Digest that for a moment.
That having been said, The Unforgiven is not the best piece of fiction written about the Dark Angels. Point of fact, I'd humbly offer that it's not the best piece of fiction Gav Thorpe has written about the Dark Angels.
Before you move on, PLEASE READ THE FOLLOWING: I've put what I felt were actual spoilers in, well, spoiler tags. That having been said, simply discussing certain elements of the story will inadvertently make some revelations known. This review assumes you've read Angels of Darkness, Ravenwing, and Master of Sanctity. If you haven't, elements of those stories and The Unforgiven will be spoiled for you.
Tread with caution.
Two things became abundantly clear to me before I was even halfway through with The Unforgiven. (This is obviously my personal opinion, so mileage may vary. Reader beware.) The first is that Thorpe has a mind ripe with wonderful ideas for the Dark Angels and all their Unforgiven brethren; the second is that Thorpe is inconsistent when it comes to translating those ideas into a good story.
One of the biggest problems of The Unforgiven has been following this novel since Book One of the Legacy of Caliban Trilogy: Ravenwing. That is, its supporting cast. That's being generous, though. While Annael, Sabrael, and Telemenus can't be described as important in the grand scheme of things as, say, Azrael, Belial, or Ezekiel, the fact of the matter is that they feature just as much as those worthies of the Inner Circle - if not more so.
And therein lies the dual problem. The newly-inducted Black Knights and their cousin in the Deathwing aren't just not very interesting; they exist within a Chapter whose doctrine demands that they be kept at a considerable distance from the conflicts that drive this story. The benefit you get - seeing battle-brothers rise through the Ravenwing and the Deathwing - is ultimately just not worth it. The insight you gain is minimal compared to what Azrael alone reveals in just a handful of paragraphs in Book Three of this trilogy.
It's not as if Thorpe is scared of tackling the big characters, either. He hasn't shirked from writing about Asmodai, Belial, or Sammael in works for Games Workshop and Black Library alike. The perspective you get from Azrael is easily some of the best in The Unforgiven. It very nicely gives you an idea of the challenges the Supreme Grand Master faces, of the internal conflict that the competing priorities of the Hunt and the Imperium create. Most bizarre, if a "coming up through the ranks" perspective really was necessary, Thorpe demonstrated how capable he was of telling a story through flashbacks in Angels of Darkness. This could thus have been accomplished via the characters actually driving the story - Asmodai, Azrael, Belial, Ezekiel, Sammael, and Sapphon - but instead we must continue with the limited perspective of Annael, Sabrael, Telemenus, and Tybalain.
A balance could still have been struck, but the fact of the matter is that - as mentioned above - these characters don't even play a part in the main plot until the last third of The Unforgiven. To put it in perspective, Part One of The Unforgiven clocks in at right around 88 pages (in the standard iBooks format). Of those, 39 (!) are devoted to the Black Knights trying to find Sabrael. Their mission has no impact on either the battle for Tharsis or the efforts to get Cypher aboard the Penitent Warrior. By contrast, only a couple of sentences were used to let the reader know that ...
... A development that would have a profound impact in the storyline.
Those same characters play virtually no meaningful role in Part Two of The Unforgiven. While the actual movers and shakers of the Chapter seek to determine just what it is that Cypher wants, what his role is in their Chapter's history, and what they should do with him, Annael's page count is quite literally devoted to showing complete menial tasks as part of penance.
In fact, the Black Knights aren't actually are-introduced in the key storyline until late in Part Three. Even then, the mission Azrael gives them requires a stretch of the imagination - even if one is to accept that the bulk of the Dark Angels were needed elsewhere at the time.
Telemenus' story, at least, was written more elegantly. His tale is just as irrelevant to the main plot as that of the Black Knights, but Thorpe at least gets you to care about him.
WHERE ARE THE VILLAINS?
