BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Follows the adventures of Inquisitor Gregor Eisenhorn as he fights evil in the name of the Holy Emperor…and chronicles his dangerous relationship with the ways of Chaos.
PROS: Stellar world building; superb storytelling; nonstop pacing; memorable worlds and characters; utterly engrossing; leaves you wanting more.
CONS: I kid you not when I say “none”.
BOTTOM LINE: A book that has rekindled my love of reading.
The Warhammer 40K novels have been on my radar for some time. I had dabbled in some audio short stories and enjoyed them quite a bit, but fellow sf fans had even better things to say about the novels, particularly those of WH40K veteran, Dan Abnett. Start with Eisenhorn, they said. I finally took the plunge and my only regret is that I wish I had listened sooner.
The Warhammer 40K universe is based on the tabletop games. Yes, it’s a media tie-in series. I know that comes with an automatic stamp of disapproval in some elite sf snobbery circles, so let me be perfectly clear: this is the book that will dispel you of any automatic misconceptions about media tie-ins. This is the book I will hand to people when they say media tie-ins are trash. (That’s a lie. I’m keeping my copy. Go get your own, naysayer!) This is storytelling at its best. Any writer would kill to be able to do what Abnett does here.
What does he do, exactly? He tells a damn fine story set in a universe that is so rich with ideas, it demands to be explored at length. Warhammer 40K takes place (largely) in the 41st century of man. Under the rule of the almighty and Holy Emperor, mankind attempts to settle the galaxy while fighting the evil forces of Chaos. Although many of the WH40K books are unabashed military sf novels, Eisenhorn is more of a detective story. The main character, Gregor Eisenhorn, is an Inquisitor (a cop from the future!), and more specifically, he’s from the Xenos order; he’s an alien hunter. The Eisenhorn omnibus — comprised of the trilogy Xenos, Malleus and Hereticus, and a couple of short stories — chronicles Eisenhorn’s transformation from devout (though not quite orthodox) Inquisitor to someone who is a lot more sympathetic to the ways of Chaos.
The things that make Eisenhorn superb are many:
- It’s a rich universe – Eisenhorn taps into the bountiful, well-thought-out world of Warhammer 40K gaming that has developed over more than two decades. There’s lots to draw from, but the book does such a fantastic job at describing things, its hard see any seams. Components of the world building include legions of armies, cool tech, psychic abilities, long-forgotten races, otherworldly dimensions, aliens, monsters (some of them Cthulhu-like), demonic possession, well-realized planets and cultures…you name it. It’s all in there and integrated in such a way to provide a thoroughly solid piece of entertainment.
- Memorable characters – You know that the writing is good when there are lots of characters and you remember them all without confusion. I wouldn’t necessarily call any of the characters deep — if anything they are more archetype than realistic — but they are distinct and readers will form connections with them. The bottom line is that it was never difficult to recall who was whom in its large cast.
- The characters are expendable – Abnett is not afraid to kill off characters, whether major or minor, no matter how far they have come in the battle of good vs. evil.
- It’s very visual – Abnett’s writing appeals to brain’s visual centers. It’s easy to “see” the action that happening, and that makes it memorable, too.
- The story never lets up – The pacing is relentlessly nonstop, whisking readers from one scene to the next. Yet there’s never any feeling that any of it is rushed. If anything, it emphasizes how meticulously crafted it is.
- Action sequences come to life – The writing is crisp, clean and swift. The narrative takes no prisoners and it is, at times, graphic. You would never guess there are so many ways one writer could envision fight scenes and make them so remarkably unique.
- Even the non-action sequences are good – For a book (and series) that revolves around action, an amazing amount of work went into making the non-actions sequences just as enjoyable, whether through dramatic turns of events, reveals, surprise, or simply stellar world building — all without feeling padded.
- It’s a good cop story – Eisenhorn, ever the dedicated servant to the Emperor, is always on the trail of the bad guys, or following up some lead, or reasoning his way to the next stage of the investigation. And that next stage was almost always a story unto itself.
- It dabbles in deeper themes – I wouldn’t disagree if these were classified as popcorn stories, but there are also deeper themes running throughout the longer arc of Eisenhorn’s relationship with the dark arts. Does the end justify the means? These books do a wonderful job of exploring the gray area.
- It’s an excellent introduction to the universe – My sf pals were right: Eisenhorn is an excellent introduction to the Warhammer 40k universe. I have to admit that as I encountered new ideas, I couldn’t help but occasionally sneak away between reading sessions to the WH40K wiki to immerse myself even more. It was that appealing.
Eisenhorn comes after a very long stretch of limited reading time. I found it to be so utterly engrossing, that I wanted to stop doing everything else just to consume more of it. It’s been a very long time since a book had that effect on me. I simply cannot fathom how the reading experience could have been any better.
Another of Abnett’s omnibus WH40K trilogies is Ravenor — another trilogy omnibus highly recommended by others. That one will likely be the next Warhammer 40K book I pick up. All so I can prepare for Abnett’s Pariah, the start of a brand new trilogy called Ravenor vs. Eisenhorn. I can’t wait. In the meantime, I cannot recommend Eisenhorn highly enough.