Aug 5, 2010

Xenos - Dan Abnett

I've always been vaguely attracted to the Warhammer 40k universe. The absurd extremes in which it's painted, the bleakness and aggression just strike a chord somewhere inside my imagination. And yet, I try to stay as far away as possible from any sort of tie-in fiction, and even if Warhammer books have a reputation for higher standards than those based on, let's say, Forgottten Realns, I was still reluctant to try.

In the end curiosity won, though, so I decided to pick up the series that mostly everybody likes - Dan Abnett's Eisenhorn trilogy. This is as good a place as any to mention that the Warhammer omnibus editions are among the best such collected volumes in the genre and I just love them!

First, the Warhammer 40k spiel:

It is the 41st Millennium. For more than a hundred centuries the Emperor has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the Master of mankind by the will of the gods, and master of a million worlds by the might of his inexhaustible armies. He is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of Technology. He is the Carrion Lord of the Imperium for whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day, so that he may never truly die.

Yet Even In his deathless state, the Emperor continues his eternal vigilance. Mighty battlefleets cross the daemon-infested miasma of the warp, the only route between distant stars, their way lit by the Astronomican, the psychic manifestation of the Emperor's will. Vast armies give battle in his name on uncounted worlds. Greatest amongst his soldiers are the Adeptus Astartes, the Space Marines, bio-engineered super-warriors. Their comrades in arms are legion: the Imperial Guard and countless planetary defence forces, the ever vigilant Inquisition and the tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus to name only a few. But for all their multitudes, they are barely enough to hold off the ever-present threat from aliens, heretics, mutants - and worse.

To Be A man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruelest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be re-learned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.

This description is a bit deceptive. In truth, the universe is nowhere near as bleak, or at least not all of it, and as aggressive and inhumane as the environment is, there is still everything one would expect from a galactic society - trade, class distinctions, political intrigues and all that joy. So, anyway, Xenos. The story is centered around Gregor Eisenhorn - member of the Inquisition (the Imperium's secret police, hunting down heretics, demons and aliens). While chasing an infamous heretic terrorist on the cold world of Hubris, he stumbles upon something bigger - a plot that involves all three of the Inquisition's favorite pastimes, and one that will take the 200-old Inquisitor beyond the edge of the vast Imperium. But while he is trying to find the truth behind the scheme, a rebel human cell is creating chaos in the entire sector to mask their true intentions.

The story is a non-stop action gore-fest, but it still manages to create quite a vivid atmosphere as well as to take the reader's hand for a stroll around many locations both within and outside the Imperium. Characters are mostly cardboard, but still cool enough to do the job. Dan Abnett's style is brisk and a little dry, but still very efficient. The best parts are his descriptions of Chaos taint in its many forms - the warping of dimensions, the mixing of senses, the wrongness of forms. Abnett describes it in a way that really makes your skin crawl, and in a book such as Xenos it is more than enough.

There is not much to the plot that you can't guess from the setup (and what little I've written is actually all that can be said without just telling outright what the story's about), but it is engaging all the same, and with a satisfying conclusion. Still, I didn't really feel the urge to jump into the second book, and even now - a few months later - I still haven't even finished the connecting short story. However, I plan to do so at some point and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Xenos (and considering its price - the whole Eisenhorn omnibus as well) to people who like quality military SF with not a little touch of space opera. It is a solid read, even if tainted by the "tie-in" blight, and well worth the short time it takes to read.


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