I’ve been putting off writing this review for a while. Xenos is one of those Warhammer novels that hold high esteem within the 40k canon and is held in high regard by people who wouldn’t normally touch this franchise. It’s had video games, TV shows and all sorts dedicated to it and it’s often one of the first books people point to for those looking to dip their toes into Warhammer 40,000. And the first time I read it, I didn’t like it.
Alright, so perhaps saying I didn’t like it is a bit harsh. Instead, let’s say that it wasn’t the earth-shattering novel that it’d had been teed up as being. Rather, it’s a decent bit of pulp detective fiction set in the grimdark setting of Warhammer 40,000. And while that is an impressive premise, I think no only are there better mystery stories out there now but also better Inquisitor ones, too. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Xenos is a stellar story with some great action and enjoyable characters, but on my first pass I felt a lot this was pretty shallow and the book never gave you the time to appreciate and understand its cast.
So alright, I’ve read through Xenos twice for this review. After my first pass, I wasn’t happy with the feeling of disappointment and knew that if I’d reviewed it then it wouldn’t be a true representation of the quality Dan Abnett put into this work. So it let it sit for a while and eventually got around to picking it up and blitzed through it again. On my second go through, it was like reading a different story. My preconceived notions about where I thought the story would go or how the characters would react was gone. Instead, I could enjoy the easy to read prose and blistering action scenes without any of the hang-ups that came with the expectations put on this book. And while I will never be my favourite Warhammer 40,000 novel, it’s definitely worth anybody’s time and is an excellent read.
After my second pass, I knew the characters a lot more and could enjoy watching them try to survive the events being thrown against them. Alright, so what is Xenos about? This is the first book in the Eisenhorn trilogy and it follows Inquisitor Gregor Eisenhorn as he tries to uncover a conspiracy. Along the way, he finds allies, battles the forces of chaos and gets into his fair share of fights. Xenos runs at a fast pace throughout and that helps keep the reader on the edge of their seat at all times and while I enjoy a slower pace at times in my 40k novels, this works within the context of the story being told as it adds a sense of urgency to the tale.
While it remains that with both readings, I found the plot simple. It’s to the book’s credit. This is a straightforward mystery and the fun comes from watching Eisenhorn and his retinue figure out what is happening and try to stop it. Eisenhorn himself is a decent enough protagonist if a little generic by modern standards. He’s a grizzled veteran who will go to any length to get the job done. There are easy comparisons between him and noir detectives, and this noir theme is constant throughout Xenos.
I think some of the reasons I still can’t quite fall in love with Xenos and Eisenhorn is because I don’t particularly like the Imperium. I’m a chaos player through and through, and while I’m planning to dip my toes into some Grey Knights in 2021, that’s more for some fun kitbash ideas than because I wanted some space marines in my life. The Imperium framed as the ‘good’ guys has never been something I’ve managed to engage with. And because of the parallels, this story has to noir detectives, I’ve found that I couldn’t get over the fact behind all the grey morality Xenos was still saying Emperor Good, Chaos Bad. And my favourite Warhammer stories are when that line between good and evil is blurred beyond belief or dig deep into what it means to be a regular person trying to survive in horror that is the Imperium. Anything in between feels like it tries to justify all the awful stuff going on. And yes, I know that’s what to expect from the Inquisition but as I said, this is done better in other books (see The Carrion Throne). Having said all of that, Xenos is still a fun read but I can’t quite get behind it all the way.
I’m glad that I went through this book twice because it helped me get over the hype that comes with a Warhammer novel that is so revered by the community. If you’re looking to get into the 40k universe and aren’t sure where to start, then Xenos is a good starting place. You don’t need any preexisting knowledge to understand and enjoy this story.
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