Sunday, 06 April 2008
Arthur reviews a trilogy of Warhammer 40,000 tie-in novels. Stop sniggering, it's actually quite good.
The Reading Canary: A Reminder
Series of novels - especially in fantasy and SF fiction, but distressingly frequently on other genres as well - have a nasty tendency to turn sour partway through. The Reading Canary is your guide to precisely how far into a particular sequence you should read, and which side-passages you should explore, before the noxious gases become too much and you should turn back.
Eisenhorn: A Hardboiled Psychic Detective From the Secret Police
If there were ever a perilous realm for the Reading Canary to explore, it's in the realm of books based on computer games, tabletop RPGs, and wargames. Monstrosities like R.A. Salvatore and Ed Greenwood lurk behind every corner, just waiting to ambush an unwary canary. Bad experiences with Dragonlance and the Forgotten Realms series during my teenage years caused me to steer away from tie-in fiction, but recently - online and in real life - I kept hearing good things about Eisenhorn, a trilogy by Dan Abnett set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.
A brief explanation for people who aren't enormous nerds: Warhammer 40,000 is a miniatures wargame set in the 41st Millennium, in an era in which mankind has reached the stars, colonised them, and then begun a slow slide back towards barbarism. Technology is the subject of fear and superstition, and even the tech-priests who administer it aren't sure what is genuine scientific knowledge and what is superstitious doctrine. Humanity is ruled by the Imperium of Mankind, which in theory serves the immortal Emperor who sits on the Golden Throne and who has secretly guided mankind's destiny since the Stone Age; in practice, the Emperor is incommunicado, having been crippled in the 31st Millennium by the traitor Horus, kept alive by the power of the Golden Throne and the psychics harvested across the Imperium to lend him their life energy. The Imperium has backslid into a sort of theocratic Communist fascist dictatorship; then again, none of the other galactic civilisations are especially nice either (with the possible exception of the Eldar, who are going extinct). Beset on all sides by terrifying alien threats, and from without and within by the insiduous threat of the Chaos demons who live in hyperspace and constantly seek to undermine the very material universe itself, it's not surprising that the Imperium is more than a little crazy.
This is a background which, of course, was designed primarily to give an excuse for large armies of miniature orks and tyranids and Space Marines to fight each other, but it's also formed the setting for a series of other games. Inquisitor was a small-scale miniatures game that focused on the activities of small parties of adventurers fighting small parties of Chaos cultists, aliens, and demons. The adventurers in question consist of a member of the Imperial Inquisition and his retinue of advisors, bodyguards, spies, psychics and other assistants. (The Imperial Inquisition is exactly what it sounds like, only the heretics they hunt down tend to be dangerous psychics, aliens, and Chaos-tainted madmen, all of whom are bent on the destruction of civilisation, as opposed to, say, Jews.)
To tie in with the publication of this new game (now available free as a .pdf document from GW's Specialist Games subsidiary), Games Workshop asked Dan Abnett to write a trilogy of novels based around the adventures of Gregor Eisenhorn, an Inquisitor character described in the game. This trilogy is often lauded as the best output of the Black Library, Games Workshop's publishing arm, to the point where it appears to have become a primary source for the designers of Dark Heresy, a roleplaying game covering much the same territory as Inquisitor, only to more critical acclaim.
It's no surprise, then, that the Black Library have made sure that Eisenhorn has remained in print, and cheaply at that - the 800-page compilation (which comprises the three novels and two linking short stories, the police procedural Missing In Action and the murder mystery Blackcloth for a Crown Additional) costs a mere 8 pounds, which is a pretty good price in today's book market. Say what you like about the Black Library, but you can't deny that it knows its place in the book market - cheap adventure fiction of the sort formerly provided by the pulp magazines of the days of yore. But is it any good? Eisenhorn is sufficiently widely-celebrated that it's a good a place to start as any.
