I am excited. I’m reviewing Eisenhorn by Dan Abnett. The first Warhammer 40k book on this site. Partly I’m excited because I’m a fan of Warhammer, and whenever someone asks the question “I’m interested in Warhammer, where should I start reading?” I also give this as their first book. Partly I’m excited because Warhammer is so filled with terrible tropes and grimdank meme material that it should be easy to rip apart from a literary standpoint, yet still have enjoyed it.
But let’s take a step back. What am I actually reviewing? Because if you try and find what I’m actually reviewing, the first book in the trilogy, you probably won’t find it. For some reason, the Eisenhorn trilogy is only available as an omnibus edition at this point, and contains the three books: Xenos, Malleus, and Hereticus.
Unless, like me, you purchase the audible edition, in which case you have to buy the three book separately. I debated for a while about whether to review the omnibus or the individual books, as most people will be buying the omnibus, so why review them individually blah blah blah, long story short, I’m reviewing each book as its own work.
That said, I’m actually listening to the audiobook. Now, for those that haven’t listened to a Black Library audiobook before… treat yo self.
No, really. I have a lot of issues with Black Library, but their audiobook quality is not one of them. They always choose brilliant narrators, and Toby Longworth does a brilliant job. If you like deep, resonant, and British AF, then you’ll love any 40K audiobook. In my mind, they have the real voices of grimdark, and anything else is a let down.
So, we now know that I am reviewing Eisenhorn: Xenos. Good stuff. Let’s get into it with a super quick brief of what Warhammer 40k is:
Warhammer is a tabletop miniatures skirmish game. You paint little men and then roll dice to see how much damage their little guns do to the other army of little painted men. Warhammer originated in the 80s as a fantastical spin off from other tabletop miniature games that are typically called historical miniature games (think Napoleon or the world wars). Games Workshop (the company that makes the Warhammer miniatures and rules) took those historical rule sets, and threw a large amount of Dungeons & Dragons at them. That gave us Warhammer Fantasy Battle. A few years later, we got Warhammer 40,000, the sci-fi version. Fast forward thirty plus years, and Games Workshop now has a publishing arm of the company called Black Library, which posts a whole load of fiction. Some of their fiction has even hit best seller lists, which is pretty impressive for such a niche!
It also has to be noted that Warhammer novels have a reputation for… badness. Quality has not been a strong point for a few decades. They focused more on “bolter porn” (a “bolter” being the main gun used in 40K), and an inability to write the most iconic characters of the setting with any sort of believability or interest (space marines). Now, this reputation is mostly left over from darker days, but it does mean that there’s still a legacy, and the quality is still a touch hit and miss. Also, canonically the entire thing is a minefield. Some of the books, even now, are little more than advertisements for the latest little plastic men that Games Workshop has produced. Caution is required!
And a quick note on theme. The main tagline for Warhammer 40K is “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war”. Are you enjoying the current spate of grimdark that fantasy is going through? Well, you probably have Warhammer to thank for that. They love them some grittiness! There are stories of Inquisitors (in-universe secret agents that have ultimate authority over pretty much everything) wiping out entire sectors of planets (no time to evacuate them, so dozens of billions killed) just to deter their enemy from heading that way (because their enemy wanted the biomass of the people living there. If they’re all dead, then no reason to go!). It is, for lack of a better word, stupid. It’s SO over the top, that it’s funny. Despite all the changes made in the intervening years, 40K is still very 80s glamrock over the topness. But, if you simply accept everything that happens, and how ridiculous everything is, then it’s all equally ridiculous, that it makes sense. Why have they built a gun the size of a planet? Because there is a giant alien bug-like space armada that legitimately needs a caliber of gun that size.
But this isn’t a discussion on Warhammer or grimdark (clearly I have a full essay in me on both of those), so let’s go!
The Actual Review
Well, that was a long spiel of background. Let’s dive in!
