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Book review: The Warhammer 40,000 - Gaunt's Ghost Series by Dan Abnett


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Gaunt's Ghosts 1: First and Only

 

The peaceful, arboreal world of Tanith is commanded to raise a legion of troops to serve in the Imperial Guard, the billions-strong regular army of the Imperium of Man. On the day the Tanith1st is commissioned and depart for deep space, their homeworld is annihilated from orbit. Thus, they are the Tanith First and Last. The Tanith First and Only.

 

Many years later, the Tanith 1st has a new name: Gaunt's Ghosts. Under the command of Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt, the Ghosts have become a respected unit, skilled in battle and reliable under fire. But Gaunt, a political officer filling a military role, has made some very dangerous enemies in the High Command of the Sabbat Worlds Crusade. The Ghosts are now part of the attempt to liberate the Sabbat Worlds from the forces of Chaos, but Gaunt discovers corruption and heresy may be taking root in the High Command, and he cannot trust anyone but his men in an effort to find a weapon of unimaginable power on the dark world of Menazoid Epsilon before his enemies do the same.

 

Over the past decade, Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts series of military SF novels and several related series have sold more than a million copies for the Black Library, a remarkable feat that has made Abnett one of the UK's biggest-selling SF authors with sales on a par with the likes of Peter F. Hamilton, Iain Banks and Alastair Reynolds. Many of these readers have gone on to become fans of the wider Warhammer 40,000 universe of which Abnett's series is part (although self-contained; the Ghosts books can be read with no pre-existing knowledge of the setting), boosting sales of the related computer games and the miniatures line.

 

First and Only is where the story began. For a first novel - although Abnett had previously done successful work in comics - this is a remarkably polished effort, with a superbly-executed structure as the main story thunders forward, interspersed with brief flashback interludes to key moments in the history of Gaunt and his unit. As a slice of military SF, this is top-notch stuff, with Abnett providing a reason for the carnage and using deft but not overdone characterisation to differentiate the various officers and grunts from one another and make the stakes in the battles clear. Military SF is a subgenre where it is remarkably easy to fall into cliche quite easily, but Abnett manages to avoid most of these issues and makes the few uses of standard military tropes - such as the unit's doctor who treats soldiers injured in battle willingly enough but refuses to fight himself - almost a welcome nod to a classic trope rather than anything too corny.

 

With a firm grasp of character and a superior ability to convey action (you can almost hear the bullets roaring overhead and feel the apprehension of troops stuck in foxholes), Abnett delivers a great, readable SF novel here and earns his comparisons to an SF Bernard Cornwell.

 

First and Only ( **** ) is a fast-paced, SF military thriller. It is not generally available by itself anymore, but is readily available as the first part of the omnibus volume The Founding (together with its two immediate successors, Ghostmaker and Necropolis), available now in the UK and USA. There are currently twelve novels in the Gaunt's Ghosts series with several more planned, along with three spin-off works and several related Warhammer 40,000 game accessories.

 

Gaunt's Ghosts 2: Ghostmaker

 

The Liberation Crusade continues its push into the Sabbat Worlds, pushing the forces of Chaos back on every front. The Tanith First-and-Only are deployed to Monthax, a jungle world which reminds the Tanith forces of their lost homeworld. As the battles there degenerate into a long, drawn-out stalemate the troopers known as Gaunt's Ghosts find themselves recalling the battles of the past even as a mysterious presence in the deep jungles decides to use the human forces for their own ends...

 

Ghostmaker, the second novel in the Gaunt's Ghosts series, is an interesting book with a slightly odd structure. The first two-thirds or so of the book consist of short stories flashing back to key moments in the histories of individual soldiers within the Tanith First and also the unit as a whole, from Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt downwards in the rank structure. These short stories are varied in nature and tone, but are all pretty good in quality, mixing humour, tragedy and action with some interesting character-development. Several key Ghost characters were developed in the first book but here Abnett is able to portray several more in detail, explaining some interesting backstory moments which illuminate their action in this and the subsequent book. Abnett also makes greater use of the greater Warhammer 40,000 universe (again, no foreknowledge of the setting is required to enjoy this novel), throwing in some appearances by the orks and eldar to spice things up a bit.

 

The final third is a more traditional war story as the Tanith First engages the forces of Chaos in earnest on Monthax. It's a solid story with some good writing, but the book's odd structure does mean Abnett struggles a little here and there. In particular, he chooses to have the Imperial Guard join forces with an alien battle group to fend off a greater foe, a trope which various Warhammer 40,000 fiction writers tend to use when needed (rather a lot in the Dawn of War computer games) despite the fact that consorting with any aliens in the WH40K universe is pretty much considered a heresy under any circumstances in the game material. Abnett tries to justify it with the use of a new Inquisitor character trained for this very circumstance, but it's a little bit thin as a piece of story rationale.

