As I have mentioned before, in my review of Rapture, the last book of Kameron Hurley’s incredible Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy, I have a hard time staying away from the last book in a trilogy. Under normal circumstances I would space out my reading, but when I’m so close to the conclusion of a series I can practically taste it, this self-imposed rule tends to get broken for the sake of finding out, once and for all, just what happened to the characters in the book I just finished.
And this is the case with Hereticus, the last book in the Eisenhorn Trilogy by Dan Abnett, which is set in the immense Warhammer 40,000 shared universe. In many ways, it is an excellent conclusion, but at the same time, one that was entirely expected – and “entirely expected” is not something I like all the time, particularly in a genre like science fiction. I suspect that Abnett took some lessons from George R. R. Martin, because although Abnett can’t top Martin’s ability to utterly depress a reader when it comes to things taking a turn for the worse, Abnett does a pretty fine job of it in Hereticus.
Hereticus takes place after the events of Malleus – immediately after, it might be said, because the time gap this time between the ending of Malleus and the ending of Hereticus is a “mere” fifty years, especially when compared to the century-long gap between the ending of the first book, Xenos, and Malleus. The original team is, for the most part, intact ,with only Midas Betancore being the lone casualty, and his death was already mentioned in the previous book, with his daughter, Medea, taking his place as Eisenhorn’s pilot.
However, that status quo will not remain for very long, as in the first third of the book, a whole swathe of people actually die. Nathun Inshabel, an Interrogator who joined Eisenhorn’s team in Malleus is also killed. Gone too is almost all of the Distaff, leaving Eisenhorn with just one Untouchable – and one who is a mere novice, at that. As for Alizebeth Bequin, head of the Distaff and Eisenhorn’s beloved, she barely survived her injuries, and is permanently brain-dead and has been put into stasis, forever beyond Eisenhorn’s reach.
This leaves Eisenhorn with just a scant handful of team members, and only two of them – Uber Aemos and Godwyn Fischig – were around right from the beginning of the trilogy. There is a brief bright spot when Gideon Ravenor, now an Inquisitor himself and a very powerful psyker (despite – or because of – the fact that he is now permanently crippled and confined to a force chair) appears to help his old master in the middle to latter part of the book, but that brief elation doesn’t last very long, as Eisenhorn’s decisions in Malleus reveal their consequences in Hereticus. None of those consequences are pretty, for Eisenhorn pretty much loses everything he holds dear – including, to some degree, himself.
What the reader may notice about this book is that it feels rather short in comparison to Xenos and Malleus, and that is indeed the case, as the plot itself is strung tightly together and does not relent in its rapid pace until the very end. For some readers, this might be a blessing, but for my part I found myself occasionally wishing that the whole thing would slow down a little bit, give the reader a bit more time to get used to what has happened to Eisenhorn and where his decisions are taking him. I know this seems silly, since the outcome of this novel was clearly telegraphed in Malleus, but I suppose that optimistic side of myself was hoping that, if Eisenhorn had just been given enough time to breathe, to think things though, things might have gone differently.
I suppose that is also a testament to Abnett’s skill as a writer, that he can make me wish that Eisenhorn had been given more time to change, even if it’s quite clear there is no way he can make that change anymore. It’s also a testament to Abnett’s skill that he can make Eisenhorn a sympathetic character, despite the fact that he murdered not just one, but two people (one of them being Godwyn Fischig) in order to summon the daemon Cherubael. Abnett’s characterization of Eisenhorn makes it clear that though Eisenhorn has irrevocably crossed a line in doing what he has done, and though the reader would like nothing more than to loathe him for his actions, it is also impossible to truly hate him. If there is any one thing Eisenhorn has held onto, and continues to hold onto at the end of the trilogy, it is that he does all he does in the service of the Imperium.
Something that some readers may have difficulty with is the unrelenting darkness of the trilogy, which comes to a head in Hereticus, particularly if they are more accustomed to more optimistic sci-fi. This is something I had difficulty with initially, as well, but Steven, the friend who got me into the Warhammer 40K books in the first place, told me that the entire shared universe is dark, and that any hint of optimism the reader feels ought to be put away and not accessed at all. The tagline of the shared universe is: “In the grim darkness of space, there is nothing but war,” Steven told me, and therefore there is very little, often no, room for the bright optimism that pervades a lot of other sci-fi. He had assumed that, since I had read A Song of Ice and Fire, I would be accustomed to that sort of thing, and while I am used to characters I love getting massacred before my very eyes (though to be fair, at least Abnett gave each character’s death a purpose), there is still something very painful about reading the events of Hereticus go down. The only light at the end of the tunnel is that there is an entire trilogy dedicated to Ravenor (who, Steven has hinted, fares a bit better than Eisenhorn), and another book that details the final confrontation between the two.
Overall, Hereticus goes down more or less as the reader expects, based on the events of Malleus: it has been a while since I last read a more clearly-telegraphed outcome. However, unlike in other books, where knowing the outcome completely ruins the experience of reading the book, Hereticus acts rather like an emotional punch to the gut: one keeps on hoping that Eisenhorn does not do what one knows he will do, and yet when he does so anyway one simultaneously deplores his actions, and forgives him. Readers who are used to reading more optimistic sci-fi may derive little pleasure from this conclusion, but other readers may find the bittersweet (more bitter than sweet, really) ending appropriate, justified, and enjoyable, in its own way.