Released back in 2012, Ahriman : Exile was John French’s first novel for Black Library, and you’re unlikely to find a more assured, complex, detailed debut novel than this. The first in a trilogy regarding one of the most famous villains in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, when we first meet him Ahriman is at his lowest ebb, years after the failure of his Rubric and his exile from the Legion he tried to save. Masquerading as a lowly sorcerer serving a motley warband of Traitor Marines, he’s a far cry from the former Chief Librarian of the Thousand Sons, resigned to his fate as an exile and hiding away from his past, his enemies and his own power.
As events conspire to force Ahriman into confronting and embracing his past we watch him gradually rebuild himself, reconnecting with his powers and gathering allies to himself as he comes to terms with what is happening to him and what he needs to do. Characters are introduced here that will have major roles to play in the series to come (often utterly unexpected, but mind-blowingly clever in hindsight), from a handful of renegade Marines whose origins are kept deliberately vague to a number of Ahriman’s Legion brothers, while hints and teases are scattered liberally throughout the story that provide tantalising suggestions regarding just what’s happening to Ahriman and why it might be happening at just that point.
Right from the off this feels like nothing else in the Black Library canon, clearly influenced by the Horus Heresy series (specifically the acknowledgement that characters considered to be villains can be so much more than one-dimensional bad guys) but treading its own path in French’s dark, twisty, complex style of storytelling. Taking queues from Graham McNeill’s depiction of the character in A Thousand Sons while remaining aware of what he has become by the time of the current 40k setting, French draws Ahriman as a tragic, forlorn character, permanently caught between guilt for his failures and determination to to better next time. He’s a wonderfully complex character, full of conflicting traits – compassion and ruthlessness, wisdom and blindness, hubris and humility – and it’s hard not to overlook all of his flaws in favour of his charisma and determination to succeed. Knowing all along that he’s being manipulated without realising it just makes him that bit more human still.
As a standalone novel this is superb, and it works incredibly well as essentially a ‘heroic quest’ novel, but taken as the first part of a series it’s even more impressive, with a phenomenal level of detail in its plotting, characters, and the scale of the story. Reading it first time around the impression is of a powerful, complex story that opens up the character of Ahriman and suggests enormous potential for what’s to come, but looking back having read the rest of the series it becomes clear just how detailed and carefully constructed it is. However you read it, it’s the sort of inspiring story that reminds you just how awesome the 40k universe is, and just how dark and creepy and powerful it can be when written by an author as good as John French.