 

Whilst not as strong as First and Only or its much more engrossing successor, the thunderous Necropolis (which is basically the Battle of Stalingrad of WH40K engagements), Ghostmaker ( ***-and-a-half ) shows ambition with the author trying something new rather than just another adventure for Gaunt and the boys, and for the most part pulls it off. The novel is out of print as a solo title, but is available as part of the first Gaunt's Ghosts omnibus, The Founding, in the UK and USA.

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Gaunt's Ghosts 3: Necropolis

 

Supplying the vast armies of the Imperium with their weapons of war are the hive worlds, industrialised planets consisting of huge city-states called hives which churn out the hundreds of thousands of vehicles, millions of weapons and billions of munitions required for the Imperium to wage war on its foes. The individual hives on any one world are very competitive with one another, sometimes even to the point of open conflict.

 

On Verghast, the hive-states of Vervunhive and Ferrazoica, vital supply posts for the Sabbat Worlds Liberation Crusade forces, have long been bitter rivals, fighting a brief but bloody conflict called the Trade War ninety years earlier before settling down into an uneasy peace. When the Zoicans launch a surprise assault on Vervunhive, destroying its offensive army in the field and besieging the city, the hive's proud leaders are forced to call for aid from the Crusade fleet. As elements of the Imperial Guard arrive to reinforce the city, it becomes clear that this is more than just a small-scale planetary feud, and the Siege of Vervunhive will become one of the greatest and most legendary battles of the entire Crusade, especially for the Tanith First-and-Only and their commander, Gaunt.

 

Necropolis is the third novel in the Gaunt's Ghost sequence and, according to Abnett's introduction to the omnibus edition, is where he 'got it' in terms of what he could do with the Warhammer 40,000 universe and his characters. He's not kidding. The book opens in a rather unusual manner, with the first 50 pages (almost a full sixth of the book) taking place in Vervunhive as the war begins. We meet numerous characters, from city administrators to nobles to industry-workers to gang members, and see how their lives are thrown into tumult by the attack, and how the outnumbered defenders manage to hold off the enemy long enough for a few Imperial Guard regiments to reach them. This gives us a battery of different POV characters, including children, women and civilians (people not well-catered for by the first two books), who give us a very different viewpoint on the setting and world to that of the Guard or Space Marines who are the normal focus for WH40K fiction.

 

Needless to say, things kick off big time and Abnett unleashes what can only be called the closest science fiction has ever come to its own version of the Battle of Stalingrad. Vast armoured engagements and ferocious artillery bombardments precede a desperate battle for the city and its millions of inhabitants, with Gaunt and his Ghosts, but also numerous other, new characters, in the thick of the action.

 

Necropolis is, hands down, one of the best purely military SF novels I've ever read. Between the moments of carnage Abnett also delivers some solid character development for the likes of Gaunt, Rawne, Milo, Bragg and erstwhile antagonists like Gilbear and the other Bluebloods. The battles are violent and vivid, and those who have studied Stalingrad will find some interesting points of comparison in the desperate battles between men armed with just grenades and mines and heavily-armoured main battle tanks in industrial wastelands, tightly-packed streets and bombed-out commercial buildings. Abnett also makes some interesting points here about the sheer wastefulness of war, particularly in the maudlin ending, which is unusual in a military SF novel. The book manages to be based around an epic and violent battle without glorifying it, which is an impressive balancing act to achieve.

 

Necropolis (****½) is a thunderously readable, page-turning and smart military SF novel, available now in the UK and USA as part of the omnibus volume, The Founding.

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Gaunt's Ghosts 4: Honour Guard

 

Following the epic Battle of Vervunhive and his impressive achievements during it, Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt's star has risen and he and his unit, the Tanith First and Only, are tasked with a glorious mission, liberating the shrineworld of Haiga, homeworld of the Saint Sabbat in whose name the entire Sabbat Worlds Crusade is being fought. Unfortunately, the final assault on the planet's major city goes awry and Gaunt finds himself disgraced and out of favour once more.

 

Gaunt now has only one chance to redeem himself: to travel through enemy-infested countryside and mountains to the Shrinehold of Saint Sabbat and evacuate her relics and remains safely from the planet. For the Ghosts and their allies, the Pardu tank regiment, this will turn out to be one of their most dangerous and desperate missions...

