all the way back to Ian Watson’s Jac Draco novels, including their belated omnibus release a few years ago. This is truly bizarre, as Inquisitors are walking story generators and the scope they can bring to a plot is truly unique, outside the usual meatgrinder bolter-porn we are used to from the majority of Black Library books. The concept of ‘Inquisitor’ is so perfect that none other than Lois McMaster Bujold, the First Lady of science fiction, came up with a laboriously tortured ‘Imperial Auditor’ title and backstory for Miles Vorkosigan so he could go off and have adventures (wielding power) in exactly the same way as 40k Inquisitors do by rote. So three cheers for the Black Library in re-introducing this unique aspect of the 40k universe with this novel.

The roots of Atlas Infernal are obvious, and I have mentioned its antecedents in the preceding paragraph. At some points during this novel, I envisioned Sanders grabbing one each of the omnibuses mentioned above, dipping them in acid (the kind that makes you see pink elephants), and then stirring them together in a cauldron, to see how the elements bubble in a new way. First we have Czevak’s trip to the Black Library (Draco did that), and his intermittent battles/rescues with Harlequins (Draco too), while flying all over the galaxy with a Rogue Trader (Eisenhorn) and a Daemonhost (Eisenhorn again), a crazy Navigator (back to Draco), discussing plot points with an inanimate daemon-object (hand up at the back, yes, Gregor and the Pontius); using nulls to kill stuff (Eisenhorn, Ravenor, Bequin), while a Monodominant Inquisitor sort of swings in at the last minute to provide a foe (Eisenhorn); a corrupt Marine (Draco, Eisenhorn in Pariah), hot psyker chicks (Ravenor), and hot Assassin chicks (Draco). Given this list, you scream “Derivative! Get Ye to a Sister Hospitaler nunnery!” (with a grail-shaped beacon … it is a silly place). But no, the whole thing sort of gloms together and works, forging a unique vision from a pile of stewed ideas. And if you are going to steal, steal from the best.

The first chapter of the novel is so ridiculously dense that it took me two or three tries to actually get into this book. The reader is bombarded with a plethora of Inquisitor names, planet names, festival names, ship names, conflict names and non-standard 40k terminology (nexomat, anyone?) and info-dumps about the main characters. By paragraph four, you are assailed with a potted history of the Relictor Space Marine Chapter, and the whole mass is really difficult to absorb (although that could be my poor small brain). Plus the chapters are broken down into Acts and Cantos like it is Dante or Chaucer and not military sci-fi. But we are used to the chapter name flourishes since (you guessed it) Eisenhorn, when Abnett would break down the three acts of each chapter in little snippet headings, for no apparent good reason except He Thought It Was Neat.

Czevak is removed from play and exeunts to the Black Library (literally, not the company in Nottingham, although that would be cool). His long-suffering Interrogator Klute is promoted to Inquisitor during the years of Czevak’s absence, and spends his time roaming the Eye of Terror looking for his erstwhile master. But then the thing takes off! Sanders probably also threw a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy into the mix. You have gag names – Bona Phidia? Epiphani? You have the funniest Freudian cyber-skull in the history of 40k, you have a warp-seer with a fashion fixation, Chucky the child-Daemonhost (he is supposed to be older but I imagined Chucky) and Savlar Chem-Dogs – the most bumbling, hysterically funny Imperial Guard force ever to grace the pages of a Codex. Plus hot vampires and Harlequins and the anti-hero of the piece, Czevak, whose dialogue is just a collection of one-liners strung together. I was 5/5 Gaving and slavering for more.

Czevak is discovered, having escaped the library; and we are told, almost in passing, that Ahriman of the Thousand Sons is after him because of the valuable information in his head, which he absorbed eidetically in the library due to a ‘meme-virus’ which allows him to record all data, like a savant (oh, add that to the ‘pinched’ list under Eisenhorn’s savant, Amos). ‘Meme-virus’ is a very non-40k concept; I was looking up my back issues of Transmetropolitan for something similar, as it sits much better in the scarily advanced technological society of Spider Jerusalem than the quasi-religious arcana of the 41st millennium. I am not sure the Mechanicus Biologis would approve of meme-viruses. The question of ‘what should be part of the Warhammer universe?’ can be extended into another, completely different popular science fiction franchise: imagine a character wearing a very weird and clashing Technicolor Dreamcoat, exiled from his race, with a line in pithy comments, who refuses to use guns but has no problem with his companions blazing away, who can travel in space in time, is continually getting younger (albeit this is liable to change at Christmas 2013), and uses his brains and knowledge to battle terrible enemies. Remind you of anyone?

