I am a Dan Abnett novice. I’ve never read anything out of the Warhammer 40K universe. This is probably a blessing in disguise. Reading Embedded, I was not polluted by inevitable comparisons to his syndicated work; I could read it wholly in the context of a setting entirely Abnett’s own. As a result, I was more than pleasantly surprised.
Embedded is a tough, near-future, military-sf novel of the highest quality. With a serious story about people caught up in a warzone, Abnett has skillfully created the ultimate eyewitness account of a military struggle that features persuasive allusions to the current situation in Afghanistan and past conflicts in Iraq. In the process he succeeded in creating a very authentic universe with his own blend of unique but not unbelievable military technology, corporate sponsorships and analogous architecture, synthesized food items that taste like the original and even filtered language that is the cause of much amusement throughout the storytelling. It is solid world building with wonderful attention to detail.
Having a journalist’s consciousness embedded into the synapses of a soldier’s brain is an unprecedented innovation and sets up a rite of passage truly comparable to Starship Troopers and The Forever War. Pitch in Abnett’s gripping, engaging and fluent writing style and an uncanny ability for seamlessly connecting the various pieces together with near-perfect timing and pace, it was easy to imagine watching the same grainy, documentary footage shot by embedded reporters so often seen on television. This is a book with movie written all over it!
Embedded starts off slowly, almost a trudge, as if Abnett purposefully wanted to relay just how exceedingly dull and dreary planet Eighty Six seems on its surface. Initially there is very little to engage with. Falk, the main character is, at the outset, a dislikeable, clichéd reporter with boorish and egotistical manners. After about 90 pages though it becomes evident that all is not what it seems to be. Despite the military’s spin on events there is a very ruthless war going on here, but it is not immediately clear why. Abnett sets up various red herrings as possible answers to this enthralling question that demands you stick around ‘till the end. Audaciously, he only reveals the true answers right at the very end after putting the reader through many remarkably anxious combat scenes and the ensuing emotional turmoil of the characters. The relationships between the soldiers and Falk’s own rite of passage after his “host” is shot are written with believable clarity. These character developments are especially satisfying and the particular journey that Falk undergoes totally redefines his character to the extent that he becomes worth following. Ultimately very little remained of the cantankerous and obnoxious Falk I met in those first few pages.
Nothing in the novel felt contrived. Yes, there are some uncomfortable questions raised about the way Abnett presents the “remote controlling” of a corpse but these are soon forgotten once the many action scenes present themselves. With these, Abnett’s adroitness is beyond contention. He has a pronounced skill and flair in creating anticipation, tension and release balanced with immaculate timing, pace and the unexpected. The battle scenes are terrifyingly realistic and intentionally chaotic. War is not a pub brawl and Abnett unquestionably does not treat it lightly.
The novels denouement is arguably its only weak point. Despite everything tying together rather well, lifting the veil on the overarching vagueness, I find the final revelation a bit convenient and a typical science fiction “exit.” But it does not detract from what Abnett ultimately wants to say: that every war, fought for whatever reason, reduces the stock of human good, and diminishes civilization. The last, short chapter brought this home for me.
Embedded is pulsating military-sf, cynical but not jaded, ruthlessly brutal yet intelligent. An impressive and very satisfying read.