Friday, October 21, 2011


I finished Dan Abnett's Eisenhorn omnibus, which includes the three Eisenhorn novels (Xenos, Malleus and Hereticus) as well as bridging short stories that connect them.  It was a fairly lengthy doorstop of a book; in large trade paperback format and nearly 800 pages long.  Granted, that still makes it smaller (as an omnibus) than some other single books in series like The Wheel of Time, The Sword of Truth or The Song of Fire and Ice.  Among others.  For those of you (ha! As if any of you would care enough to do this) who follow my "What I'm Reading" sidebar over there (on the left side) may have noticed, I've had this one on my list for quite a long time.  Months, actually.  Since sometime in the early summer.  It's now late October.  Most of that time can be explained by the fact that, well, yeah, it is a pretty big book, and it's been an absolutely crazy time in real life for me.  I've had very little free time to read, and I've also been interrupted, sometimes for relatively long periods of time, where I had to put Eisenhorn down and read something else due to constraints that had nothing to do with my desire to finish Eisenhorn.  But, I also have to admit that not all of that delay was caused by external constraints.  I'll get to that in a moment.

Eisenhorn is a Black Library imprint.  Black Library is the fiction publishing arm of Games Workshop, the company that makes, among other things, the Warhammer miniatures game, Warhammer 40,000, Blood Bowl, Necromunda, Inquisitor, Mordheim and more besides.  They've also in recent years had some pretty good success marketing those intellectual properties into computer games.  And, as any stop by pretty much any bookstore in America (Barnes & Noble, I guess?  Now that Borders is gone, are there any other chains I'm missing out on that are significant?) will show you, the Black Library section has grown just in the last few years to take up a surprisingly large amount of shelf space, at least equal to the Wizards of the Coast D&D novels lines, or the Star Wars and Star Trek novels lines.  Maybe larger.  Black Library is becoming a major force in fantasy and science fiction publishing.  And, as you can guess, their novels are set in the same fictional universes as their games--so they've basically got Warhammer--a darker, grimmer, Germanic take on standard Tolkienian fantasy with a heavy dose of Lovecraftian horror--and Warhammer 40k, a darker, grimmer take on a heavily Dune-inspired space opera that also has a heavy dose of Lovecraftian horror.  And curiously, a lot of fantasy, including space elves, space orcs, space hobbits and space dwarves.  There's also space demons and space wizards of sorts.  It's not hard sci-fi, by any means, but then again, not much of what seems to be really popular these days is, so I certainly don't hold that against it.  And, in fact, as a bigger fan of fantasy than of science fiction (in general) I wouldn't find that a problem in any case.

I went into Eisenhorn with extremely high expectations, which is usually not a good thing, based on the fact that I'd heard it described so often as "the best shared-world, licensed fiction that money can buy."  I could have possibly tempered that expectation by pointing out (to myself, at least) that that isn't necessarily saying much, as there's so much really bad shared world fiction out there, and only very limited shining stars in that field.  After having read the omnibus, I'm not sure if I agree or not.  It's good--don't get me wrong--in fact, Eisenhorn is very good.  But the best?  I dunno that I'd go that far.

The novels are told in a kind of retrospective, past-tense first person viewpoint.  Normally, a first person viewpoint helps to bring a sense of immediacy to a novel, but in this case, I think it did not.  Part of it was the past tense retrospective approach, where Abnett often would throw out asides that made it sound like it was all written long after the fact ('Gideon went on to be famous for his scholarly writings on this or that topic', for example, is an interesting bit of color about a fairly minor character.  It doesn't really bring a sense of immediacy to the writing, though, nor make us feel that Gideon is facing any significant risk in the narrative we're reading now.)  Part of this also may have been Eisenhorn's somewhat clinical, cold "voice" which was an important part of his character, but which made us feel oddly alienated from him, even as we got the story in his own words and from his own perspective.  Or maybe it's just the innate Britishness of Abnett that makes the book seem somewhat detached from this American's perspective.  Most likely it's a combination of all three factors.

