Sunday, August 25, 2019

Review: Inquisitor

Inquisitor (Book One of the Inquisition War Trilogy by Ian Watson.  This book was first published in 1990. The original printing was filled with amazing black and white illustrations by some of the best GW artists of the time. Particular works by John Blanche and Adrian Smith stand out strongly in my recollection. It was reprinted a few times, sans illustrations, until it was re-edited, reprinted and re titled Draco by the Black Library. It was the first full-length novel to take place in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.

In recent times I have heard it mentioned a lot on podcasts, particularly in regards to a few...overly descriptive lurid scenes. In fact, these scenes have even over-shadowed the entire work to the point that saying "Ian Watson" incites a barrage of moans and groans on these podcasts. So what's going on with that? Well, when this book was written and released, the market Games Workshop was catering too was a bit more mature, the Realm of Chaos books were vile and edgy for their day. GW was just as focused on producing death metal albums as sound tracks for their games as they were with partnering with Milton Bradley to cater to a broader audience. It's safe to say in hindsight that they were finding their way. Just a few years later ownership would change and the focus would be tightened up and the images would be as well. This book was a product of those darker visions aimed at a more mature audience.
"Shaken, not stirred." -Draco. 

But it was a highly influential work, one whose echos still resonate in the 40k setting to this day.

I first read this book in the spring of '94 while in art school. The edition I read had the illustrations in it, and I have always felt that these are among John Blanche's best work. Of particular fun is the fact that he based Draco off of Sean Connery's character from Red October*. As a result I found it difficult then to read his lines without invoking a Sean Connery accent. (Seriously, say "exterminatus" with the Connery Scottish accent. Delicious, yes?) In fact, as I read these lines again this year, I found myself doing it again: "In an Imperium of  a million worlds, what does the death of one world matter in the cause of purity?" Fun stuff, but I do digress,

What is this book about, and why is it still such a big deal? Well, beyond the fact that it's old and was written during the early molding of the now established Warhammer 40,000 lore, there's the previously mentioned lurid scenes, but really it's the over-all story involving the Inquisition. Or rather the Hidden Inquisition. Crazy stuff, that challenges itself to be canonical now just as much as it did when it was written.

Ad for the Boxtree reprint.**
Needless to say, SPOILERS are ahead.

We start with an introduction to the book that is a first person prologue that sort of sprinkles spoilers into it immediately. It's a weirdly arrogant introduction where Draco tells us that he is going to reveal his story but not tell it in 1st person for some reason. -It's weird.

The story opens up properly where we find Draco and his entourage camped out in a luxurious hotel room in the capitol city of Vasilariov on the planet Stalinvast. Note at this point the near flamboyant lifestyle of Draco and his entourage, even if they are masquerading as a Rogue Trader and his crew, they are embracing the role a bit too aggressively. Inquisitor Baal Firenze, we'll call him Draco's boss for the sake of simplicity, has sent him here to assess the campaign of another Inquisitor, Inquisitor Harq Obispal, who is waged a military campaign against a Genestealer Cult uprising. After this campaign is concluded, a curious fellow,  Zephro Carnelian, a.k.a., the Harlequin Man, essentially hacks Draco's Emperor's Tarot to lead him to another city's underhive. There he reveals the tentacled entity seemingly made from the immaterium called the  Hydra. Detecting that this is capable of infiltrating the entire planet, Draco senses that this threat is very much real, but upon returning to his posh hotel room, he discovers his navigator is bound up (he pooped his pants in the meanwhile, Watson needed us to know this, but honestly, it's not unrealistic but still...) and that his Jokaero crafted spying equipment has been stolen.

Meh'lindi by John Blanche.***
 Draco resorts to calling Carnelian's bluff in the most grimdark way imaginable. He visits the Imperial Governor's palace in order to borrow his Astropath. As he relays the order to call down Exterminatus to the planet of Stalinvast, the Hydra coils are noted to retract almost immediately. Obviously he is being spied upon by the master of the Hydra, and orders the Astropath not to send the Exterminatus order. The Astropath is tricky old witch and is able to psychically implant a homer into The Harlequin Man without him knowing.  Joining Draco's entourage the Astropath leads Draco and crew to a Space Hulk in the Warp, but not before informing Draco that she sent the Exterminatus order anyway. Because she hated the people there.

On the Space Hulk Draco and crew encounter not just the Harlequin Man, but Inquisitor Harq Obispal and Baal Firenze who are part of a group of even more Secret Inquisitors calling themselves Ordo Hydra. Draco is essentially press-ganged into service with this Ordo, and presented with a piece of the Hydra to take with him. Their goal is spread the Hydra around the galaxy so as to one day enthrall all of humanity with it so that they may be better controlled. It's a plot Draco is not a fan of, and immediately begins plotting against it.

