Xenology by Simon Spurrier – Book Review [Bellarius]
Bellarius takes a look at the last work written by Simon Spurrier for the Warhammer universe: Xenology.
“One of the single greatest works ever published by Black Library!” – Bellarius, the Founding Fields
For all the emphasis which is placed upon the Emperor’s Angels of Death, it’s hard to deny that one of the things which makes Warhammer 40,000 such a great universe is the nature of its aliens. Many have far more depth behind them than the species found in much more prominent franchises such as wookies, klingons or na’vi and there is always that interesting element of how many have been reworked from a fantasy setting. Above all, this book is an essential when it comes to seeing what really makes them stand out.
Much like the sections examining the nature of the xenomorphs in the Colonial Marines Technical Manual, the book is ultimately pages upon pages of lore written with a framing device of an investigation. Following the death of the radicalist Ralei, fellow Inquisitor Brehm Sasham is sent to examine his findings. His orders are simple: Expose Ralei as a heretic and destroy any items which pose a great threat to the Imperium. Convinced to stay his hand until the last of Ralei’s captive aliens have been dissected and fully cataloged, Sasham soon finds that things may be even worse than the Ordo Xenos suspects…
What follows is part thriller, part art book and part background lore book, building upon the characters involved as much as the alien races. As each organism is dissected, the reader is treated to displays a variety of brilliant images. Some depicting their abilities in life and others inner workings in death; ranging from sketches to computer scans and full diagrams listing their most defining traits. Many are visibly drawn by the individual and then followed by page worth of documentation by a Magos Biologis speculating upon their evolution, nature and potential capabilities. All of these are extremely in depth and provide the sort of fascinating information which puts the average codex to shame, each with a multitude of reaching possibilities. These range from a potential origin of the tau Aun caste to the mysterious spherical umbra, beings who could well be the fragmented body of an ancient god.
Beyond the usual orks and eldar, the book also introduces a few new races which are given the same degree and respect and treatment as well established factions. The thyrrus in particular stand out well with a bizarre biology rivaling that of the elder things; while others such as the hrud (AKA space skaven) are completely revamped for the better but maintain their core identity.
The book pulls no punches with its potentially galaxy shaking revelations, many of which reach back to the very core of the setting; but unlike many examples of late these were presented in exactly the right way. Along with being detailed by an author talented enough to fully present every idea to its fullest without ever going too far, or introducing something monumentally stupid, there is always an element of opinion present. This is visibly written from an Imperial perspective, and that of a handful of people, and at no point does Spurrier try to slam down certain problematic points as solid fact. Many points are clearly speculation on the part of the characters and the book never tries to completely give all the answers, at the most usually just giving very strong indications or food for fan theories. It provides a crucial element of character and mystery to the universe while at the same time allowing future writers freedom to build upon or deviate from what is written in the book. It might be a small point, but it’s a very important one too many books involving the grim darkness of the far future keep forgetting to make use of.
This alone would be enough to make it a truly outstanding book well worth its price but then we have the follow-up elements to this. These consist of character driven moments and insights which keep you reading the book as the mystery deepens and Sasham’s opinion begins to change, while at the same time delivering yet more information on each race. A specific highlight on this is seeing Sasham delving through Ralei’s library for more information on the species and visibly starting to veer away from his hard-line roots. It’s an amazingly well done tale for what is effectively a gloried list of biological information, but the mystery and character evolution here is better handled than some novels we have covered on this website.
This said, there are a few minor failings in the book which cannot go unmentioned. A few sections on the aliens which delve into their social structures or certain biological functions feel as if they have been rushed. For example, while the thyrrus are brilliantly examined in terms of their biology and nature, their tactical approach to war and social structure simply makes no sense. The former especially as it specifies they aim to inflict the most casualties on both sides rather than utilise truly effective methods of war. While this is put down to their alien nature, it’s a point which puts a severe dent in the reader’s suspension of disbelief.
The other major point is a revelation behind Ralei himself. While it certainly makes sense to a point, what is revealed about his true nature bends certain rules within the universe to near breaking point. While it’s certainly vastly better handled than how later books would deal with the concept, it remains an element which will likely leave you scratching your head. Especially given the obvious alternatives which Spurrier himself even made use of in another of his books.
Really though, these are only minor qualms given the book’s extremely high quality. Just as the Eisenhorn trilogy should be the benchmark to which all novels should be measured, Xenology is the same to any and all devoted fluff books. It proves just what a writer can accomplish given the right approach to the setting and is a true testament to the rich nature of the universe. This truly is one you need to get, and it’s a damning shame that Black Library has never reprinted this book since its original release. Definitely keep your eye out for this one should you be fortunate enough to find it.