Potentially the first novel in a wider series, Asurmen : Hand of Asuryan sees Gav Thorpe delve into the mythology of the eldar to tell the tale of the titular Asurmen, first and greatest of the fabled Phoenix Lords. Set in the midst of a conflict against the chaos forces of the Flesh Thieves, instigated by a Farseer of Anuiven craftworld in order to reclaim an artefact of great power, it sees Asurmen co-opting a peaceful eldar pilot to help him as he steps in to try and avert a disaster unforeseen by the reckless Farseer. Realising his warrior spirit is troubling the pilot, Neridiath, he talks to her of his path and the events which saw him take his first steps along it.
It’s a clever approach to the story, setting the warlike Asurmen up in contrast to the pacifist Neridiath and examining the effect his aggression and battle-lust has on her fragile psyche, while looking back at what set him on such a path in the first place. If the present-tense sections are a metaphor for the flaws inherent in the eldar as a profoundly psychic race and the dangers they face, Asurmen’s recollections of his past are an incredibly literal reflection of the same concepts, overtly dealing with his own perception of The Fall – the catastrophic event which sounded the death knell for his race. It’s a topic never before shown in such detail, and this offers a spellbinding look at one of the key moments in 40k history as the decadent, utterly self-serving eldar are transformed into what we know them to be now, led out of ruin by a single eldar’s vision and determination.
Crucially both elements of the story are equally enjoyable, each of them feeling well-paced and cleverly plotted with a really strong narrative that works across both sections. Thorpe has gone for unusually short chapters, each one rarely more than four or five pages long, but while this initially feels a little odd there’s no sense that anything feels rushed, or lacking in depth and development. There’s no fat here, it’s a story that’s been trimmed down to a sleek and streamlined tale where every character counts, with a clever range of supporting characters and an antagonist force in the shape of the Flesh Thieves who remain alien and powerful throughout. The whole thing just works, and it really feels as though Thorpe has been given free reign to write a proper crowd-pleaser of a book.
The Phoenix Lords have been part of the eldar mythology in 40k for a long time, but they haven’t had much coverage from Black Library until now. At first glance it might seem that a single short novel is giving short shrift to one of the most important of all eldar characters, however veteran eldar writer Thorpe has done a fantastic job here, producing a complex and intelligent novel that fits in all of the fascinating insight into who Asurmen is and why he does what he does, not to mention an impressive look at a whole range of concepts crucial to the essence of the eldar, and wraps this all up in a satisfying and thoroughly entertaining story. It’s a must-read for eldar fans and non-partisans alike, and hopefully spells the beginning of a full Phoenix Lords series.