Eisenhorn is an omnibus set in the Games Workshop Warhammer 40K universe written by Dan Abnett. Abnett has written comics for Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and Doctor Who magazine, audio dramas for the BBC set in the Doctor Who series, as well as many comics and novels set in the military science fiction setting of Warhammer 40K. Eisenhorn spans three novels and two short stories, weighing in at 768 pages, but the pacing and the prose make it seem much shorter.
The Warhammer 40K universe is a dark, dark setting. The Imperium of Mankind has been out in the furthest corners of the galaxy, practicing a confidently intergalactic version of Manifest Destiny, secure in the knowledge that they are protected by their deity, the God-Emperor of Mankind. Travel across the vast distances in this universe requires entering and navigating an alternate dimension of chaotic energy known as The Warp, the demonic residents of which are beings of godlike power and monstrously alien psychological makeup who occasionally manage to corrupt the minds of men and manifest themselves in the material realm. In such a large and tumultuous setting it should come as no surprise that conflicts involving aliens, demons, and insurgents abound, or that the Imperium has a dedicated agency of investigators called the Inquisition who address these issues. Eisenhorn focuses on the career of one of the most famed Inquisitors, Gregor Eisenhorn, as he covers cases touching on each one of these kinds of conflict.
In the first novel of the series, Xenos, Abnett plunges us directly into a shootout between Eisenhorn and his suspect, sweeping us along into a broad ranging conspiracy that highlights the strengths and weaknesses of Eisenhorn and his crew, a broad mix of characters whose talents and personalities complement the story in a way that shines a light on one of Abnett’s best skills–character development. I personally find myself more fascinated with characters who are put through a lot, suffering through trials to emerge stronger, than I am by the heroes who are never really tested in a meaningful way. These characters are definitely tempered, and not all of them make it through. Those who do still suffer, both physically, mentally, and emotionally. The closest thing that the novel gets to a love story is beautifully tragic, and while the body count of named characters isn’t as high as a G.R.R Martin novel, there are still enough surprises to keep you on the edge of your seat. I think that in one of the novels Eisenhorn remarks on how high the turnover is in the staff of an Inquisitor, both through retirement and…well, “retirement”. It’s a dangerous job.
The villains in this novel are also complex and wonderfully layered. Whether they’re wealthy and corrupted merchant families or powerfully ancient demigods of Chaos, all of the villains are examples of the danger inherent in the obsession over amassing wealth or power. Their behavior swings from genteel to psychotic like a flipped switch, their fanaticism in the face of grimly overwhelming odds proof of the corrupting influence of Chaos. In a universe where the Inquisition are the Gestapo, the personification of Authority, an untouchable force of almost limitless power and resources, Abnett does a great job of illustrating just how tainted someone would have to be to defy them. It could be argued that — as an agent of the Inquisition — Eisenhorn is a villain, and there are definitely glimpses of the dark nature in his character, but Abnett acknowledges this by making Eisenhorn painfully aware of his own inner struggle with that darkness.
The story also takes us to many different planets in the Imperium, where Abnett turns the spotlight on one of his other strengths–worldbuilding. These aren’t just sets in a galactic opera, they’re by turns idyllic, dystopian, pastoral, urban, gritty and fascinating worlds, full of life. The variations in the way that the Imperium administers the broad assortment of planets in its vast territory makes the inevitable associations with the Roman Empire even more obvious, and helps to give flavor to the character of the social fabric. If you’ve spent a lot of time reading about Roman history, culture, and society then you’ll love the way that parts of the Imperium are recognizable as obviously polished facades over a crumbling structure.
When this series was recommended to me, I had heard of Warhammer 40K, mostly from a friend who was obsessive about the point values of his armies, and the terrain collection that he kept in order to be able to maximize the tactical advantages of his varying unit types. While I enjoyed the game, I never found myself with so much disposable income that I could invest in it, and the heavy emphasis on tactical warfare didn’t leave me with very high expectations for a novel in the setting. This series absolutely changed my mind about the literary potential, inspiring me to buy many more books from the Black Library imprint, and to buy the Inquisitor tabletop RPG, which was a big hit in my gaming group. As my first novel by Dan Abnett, and my first novel in the setting, it gave me that rare, magical experience of captivation. Writing about it has made me want to read it for the 4th time, and there aren’t many books that I re-read that much.