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BOOK REVIEW: Eisenhorn by Dan Abnett

REVIEW SUMMARY: My first Warhammer 40K novel — definitely won’t be my last.


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.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

20 Comments on BOOK REVIEW: Eisenhorn by Dan Abnett

  1. Nick Sharps // November 29, 2012 at 10:17 am //

    And now onto Ravenor! And after that Gaunt!

  2. Eric James Soltys // November 29, 2012 at 10:19 am //

    Not available as an ebook?

    • Nick Sharps // November 29, 2012 at 10:32 am //

      To get Black Library eBooks you have to go through the Black Library website. I couldn’t find one that is solely Eisenhorn but there is an Eisenhorn/Ravenor eBundle. It’s kind of pricey but here’s the link…

      • Joerg Grau // November 30, 2012 at 9:14 am //

        And that is why I just ordered it as an actual book. First one in 3 years! But getting the omnibus (including the two short stories) for $7.75 on Amazon was just to tempting. Now let’s see if his Hugoness is on the money again! And let’s see if I can actually still read an actual book! I wonder how that will fit into my iPhone?


  3. Be careful, John. You stand on the edge of a knife. If you’re not careful you will soon have several cratefuls of these books (like I do!).


  4. +9kpts John, great review of an awesome experience of literature…an amazing journey, well written from a first person perspective…captivating & thoroughly enjoyable…this omnibus led me to the Giants Ghosts books…and I haven’t looked back…also must read “Legion” & “Know no fear” to become as much a fanboy of Dan Abnett as me…it’s understandable. ..cheers

  5. I wholeheartedly agree with this review!

    Thanks to Nick Sharps on the comments section of a post on this blog, I was directed to start with Eisenhorn. I absolutely loved it!

    I’ve now also read the omnibus editions of Ravenor, Ultramarines, Space Wolves, and am about to start Gaunt’s Ghosts!

    I don’t want it to end. Nick…what do I read after Gaunt?! πŸ™‚

    • Nick Sharps // November 30, 2012 at 6:20 am //

      Awesome! I’m so glad you’re enjoying it all. Lets see, after Gaunt…

      Now that you have some background in the 40K universe it might be time to check out Ben Counter’s Grey Knights series (currently collected in omnibus format). The Grey Knights are space marine special forces basically, created to deal with the threat of daemons and heresy. They are super awesome and hold a very special place in my heart. The main character is great and the action is full throttle and brutal. The third book in the series is especially dark (even for 40K) and I love it most of all.

      If it turns out you like that omnibus you may want to check out Counter’s Soul Drinkers omnibus as well. This is another really cool space marine chapter. They go rogue (but not traitor) and the series is sort of about them trying to find their way in the universe that consists of nothing but enemies. The first book in the series is best and the quality sort of declines from there but it is still a really interesting series.

      If you want to experience the bad guy’s side of things you could always check out Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s Night Lords series. The characters have a lot of interesting qualities and it is cool to see from the Chaos POV. This series made the Night Lords one of my favorite traitor legions. The third book doesn’t hold up to the first two but it is still decent enough.

      If you want a standalone novel check out Dan Abnett’s Titanicus. It’s amazing. It has great characters. Really great characters. And then it has Titan battles. Giant, unstoppable war machines duking it out for control of a planet. Can’t really beat that! The Adeptus Mechanicus is one of my favorite 40K factions and this explains why.

      And lastly since you’ve read Eisenhorn and Ravenor you might want to check out Pariah, just released in October. It is the beginning of the Bequin trilogy, also known as the Eisenhorn vs Ravenor trilogy. I haven’t gotten to read it yet but I am quite eager to. Go Team Eisenhorn!

      I hope this helps and I’m so glad you’re enjoying 40K!
      All the best,

  6. Id also suggest the warhammer fantasy stuff. The Darkblade series is one I enjoyed…

    Heck Cawkwell’s Valkyia was a very enjoyable ride…

    but they are bloody.

    VERY bloody.

    Blood for the Blood God bloody.

  7. TheAdlerian // November 29, 2012 at 7:34 pm //

    The books ARE addictive and many are very well written. Both the 40K and the Warhammer books are good, being a unique fantasy/SF blend.

    Dan Abnett is one of the best.

  8. @Drockaz If you haven’t started yet, strongly suggest your next adventure is the Horus Heresy series…if you are not hooked after the first three books something’s wrong! The series feature the best writing from the best writers of sci-fi currently in print…and there are some real gems, Legion, Nemesis, Prospero Burns, Horus Rising…and enough amazing literature to keep you reading in utter joy for a long time (even the not so good books are worth reading once!)…my only gripe is the release of limited edition (expensive) novella’s…although Auralius by ADB was fantastic…Dive in!!!

  9. Joerg Grau // November 30, 2012 at 9:23 am //

    After two very successful recommendations from His Hugoness (The Apotheosis series (even though I would have gotten those anyways as I loved the previous 7 Moreau novels) and the Patrick Lee Breach novels) I went and ordered the Omnibus as an actual book. Let’s see if His Hugoness is on the point again and if I can still read an actual book.

    Can I assume you do not have to know anything about the actual game in order to enjoy the books? In have never even seen the game.


  10. Wow, that’s quite a glowing recommendation! I love these books, and if you enjoyed these this much, you should like Ravenor, although I think they’re not quite as good. I am re-reading them before I move onto Pariah, though.

    Along similar lines, by the way, Fantasy Flight Games’ Dark Heresy rpg, in which you play an Inquisitor’s retinue, is very heavily influenced by Eisenhorn and Ravenor. One of my favorite games.

  11. It reminds me a lot of the Keepers by Rick Friar, though this book is a little bit more fantasy then sci-fi. “Inquisitor Gregor Eisenhorn” is a lot like “Geiseric”, but I think Geiseric had more things you could like about him. (Like that he was a dictator and rock star!) If you like Eisenhorn I would definitely read The Keepers. Check it out here:

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