We join Gregor Eisenhorn just as he’s caught up with a chaos worshipper after six years of chasing. Eisenhorn has tracked Eyclone to the planet of Hubris… wait, is the planet really called… yeah, it is. All righty then. 40K doesn’t know what being “too on the nose” is. Hubris is an ice planet, and it’s explained very nicely just how cold everything is, and how the suits that protect them from the cold work. All very fake-science, and good stuff. The team enters a giant warehouse of cryo-frozen nobles.
Stylistically, Gregor is directly talking to the reader. He explains that he’s 42, which is someone in their prime, but considered very young for an Inquisitor. He tells us of the difference between a puritan inquisitor (him) and a radical. He gives us a little background on his Scipio pattern las-pistol, with ivory handgrips, engraved by his bodyguard. Who just died. Gregor is not particularly thrilled by this turn of events.
He relates the death of his female henchman to his other, still living, henchman, by using a secret language called glossia that he had created. It’s called glossia… It includes things like “thorn wishes aegis”… an Inquisitor, the highest authority in the universe, renowned for their intelligence, came up with that? Well sign me up to the Schola, call the black ships, I could be an Inquisitor because I think I can decipher that code. I’m a regular Alan Turing, over here…
As Gregor is running through this complex, thousands of people waking from cryosleep and stumbling around haphazardly, “thousands waking up in agony”, the bad guy spots him and takes a few shots. He misses, but only thanks to the mass of people between them. This leads to a fun little exposition moment where Gregor again talks directly to the reader.
One of the shots left a woman near dead, twitching in agony. As Gregor runs past, he considers a mercy killing for the woman, but decides he doesn’t have time. Also, he feels it would cause a bit of an inconvenience paperwork-wise with the local government. Knowing what I know about inquisitors, this rang a bit false, as inquisitors area law unto themselves, but this is brought up later, so I’ll let it slide.
Gregor asks the reader if we hate him for not putting the woman out of her misery, didn’t relieve her of her suffering. If we do, then good for us, we should, but at the same time, it tells him that we, the reader, clearly wouldn’t have what it took to become an inquisitor. This also leads to what I think is a pretty great quote:
“Perhaps arrogance is therefore a virtue of the Inquisition. I would gladly ignore one life in agony if I could save a hundred, a thousand, more. Mankind must suffer so that mankind can survive. It’s that simple.”
Now, if “Mankind must suffer so that mankind can survive” isn’t the epitome of grimdark, then I really don’t know what is! It’s fucking encapsulating! Stick all of grimdark into a crucible, and you end up with those eight words.
“Mankind must suffer so that mankind can survive.”
Ridiculous. Over the top. Fundamentally flawed. Beautiful. But this review isn’t an ode to grimdark, so let’s keep going.
Gregor kills some dudes, talks in more horrendous glossia, and then surprises this bad guy that he’s been tracking for years. He jams his fallen henchman’s pistol in the guy’s mouth and pulls the trigger.
The good thing here is that we know this guy was evil. 40K doesn’t mess around with shades of grey. There’s good and there’s bad. Except the good isn’t really good. It’s not black and white. It’s black and slightly off-black. Still, this guy worshipped chaos, and he’s now dead. Job well done. Also, he had a goatee, so evil is confirmed.
With this particular bad guy dead, Gregor dreams of something other than him for the first time in six years. Yeah, that’s right… dream sequence. I’m sure you can imagine how much I love those…
Except, actually, it wasn’t some terribly done dream sequence. It was just Gregor telling the reader “I saw a light that was dark. Doesn’t sound right, I know, but there ya go” (paraphrased). Abnett dodged that scathing bullet from me with grace and aplomb. He’s almost got me riled up enough to have a rant about why I don’t like dream sequences in books, but this review is getting WORDY, so I’ll move on.
Gregor then has to deal with some angry nobles, in which we find out that yes, Inquisitors don’t have to care about local law at all if they don’t want to, but it would inconvenience Gregor because, ultimately, he’s one of the good inquisitors, willing to play nice as long as local law doesn’t go too far.
