By Cheryl Morgan
In keeping with the somewhat Eastercon-related theme of this issue, I wanted to make sure I included a review of a book by Dan Abnett. I have, after all, gone on a great length about my admiration for M. John Harrison, Elizabeth Hand and Justina Robson, but Iíve only reviewed one of Abnettís books. So I asked Marc Gascoigne which Abnett book I should review. "Eisenhorn", came the reply. It wasnít until I got back to California that I realized Marc had recommended a three-volume series, albeit one sent to me as an omnibus edition. I didnít have time to read the whole thing, so here, with apologies to Dan, is a review of the first book, Xenos.
Most of Abnettís work for Black Library has been in the various Warhammer universes. Riders of the Dead was from the fantasy universe, but Eisenhorn is from the Warhammer 40,000 setting. It is an odd science fiction set-up that takes elements from Dune and Star Wars and grafts on a bunch of testosterone-fuelled silliness and fantasy tropes to make it appeal to the sort of teenage boy who thinks it would be cool to be a Nazi general and that the enemy really are all sub-human. It isnít necessarily an easy universe to get something interesting out of, but various writers have tried, usually through the use of Imperial Inquisitors as lead characters. Iím still hoping to find time to read Ian Watsonís notorious Inquisition War series. In the meantime I have been getting to see what Abnett has done with his own Inquisitor, Gregor Eisenhorn.
When you think of an Inquisitor the tendency is to think of some snively pervert who spends his time directing tortures, preferably of nubile young women he has accused of witchcraft. W40K Inquisitors are generally not like that. In fact it helps to think of them more like high-powered policemen. Their job is to root out traitors to the Empire (who by definition are heretics because the Emperor is a god). Because they are pretty much a law unto themselves, how they do so is up to them. Some, like Commodus Voke, spin careful traps that may take decades to come to fruition. Gregor Eisenhorn is more of the Dirty Harry school of policing. Heís much more happy barging in and confronting the bad guys directly, preferably with a large gun in his hand, which is an ideal sort of fellow to have as a lead character in a W40K book.
The problem for the author is how to write about such a character without having him seem a humorless racist bigot. The W40K attitude towards aliens is not exactly politically correct, as Abnett has archaeoxenologist Girolamo Malahite point out:
"Oh, thereís no saving them, Inquisitor. They are precisely the sort of xenos filth you people teach us to fear and despise. I have encountered several alien races in my career, and found most to be utterly undeserving of the hatred that the Inquisition and the church reserves for anything that is not human. You are blinkered fools. You would kill everything because it is not like you. But in this case you are right."
Thereby Abnett manages to have it both ways. He questions the racist ideology of the setting, but at the same time pits his hero up against a particular group of aliens who have most certainly been subverted by the Dark Side. They are slaves to a force to horrible for mortal minds to contemplate. Can you guess what it is yet, boys and girls? Hereís a clue.
"Most perturbatory," said Aemos, looking at it for the umpteenth time. "Symmetry ó at least basic symmetry ó is a virtual constant in the galaxy. All species ó even the most obscene xenos kinds like the tyranid ó have some order of it."
"Thereís something wrong with the angles," agreed Lowink, furrowing his unhealthy, socket-pocked brow. I knew what he meant. It was as if the angles in the star symbol made up more than three hundred and sixty degrees, though that of course was unthinkable.
Yes, got it in one. Inquisitor Eisenhorn is on the trail of a bunch of bad guys who are threatening the Empire with nothing more deadly-looking than a book.
From here on in it is all good fun. The story ramps up from a simple police-style investigation of what appears to be a terrorist outrage to a full-scale fleet operation intended to ensure that no trace of That Book remains in the known universe. Given that Xenos is only the first book of a trilogy, we can assume that some of the bad guys are going to escape, and that things will get even more desperate as the series goes on. So far there has been no sign of anyone with questionable taste in beards. I hope it stays that way. One of the important ground rules of Call of Cthulhu games is that no matter what setting you put our slimy, tentacled friends into, they are always much more powerful than any weapons that the good guys can throw at them. Even if the good guys happen to be armed with entire fleets of planet-busting dreadnaughts.
The writing of Xenos is competent, straightforward and inspiring of compulsive page-turning. The characters have a tendency towards stereotypes, but are well drawn for all that. Eisenhorn manages to show himself not to be completely heartless, despite the fact that it is his job to be so. And Abnettís background as a comics writer comes through quite a bit, particularly in the fight scenes. You can tell that heís thinking about how the action will look as a panel when he is writing it, which tends to make it a lot easier to visualize what is going on that if you are reading action described by someone who has never worked closely with artists.
Obviously Xenos is not the sort of book that is going to be up for SF awards. Nor, at last as far as the first volume of the series is concerned, has Abnett tired to go for the sort of depth of political sophistication that Karen Traviss talks about putting into her Star Wars books. Such an approach is probably much more difficult in the W40K world, given that the very rules of that world would have had any putative Luke Skywalkers executed for treason in very short order. Nevertheless, it is clear that a fair amount of effort has gone into writing the book. Xenos isnít something that has just been tossed off in a weekend to earn a few quick bucks. It is the work of someone who has respect for his readers and hopes that people other than the target 12-14 year-old male audience will get something out of it. Compared to some of the deeply formulaic and unimaginative fantasy I have read, this is really rather good.