Renegades from Chapter 13, by A. Smith
After ejecting the box with the hydra piece into space, Draco is compelled to go to the Eye of Terror to seek out the origin of the Hydra. His Emperor's Tarrot guides him to a Slaaneshi Daemonworld where they encounter Queem Malagnia and a motley host of other degenerates before being attacked by the Harlequin Man. But before I go into that, I need to point out why this is one of the most controversial piece of literature in all of the 30 year history of Warhammer 40,000. Without quoting it directly or getting too caught up in it all, let's just say that it seems clear that Ian Watson loved this place and these creatures. To be fair, yes, his source material was Realm of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness which was rich with Slaaneshi innuendo, but it was Watson that pushed on through and went full-hedonist. For example It takes him about three full pages just to describe the appearance of the renegade warband. The monstrous Queen Malagnia (I'm both thankful and bummed that this character was never made into a model) whose massive breasts deflated when her nipple rings were removed, to describing the Slaaneshi Daemon city itself as being a metropolis of buildings shaped like sex organs that are in a state of grinding engagement. It's both a fascinating thing to imagine, assuming one is fascinated with learning about the contents of someone's sexually frustrated nightmares. Say what you will about Watson, but it was Adrian Smith that took it a bit further and attempted to illustrate all of this! (see the Renegades image). This image, by the way, was also printed as a full page spread in Realm of Chaos: Lost and the Damned. So GW, at the time, was pretty much all right with this so long as the images weren't too explicit.

The Emperor's Gate by John Blanche.
After realizing that they have burnt their bridge with Ordo Hydra before they could even get off of it, Draco and team flee the Eye of Terror and go straight to Holy Terra itself. Draco gets the idea that the only one he can go to is the Emperor himself. Did I mention already that this guy is a bit arrogant? The final chapters of the book is a about their journey to Terra and through the massive chambers of the Imperial Palace to reach the throne room itself. It's still a fascinating read, as it was the first attempt to really describe the Imperial Palace in a novel. After murdering their way through the various walls of the palace they eventually reach the Emperor himself. The psychic conversation between the Emperor of Mankind and Draco is...weird.

The story pretty much ends here, with an Epilogue that sort of dismisses the whole story as if it was a hoax. A stand that I think the Black Library has mostly embraced. Oh, and that Draco is now a Renegade Inquisitor wanted for blowing up Stalinvast.

  • Did I like it? Oddly, I like it now more than I did at the time. It's rooted in the 40k lore as it was circa 1990****, and since this is when I fell in love with this game and setting, I feel quite at home here, sans the sexual over/under tones.  
  • Was it hard to put down? Actually no, it's a surprisingly engaging book. Particularly this second go around. 
  • Could I care about the characters? Yes, although I found myself mostly concerned about Meh'lindi, especially after her "psychic rape" by the Harlequin Man. The male characters were a bit likable with their personality quirks and flaws, but in the end their mutual carnal desire for Meh'lindi made them all seem like lecherous predators waiting for their first opportunity to bed her, which is something only Draco himself manages to achieve (Yes, this book has a sex scene). It was disturbing then, and creepier now. 
  • Did the writer truly grasp how the 'world' of the 41st millennium works in the sense that it doesn't betray or retcon previously established (as I know it) lore? Or is this the work of a hack ? To be fair, with exception to the short story pieces that appeared in the game books or White Dwarf, there wasn't much else to go on back when this was written. Ian Watson's work played in a hand in establishing the lore and feel of the 40k universe at this time. 
  • Was I being talked down too? Absolutely. The first time I read this book I found the tone to be arrogant and aloof. The fact that I needed a dictionary to navigate through this thing was a distraction for sure. Here are a few random quotes to help illustrate what I mean:  "...cloacal effuvium of sewers." and "...since those selsame entities had agglutinated from out of the foul passions of once-living souls." I have seen other reviews of this book where this abuse by thesaurus was also a negative sticking point.  Rereading this thing 25 years later this was less of a challenge to me and I got through it just fine. Either my vocabulary has simple grown since those times or I too, have become an arrogant, aloof prick...
  • How predictable is this story? If you like unpredictable, this is your book! In fact, there isn't so much a plot as it is a stumbling of circumstances. 
  • Do I recommend this book? Hmmmm... yes, but only if you have the mindset to encounter slaaneshi nightmares, and don't get hung up on things like Imperial Guard having Land Raiders (because back then, they did). Most will tell you that this is a bad book. I don't think it is. But this book is not recommended to be someone's introduction to the 40K setting. It's age does show (although, in many ways it does still stand up) and is properly more suited as a curiosity for collectors and people with Rogue Trader era nostalgia.  
  • How do I get this book for myself? I mentioned earlier that this book was reprinted by the Black Library and they took many editorial liberties with it, changing things to fit in better with the modern lore and retconing the Squat character by turning him into a Techpriest. I haven't read this version and I am reluctant to do so. Also, the character no longer looks like Sean Connery... anyway, you can find this in an omnibus called The Inquisition War or as individual books. This book is now sold as Draco but again, this is the altered version. Say what you may about this author, I do prefer to read the intended work vs. the altered version as changed by editors. If I do read this version I may write a comparison review. 
The Black Library edition.