He killed twelve thousand people, by the way. That’s how many cryopods were awoken without proper care in the previous scene. Not a single one of them survived. This isn’t some space opera where cryosleep is safe. Oh no. This is Warhammer, where a light gust of wind probably has ork spores on it, and they will grow inside you and an ork boy will rip you in half from the inside.
Next, Gregor and his crew go along to the autopsy of the deceased bad guy. They then storm a hab block of a local city. We see Gregor use his psychic will on people, and basically it sums up to “He can tell people to do things and they do”. He and a henchman have a psychic seance with some of the bad guy’s belongings, which gives them a word.
Now, the blurb for Xenos is rather generic, and I could easily use that excuse to go through the entire book. But then there’s no point reading the book, and let’s be honest, Abnett tells the story better than this. Why stop here? I consider the discovery of that word to be the start of what leads them to, as the blurb says “the arcane text of abominable power”.
A few things that come up in the next parts of the book are trade negotiations, impersonating a noble couple, pit fighting, torture, clashing with other inquisitors, and the leader of the local imperial navy going into a fit of rage so great he has to be sedated.
Oh, and one minor issue towards the end. An enemy gets shot in the hand when it would have been just as easy to shoot them in the head, killing them then and there. If you’re precise enough to make a hand shot to stop them reaching something, you’re precise enough to make a headshot. Minor deus ex machina there (something I’m super hot on pointing out!).
Is this book worth your time?
Do you already like Warhammer 40K and want to jump into some 40K fiction? Then this is a no-brainer, jump right in, you’ll love it.
Are you only vaguely aware of 40K, but have heard good things about this book? Well, you need to know a few things before you can make a decision.
Firstly, you’re dealing with grimdark fantasy in a sci-fi setting.
Every death here is dwelled upon. A random enemy doesn’t just fall, or get dispatched, no. He’s eviscerated in a shower of gore, or his entrails make the railing slick. Every kill is revelled in. Every detail of the surrounding cryopods is turned into some sick dream. They aren’t just groggily waking up from their sleep, they are clawing at the glass in a panicked frenzy.
Also, there’s magic. For 40K it’s pretty subtle here. Gregor can influence other people to do his will simply by injecting some of his psychic power into his words and then giving them orders. They feel compelled to do what he says.
There’s demons. Ugh, sorry, “Daemons”.
There is still a lot of things in the universe, that if you’re not already familiar with, don’t really get explained. Several times I noticed that servitors were mentioned, but not really defined. Now, I personally happen to know that a servitor is a grotesque melding of human brain in a vegetative state, hooked up to machines, and given very basic and routine tasks with certain parameters. Why? Because artificial intelligence has been outlawed as an abomination against the God Emperor, and so these Geiger-esque machine men are the answer.
However, you are getting a “relatable” story. Gregor is, effectively, a private detective. The beginning of this book really is little more than a fantasy detective noir novel. The concepts aren’t crazy and wild. It’s a guy in authority chasing a criminal, who quickly finds out that what he thought was a single criminal, turns out to be a much larger and more intricate problem. Effectively, a policeman arrests one guy, and it turns out that one guy works for the mob. Except, in this case, the mob are demons.
It escalates from there, but it doesn’t really do anything outlandish. The ending is a bit “out there” but if you followed the book until that point, I really don’t think it’s any harder to grasp for a non-40K person than one steeped in the lore.
All things considered… yeah. You know what? Yeah. This is a good book. Ignoring Warhammer, Eisenhorn: Xenos is a good read and well worth your time. It might lead you into wanting more 40K or it might not, but the book itself is really good.
The next question will be: is it the best book to introduce someone to 40K with? But we’ll have to wait until my next 40K book review to find that out!
Rating: 4 / 5 (75%)
Favourite character: Bequin (It’s Gregor OBVIOUSLY, but as the only PoV, he is disqualified)
Favourite quote: “Mankind must suffer so that mankind can survive”