Book Review: Brothers Of The Snake By Dan Abnett

I don’t know if I should admit to the fact that I only bought this book because it was (relatively) cheap! Games Workshop’s publishing arm – The Black Library – was celebrating it’s 20th birthday and my local store was having a party (I even baked a cake). Lots of hard to find books were back on the shelves (well a huge pile by the till) and special promotional goodies were on offer. Simply turn up and get a free book of short stories; go further and actually buy a book and get a branded bookmark as well.

I, however, had an issue: I really wanted a bookmark, but I don’t usually buy physically printed paper books. I read on a tablet. I prefer words in their digital form because often digital versions are cheaper to buy, the software allows me access to a dictionary as I read and once finished, I don’t have to find shelf space to house them. But I really wanted a bookmark. So, I went flicking through the piles, inspected the shelves and hunted for that elusive book – something I didn’t feel was too expensive, but also, wasn’t (overly) cheaper as an eBook. And I found it. Released for the birthday celebration, Dan Abnett’s space marine tale – The Brothers of the Snake.

I had no idea what I was getting into. Matt the store manager assured me is was a cracking read – it’s rerelease due to public demand: a reassuring “safety in numbers” as it were – but whatever praise he gave it, to me, it was just a Warhammer 40,000 story. It was the means to a bookmark end. Whatever world and warriors awaited was a complete unknown and of little consequence. I was, essentially, one step beyond judging a book by its cover.

But I’m glad I bought it because it turned out to be a cracking read. Initially my heart sank as what I thought were the opening chapters turned out to be individual stories. I don’t usually like short stories woven into an omnibus. I hate how the moment you get invested into a character they are snatched away, and I was truly fearful that was about to happen again. But, thankfully, that really isn’t the case. The book is a chronicled history of one character, each tale an individual vignette of his interactions and experiences as his life progresses through situation, war and reflection. Characters do come and go, but they are held together by that single central thread and Dan Abnett manages to weave the worlds around this thread into a book that gathers pace, draws you in and keeps you interested when it could have all too easily fallen apart in a mess of stop start pauses.

I think the reason you almost don’t notice the sharpness of the cuts between passages is because Abnett brings the world to life with a clarity the belies the simplicity of the language used. It’s not a book full of technical description, lofty explanations or expansive descriptions. Instead, it’s foundation is in an implied trust that the world you create in your mind will match the world Abnett creates with words without the need for every minute detail, colour or smell being twisted into a metaphor, simile or paragraph extending microscopic detail. It allows the book a freedom to breathe. You fall into the lives, and stories, of the character; swept along on his journey rather than constantly trying to slot him into a bigger picture.

Sadly though, for all that is good, it falters towards the end. During one battle Abnett describes how the flow is like an ocean tide: rushing in to a breaking crescendo before withdrawing slowly away, and that description flooded back into my mind as I neared the end because I felt the book had doing the same. The pace had increased and increased, each individual story getting faster and faster until the book could no longer hold it all in and had to exhale – losing that momentum and pace, never finding it again; stumbling to a ending that feels cold and almost, unsatisfactory.

Ultimately though, I can see why so many people voted to get it reprinted; and why Matt rated it so highly. I’d never read a book by Dan Abnett before, and it certainly won’t be the last. I hope his style of writing, his simplification of language to paint the required picture, wasn’t just a one off. Too many books become taxing to follow and difficult to imagine, the story taking a back seat as the reader employs the art of simply trying to figuring out what the author is trying to say. But Abnett never once created that problem, it’s just a shame that it relaxes so much at the end that it feels like the story is being cut short to fit it into the last few pages rather than drawn to its rightful conclusion. Don’t let that stop you reading it though, it takes you on a journey that was so unexpected and yet, so enjoyable, I can honestly say it is worth more than any bookmark could ever be.

Posted on by 5WC in Book First Edition

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