The First Step in a Dark Hunt Through Gathering Darkness – A Review of Xenos by Dan Abnett

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I suppose we have all seen them: those stacks and stacks of Warhammer 40,000 books in the bookstore, oftentimes with some pretty interesting covers – enough to briefly grab and hold one’s attention into looking at it for a while before, most likely, moving on. This is precisely what I have done very often before, since I have no knowledge of the shared universe in which these books are written, and I haven’t been curious enough about them to figure out where to even begin.

But then I met Steven. Hope introduced him to me at the first Homestuck Philippines meet-up I ever attended, having already befriended him and knowing I’d get along with him. This was indeed the case: Steven, Hope and I share a lot of interests, particularly in the kind of books we read – which was why he encouraged me to pick up the Warhammer 40K books. He claimed there was something for everyone in them, though they were primarily military sci-fi. Since I read and enjoyed Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga books, though, he claimed that getting in the Warhammer 40k books wouldn’t be too hard at all.

I like Steven, and so I took his enthusiastic recommendation as an endorsement of the series. I started trying to figure my own way around the many, many potential books, and at first I decided to start at the very beginning: The Horus Heresy – which also happened to be the longest-running (and still running) series in the entire shared universe. I read the first two books, then skipped to one of the later ones, and have since temporarily given up.

This is not to say that The Horus Heresy books aren’t good; they are, to a degree, but I found myself getting impatient with them. I talked to Steven again about my wavering interest, and he suggested that I read the Eisenhorn Trilogy. Thinking that there really was nothing I had to lose, I started on it with the first book, Xenos.

And I do believe I have finally, finally found something about the Warhammer 40K universe to enjoy, because this first book did very well in sucking me in and not letting go.

The premise of Xenos is thus: Gregor Eisenhorn is an Inquisitor of the Imperium of Man, and together with a small group of people with whom he has worked for years, he is tasked with rooting out heresy wherever he finds it in any of the Imperium’s territories. At the beginning of the novel he and his team are on the planet Hubris, where they have finally tracked down and cornered a wanted heretic whom Eisenhorn has been hunting for years. However, the mission goes awry, revealing that this criminal may be linked to a far larger conspiracy involving a noble family from another planet in the same area. Eisenhorn’s hunt to discover the truth underneath the conspiracy leads him to new friends, new enemies – and the discovery of a secret that will alter the course of the rest of his life.

The main problem that a lot of people will have, when they first pick this up, is comprehending the shared world in which this novel (and the two others that follow) exist. I know I have already mentioned that I like it when a sci-fi or fantasy novel expects me to work a little in order to comprehend things world-building and character development, but the same cannot necessarily be said of Xenos. When I began this I had two advantages: the first being that I could contact Steven to explain something I did not understand, and the second being that I had already read three other books from the shared universe before. This made piecing together certain concepts, like the idea of an Inquisitor or why the God-Emperor is so special a bit easier. For those who are using this book as their gateway to the rest of the Warhammer 40K universe, though, I would recommend accessing one of the two wikis currently available online, and using those as necessary.

However, once any hurdles regarding information are surmounted or worked around, the rest of the story is fairly easy to read, and actually quite enjoyable. Eisenhorn, who is both the main protagonist and the narrator (the novel is told in first-person point-of-view), is a character the reader will enjoy, both because he is an interesting character in his own right, and because he makes a pretty decent narrator. He is often sharply aware of his own flaws, and his wit is quite sarcastic too – qualities that, in my opinion, make for an excellent first-person narrator. There is also a notable attempt at objectivity in his tone of narration, one which suits his personality and his job, and which pleases me immensely to read. It gives a certain level of coolness, of distance to his tone, but also allows for moments of emotion, especially when he is talking about the other characters around him.

And now that I mention the other characters, they are for the most part an interesting lot, too – especially the ones on Eisenhorn’s team: Uber Aemon and Midas Betancore to start with, and then later on Godwin Fischig and Alizabeth Bequin. Of the four, I found Bequin’s development to be the most pronounced in this book, and therefore I found her more interesting than any of the others I’ve mentioned (except maybe Aemon, for reasons that the reader will likely find out on his or her own). I suspect – or I hope, rather – that Fischig develops further in the later novels; though he’s quite interesting in Xenos, his development is not quite the same as Bequin’s, and I would really like to see what happens to him later on.

There are, of course, a whole host of other characters aside from the ones on Eisenhorn’s team, including the antagonist/s. For the most part, they are fascinating characters, each in their own way, though the reader may find himself or herself raising an eyebrow at some of them that lack subtlety – or they may not. I prefer characters to be gray in their morality, or at least subtle in their motives (another reason why I like Bequin), and some of the crucial supporting characters simply do not possess either trait.

As for the plot, that at least I did not have any problems with. Nothing really came completely out of the blue for me for the most part, but it was enjoyable to read: a combination of adventure a la Indiana Jones and some interesting battle scenes quite reminiscent of some scenes from Star Wars and the most recent Star Trek movie. In particular, there was a description of ship-versus-ship fighting in space that had me sucked in there for quite a while – though mostly because I have read quite a few of the Aubrey-Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian, and though Abnett wa describing ships in outer space, whereas O’Brian’s books are about ships at sea, it was easy to imagine the maneuvers since I had already had experience imagining O’Brian’s descriptions of sea battles.

Overall, Xenos is a fine introduction to the massive shared universe of Warhammer 40K, not least because it is well-written, featuring interesting characters and an equally interesting plot. However, readers who are using this book as their launch point into the Warhammer 40K universe and therefore have not read any of the other books may run into some comprehension trouble, because the book does not attempt to explain everything, or leave a hint that will allow the reader to figure things out for himself or herself. In such a case a quick Google search will bring up one of two Warhammer 40K wikis, either of which should serve to give the fledgling reader the necessary information to gain comprehension of what, precisely, is going on.

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