An odd side effect of this curious detachment is that when I hit stopping places, I didn't really mind putting it down and letting myself be distracted, and I also didn't always feel compelled to pick it up again as soon as I was available.  There were times--even when I wasn't distracted by books that I had to read immediately because I needed to give them back, or movies or TV shows that I needed to watch and send back to Netflix, or whatever--where I just didn't make much progress in the novel because I just didn't feel like I had to dive into it an devour it--I was more than happy to take my time sipping from the novel, sometimes no more than a page or two a day for a week or more at a stretch.  Other times, though, the well-paced and well-structured plots of each individual novel had me reading a hundred or more pages at a stretch, unwilling to put the book down except when I had no choice.  But the odd, detached voice made me feel less connected to characters who should otherwise have been really quite intriguing; I found I didn't necessarily care all that much what happened to them.  Part of this was also the structure of the trilogy (as opposed to the structures of the individual novels within the series) where the plot did not flow as easily, and there were huge gaps, off-screen deaths and departures (or arrivals) and other significant changes to characters that we didn't actually get to witness.  I wonder if Abnett really initially envisioned this as a trilogy, or if that's an artifact of how they were later put together.  I'd be willing to believe that each novel was written as a stand-alone follow-up to the predecessor, without any eye towards what may follow later--it just doesn't feel tightly bound together as a trilogy to me.

Possibly, the next subsequent trilogy, the Ravenor omnibus, benefits from having been structured as a planned trilogy, although I've not heard that report from folks who have read it.  And Abnett is now claiming that he will top off the two trilogies with a third--a trilogy of trilogies, if you will--called the Bequin trilogy, and again, involving many of the same characters, although presumably significantly advanced in time from the point of departure where Eisenhorn ends.  Curiously, Eisenhorn also stops more than it ends, I thought.  The novel is clearly done, and then we get brief notes on what many of the characters did afterwards with their life, but at the same time, the final denoument is oddly lacking and unsatisfying, and it seems to preclude leaving a lot of open loose ends for the Ravenor or Bequin trilogies to follow up on.

In fact, all in all, I'd say that the Eisenhorn novels were strongly driven by plot, and not by character.  Not that the characters weren't interesting, because many of them were, but we got too little insight into most of them, and too little chance to see them as characters--with the exception of Gregor Eisenhorn himself.  In that case, what kind of plot do the novels have?  The main character, Gregor Eisenhorn, is an Inquisitor, a kind of intragalactic Special Agent in a setting where the lives of individuals are not highly valued.  It's also a setting where the danger from Lovecraftian entities from "The Warp", a kind of extradimensional space that is both the setting's equivalent to hyperspace and therefore a way to travel the stars as well as a source of psychic powers (i.e., space magic), daemons (I do love the British spelling of that word, by the way), and a dimension that is also strongly driven by human emotions, many of which, personified, have become humanities worst enemies--the Greater Daemons of Chaos--godlike powers who seek the ruination of the physical world.  Eisenhorn starts off as a fairly puritanical witch-hunter type, and the one character arc that we get to really see develop over the course of the novel is his "fall" if you will into radicalism; colluding with the forces of the alien and the daemon if necessary for the greater good.

There's some pretty nifty scenes that have a slight horror overlay, although Eisenhorn is way too much of an action novel to ever really stir any emotional response to the horror, but in many ways Abnett took some Lovecraftian concepts and made them his own.  Lovecraft never made non-Euclidean geometry sound like anything other than a dry and somewhat esoteric obsession; Abnett makes it seem genuinely disturbing at times.  He also does a good job of taking the concept of the "forbidden tome" and making it pretty creepy, including the Necroteuch (a science fictional homage to the Necronomicon, no doubt) and the Malus Codicium.  In addition, perhaps as an Easter egg to readers, Abnett specifically mentions The Book of Eibon as well, which is perhaps just enough Yog-Sothothery to tie the Warhammer Chaos mythos to the Cthulhu Mythos.  It was clearly heavily influenced by Lovecraft anyway.

One side effect of reading an omnibus is that I'm now strongly in the mood to read some unconnected and shorter stuff.  I'm going to finish the Conan collections by Del Rey by reading the third (of three) compilations, and I'm actually already fairly well on my way there.  After that, we'll see.  In general, after reading some short fiction, I crave the longer structure and detail of a novel, but I don't think I'm necessarily craving the often rambling and long-winded approach of a series.  I'll play it by ear and see what I'm in the mood to read after Conan is done--in spite of what my On Deck sidebar says.

For Eisenhorn, I definitely recommend the omnibus.  It's fun stuff for any fan of darker, action and mystery oriented space opera.  It's fun stuff for any fan of Lovecraftiana.  It's got a good pace and plot within each novel, although they feel like they were not originally intended to be a trilogy; just organic sequels that grew after the first one after it proved popular enough to spawn them.  I also don't know that I'd say this is the best shared world fiction I've read, or even if it is, if that makes it amongst the best that the genre overall can offer.  My impression of Eisenhorn is that it's pretty good---but it's not great.  I may eventually pick up the Ravenor omnibus too, but not anytime soon.

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