Thursday, 23 June 2011

‘Atlas Infernal’ – Rob Sanders (Black Library)

Rob Sanders is one of those authors where I’m all geared up to love his work and then he does one little thing that leaves me suddenly unsure whether I actually do or not. This is all the more surprising seeing that he’s only written the one novel that I’m aware of. ‘Redemption Corps’ was a great read for a whole number of reasons (you’ll be pleased that I’m not going to repeat myself, check out my review Here instead) but then Sanders decided to introduce a level of detail that was great at showcasing the complexity of the Imperial Guard but no so great at all in terms of letting the story breathe and do all the things that it was there to do. Some you win and some you lose I guess.
A couple of very good short stories later though and I was more than ready to give Sanders another shot with ‘Atlas Infernal’, his take on some of the machinations of the Imperial Inquisition. Sanders has more than proved that he can ‘do dark’ and it doesn’t get a lot darker in the Imperium, of the 40th Millennium, than the Imperial Inquisition...

Inquisitor Bronislaw Czevak cannot make a single step without being hunted by some of the most powerful men (and aliens) in the Imperium. Not only does Cvezak carry the knowledge of the Eldar Black Library in his head but he has also stolen the Atlas Infernal, a living map of the Eldar Webway that could be very dangerous indeed in the wrong hands. Those wrong hands don’t come a lot more dangerous than those of Ahriman, Arch-Sorceror of the traitorous Thousand Sons Legion; an already superhuman being who sees the Atlas Infernal as a means to aspire to godhood.
When Cvezak isn’t being chased by Inquisitors eager to kill him for perceived heresy, or Eldar Harlequins eager to return him to the Black Library itself, he must avoid the attentions of Ahriman whilst at the same time fighting to foil the Arch-Sorcerer’s schemes. Nothing less than the fate of the Imperium is at stake...

 ‘Redemption Corps’ was a great read that basically was its own obstacle in terms of becoming an excellent read. I enjoyed it but came away wanting to have enjoyed it a whole lot more. This time round I’m pleased to say that ‘Atlas Infernal’ neatly sidesteps the issues that plagued ‘Redemption Corps’ to take Sanders’ game to another level. If you haven’t read any of Sanders’ prior work then this could well be the place that you should start first.

That’s not to say that the level of detail isn’t there at all, just that it’s working with the plot (this time round) instead of absolutely smothering it. Sanders takes his readers on a wild journey into areas of the Warhammer 40K setting that you might not normally get to see (well, I haven’t); we’re talking about worlds on the fringe of the Eye of Terror, and subject to the corrupting influence of Chaos, as well as the Black Library itself. When we’re talking about sights like these, well... bring on the detail I say! I want to know as much as I can about the worlds that our heroes must fight through. Sanders obliges and, in particular, gives us an in-depth at the plight of Imperial citizenry touched by Chaos for no other reason that they happened to be living on the wrong planet at the wrong time. The end result is that you get a real feel for where our heroes are and how important it is that their mission succeed (especially during some of the set piece battles which are absolutely amazing) The beauty of it all though is that the detail complements the plot instead of working against it and you’re left with a fully realised and atmospheric stage for the drama to play out on.

There were certain elements of this drama (related to both structure and the plot itself) that I did have issues with and these did make for a less than smooth reading experience every now and then.
Sanders has already established himself in my mind as a writer who will shy away from the whole ‘start at A and finish at Z’ approach to plotting and will mess around with the structure in order to keep his readers on their toes and reading away. I’m cool with that, I like to be kept on my toes and given a reason to keep reading. It didn’t work for me so well here though... Sanders nips back into the past of Cvezak and scatters a few chapters, across the book, that deal with a meeting between Cvezak and Ahriman. These passages are very powerful but I was left wondering if they really needed to be there, especially as allusions to this particular event are made in the main body of the plot. These passages broke up an otherwise smoothly flowing plot and made the book stutter when there was really no need.
I think that Sanders also encounters a problem in that Cvezak’s time in the Black Library has left him with an extensive knowledge of, well... everything really. Sanders handles this well, to an extent, by setting Cvezak against a enemy who is even stronger but some of the tension does bleed out of the book when you realise that Cvezak has an answer for everything and will get out of most situations (although his solution to the ‘Grey Knight’ problem really has to be seen to be believed, fans are going to love it).

When you set these issues against the rest of the book though I did find myself wondering if I was making a little too much of a fuss. ‘Atlas Infernal’ is a compelling detective novel (laid out in a logical manner) set in a warzone where your own side is just as likely to kill you as the enemy is. This lends some real excitement to the plot as you don’t know where the next threat is coming from (even if you do know that Cvezak will have a solution for it). When those threats do appear, Sanders proves himself to be more than adept at capturing the resulting action and presenting it in the best possible way. Like I said, some of it has to be seen to be believed.

The cast is largely an unlikeable crew with their own motives and agendas and you will be hard pressed to find a redeeming feature in any of them. Again though, Sanders really makes these reprehensible characteristics work for him as he shows that even if you’re fighting for your own ends (survival being the uppermost priority) you can still be fighting for something worthwhile at the same time.

There’s scope here for more books about Inquisitor Cvezak and the standard of storytelling in ‘Atlas Infernal’ is such that you can guarantee that I’ll be back for more. ‘Atlas Infernal’ isn’t without its issues but is worth picking up nevertheless.

Nine and a Quarter out of Ten

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Can't wait to read it.

mightyminiatures said...

interesting review, I might be picking up this book after all :)

Nic said...

Thought about buying this book for 2 weeks now. After reading your review I ordered it...I will report back after I read it...

Stefan Fergus said...

Good review - we do seem to be reviewing the same Black Library books pretty close together. :)

But it's interesting - I've had the exact opposite experience with Sanders's writing: I loved Redemption Corps, but I thought the level of detail in Atlas Infernal smothered the story (it was excessive, in my opinion). Czevak and Klute are interesting and well-rounded characters, but I thought the pace was too-frequently upset by the author's desire to give us quite a lot of detail on things that were inconsequential to the story. References to people, artifacts, events, places that meant nothing to the story (and weren't from the WH40k canon) just overwhelmed in some early chapters.

Things did, however, improve in the second half of the novel, but I did struggle with this. If you don't mind LOTS of details, then readers will thoroughly enjoy this, as the underlying story was, I thought, really solid.

Anonymous said...

I can't say that I enjoyed Atlas Infernal all that much. I thought that the story was not very well put together and too many themed chapters were present that felt (to me) like they were put there just so that Czevak could encounter them and Rob could write about them.

Czevak's solutions to the myriad obstacles felt like Deus ex Machina all the way and no matter what conundrum faced him you knew that rather than figure out a plausible solution he would just go *aha, here's the * which left me wondering exactly what would have me feeling genuine tension. The scene with the Grey Knights had me saying (literally) "oh FFS"...

I would give this book a 3/10...it has some redeeming features but it felt like a theme park of problems solved by producing trinket after trinket where there was little fear of failure for any of the cast.

Kodanshi said...

Hmmm… that last comment about deus ex machina in this novel sounds very Doctor Who!