Xenos by Dan Abnett
Published in 2001
Genre: Science fiction
“Hunting the recidivist Murdin Eyclone, I came to Hubris in the Dormant of 240.M41, as the Imperial sidereal calendar has it.”
To someone who has never read a story taking place in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, this sentence probably sounds like a bunch of gibberish. Despite this, Xenos, by Dan Abnett, contains a compelling mystery at its heart, which quickly overcomes any confusion by the reader. Taking the main character Eisenhorn from the hibernating world of Hubris, into the fourth dimension in search of a demonic text held by corrupt aliens, the novel sets up a series of books in a universe where war is the norm and intrigue lurks around every corner.
Gregor Eisenhorn is an inquisitor of the Ordo Xenos; he hunts down the enemies of the Imperium, especially those which are alien. Eisenhorn is a cold and exacting investigator, though he does form relationships that are close and lasting. Gifted with almost limitless authority within the Imperium, he also has the ability to command others with “the will”; a mental technique (kind of like Jedi mind tricks) that can be supplemented with his voice in order to make others do as he commands. He leads a retinue consisting of Aemos, who is in charge of research and data collection, Betancore, his pilot, mechanic, and experienced fighter, and Lowink, his astropath who can see into the Warp. Along the way, he picks up Bequin, a woman working as a pleasure girl on Hubris who turns out to be an Untouchable (someone who negates all psychic power in the area), and Fischig, a local enforcer who becomes a loyal servant to Eisenhorn.
Eisenhorn follows his prey to an ice world currently in a stage of hibernation. He works with the local law enforcement to investigate further after uncovering a new mystery as to his prey’s motivations and masters. As the investigation continues, Eisenhorn and his retinue are put into increasingly dangerous situations, often coming from oblique angles and testing their ability to respond. Eventually, he discovers that his quarry is in contact with an alien species called the saruthi. These xenos exist in the fourth dimension, and are able to create geometric structures that defy understanding to humans. They hold a book, called the Necroteuch, which is imbued with the essence of Chaos and has corrupted their entire race; it is this text that Eisenhorn seeks to destroy to rid the galaxy of its evil.
Xenos melds mystery and science fiction as Eisenhorn puts together the pieces in order to follow a conspiracy to its source. There is also an interesting element of political and ideological divisions within the Inquisition itself. The organization is split up not only by the expertise of the inquisitors (Ordo Xenos: aliens, Ordo Hereticus: heretics, and Ordo Malleus: demons), but the way in which these forces go about their investigations. Some are more direct and puritan, seeking the quickest resolution possible through force, while others like Eisenhorn will use more subtle methods. There is a spectrum from puritans who wish to destroy all that is not human, to radicals who would see the works of the corrupt saved in order to be studied, which leads to conflict.
Most of the Warhammer 40,000 books that I have read over the years have been about the superhuman Space Marines, so it was interesting to have the perspective shift to a human character. The story is told in retrospect in the first person, so Eisenhorn is telling it at some point in the future, and is able to foreshadow and follow up on characters. We feel his awe of the Space Marines while fighting alongside them, and also the fear when Chaos Space Marines rear their heads while uttering rapturous battle cries. The characters in the book also undergo heavy stress not only mentally, but physically, with some being horribly maimed. Eisenhorn himself is tortured neurologically and, as a result, is no longer able to move the muscles in his face to create a smile, permanently leaving him with a dour expression.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, as it brought me back to the first time I read books from the Black Library. Dan Abnett is one of my favorite authors, and I have read books from his other series, but this first book in the Eisenhorn trilogy really showcases his skill at creating compelling characters within a vast and open world. Warhammer 40,000 books can be intimidating to get into as there is a nomenclature that is inherent in each which can be difficult to understand at first glance; once picked up, however, it falls into place easily. I definitely want to continue reading this series, and I think that is testament to how easy it is to identify with the characters and the incredible pacing of the story.
Verdict: 4 perpetually frowning Inquisitors out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of Warhammer 40,000, people who dislike smiling, fans of mysteries combined with military fiction, readers who are nostalgic for early 2000’s books from the Black Library, and Ziltoid the Omniscient.
Not recommended for: People who like smiling, those who fixate on the word “dived” being used instead of “dove”, those who dislike science fiction, people unsure of what Warhammer 40,000 is, or people who exist in three dimensions.