Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Eisenhorn Trilogy - Warhammer 40K Meets Film Noir

So I am a big sucker for Warhammer 40K novels. Most of them are "meh" - sci-fi war porn filled with gratuitous verbiage and usually a little too ambitious for the writers who pen them. However, for quick summer reads or something to take up my lunch hour during the work week, they're great. And, I must admit, some are better than others - the recent run of Horus Heresy novels has actually been quite good, with a couple of mediocre exception that were mediocre in my mind not so much because of the writing, which was still pretty good, but because they didn't seem to fill a worthy niche in the Horus Heresy series.

But I digress. Recently my buddy Darkwing picked up and read an omnibus of Dan Abnett's acclaimed Eisenhorn trilogy, considered by many 40K fluff fanatics to be some of the best 40K writing ever published. After reading the trilogy, both Darkwing and I agree - Eisenhorn is, hands down, the best example of 40K fiction yet published (with the first HH novel, perhaps, coming in a very close second).

These three novels, Xenos, Malleus, and Hereticus follow the path of Imperial Inquisitor Gregor Eisenhorn as he works against the enemies of the Imperium - the Alien, the Demon, the Mutant, and the Heretic. His Inquisitorial status means his authority is unquestionable and absolute, and he pursues his enemies with absolute ruthlessness and cunning. But for all that, Eisenhorn is human, and he has human weaknesses and frailties, and he makes human mistakes and has human failures. I've seen a number of critics online who lambast Abnett for having Eisenhorn make "stupid mistakes" or not do certain things and as a result bad things happen later on, but I feel this just makes the story better. He is a man standing against the encroaching darkness, and although he falters and fails along the way, he always fights on, no matter the odds and no matter the consequences to himself and others.

To add another layer onto the story, Eisenhorn is about a man's descent into the darkness of one's own soul. At the beginning of the first novel, Eisenhorn describes himself as a "Puritan", meaning he does not believe in using the forces of Chaos to fight Chaos. He isn't a zealot - as a psyker himself (meaning he possesses a mutation that grants him psychic ablities) he could hardly be a complete hardliner or he would damn himself - but he does have an almost chivalrous air about his faith in the mission he believes in. But as time goes on and the lines between friend and foe, good and evil, enemy and ally, begin to blur, Eisenhorn is forced to swim in darker waters, and by the end of the book he has, in a way, become what he once looked at with contempt (I won't give away the particulars of the finale, but it's not so bad as all that).

Along with all this, Abnett's view of the Warhammer 40K universe is, to my mind, perfectly rendered. Many writers and artists tend to show the 40K-verse as a galaxy of tortured Gothic horrors, a million worlds constantly at war with the rest of the galaxy, untold billions toiling endlessly for the sole purpose of keeping Ultimate Evil at bay, etc. etc.. It is not a view that I find particularly pleasing, and it appears that Abnett feels the same way. Yes, many of the places in his books are grim, bleak worlds that would cause most of us to despair. But many of them are also rather beautifully described, and while the religion of God-Emperor worship seems to be prevalent everywhere (atheism is a shootable offense in the Imperium), most people seem to be about as religious as your average "religious person" today - they say their prayers, they go to church, they have faith in their deity and while they don't attribute everything that happens in their lives to divine favor, "miracles do happen" so to speak. And among all this, people live out fairly normal lives that wouldn't seem all that different to us today. It is, in short, much more believable and satisfying.

And finally, the style in which both the action and the setting are written fits the story extremely well. In my mind, the series is one part Blade Runner, one part Star Wars, a touch of the Cthulhu Mythos, and a heaping helping of both dramatic film noir and hard-boiled detective novel. And Abnett's ability to write powerful, dramatic, and bloody action is second to none.

So, even if you have no interest in the Warhammer 40K universe, give the Eisenhorn Trilogy a chance. It doesn't just cross the line between media tie-in fiction and science fiction literature, it takes an autocannon and blows the line to smithereens.

Oh, and one other thing...

