Review: Atlas Infernal

Black Library’s latest Imperial Inquisitor comes under investigation from the SciFiNow book police

Author: Rob Sanders
Publisher: Black Library
Price: £7.99

In a universe as feudal and prescribed as that of Warhammer 40,000’s dark, archaic future, Inquisitors will always make the most convenient protagonists. They can go anywhere and do anything in the service of their duty – unlike the vast majority of proles in the Imperium, for whom adventure beyond the stars is just the first step up to the headsman’s block for heresy, trucking with aliens, or just looking at someone funny.

One of the first, and to date, worst Warhammer 40,000 tie-in novel dealt with the Inquisition, 1990’s indescribably awful Inquisitor (later titled Draco and bundled up as part of the 2004 Inquisition Wars omnibus). Ian Watson’s clumsy efforts featured the most WTF? plot developments ever committed to print, being perhaps forgiven as the necessary early development of Warhammer fiction and the larger Warhammer 40,000 canon like the first faltering waddle of a toddler with a full nappy. Since then, Dan Abnett has released two loosely linked trilogies, Eisenhorn and Ravenor, dealing with two titular inquisitors, and his take on that corner of this unrelenting bleak universe has proved so definitive that it actually shaped the portrayal of the Inquisition within the tabletop game which inspired it.

A problem often dodged by fearful writers in the 40k mythos, is that it isn’t a very nice place, and the people who dwell within are seldom nicer. The Inquisition are a force of great injustice, cruelty and malice in the name of a greater good, and Eisenhorn in particular was a study of a man prepared to snap morality like twigs for his goals. Draco meanwhile was an insecure adolescent’s first RPG character, a contrived mixture of bad-assness and acceptable flaws, wandering through a poorly written mess like all the worst Mary Sues you’ve ever known.

Rob Sanders’ Inquisitor Czevak isn’t that bad, although his retinue of supporting characters feel like a RP group constructed by thoughtgul teenage boys, all wary of appearing uncool. His take on a rogue inquisitor certainly has a lot more in common with Jaq Draco than Gregor Eisenhorn, thanks in no small part to a similar setting and rubbing shoulders with established characters and concepts in the universe to an almost absurd degree. It feels strange to complain about a protagonist being likeable, but for a character charged with dispensing summery justice on heretics, mutants and aliens like a space-age Matthew Hopkins, he’s on the decidedly soft side, where one would have thought having a book set largely inside the Eye of Terror – the semi-supernatural hell of Chaos, would make it fairly easy to align a character morally. Look to Graham McNeill’s incredible Dead Sky Black Sun for a portrait of disgraced Space Marines redeeming themselves in the same setting, constantly questioning how far they’ve fallen and how different they really are from the monsters they fight.

The story itself is a good enough romp, and Sanders spins a thrilling enough yarn – even going so far as to jump from location to location with theatrical stage directions to avoid any lulls. But while Abnett skirts around the canon, knocking his way through the partitioning wall to open up a whole new corner of the world Atlas Infernal seems tightly bound to a big stack of sourcebooks. Every time a character is described, you can’t help but feel as though its characteristics are being taken down straight from a Games Workshop miniature catalogue, and every ability or sidearm, carefully cross-referenced with the appropriate characteristics of that particular unit.

Maybe it’s because he’s a teacher and he feels most comfortable building on a base of established fact – character names following real world naming conventions (with a couple of letters changed, Bronislaw Czevak could be Czech) and locations, no matter how metaphysical or far flung, have real world equivalents. But where the real world references make his universe function that much more seamlessly (the one exception being the cringeworthy ‘gypsies’, one ethnic group whose depictions in fiction have scarcely moved on since the bad old xenophobic days of Bram Stoker), the devotion to Games Workshop writ stifles it severely. Shouldn’t be too unkind though, it’s hard to write at all with the laboured breathing of the fanboys forever moistening the back of one’s neck.

Atlas Infernal functions well enough as a piece of tie-in fiction, but Black Library has such a dizzying standard its output is judged by a far more demanding criteria than, say, the limpid Shadowrun and Dungeons & Dragons novels of the Eighties and Nineties. A good Black Library book demonstrates the complexity and potential of the mythology that has inspired it, a bad one is a mere catalogue, forever subservient to tape measures, expansion packs and tiny trees.