 

Honour Guard is the fourth novel in the Gaunt's Ghosts series and the first in its second 'story arc'. The action picks up a few months after Necropolis and sees the Tanith First and Only bolstered by new recruits from the scratch companies who defended Vervunhive so bravely during the battle there. This leads to a minor storyline where the fresh Vervunhive troops find themselves trying to integrate with the older, more established Tanith troops with mixed results. The main focus is on the road trip mission, however, with Abnett deciding to base each novel in this arc around a different kind of military mission (the book following this one, The Guns of Tanith, is an airborne drop, for example) to keep things fresh. Another of Abnett's decisions is to focus on large-scaled armoured action, with massive tank battles the order of the day here, although the Ghosts are still right in the thick of the action.

 

What sets the Gaunt's Ghosts books apart from most military SF is the characterisation, with a number of well-drawn central characters and many supporting ones whom Abnett is only able to paint briefly, but still come across as fully-rounded figures. With this fourth book Abnett is also showing increasing proficiency at inverting or dismissing cliches, with Commissar Hark a notable new character whose motivations and goals are not quite as clear-cut as they first appear. Most startling, however, is this book's focus on spirituality. The Warhammer 40,000 setting's religion - which sees the immortal Emperor venerated as a god and his greatest generals and tacticians as saints - is pretty ludicrous, but here Abnett makes it work. For the first time the reasons for the colossal scale of the Sabbat Worlds Crusade become clear, and we get a better appreciation of Gaunt and his own sense of faith.

 

Honour Guard (****) is well-written, briskly-paced, well-characterised and brings some new tricks to the Gaunt's Ghosts series, showing that Abnett is not resting on his laurels. The book is perhaps not quite as gripping as Necropolis, but is still a solidly entertaining slice of military SF. The book is available as part of The Saint omnibus, in the UK and USA.

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Aint read any Gaunts Ghosts novels, but I enjoy reading books from Black Library, the Horus Heresy novels kick a$$.

 

Mind you, I've been a fan of Warhammer and Warhammer 40K almost as long as I've been a fan of WoT

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I have Ciaphas Cain lined up for later on. Those ones are fairly unusual for being semi-comedies set in the WH40K setting, whilst most of the rest of the books in the setting are play straight.

 

Gaunt's Ghosts 5: The Guns of Tanith

 

The Sabbat Worlds Crusade's proud advance into enemy territory has overreached itself and is now under a vicious and determined counter-offensive. Gaunt and his troops are redeployed to the industrial world of Phantine, where the surface has been lost under a seething fog of chemical poison, leaving the remaining cities and vapour mills clinging to the tops of tall mesas and mountains. The survival of the Crusade now depends on Phantine and several other fuelling worlds being liberated to open new supply lines to the fleet.

 

The lack of usable surface area on the planet rules out a conventional mechanised assault, leaving only one option to take the vital settlements of Cirenholm and Ouranberg: a massive airborne assault, something the Ghosts have never done before. As they prepare for battle, the murder of a civilian, apparently by a Ghost, unleashes a storm of suspicion and dissent within their ranks which Gaunt must quickly resolve before it damages their morale.

 

The Guns of Tanith is where the Gaunt's Ghosts series takes a much darker turn. Whilst we've lost a few minor characters along the way, this is where major, fan-favourite characters start biting the dust and an insidious presence makes itself known amongst their ranks. The Ghosts now have an enemy within and the twists and turns the plot goes through before revealing who it is are impressive. The final few pages of the book are a truly heinous gut-punch of a twist that will leave the reader fuming and shocked.

 

However, that is the subplot. The main story is about the two airborne assaults. The first is a full-on, all-out attack whilst the second is an infiltration making use of the Tanith's specialised stealth capabilities (the first time they've actually been used properly). Whilst Abnett makes a good job of differentiating the two battles as much as possible, there remains a feeling of repetitiveness. The secondary guest characters are less memorable this time around as well, with the sole exception of the eccentric Van Voytz, Gaunt's new commanding officer who manages to be an effective general and appreciates the Ghosts' abilities despite being also somewhat bonkers.

 

The book's weaknesses are more than made up for by the excellent twist that the new internal threat to the unit presents and also some crowd-pleasing moments in the book's finale (such as one where a character is invited to look under a table).

 

The Guns of Tanith (****) is where we start to say goodbye to some of the series' longest-established characters and where events take a darker and more interesting turn. The book is available now as part of The Saint omnibus in the UK and USA.

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