The Eisenhorn books, and the Ravenor trilogy that follows after it, are perfect examples of how to handle a great sci-fi RPG campaign or two. I pointed my Traveller GM to the Eisenhorn books and she agrees with me that the way Eisenhorn & Co. go about their business should be the way our campaign is handled. For the record, the "top PC" of the party is a Duke and a Major General worth millions of credits, flying himself and the rest of the party around in a 400 million credit luxury space-yacht. He is essentially above the law and we have enough firepower on board to handle most anything that comes our way. But even so, there are a million ways that we could be challenged, if the GM could find a non-confrontational way of dealing with the player of said PC, who has many issues of his own (he's the GM in the Harn game I recently quit out of because of many issues I've detailed in previous postings).


greywulf said...

Oddly enough I was looking at this very book today, pondering buying it. I'm a big fan of Abnett and have a hefty collection of comics he's worked on (including Captain Britain, Force Works, Iron Man, etc), so know the sheer quality of his writing.

Definitely added to my pull list now :)

Good review.

Badelaire said...

Thanks Greywulf. Back when I first saw the individual books in the trilogy I had my doubts - as Darkwing says in his review, the typical portrait of an Imperial Inquisitor is very much in line with something out of The Name of the Rose. That Abnett was able to not only avoid that stereotype, but transcend it completely, was a pleasant surprise.

PatrickWR said...

Couldn't have said it better myself. I'm about 100 pages away from wrapping up the Eisenhorn omnibus, and it's simply wonderful. His characterization of the 40k universe is frighteningly in-line with how I envision the setting, right down to how he described the mental landscape of that Chaos Titan's tortured mind.

I'm knee-deep in creating a Dark Heresy campaign right now...literally every page includes some detail or element that helps me bring the game together for my players.

skeleri said...

Didn't even know about this series. I'm going to read it for sure. The giant Eisenhorn Inquisitor miniature I've had staring at me for the past seven years demands it!

Badelaire said...

@patrickwr: Good to hear someone's running a DH campaign! I'm fascinated by the concept, but a bit put off by the $$$ of the rulebooks. After finishing Eisenhorn, you NEED to go and read the Ravenor trilogy. It's different than the first three books, but in it's own way, just as good. Gives, I think, and even better perspective for running a DH campaign, since with the Eisenhorn novels, he's the main character and his retinue is definitely secondary. In the Ravenor novels, he's almost a secondary character, while his retinue takes precedence in the narrative.

@skleri: Do it! It's worth the wait. Do you play the Inquisitor game, or do you just like the minis?

skeleri said...

Always wanted to play, but became overwhelmed by the scale. Making gigantic terrain, trying to get figs that big for less than 20 bucks a pop, all of these things conspired against me. Almost broke down and tried playing it in normal 40k scale, but by then, I lost interest.

Kevin said...

I just finished reading this too. It was good, but... I found it a little disappointing as well. Without giving away too much of the plot, the Tech Priest we get itroduced to in one book was quite interesting.... too bad he is written out off panel in the next. I wanted to see/hear how that went down.

However, I HIGHLY recommend any and all of Abnett'sGaunt' Ghosts novels. I have read the first two omnibuses (omnibii?), and found them to be extremely well written, which kind of surprised me. I have the last set of novels waiting for my readin over the next few monnths ... that, and the first 7 Horus Heresy novels.

Devilin said...

I'd write what I think about this but you should read it. I agree that Eisenhorn poaches from every other film/book that can be thought of. It is the best in the Black Library. I wish that Dan Abnett was given a longer leash - some of his stuff feels forced. It's a shame!

PatrickWR said...

Just a followup here: Fantasy Flight's Gencon booth was huge, and right smack dab in the middle was a huge pile of Dark Heresy books for sale. Beautiful products...high production value, full-color, hardback. Definitely worth the price (which is admittedly quite high). Even better than buying, though, is playing -- I hope to do some of that by early September.

Badelaire said...

Patrick - thanks for the heads up. It's both a good and a bad thing to find myself weighing the cost of buying the (expensive but amazing) DH books against buying more 40K minis and other gaming items (see new post about the BRP RPG).

Keep us posted on DH if you get some gaming in!