I knew I'd like Abnett from the start, when he decided to begin Xenos in the thick of the action rather than wasting time preparing the ground. We catch up with Eisenhorn as he and his random miscellanea of comrades finally catch up with an especially slippery heretic they've been chasing for years. Abnett immediately makes it clear that the Inquisition isn't just about persecuting innocent people simply for tampering with forces they don't understand when said heretic, during a heated battle with Eisenhorn and his forces, hits the "defrost" button on a massive cryogenic warehouse containing thousands of slumbering residents of the planet in question, causing their deaths.
Oh, and one of Eisenhorn's underlings dies, but we don't care because we didn't know her very well. That said, Abnett does a decent job of depicting the reaction of Eisenhorn and his crew to this, so we do end up caring in retrospect. For the rest of the novel, we watch as Eisenhorn traces the roots of the incident back to the powerful and corrupt Glaw family, a cabal willing to plunge the entire subsector into anarchy in order to help them retrieve a powerful artifact of Chaos from a bizarre alien race. The action seems adhere to a careful formula: the book starts with a big fight, then there's some detective work, then there's another fight, then more detective work, and so on up until the final fight. Fortunately, the fights are suitably exciting, whilst the detective work does a decent job of portraying interesting, non-violent interactions in a universe that is designed from the ground up to provide excuses for big battles.
All of which, of course, is narrated by Eisenhorn. If I didn't know that in the later novels he would become tainted by the very forces of Chaos he fights, Eisenhorn would be insufferable, always telling us how dearly he cherishes the memory of the allies he encounters and how horrid his enemies are and why the violence he initiates is justified. But because we know that Eisenhorn is going to become corrupted, all of this rings hollow, like a weak man trying to convince us (and himself) that he did the right thing rather than a strong man secure in his faith in the Emperor. Then again, perhaps I'd have had the same impression anyway: Eisenhorn's recurring nightmares of the blank-eyed daemonhost Cherubael is hardly a fitting affliction for a loyal servant of the Golden Throne.
As far as characterisation goes, Eisenhorn naturally enjoys the most. Abnett does his level best to make sure that the other characters in Eisenhorn's retinue get a decent amount of spotlight time, but is hampered by making the retinue too large; there's simply not enough pages to go around, and rather than saying "OK, these characters are essentially going to be spear-carriers and I'm going to concentrate on two or three of Eisenhorn's assistants exclusively" he tries to give each one of Eisenhorn's companions an opportunity to shine, with the result being that none of them get quite enough of a chance to enjoy the level of character development they deserve. Whilst Abnett does make some headway towards resolving this by the last book, he never quite shakes it; as things stand, the companions who get the most spotlight time are the ones who Eisenhorn encounters for the first time and recruits over the course of the novel.
Now, however, I am splitting hairs. As rousing, pulpy adventure fiction set in a ludicriously grim far-future setting Xenos is excellent, page-turning stuff, with mild hints of characterisation adding spice and flavour.
For my money, Malleus is the best of the Eisenhorn series. Eisenhorn is beginning to accept the idea of using the means and methods of Chaos to fight Chaos, Abnett is still enjoying himself, and there's just enough characterisation slipping in to make things interesting. We begin, as before, with Eisenhorn tracking down and killing a dangerous heretic. This time, the point is less to lead into the main plot than it is to give us the rundown on how Eisenhorn's retinue has changed. For one thing, it's grown a lot - having become more powerful in the political structure of the Inquisition, Eisenhorn gets to be at the centre of a subsector-spanning intelligence network. This doesn't dampen his appetite for field work, however, and we get a chance to see how his field team has grown and changed over the years. (Around a century has passed since the events of Xenos, although thanks to various medical techniques of the far future this is more like the passage of a decade, except that children of companions born after Xenos get a chance to grow up and take their parent's place in Eisenhorn's cabal.) The returning characters from Xenos get an opportunity to have their characters further developed, some other chick who we've barely met gets killed, but again we get a chance to see how her passing affects Eisenhorn and his organisation (and these effects seem more persistent than results of the passing of the girl in book 1).