The antagonists are almost entirely absent. For instance, Anovel isn't actually shown until roughly halfway through the novel. He gets three-four pages to do the standard Fallen schtick ("You know nothing of honour, bastard of the Lion!") before ...
Typhus, whose presence has been teased since Master of Sanctity, doesn't make an appearance until the ultimate hour.
Astelan is actually never shown in the entire novel.
This goes beyond having a pointless bad guy cameo, or serving up a villain to stand in as the victim of the Dark Angels' wrath. The story itself suffers because it's not just the antagonists that are absent, but their motivations as well. This is a problem that plagued not just The Unforgiven, ut the series as a whole.
The first hint that the Legacy of Caliban Trilogy might involve something more than the hunt to get the remaining villains of Angels of Darkness isn't even made until late into Ravenwing. Typhus isn't even implied as being involved until the end of Master of Sanctity. Even when the aim of the Fallen is revealed - halfway through The Unforgiven - it's only shown in the broadest of strokes.
THE STORY BOWS BEFORE THEMES; LOGIC BOWS BEFORE BOTH
It's difficult to express how convoluted and unsupported by the story they ultimately end up being without getting into spoilers. Let me give you an idea of it, by way of metaphor:
Imagine you're reading a Spider Man story. It starts off with our lovable web-crawler going after someone who is dangerous, but ultimately within Spidey's ability to deal with - someone like, say, Electro. Except, suddenly, Electro is teaming up with the Red Skull and Doctor Doom, but he's smart enough to fool both of them into not realizing he has his own master plan to destroy the world.
Got it? Good.
Warhammer 40k is supposed to be absurd on many different levels, but the key thing to remember is that it's absurd within a certain context. Inquisitors burn entire worlds suspected of heresy, for instance, because Chaos is capable of doing incredible harm to the Imperium at large. With that in mind, it's not easy to choose which examples to use to show just how secondary logic is to this story - there are quite a lot to choose from.
The worst part of it is that these stunts seem to be a calculated effort to keep the reader in the dark. That's all well and good if and when the storyline rewards the reader's patience with a revelatory climax, but this never happens. The reader ultimately has to fill in the blanks and make pretty significant assumptions as to what the antagonists were trying to do and how they were going to do it. It feels less like a nod to the theme of secrecy that pervades the Dark Angels and more an effort to avoid the seriously hard work of playing out a devious plot for your audience.
THERE IS GOOD STUFF, TOO
The concepts Thorpe comes up with for the Dark Angels is top stuff. Probably the greatest contribution he's made is the degree to which the Inner Circle brainwash and indoctrinate their battle-brethren. It's a breath of fresh air to see an intelligent, nuanced take on how a Chapter can ensure its secrets are kept. We saw a bit of that in Master of Sanctity, but its application in The Unforgiven is a revelation.
The insight on the Watchers in the Dark is likewise huge. Their relationship with the Inner Circle, and the means by which they reveal secrets and set things in motion is very apropos.
Thorpe also shows a great degree of generosity in sprinkling helpings of Dark Angels lore and history. The origins of the Inner Circle, the Deathwing and the Ravenwing are touched on, for instance. Some scant light is also shed on Cypher's surprising history with the Chapter, as well.
Telemenus's storyline, regardless how divorced it was from the larger plot of The Unforgiven, is - I thought - quite beautifully written.
The ending? Again, it's probably the gutsiest, most grimdark ending I've seen in a Warhammer 40k novel. I saw it coming a chapter out, but it still left me with an "Oh, wow" look on my face.
I enjoyed The Unforgiven, but not nearly as much as I wish I could have. That having been said, it can't be denied that this novel should change the Dark Angels forever. All but two Dark Angels may never know just what occurred in the climactic action at the end of it all, but if Azrael and Ezekiel allow the Unforgiven to go back to "business as usual" after the events of The Unforgiven, it will be a massive disappointment.
My next post will be a "play-by-play" of the action of the novel. It will all be spoilers, so click at your own peril!