Oftentimes, when one is reading a novel or a series of novels, something will happen that will indicate that there is no turning back: a decision is made, a course of action taken, or a death occurs that forever changes the course of the plot and, for better or worse, and nothing is the same ever again. In Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, that moment is, in my opinion, when the Fellowship breaks up after being attacked on the banks of the Bruinen in The Fellowship of the Ring: from that point, the surviving members of the Fellowship have no choice but to strike out on their own – for better or for worse.
Such events do not happen solely in fiction – history is rife with such events. The title of this review comes from a Chinese proverb, which in its turn was based on an actual historical event. More popular would be the concept of “crossing the Rubicon”: a reference to the historical event of Julius Caesar’s troops crossing the Rubicon from Gaul into Italy – an event which indicated Caesar was willing to fight, to the death if necessary, to gain control of the Roman Republic. In both cases, the two proverbs refer to committing oneself entirely to a course of action from which one cannot turn back, for better or for worse, for victory or defeat.
And there is no better way to describe the events in Malleus the second book in the Eisenhorn Trilogy written by Dan Abnett for the Warhammer 40,000 shared universe. Choices are made and paths are taken in this book that alter the course of the characters forever, thus foreshadowing what I predict will be the very dark events of the penultimate book.
Malleus moves almost directly from the events of the first book, Xenos. I say “almost” because the events of Malleus occur almost a hundred years after the events of Xenos. Those familiar with the way the Warhammer 40K universe works will know that a human living a hundred years or more is completely possible, through things like “juvenat treatments” and cybernetic implants (or the wholesale replacement of one’s organic parts with mechanical ones), but for those who find this information surprising, a quick look at any of the two available online wikis will provide enough information on the matter.
Of course, after a hundred years (with a great many untold adventures occurring in the meantime), it should come as no surprise that Eisenhorn’s little band as they were seen in Xenos should have grown somewhat, and altered slightly in composition. There are, for instance, notable absences: Godwyn Fischig, for instance, is nowhere to be seen, nor is Midas Betancore. However, one of these absences is far more permanent than the other: whereas Fischig puts in an appearance towards the middle of Malleus, Betancore has already died in the intervening century. Instead, his daughter, Medea, acts as his replacement in Eisenhorn’s group – and fortunately, she has her father’s flying skills, and so there really is no gap in Eisenhorn’s retinue, as he is still served by a Betancore who is an excellent pilot.
Uber Aemos is still around, and so is Alizebeth Bequin – but things are a bit different this time for the latter. She has established and is running a small group called the Distaff, consisting of nothing but Untouchables who have been trained to work with Eisenhorn and his larger staff, though sometimes Eisenhorn sends some of them to work with other Inquisitors who request for their services from Eisenhorn. It is also revealed during the first third of the novel that Eisenhorn has developed romantic feelings for Bequin – something which, while not completely unsurprising, also made my eyebrow go up slightly. While I am not one to deplore a potential love story where there is room to develop it, this is one of those instances where it appears there isn’t much room at all. Eisenhorn’s interest in Bequin beyond her gift as a Blank is not established in Xenos, and while it is true that constant close contact of the life-saving sort will often lead to romantic feelings becoming established, I felt that such interest could have been better introduced, or at least more subtly incorporated than Eisenhorn’s declaration that he has been in love with Bequin for a while now. I suppose the fact that Eisenhorn is a psyker and Bequin is an Untouchable and therefore a completely inappropriate match excuses Eisenhorn’s reticence, but in my opinion romantic interest could have been implied in a great many other ways, and not just a simple, direct statement – and therefore, could have been made more interesting.
Aside from the old characters (and their new complications), there are also new characters, most notable of which is Gideon Ravenor, protagonist of the eponymous trilogy focused on his adventures after the events of the Eisenhorn Trilogy. He appears only briefly in Malleus, but despite that brief appearance it is made clear that he is something very special, which makes me look forward to reading the Ravenor Trilogy once I am done with this one. Another new character is Harlon Nayl, a warrior of some renown; and Arianrhod Esw Sweydyr, a swordswoman who appears very briefly and is notable for three things: her martial prowess, her sword Barbarisater; and her romantic relationship with Ravenor. They are later joined by Nathun Inshabal, an Interrogator who was attached to another Inquisitor earlier in the novel, but upon that Inquisitor’s death joins up with Eisenhorn’s group, replacing (to a certain degree) Ravenor after the latter is severely injured in the first third of the novel. All of these characters, old and new, are all tied to Eisenhorn’s fate, for better or for worse.
What I found most surprising about this novel, aside from the hundred-year time-skip, was that it did not feel like it suffered from middle-book syndrome. This is a problem I encounter a lot with trilogies, since more often than not, the middle book serves as a transitory point between the momentous events of the first book, and the momentous events of the third. However, Malleus is just as momentous, in its own right, providing as it does the inevitable turning point that will likely prove all the events in the third book to be completely inevitable and unavoidable. In Malleus decisions are made that put Eisenhorn and his band down a path from which there is no return – and this is a take on the usual three-book pattern of many trilogies that I can appreciate greatly. Instead of suffering from middle-book syndrome, Malleus presents a sense of inevitably, of unavoidable fate that hints at what will happen in the third book – which, I am already certain, will not be good. When the end comes, I will know that perhaps they could have been avoided, but the moment Eisenhorn made his decision to negotiate with Pontius Glaw – indeed, made the decision to spare him, there was nothing that could be done.
Much of how I feel about this novel rests on Eisenhorn and the decisions he makes. Oftentimes, when I read novels and am deep in them I find myself talking to the protagonist, negotiating with them, telling them that they are making a stupid decision, or applauding their wiser choices. In Eisenhorn’s case, I found myself in a rather uncomfortable position: I could not fault him for making the decisions that he did, given the circumstances, but at the same time I was not blind to the direction he was going. I had hoped that he would not proceed beyond the point of no return – that he would not cross the line – but when he does, I cannot find fault in him for doing so. This is, as I have said earlier, an uncomfortable position to be in – but also a very novel one for me as a reader, and this is probably one of the other redeeming factors about this novel, preventing it from suffering the ignominy of middle-book syndrome. I suppose part of this stems from the fact that the entire novel is narrated from the first-person perspective, and this narrative style lends a more visceral approach to the emotions and motivations of the narrator, but I believe that my feelings on the matter also have to do with Abnett’s characterization and writing of Eisenhorn himself (romantic feelings notwithstanding).
Overall, despite being the second book in a trilogy and therefore likely to suffer from a whole host of issues, Malleus is capable of standing well enough on its own. Readers new to the Warhammer 40K universe will likely benefit from having access to one of the two wikis available online, just as they did while reading the first book, Xenos, but this is a minor issue and easy to work around. What is easier to appreciate, though, is how this second book does not feel like a mere stepping-stone from Point A to Point B, but a vital story in its own right, showing the moment when everything changes for Eisenhorn and his friends and associates: that precise moment when they cross the Rubicon and can no longer turn back to the way things used to be. Alea iacta est: the die is cast. After this point, nothing will ever be the same.