They come in big, bulky paperback collections, each one about as thick as a Manhattan phonebook, each one containing three or four novels and sometimes a smattering of short stories. The covers are garish and bold: striding soldiers wearing ornate uniforms, jaws clenched and firing baroque autorifles directly at your face. You cannot carry one of these books around with you and pretend that it is anything other than what it is: balls-out war fiction.
These are not the books I take with me when I expect to be seen by friends or coworkers. I have an image as an uptight, emotionless bastard to uphold, for God’s sake. What would people think if they knew I liked reading about vat-grown space marines blowing the christ out of each other?
But I do. Oh God, I do. Especially if Dan Abnett is doing the writing. Let me try to explain.
I don’t remember now why I picked up Eisenhorn, Dan Abnett’s trilogy about an Inquisitor in the Warhammer 40K universe. The setting itself appealed to the wide-eyed little boy in me: enormous spaceships which looked more like Gothic cathedrals than the sleek bullet-shaped vessels I’d grown accustomed to; a dead god-emperor whose residual psychic energy acted as the compass that made interstellar travel possible; the human race as a guttering candle as it finally confronted its own unavoidable extinction. But I knew better than to dive headlong into the world of licensed fiction. Didn’t I? Well … I guess I was just desperate for something new.
Eisenhorn begins with the eponymous character landing on a frozen world, pursuing the recidivist Murdin Eyclone through precincts of the hibernation tombs, where the elite members of that planet sleep through the long winter, “dreaming in crypts of aching ice.” Custodians patrol the grounds with lighted poles and heat-gowns. “Above, star patterns twinkled in the curious, permanent night.” This was not clumsy writing. The setting was enticing and I immediately recognized an easy facility with the language, a sense of rhythm and elegance — not at all what I was expecting to find. As he closes in on his quarry he starts to find the bodies. “A few metres insides, another custodian lay dead in a stiffening mirror of blood.” Gorgeous.
The action starts, quickly and precisely paced. And then, this bit of joy: Eisenhorn must communicate tactics to his pilot, waiting for him outside in his ship. He knows Eyclone is monitoring communication, so he employs Glossia, a shorthand vocabulary he invented, unique to his crew. In this segment Eisenhorn is communicating news of the death of one of their crew to the pilot, and offering instructions. Listen:
“Thorn wishes aegis, rapturous beasts below.”
“Aegis, arising, the colours of space,” Betancore responded, immediately and correctly.
“Rose thorn, abundant, by flame light crescent.”
A pause. “By flame light crescent? Confirm.”
“Razor delphus pathway! Pattern ivory!”
“Pattern denied. Pattern crucible.”
In simple, beautiful language, consisting of nothing more than symbols, you get everything you need: the death explained, the shock and anger of the pilot receiving the news, the urge to fly in with guns blazing, and Eisenhorn’s insistence on discipline.
Abnett is best know for a series of books called Gaunt’s Ghosts, about an army of soldiers whose home planet fell to the enemy on the day of their founding. Each book in the series depicts a sustained military campaign. Writing compelling action is not as easy as it might seem, but Abnett rarely falters. Necropolis, a novel about a city under siege, is one of the most claustrophobic, harrowing novels I’ve read in years. I actually felt physically tired after finishing it.
Abnett’s strength is two-fold: he has an intimate knowledge of how a military operation functions and is able to communicate that effectively to a layman like me; and, more importantly, he understands that the strength of any story — particularly a war story, where life is at its most tenuous — is found not in the action but in its characters. None of these people receive short shrift. His quick, sure strokes in defining a sympathetic supporting cast rivals Patrick O’Brian’s in the Aubrey-Maturin series. From Rawne, the capable but murderously jealous major; to Brin Milo, the only civilian rescued from the army’s home planet, who becomes a symbol of what was lost; to Mad Larkin, whose psychology is so fractured that he can only apprehend the world clearly when he’s looking through the scope of his sniper rifle; these are characters that crackle with life.
What I’m telling you is, these books are the real deal. Dan Abnett is one of the best, most exciting writers in science fiction. And not enough people know it, because he writes licensed fiction.
At the risk trying your patience with the length of this post, I’ll close with this passage from the opening pages of First and Only, the very first book in the Gaunt’s Ghosts series. Abnett’s writing is, after all, its own best advocate. Here, a soldier named Colm Corbec is walking through a network of trenches in the morning as the sun rises, “heavy and red, like a rotten, roasted fruit.” He’s surveying the state of the men as they await the order to engage the enemy.
The dark stealth capes of the picket sentries, the distinctive uniform of the Tanith First and Only, were lank and stiff with dried mud. Their replacements at the picket, bleary eyed and puffy, slapped them on the arms as they passed, exchanging jokes and cigarettes. The night sentries, though, were too weary to be forthcoming.
They were ghosts, returning to their graves, Corbec thought. As are we all.
In a hollow under the trench wall, Mad Larkin, the first squad’s wiry sniper, was cooking up something that approximated caffeine in a battered tin tray over a fusion burner. The acrid stink hooked Corbec by the nostrils.
“Give me some of that, Larks,” the colonel said, squelching across the trench.
Larkin was a skinny, stringy, unhealthily pale man in his fifties with three silver hoops through his left ear and a purple-blue spiral-wyrm tattoo on his sunken right cheek. He offered up a misshapen metal cup. There was a fragile look, of fatigue and fear, in his wrinkled eyes. “This morning, do you reckon? This morning?”
Corbec pursed his lips, enjoying the warmth of the cup in his hefty paw. “Who knows … ” His voice trailed off.
High in the orange troposphere, a matched pair of Imperial fighters shrieked over, curved around the lines and plumed away north. Fire smoke lifted from Adeptus Mechanicus work-temples on the horizon, great cathedrals of industry, now burning from within. A second later, the dry wind brought the crump of detonations.
Corbec watched the fighters go and sipped his drink. It was almost unbearably disgusting. “Good stuff,” he muttered to Larkin.
Damn right it is.