I think by now, when people hear Warhammer 40K, they hear Space Marines. But if they hear Warhammer 40K novels, they must hear Horus Heresy or Eisenhorn. He must be one of the most famous characters who originated in novel form. If we’re looking at a book as the Eisenhorn Omnibus, it must be the book most people recommend to their friends fresh into the Universe. The one that has a little bit for everyone, veterans, as well as newcomers.
And I am here to tell you I disagree partially. Or I agree partially. It’s up to you if you want to see the glass half-empty or half-full.
The Eisenhorn Omnibus is a collection of 3 novels and several short stories concerning Inquisitor Gregor Eisenhorn, written by Dan Abnett and published for the first time in 2004 (the omnibus, not the individual novels). The original trilogy consists of the novels Xenos, Malleus, and Hereticus, but in this omnibus are included as well the short stories Missing in Action and Backcloth for a Crown Additional.
Xenos, Malleus, and Hereticus
The first novel, Xenos, introduces us to inquisitor Eisenhorn during a full-blown chase scene where the life of a few thousand people is at stake. Way to start a novel! The unique thing compared to other Warhammer 40K novels is that the action scene doesn’t require any previous knowledge to fully experience it. On the contrary, it resembles other Sci-Fi novels that create their own universes and it just happens that they start with a well-written action scene. Following the frantic action and its resolution, we find more about the investigation Eisenhorn is conducting and we’re on our way to understand the mysteries and the enemies of the Inquisition. And what an inquisitor actually does.
Malleus starts more than a hundred years after the ending of the last book, and this time aspect really puts into perspective life in the Imperium — at least for important characters such as members of the inquisition who are able to live happily (more or less) for hundreds of years. At the same time, it continues to explore the actions from the previous book in unexpected ways. It starts with a huge celebration gone wrong. When I say huge, I mean it. It’s another display of power in a small segment of the galaxy which puts things in perspective for the lore of Warhammer 40k. After the forces of Chaos seemingly interrupt the celebration, Eisenhorn is accused of heresy and from there he must fight both against his own order and against the evil, mysterious forces.
In Hereticus, we follow Eisenhorn at a time when all his previous decisions come back to haunt him. Remember all the loose ends from previous books? Yeah, those are coming back, but you won’t even know exactly which one is the primary threat, and that’s what keeps the mystery all-time-high. Also, the novel starts in the most epic way, Eisenhorn versus a War Titan (30-meter or so humanoid robotic war engine).
The good, the bad, and the ugly in 3 parts
Xenos is partly Sci-Fi novel, partly criminal investigation, partly Warhammer lore. It drags a bit in the middle, and I think that is because of the minimum number of words required to complete a Warhammer novel. And probably some other restrictions imposed on the authors. Dan Abnett did the best he could with these limitations and the result is an excellent novel that will satisfy old fans of the setting and will – sort of – introduce new people to the universe.
I say sort of because starting from the middle of the book, things got a bit too hectic, with so many new characters introduced and so many new roles and concepts poorly explained, that I feel they will frustrate the new readers. On the other hand, I think the concepts were introduced nicely but never explained in this first book. Because I knew about them, I followed the story easily, but I didn’t understand the need for this long enumeration of new things only familiar to fans. If I were a new reader, I would probably have devoured every word searching for lore and world-building, only to discover they are not explained in this book. Partially disappointed, I would probably grab the next book and start reading as soon as this one would be over. And slowly, I would understand the concepts after several more Warhammer books. This is how I actually experience Warhammer novels and, because I’m a curious reader, I probably rated my first Warhammer books higher than they deserved. Nevertheless, Xenos is an excellent novel in its own right that manages to introduce so many concepts without confusing completely the new reader.
Malleus seems to tie things more closely, with one event leading straight into another. The intervals and the clues are less random and tighter, which improves the flow of the book. Instead of feeling that some parts drag out, I just wished I had enough time to read the next chapter as soon as one was over. At the same time, the major part of the book is focused on the buildup with the final battle short and seemingly out of nowhere. The villain is just a name who appears during Eisenhorn’s investigation and the book would have easily been double in size if we had to discover the motivations of the villain. But in the manner of how inquisition operates, as soon as the villain makes his appearance, he must be eliminated. And because the book is written in the first person, I think there’s only one way the events can unfold to the reader. Nevertheless, the best part of the book is the journey, both the exterior and the inside of Eisnhorn’s mind.
Hereticus is one of the best books in the trilogy mainly because you already got acquainted with the cast of characters and they are about to suffer horrific losses. It resembles the way the last Spider-Man movie (No Way Home from 2021) relied on fans’ nostalgia to become the best Spider-man movie to date. As a standalone story, it’s not one of the best, but considering that brings fan favorites on-screen in a way that was never been possible before, it deserved the title of the best movie, at least for fans who grew up with Spider-man movies. Obviously, Eisenhorn is smaller in scale, but it reminded me of this famous event at the time of writing these words.
In this last book, Eisenhorn is on the run without knowing what he is running from. Running makes for a very compelling mystery and suspense in opposition to battle scenes where you know the “good guys” must eventually win. At least in this one, you don’t even who the bad guys are until the last few tens of pages. Of course, as usual from the Eisenhorn series, the ending is the weakest part, not in a sense that is not satisfying, but it’s really fast. Once the mystery is resolved, there’s only one more thing to do. Confront the bad guy during one last chapter. That’s all. I don’t mind, other Warhammer 40k books only deal with 40 chapters of battle action, so it’s refreshing to see a series where battles are not the primary focus, even though they are necessary.
You should read it if…
I recommend the Eisenhorn trilogy to anyone interested in a good messed-up science fiction, with moments of hope, despair, humor, friendship, inquisition, and of course, lots of heresy. If you’re a fan of Warhammer 40K, you have to read this series. If you don’t know what Warhammer is, you also have to read this series. It’s simple, really.
I give this omnibus (collection of 3 novels and two short stories) five (5) inquisitorial rosettes out of five (5) with additional commendations.