Ahriman: Exile starts a new trilogy on one of the most famous Chaos Marine Renegades: Ahriman.
Ahriman: Exile is a very well written, very well crafted book. I wasn’t 100% convinced by the central premise of this book, of bringing Ahriman down a notch or two and showing him full of doubts, weak and with broken confidence, truly works. He is Ahriman! Nevertheless, the novel works well for a trilogy start, the action and characters are great, and am eager to read the next book.
All is dust… Spurned by his former brothers and his father Magnus the Red, Ahriman is a wanderer, a sorcerer of Tzeentch whose actions condemned an entire Legion to an eternity of damnation. Once a vaunted servant of the Thousand Sons, he is now an outcast, a renegade who resides in the Eye of Terror. Ever scheming, he plots his return to power and the destruction of his enemies, an architect of fate and master of the warp..
#1 – The Format
My version of Ahriman: Exile is the trade-paperback version, sold by Black Library for a RRP of £8.99. I believe this book has been available for a few months already as an eBook, though it was only now released on paper.
One really ought to read Black Library electronically these days to have these things on release, I suppose.
The novel is 410 pages long. Pretty standard, though it almost felt a bit rushed towards the end (especially the fight with the Inquisition), as if there had been cuts to bring it to a “standard-size”.
#2 – Ahriman Brought Low
The basic premise of this book is an unusual one. The titular character, Ahriman, is clearly a character defined by the unflinching belief (hubris?) that anything can be mastered with supreme (occult) knowledge. During this Horus Heresy, this led him to cast the Rubric of Ahriman, which in turn made him an exile, cast out by his own Primarch and hunted by his former legion. In the timeline of Warhammer 40K, he still traverses the galaxy on his quest for supreme knowledge.
This novel takes place sometime in between. John French wrote in this month’s White Dwarf:
I thought it would be interesting if, for a moment, that incredible confidence breaks. He’s completely broken, he’s in pieces. Ahriman, as he sees himself at the start of the novel, is a broken individual. [...] He lets himself sink very, very low; he’s very self-pitying.
It is an interesting idea. A post-Horus-Heresy origins story for Ahriman of sorts, where he rebuilds his confidence and strength as an exiled Renegade. I don’t think it works in Ahriman: Exile.
- Ahriman’s change from “Ahriman-in-hiding” to “Ahriman-back-on-a-mission” happens early in the book and without much fuss. He’s traveling, in disguise, with a (wonderfully unhinged) Chaos Warband. He’s found by a Thousand Son sorcerer looking for him. He decides to abandon the hide-and-seek and, instead, take the challenge directly to his former Legion.
- There is little-to-no “internal” character development. If you think (or fear) that this is a book about Ahriman fussing about, doubting himself, etc.. don’t worry. Arguably, there’s more “internal” character-development among the cast of side-characters, mainly a group of rogue Space Marines led by the Librarian Astreos and a Tech-Adept, than Ahriman himself.
- The plot, in the third act, is actually driven by the doubts others have about Ahriman’s inscrutable plans, while Ahriman himself plots on with supreme confidence.
It’s an interesting premise, but it’s not (I believe) truly executed in the book.
#3 – (Force) Swords & Sorcery
That said, Ahriman is by no means a bad book. Quite the opposite. It is thoroughly enjoyable read.
- John French creates several cool and memorable characters. There are the few rogue Space Marines, who (sort of) rally to Ahriman and whose origins, original Chapter and reason for “leaving” the Imperium aren’t fully explained (in this first book of the trilogy). There are also (interesting!) Daemons, the Inquisition, a mysterious Oracle, etc.. . Great stuff!
- Moreover, there’re plenty of great action scenes. As almost everyone in the book is a powerful psyker or sorcerer, there’re few “classic” bolter-&-chainsword scenes. Virtually every fight involves prodigious amounts of occult wizardry, and one of John French’s main achievements is making these battles exciting and interesting, without simply reducing sorcery to throwing fireballs (though there’re plenty of those too). Curiously, a lot of “new” 40K unit show up. Heldrakes, Warp Talons and Storm Eagles all make their appearance here.
- Finally, the book has a wonderful surreal quality to it. It’s a book about a Chaos sorcerer, obviously, and large chunks of the story take place in the Eye of Terror (and a few more in the “mind-scape” of Ahriman himself). As with the occult-heavy action scenes, John French’s writing really shines in bringing these strange and alien places to life. Warp and reality bleed into each other, the stench of the daemonic infests air-less spaces and duels fought among disembodied minds. Ahriman: Exile truly brings this “otherness” of its setting (and its protagonist) to the fore. I presume it’ll only get weirder in the sequels.
#4 – Verdict
Two things made it difficult for me to “rate” this book for a review.
First, it is the opening of a trilogy. Though there is a story-arc with conclusion in this book, it is a lot less self-contained than, say, Soul Hunter. The cliffhanger at the end doesn’t help either. Like Dan Abnett’s Pariah, it’ll probably take the full trilogy to truly judge the quality of the story.
Second, Ahriman: Exile (in my opinion) fails very obviously at its central premise of showing a doubting and “broken” Ahriman. It’s really little more than a start-up gimmick to get the first scene rolling. Indeed, there are parts when it feels more like Astreos and his remaining Space Marines are the main-characters, and Ahriman appearing more as a “force of nature” that drives the story forward by dragging them along. Towards the end, the story pivots back to Ahriman however.
Despite these “flaws”, Ahriman: Exile a fun read. John French writes great characters and clearly has a knack for writing about the occult elements of the 40K-universe.
I am definitely interested in how this story of Ahriman (and his retinue) will continue, and how this trilogywill (eventually) tie into the Ahriman of the 41st Millenium we “know”.