Widely held as a Black Library classic, Dan Abnett’s Xenos is the first installment in his Eisenhorn trilogy and the first novel to take a close look at the workings of the Inquisition. First published in 2001 following the release of the Inquisitor game by Games Workshop (in which the character of Eisenhorn was briefly introduced), it sees the young Gregor Eisenhorn closing in on a target only to realise he’s just beginning to scratch the surface of a much, much wider conspiracy involving the noble Glaw family and a foul xenos race.
Xenos is notable for many things, but perhaps most of all for being the first Black Library book to really take a look at the non-military side of Imperial life. Abnett is renowned for his world building, and alongside the insights it provides into the different (often conflicting) aspects of the Inquisition, there’s masses of detail around day to day Imperial life here. From the privileged lifestyles of the super-rich to the painful, itinerant life of Alizebeth Bequin prior to meeting Eisenhorn, it’s fascinating to see a different side to the 40k universe and refreshing to get away from the usual Imperial Guard and Space Marines. Of course when a Space Marine does turn up, we get to see just how intimidating a post-human can be.
World building aside this is essentially a hard-boiled detective story, a carefully plotted tale that sees Eisenhorn gradually unpick the threads of the conspiracy, along the way gathering a couple of helpers who will have big roles to play in the coming events. Eisenhorn is everything you’d expect of an Inquisitor – hard-edged, ruthless, utterly focused – but still sympathetic. Despite being willing to do anything for his cause, he clearly cares about the people he surrounds himself with, and at this point in his career is still very much the Amalathian. The other characters in Eisenhorn’s retinue are detailed, fallible and very human, while the conspirators they face, including the various Glaw family members, are equally well drawn and suitably menacing.
This is undoubtedly a classic among the Black Library stable, but more than that it’s a genuinely great book that should appeal to science fiction fans regardless of whether they’re 40k fans or not. It’s got all the Abnett hallmarks, especially in terms of the characterful, imaginative touches that are so typical of his world building, and it does a fantastic job of broadening the scope of the 40k setting. Even now, 15 years later, there are few other books that do as good a job of this. As a standalone novel it works a treat, but taken in context of the rest of the Eisenhorn trilogy, not to mention the subsequent Ravenor trilogy (let’s not mention Pariah and its absent follow-ups) it’s an auspicious start to an amazing body of work. If you’re a 40k fan and you haven’t read this yet – why not?!