and he uses a reasonable to good vocabulary to good effect
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on February 18, 2016
First, an admission. I couldn't finish this book. It was all I could do not to throw it across the room, but I don't believe in hurting innocent hardbacks. I gave it several tries but in the end I just couldn't do it.
There may be spoilers, fair warning.
First, I will say that the quality of Gavin Thorpe's prose has improved - he no longer uses phrases such as "they were stood at the window" that conjure up either little character automata being shifted into scene by invisible robots, or illiteracy. He still tells much more than he shows, but to be honest after several novels I do not think showing is his strong suit. It is fair to say that his use of nouns and verbs and so on has become more polished, and he uses a reasonable to good vocabulary to good effect. I found nothing in the language itself that I can object to, referring purely to the grammar and sentence structure. That is a step in the right direction.
However, I do have a point to make about quality and it's this: I do not subscribe to the view that as an Eldar fan I should just be grateful for anything thrown my way, as Eldar novels are so rare. If we do not hold authors to the same standards achieved by the best of the Games Workshop writers, we send the message that any old dross will do for those who don't prefer to only read about Space Marines. I think it does matter how well Eldar books are written, and I think that it's right to say if they are not done well.
The plot follows Asurmen both before he becomes a Phoenix Lord and through the events leading up to this event amid the Eldar Fall and presumably after. It also follows a war-party. The third strand is a pilot, whom I think is some kind of trader. For reasons I never found out she risks her toddler on space journeys that don't seem to have any real reason, plan or urgency. (Spolier! Until now!) Asurmen needs a pilot to help him stop an ancient evil and I don't remember, or possibly didn't find out, why the war party are there. A Farseer told them, probably.
This could all be executed well and be exciting, with an in-depth look at the formation of the Phoenix Lords. This is not the case by halfway through, though I do submit that such revelations could lurk later in the book. I just doubt it.
What made me stop was the characters.
Gavin Thorpe can describe certain kinds of character very well, examples of which exist in other books I have read written by him - the loving older married couple (parents), the older mentor figure (his best-drawn type of character, though admittedly it's always the exact same one) and here, I will say that he does a nice job of showing the love between a mother and her child in a few scenes which are quite tender. But the overwhelming feel of his characters as a whole here is pettiness. His Eldar are small. They are small-minded, they are limited in action, feelings and scope, nothing they do is grand or impressive - it all falls flat at best. More usually they are simply unlikeable. The pilot and her crew interact in petty, spite-tinged ways and there always seems to be an undercurrent of bitchiness or spoiled behaviour. These do not come across as "arrogant Space Elves" (a tired and trite stereotype in itself). They come across as simply annoying, shallow people. The pilot is forced to abandon her crew to be devoured by the warp at one point. Neither she nor Asurmen seem to care. There is literally one sentence about it which apparently is meant to express a feeling of "oh well, s*** happens, at least it's not me". The warp taking and devouring Eldar souls is literally the single most terrifying prospect to the Eldar, and here is a captain of a ship, abandoning the crew for whom she is responsible with not much more than "oh well, gotta go". Asurmen - the legendary founder of the Dire Avenger Aspect Warriors, an Aspect embodying Khaine as a knight "unstinting in his devotion to his people" - gives no s***s. He does not care. I know that this is meant to be an example of a war-leader making the sacrifice of a few lives to save many, but not only is there no hint of reaction, no regret, no remorse, there is not even any real feeling of becoming numb to the pain after millennia, or coldness. He just does not seem to react. Even his lack of reaction is not registered.
Oh, and his "naughty side" is somehow embodied, literally has a body that is made of, his magic spaceship.
So that's how an Eldar becomes a peerless eternal warrior! He locks his unschooled side away in a spaceship and uses it to fly him around the galaxy and it reincarnates when it gets shot down but always comes back ... as a spaceship! And here was me thinking that we might see the character development from carefree libertine to noble and virtuous protector of his people, sacrificing himself to save the shell-shocked survivors of the Fall. Silly me. Actual character development? Obviously you just lock away your reckless youth and away you go.
I'll give an example of the small nature of the characters. At the beginning of the book, several of the Phoenix Lords meet and have a short conversation. One of them says something reasonable and conversational and instantly, Asurmen shuts him down. No-one speaks to Asurmen like that! How dare they have a conversation with him! The rest of the Phoenix Lords meekly acquiesce and agree. Do you see what I mean? Small. Petty. Bear in mind that each one of these is a legendary hero, almost a demigod. Their interactions should be on the level of the best scenes between the Space Marine Primarchs. Their characterisation should be on that level. I'm guessing that this scene is meant to establish that Asurmen is SERIOUS and GRIM and IN CHARGE but instead he only comes across as an authoritarian, petty-minded tool. In another example, two Wraithknight pilots argue and complain at each other while on a war footing. Again I suspect it's meant to be deep, emotional interaction but it only succeeds in being petty, childish, spiteful or just plain small-minded. The Eldar go to war focussed and centered on fighting. That is how they are trained and trained well. They do not simply flip out into bro vs bro arguments in the middle of a fight only to hit each other with sticks marked DEPTH and EMOTION. There is a sense of what's being tried here, there truly is, but it just doesn't work for me. Then again given Gavin Thorpe's previous decision that what Aspect Warriors under the "War Mask" (his term, I don't personally like it) do is make masturbation jokes, this shouldn't surprise me.
The sad thing about all this is that it is yet another wasted opportunity that could have been so much better. If you must split Asurmen into Asurmen the Good and Asurmen the Dorian Grey's paint- I mean spaceship, then the moment where his spaceship side begins to interact with a mother and child could have been either a moment of bittersweet introspection, reflecting on what was lost, or even better and more canonically used to point up how much a Phoenix Lord does NOT feel. Because Phoenix Lords are super-Exarchs, unable to do anything but wage war and attend to the matters of war. That has been established from day one of their history. No mention of simply shoving their feelings into a handy spacecraft. That Mr. Thorpe chooses to do this, rather than grapple with the more weighty ideas of "How does a man live for millennia with only war on his mind? How does that change him, how do people around him relate?" just shows how the scope of the book is pedestrian where it should soar. This makes me sad. Games Workshop knows its readership can cope with weighty concepts and high drama, look at the Horus Heresy, and yet it feels as if here, in a book about Eldar - who are known to feel things more deeply and more intensely than Humans - there just doesn't seem to be any of this grandness. A Phoenix Lord is supposed to be different from an everyday Eldar. Explore this, and you get to see both what makes an Eldar everyday, and how their culture both needs and yet shies away from warfare and those who make it. All we really get is a few comments by the pilot about how something ... Asurmen is. I can't even remember what. It lacks impact, is what I am saying. At least we are spared mind-numbing attempts at romance sub-plots, at least for as far as I read.
I bought this book after being severely disappointed by the Path of the ... books also written by Gavin Thorpe, because I am am Eldar fan and hope springs eternal. If you liked those, you may like this. I wanted to like it and I had several tries at reading it - I have certainly given him both a fair chance and the benefit of the doubt. I am personally crying out for more Eldar fiction, but that doesn't mean I can or should relax my standards and accept that anything is better than nothing. It's not. Nothing is a state of potential, a point before novels either good or bad have been published. A state of no-novels still has hope that they may be good. Bad novels bring that down and the standard with it. I'm not meaning to be critical of those who are able to just consume and enjoy; in some ways I envy their ability to enjoy without being bothered by any flaws. But for me, the sheer amount of flaws make this unreadable. As said elsewhere, it's not Shakespeare - but why shouldn't it be?
PS There is air in the webway - you do not need to link spaceships with special tubes as you might in the vacuum of space.
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