The heretic duly dispatched, Eisenhorn goes home, where he is warned by a comrade that disquieting rumours are circulating that he's gone rogue. "Oh," says Eisenhorn to himself, "why would that be?" An appointment with his superior reveals that Cherubael, the daemonhost encountered in the last book, has cropped up again, and spared the life of an Inquisitor he encountered after mistaking the guy for Eisenhorn. Before Eisenhorn can investigate further, the triumphal procession celebrating victory in the sector-wide war which was being prepared for in Xenos descends into chaos after it is attacked and powerful psychic prisoners of war are freed. Eisenhorn has to set out to unmask the villains whilst defending himself from being prosecuted by the Ordo Malleus for a heresy he has yet to commit.
This sets the scene for high adventure and bloody violence across the stars, and good: that's what we came for; although Abnett makes the internal politics of the Imperium and the Inquisition interesting, his success lies mainly in not dwelling on them for too long. By the end of the book, Eisenhorn has cleared his name, made a slightly idiotic deal with a heretic for information which, to be fair, he couldn't reasonably get anywhere else, thwarted the master-plan of a renegade Inquisitor which might have opened the universe up for a massive invasion by Chaos - or closed the Eye of Terror forever, saving the universe from precisely such an invasion - and bound Cherubael to his will, purely to piss Cherubael off. Oh yeah, this is going to end well...
The climax of the series Hereticus has a slow beginning which becomes more engaging as it goes on, a weak middle, and an exceptionally strong end. The action begins with Eisenhorn, around 50 years after the events of Malleus, chairing an assize on a recently-reconquered planet. Getting word that a long-sought-after heretic has been sighted on a remote island, he postphones proceedings in order to investigate, with his retinue (and the other Inquisitors taking part in the assize) in tow. Biting off more than he can chew, Eisenhorn ends up summoning Cherubael (sacrificing a couple of his allies and cramming Cherubael into the helpless body of another) in order to prevent him and his entire team from dying, and to stop the heretic in question getting away with a truly terrifying piece of kit.
Initially, Eisenhorn's retinue seem to accept this, mainly because they knew full well that there wasn't any other option open to him and because they generally trust him. However, a series of revelations over the course of the novel - as well as other dubious actions on the part of Eisenhorn - will by the end of the book leave his retinue decimated, badly shaken, and in some cases corrupted by Chaos for life. Some of Eisenhorn's allies realise he's gone renegade and try to stop him, to their detriment; others choose to follow him, and whilst perhaps it is important that a long-dead Chaos god's battleship isn't retrieved by the followers of Chaos, it's questionable whether the price Eisenhorn and his pals pay to stop this is worth it.
The trick which Abnett manages, which so many people fail to do, is that he manages to set up the surprises and twists that populate Hereticus (and, to a lesser extent, Malleus) in a manner which normally (but not always) isn't obviously setting something up for later on. The metal sphere containing Pontius Glaw's soul is introduced in Xenos, is important in that context, and plays a role in that story as well as setting up the return of Glaw in Hereticus. It's an economical presentation which to an extent is forced on him by the brevity of the individual volumes, but it works quite well. (I suspect part of the reason why the middle section of Hereticus seems dull is that it isn't setting anything up for a sequel, and is therefore far less rich than the earlier volumes.) Whilst the middle of Hereticus is weak, consisting mainly of Eisenhorn running away from a bunch of guys who blow up his HQ, the climax is the most effective part of the trilogy. Especially nice is Eisenhorn's reunion with Ravenor, a powerful psychic protege of his (who is the subject of a sequel trilogy by Abnett) and who has made an alliance with the alien Eldar; while there seem to be parallels between Eisenhorn's harnessing of Chaos and Ravenor's collaboration with aliens, we're left with the impression that Ravenor has found a middle way which might be less destructive in the long term than the methods which Eisenhorn eventually willingly embraces.
The Canary Says
If you are thinking of exploring Warhammer 40,000 tie-in fiction at all, you may as well try Eisenhorn; if you don't like it, you're not going to want to read anything else. If you're already a 40K fan, you're probably aware of Eisenhorn already, and all I can do is confirm that it is, indeed, pretty damn good - not flawless, but a lot of fun nonetheless. And if you don't care about Warhammer one way or another, but like the idea of fast-paced SF adventure fiction with plenty of fighting, Eisenhorn delivers.