Sunday, 26 May 2013

Heretical Adaptations

Without wishing to sound even more insufferable than usual, I'm not really one for what could be described as "popcorn books".  I've nothing against the idea of lightweight fluff in general, I should stress; no-one with the kind of comic book recommendations I get each time I sign into Amazon could claim that.  But that's the point, perhaps.  I prefer my brain-on-hold entertainment to come from a comic book one can polish off in fifteen minutes, or a film that'll be done inside two hours.  Four hundred pages of text seems like quite a commitment when the aim is to get as little permanent as possible from the experience.

Games Workshop's Horus Heresy novels struck me as a potential exception.  The tale of how Warmaster Horus turned what should have been humanity's finest hour into a war that almost exterminated mankind might not be the best story GW have ever told, but I wouldn't want to be the guy having to make that case. Curiosity to learn more - the second-most common downfall of a geek, after bizarre ultra-defensive sexist rants triggered by entirely innocuous statements - led me to investigate (along with help from Chris, who lent me the first three novels).

Obviously, there are two angles GW needed to consider: people reading the books as an introduction to the 40th Millennium (actually the 30th Millennium here, but what's ten thousand years between friends?), and people already familiar with the broad strokes of the story looking for particulars.  Equally obviously, it's not easy for me to judge how well the books do capturing the first group.  My gut says pretty well; by focusing almost entirely on the Luna Wolves/Sons of Horus and - to a much lesser extent - the Emperor's Children means the sprawling nature of the Great Crusade doesn't overwhelm, and the savvy use of a dramatis personae at the beginning of the first book (pointlessly and inaccurately used in later novels presumably out of slavish devotion to anything Dan Abnett does) is helpful in that regard too.

Mainly, though, I wonder if I'm assuming the books work well for newcomers because their biggest failing might be failing to surprise savvy readers.  It's hard to get too worked up about which way a Space Marine's loyalty will swing when he has his own entry in Codex: Chaos.

Actually, that might be unfair, for two reasons, one redemptive, the other the opposite.  The redemptive argument is that these are three books (Horus Rising, about the eponymous character's increased dissatisfaction with his role, False Gods, in which that dissatisfaction is twisted by outside forces, and Galaxy in Flames, in which everything explodes in quick succession) are based on the unstoppable force of hubris turning to tragedy, with some cool action scenes scattered about.  One does not read a tragedy to be surprised; the clue is in the name.

None of that means though that surprise and tragedy cannot be combined.  Why stuff a trilogy with, at minimum, a dozen major Astartes characters and not make any effort to keep the audience guessing as to which way they'll jump?  Instead, almost every Space Marine in the books can be sorted into "loyalist" and "traitor" within five lines of their first appearance.  Even the exceptions don't surprise, they merely take the more likely of two options.  The absolute biggest shock of the whole trilogy comes from an Astartes who seemed a sure bet for treachery waiting for longer to turn traitor than one might have thought.

This is the far less charitable reading: that the trilogy doesn't suffer if you know how the story ends, it suffers if you know how the most cliche-ridden works imaginable end.  A story about brother betraying brother is an ideal opportunity to work some twists into the tale, but really what we end up with is little more than a handy flow-chart for spotting potential traitors.

All of which makes our nominal heroes seem rather thick and complacent.  Indeed, at least once during "False Gods" it becomes clear that they have the goods on at least one traitor, but they decide not to do anything until they have more to go on; a baffling decision that screams "authorial intent" as the books head towards thousands of loyalist Space Marines dying mainly because their commanders are just too stupid to live.

There is one big exception to the five-line rule, and it happens at the finale of the first book.  Which is to say, as no-one familiar with Black Library (that's GW's fiction wing, for the uninitiated) will be surprised by, Dan Abnett is the only one truly delivering the goods here.  His significant skill is obvious throughout Horus Rising, in which characters get multiple strands to their personalities and even the most depraved and evil figures who feature in the Heresy are shown to have their virtues before the treachery takes root.  It's not clear why Abnett didn't write the whole trilogy (perhaps he hadn't the time, or GW wanted all three novels written more or less concurrently), but it certainly suffers for his absence in the later books.  Indeed, one could make a very strong case for the idea that the quality of authors drops linearly.  Abnett isn't exactly a flashy or sophisticated writer, but he's perfect for the kind of high-octane action Black Library wants to churn out, and he's more than capable of making the machinations that occur between engagements interesting and layered.  Graham McNeill lacks Abnett's solid characterisation skills, and it hurts his book.   The major and surprising reveal of a trusted adviser proving to have a sinister agenda at the end of the first book is utterly undone by having that character suddenly become all sinister moustache twirling as the second begins.  Worse still, McNeill fumbles the all-important turn of Horus; the noble optimist of the first book becomes a brooding malcontent without explanation between novels, making his ultimate decision to rebel against the man he previously considered his father feel unearned.  That said, McNeill can still craft a good set-piece when he needs to.

Ben Counter, though, is no better than McNeill at characterisation, and even his action scenes cause problems.  To often they're both rushed and sparsely described.  Yes, long sentences of flowery prose aren't what you want when you're reading about desperate hand-to-hand fighting amidst a ruined city, but there's a skill to parsimoniously evoking a scene that Counter lacks.  The best thing that can be said about him is that he's enough of a writer to not spoil the exceptionally strong material he's been given - the battle of Istvaan III being close to author-proof, but even then he does his best.  One of the novels' major characters has his final duel to the death off-screen.  Another major character - really, the most important character to not make it out alive - is summarily dealt with in a few lines.  The glorious last stand of the loyalist marines never takes place because Horus - for which read Counter - gets bored and decides to just bomb them all instead.  There's more than a few aspects to these books I would have done differently had I been in charge, but the only truly baffling decision is to wrap up the centrepiece of the entire trilogy in two short chapters.  Surely one would never catch Abnett making so egregious a mistake.

All that said, given the action to dialogue ratio increases with each instalment, perhaps it makes sense to give the first novel to Abnett and the last to Counter.  Somewhere in another dimension exists a mirror trilogy in which Galaxy in Flames is the greatest novel Games Workshop has ever produced.  It's just that it caps a trilogy that starts with the most turgid and predictable potboiler imaginable.

I don't want to come across as relentlessly negative.  The steady reduction in writing talent is ameliorated to a large extent by the plot's increasing stakes.  The most important question adaptations of well-loved but nebulous story is this: has it made things worse?  Should the untold tale have remained untold?  Has this aspect of the tale, in fact, betrayed the whole?  The answer here is, fortunately, no, though it is not a no without qualification.  A failure to fuck-up is not the same thing as a success, and this trilogy drifts ever closer towards the latter as it progresses, until it finally crosses that line some forty pages before the end.

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