*Citation: White Dwarf 139 July 1991, Illuminations-John Blanche.

**Snippet from Games Workshop house ad from White Dwarf #160 April 1993.

*** This image of Meh'Lindi was photocopied from a first print edition of this book white I was in art school back in '94, solely for the intent of inspiration and reference. It sat above my drawing table on a wall for about 15 years before I took it down, thus the aged tone. I am glad I kept it as I have been unable to find any version of this piece anywhere online.

**** "GW gave me all the manuals existing as of about 1990 plus printouts of material still under development, regarding Necromunda for instance, and the Eldar; not to mention a stream of White Dwarfs where such material was appearing bit by bit. I was very well briefed, and in fact I still have all that material in a couple of boxes. Writing 40K required encyclopaedic study, whereas medieval Warhammer could be generic fantasy within the less enormous medieval Warhammer setting." -Ian Watson, via

Imagines and text snippets are Copyright Games Workshop and are used here for review purposes and are not intended as a challenge to Games Workshop's Copyright. 


miniwars said...

After reading a part of your post -thanks for the spoiler warning, i will read it later- i started reading the ebook omnibus finally. A couple of gaming friends told me soo many times to grab it! I've read two chapters. This is the grim dark i enjoyed and got me in 40k years ago.
I'll be looking for a print edition at a reasonable price, which may result in frustration but i'd love to own a copy!
Thank you so much for your post. Cheers!

Zzzzzz said...

I remember not being overly aware that the whole thing was about teenaged sexual frustration (and I read it in my early 30s) but do remember the characters being awkward and not really liking Draco much. The notion that one would squander a Callidus assassin so that was only ever able to take on one alternative form again isn't fully addressed, IIRC.

I remember that the description of the Slanneshi deamon world seemed about right; if didn't seem too full on or overly sexual - it could have been quite a lot more pornographic and still been what one might expect to encounter on a Slanneshi world.

I also thought that the journey through the Imperial palace was getting boring and don't remember the end, so presumably I gave up at that point. Possibly starting another BL book which I gave up on.

I have enjoyed your review and look forward to the next one !

neverness said...

Thanks for your comments. I rarely get comments on my reviews so I am glad to have some for this one.

@Zzzzzz: Interestingly, I believe this book is the 1st appearance/mention of the Calludus Temple, si I cut Watson so.e slack with the single purpose use of Meh'lindi. Also, this book contains the original citation of the Mother Gullet tale which is still canonical. But yes, the Imperial Palace journey is a bit of a dry journey, but not as long as you remember...

@Miniwars: I am glad you find this review helpful, and I hope you enjoy reading this book when it's all over. It's a weird story for sure, but if grimdark is what you seek, grimdark you have found. Feel free to post another comment once you have finished it, I am curious to know your (anyone else's also) thoughts on this tale.

WestRider said...

Yeah, this is definitely an odd one. It's one of those things that I sometimes describe as being Great, but not necessarily Good. That is to say, there are unquestionably substantial quality issues with it, but its impact on the development of the 40K universe to this day is equally undeniable.

I love the sense of something vast and unknown that we're just getting a tiny piece of here. The actual plot and characters are kind of meh, but as a window into the setting, it's fantastic. Flipping back to downsides again, I think that's part of why Watson wasn't able to give it a satisfying ending (and why the two sequels went even further off the rails); he didn't have a conception of it beyond that window to tie it all together, and probably no one else did either. The stuff in the Eye of Terror is absolutely fucked up, but, frankly, it should be. The writing of that section could have been better, but (for a 40K thing*) the actual content seemed pretty reasonable.

Meh'lindi absolutely deserved better than she got here. However, IIRC**, she was the first Callidus to ever try the Stealer Hybrid impersonation, and it was still a totally experimental thing, which was part of why it locked her into a single mode. There was really no way to move further, or find out if it were even possible to move further, without a live test, and for the sake of finding out whether or not it was viable to develop implants that could do the same thing without locking the subject into the one form, it was worthwhile to sacrifice one Callidus. It's necessary to take chances with the prototype, y'know?

I feel like there was more I was going to mention, but can't recall it now, except that I wish I had been able to get hold of a copy of the edition with the illustrations. That artwork was as defining for 40K as any of the text in the fiction or rulebooks.

*I was just reading some of the Warhammer Horror stuff, and thinking that, in pretty much any other setting, plenty of "baseline" 40K fiction could easily come across as horror.

**I believe this was actually covered in a short story elsewhere, not in the novel itself.

axiom said...

I read Inquisitor and the other books in the trilogy at a very formative point in the 1990s. They were utterly unlike anything I'd read before, and informed so much of my understanding of the 40k universe and how you might create narratives within it to transfer to the tabletop.

I view Ian Watson's books as precursors to the Eisenhorn series - explorations of characters within the 40k setting - and therefore much more interesting (to me) than the war-heavy battle-fiction that characterises much of Black Library's output.

They certainly need to be read with a bit of leeway to factor in elements that have later become codified, but they are still some of my favourite 40k novels!