Then we are off into a surreally executed and amazingly convoluted plot without actually seeing Czevak’s confrontation with Ahriman happen. Okay, take a breath, regroup, because here we hit the biggest problem with Rob Sanders’ writing. His first novel, Redemption Corps, was told in these giant big fat chapters that bounced around between a squad of Imperial Guard escaping from a prison and alternating with the greater plot, which involved Genestealer Orks. I hated it (1½/5 Gavs – see, two reviews for the price of one!). I thought Sanders had only just discovered the colon (:), and he thought an elliptical plot structure seemed a good excuse to write a 30,000 word first chapter, as Black Library at that time were only accepting Chapter 1 of finished novels under their submission guidelines. I thought the ellipsis was unnecessary, the huge chapters weighed the whole thing down and the experiment failed to go off. And we have a similar problem with Atlas Infernal. The core narrative is intercut with pretentious ‘Interregnums’ (interludes, for the rest of us), that zap us back to the stuff that happened to Czevak between him being taken to the Black Library and being restored to Klute and company. Which means that although Ahriman is the primary bad guy of the piece, you only find out why and how in the middle of the third act. This means that Czevak's motivation for two acts is based on him saying “Oh yeah, and Ahriman doesn’t like me.” I don’t know if Sanders thinks that intercutting between past and present makes the narrative more Prestigious and Important to go with his Cantos, like when Iain M. Banks does it (although he does it properly), because he seems pathologically unable to write a story from beginning to end without hopping about all over the place like a kangaroo on roids. Lack of motivation ends in confusion from the reader, and that is a potentially mortal wound for a novel like this.

We also have a ‘Coruscating Clause’ list (see the Index Nocturnus Rules section) – Sanders gets fixated on a single word and decides to use it repeatedly in one section, then never again: “They walked down the twisted tunnel, which was twisting away.” Words include ‘colossal,’ ‘infernal,’ ‘ferrouswood,’ 'lancet' and ’argent.’ In the ‘Pros’ column are some sensational created words, including ‘gorespittle,’ ‘automatron,’ ‘industriascape’ (actually, lots of things –scape),’ ‘dia-log,’ ‘immateriology,’ and ‘adamanticlad.’ We love created words, and these really pep up the narrative; Sanders really took the breaks off with these, and they are incredibly inventive.

Some plot holes do open in a story so serpentine, the basic one involving a webway portal that Czevak keeps on the Rogue Trader’s ship, which fortunately does not look like a blue box. He has a book allowing him to navigate the webway with pinpoint accuracy, he has a webway portal, yet the ship flies practically up to the front door of an Inquisition base so he can walk through the webway and out of the portal in its basement. Why? So they can be chased out of the system with much action and hi-jinks. Czevak could have parked anywhere, on some backwater planet or just randomly in space, gone through, come back and got on with it. But then we wouldn’t have the exciting Star Wars space escape from the Death Star. Apply the ‘webway’ rule to a lot of the plot contrivances and the whole structure starts creaking under its own spaghetti weight.

As you may surmise from this novella of a review, I am seriously conflicted about Atlas Infernal. The set piece action sequences are a lot of fun, particularly the Nurgle-world blimps (everything is better with blimps) and the Khornate kamikaze-starship. The daemonic artifact and its clues are extremely clever, as is the alien-autopsy-on-daemons conceit that causes a lot of the plot. This also reminded me of Douglas Adams: the zillion ideas just burst to life and are so far from the mundane of Black Library fiction they are a credit to a speculative author. I had to go and lie in my hermetically sealed isolation tank for a while, mulling the bizarre, derivative yet original, clunky yet elegant, binary opposed contents of Sanders’ cauldron.

And the final score: 5 Gavs, -2 for the narrative structure, +2 for getting this flawed gem through the publishing process, +½ for making me giggle and gasp and be enthralled by 40k fiction again = 4 1/2. More where that came from Rob, I will eat it up with a spoon."

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