Eisenhorn: Xenos (Dan Abnett)
The first book in the Eisenhorn trilogy, Xenos gives us quite a bit of back story on our protagonist, a somewhat cynical Inquisitor with a formidable supporting cast, while also throwing him into the midst of a interplanetary conspiracy. This trilogy is often tagged as one of the absolute best Warhammer 40k series, but will it live up to the hype?
Xenos' story is a wild journey spanning many planets. Gregor Eisenhorn, an unconventional inquisitor with a knack for being in the right place at the wrong time, finds a long sought after mass murderer in the midst of another brutal massacre. From there, he follows a trail of evidence that leads throughout the sector, unveiling a hidden Chaos plot and discovering a new alien race with a powerful artifact in their possession. Along the way he accumulates more followers and comes into conflict with the other members of his Order, mostly concerning his more liberal approach to their founding doctrine. The dynamic between Eisenhorn and his fellow inquisitors is enough to make this a great book, as we learn a lot about this element of the universe while also getting a taste of a more political side not seen in most books in the franchise. Of course, that is little more than a side attraction to the main show, which is a far more explosive and conventional action story that nevertheless manages to distinguish itself through its sheer quality. The variety of action scenes and impressive depictions of each is enough to make this a truly great book, but little details like the attention paid to world building and a promising side cast take it over the top. Even though Eisenhorn's quest is fairly predictable and not terribly complicated, it is an incredibly fun ride with plenty of wild twists.
Gregor Eisenhorn is a great addition to the Warhammer setting. Unlike many of his counterparts, this protagonist has quite a bit of depth and personality, with little of the mindless devotion to the Emperor and fanatical hatred for the enemy that his comrades possess. Granted, he hates Chaos as much as the next guy, but his feelings on the matter don't pervade the book to an excessive level. He is actually our narrator for the novel, and this helps familiarize him in a way that third person just can't achieve for the most part, and it is a nice way to simultaneously set him apart while also delivering a more nuanced characterization that can comfortably take a backseat to the main focus of the novel: lots of awesome action scenes.
Like in Gaunt's Ghosts, there is a decent sized supporting cast surrounding Eisenhorn's quest to defeat the Chaos cultists. Instead of a group of soldiers though, this book features a more eclectic band of hangers on, freighter captains, royal guards, and astropaths. The rag-tag band of fighters assigned to this mission are a great group to play off of Eisenhorn, and there is a lot of potential for growth in the future novels . Because the book is told through the first person, we see these other characters through Eisenhorn's perspective and as a result they are developed a bit more subtly, with some settling into static support roles and others showing hints of future development. Of particular interest is Bequin, a former pleasure girl with a special latent talent As for our antagonists, they are pretty standard fare. They get their job done as opposition for the story, but they aren't particularly memorable.
There is quite a bit to like about the writing here, going above and beyond the usual fare and proving Dan Abnett to be an expert at crafting the kind of novels that the Warhammer universe thrives on. He uses a great amount of variety to advance the plot, and does so with a flair for the epic: you will find gladitorial matches, chase scenes through the heart of a city, sleuthing deep in the heart of enemy territory, pirate raids and full blown war scenes in this book, the sheer amount of variety being surpassed only by the quality of most of these scenes. After reading three of his books, it is no exaggeration to say that Dan Abnett truly is the master of 40k. He further exemplifies this by giving the protagonist a very dry sense of humor. Somewhat like the Ciaphas Cain series, our hero relays the events from the first person with a disdain for the conventional and sharply punctuated opinions on those around him. Unlike that series, the same punchline isn't repeated a dozen times, and instead of being a grating addition to the book, it gives it yet another engaging facet. There is even a good bit of world building here. A planet where the wealthiest citizens are frozen in order to preserve them during the more harrowing seasons and an alien world featuring the kind of geometrical oddities and warped environments associated with Chaos are the highlights, but everything is pretty cool.
Xenos is regarded as one of the exemplary books of the Warhammer setting. After experiencing the engaging lead character, intriguing plot, and often spectacular action for myself, I can safely say that this book lives up to every bit of its hype. As long as the characters continue to develop, the Eisenhorn series looks to be one of my favorite in the entire Black Library stable.