Genre: SciFi/Warhammer 40,000
Series: Gaunt’s Ghosts #1
Publisher: Games Workshop (January 1, 1999)
Length: 288 pages
“Walk hardy and carry a bigger gun than anyone else” – the motto when reading Warhammer 40,000
Recently I decided to pick up First and Only by Dan Abnett as it has been some time since I read it and felt this was due a review (1999 I believe). Why? Mainly as it opened my eyes to the literature coming out from Games Workshop at the time. OK, the first novel I ever read was Wolf Rider which I believe was written by Jack Yeovil, but might be wrong there. The second novel was Horus Rising by Dan Abnett – what a brilliant piece of science fiction mangasm prose that was. Nostalgia; yes, a good way for me to sum up this re-read.
Essentially First and Only, like many books opening a series, is about setting the tone; who are Gaunt’s Ghosts, where did they come from, who is Commissar-Colonel Gaunt, how did he get to where he is now. That sort of thing. This is a great introduction to the Warhammer 40k universe, as really, you don’t need to know anything about the canon or game – it’s mainly fluff anyway, so is unimportant to the literature (other than sticking to the canon – or what there was back then). This is where the early Games Workshop fiction comes into its own; the majority of lore was still developing and evolving (or just wasn’t introduced yet), which was great for the writers. They got to invent and introduce a multitude of ideas that are now either canon or still being used today by the current writers. Dan Abnett is heralded as one of the great writers and lore fathers for Games Workshop and Black Library – the publishing arm of GW. We’re call Dan Keeper of Lore it seems to fit. In later years some novels released by GW have been referred to as ‘Bolter Porn’ which basically means; lots of guns, lots of death, no real story. First and Only isn’t one of them. That’s for another time in another essay however.
The story revolves around Ibram Gaunt and his regiment of Imperial Guard named Gaunt’s Ghosts. Gaunt is both a political officer known as a commissar and has a battlefield command at the rank of colonel. Something rarely heard of, as the rolls clash with each other. Picture an old Russian commissar from World War 2 and an officer from said army, you will get some idea of the conflicting roll there. Gaunt’s catchphrase is always shouted when they are facing insurmountable odds – “Ghost’s, do you want to live forever?” You have to chuckle at that – a grimdark universe, fighting on all sides and then some nothing commissar dares to crack a joke! Humorous.
The story begins with a tasked patrol of warships attempting to retrieve a Vermillion level communication from the void. Essentially a astropath has to pin-point the signal, retrieve it and decode it. Think needle-in-a-haystack-in-space, that sort of thing. Somehow the signal finds itself in Gaunt’s hands via a date crystal. In-between this, Gaunt and his Ghosts have to fight a war on Fortis Binary and then onto Menazoid Epsilon – who are they fighting? Chaos Cultists, nutters, deluded, defiled and ensnared by the Chaos Gods to do their bidding. Talk about having no back bone as a person, sheez. Where are they fighting – in an area of conflicted space known as the Sabbatt Worlds.
Gaunt is a rare beast in Warhammer 40K, he is both likable, and at times, loathed at the same time. Which is ironic as the main push of the story involves inter-regimental rivalry between his Ghost’s and a fancy patrician regiment who is commanded by Flense, a most detestable suck-up. Gaunt is a leader, he inspires and make those who follow him aspire to be him. He cares for his men; he doesn’t waste their lives willy-nilly unlike Imperial Guard high command who essentially use them in a meat-grinder through a war of attrition. Tactically, that makes sense through a space-faring war. Individually, they don’t give a shit about some two-bit private who hasn’t got the right gear to do the jobs. Which is a prime example of what Warhammer 40,000 is about. Many times over Gaunt finds himself without the right tool. What he lacks for in that respect he makes up for in initiative.
The story is really enjoyable, even with the immense conflicts and space travelling in-between, it stacks up as a flowing read. Not an easy task for a writer to achieve in 300 pages I can assure you. Mixed in with all the chaos and conflict is Gaunt’s past, which gets pulled up every so often. It’s rather a refreshing change of pace and certainly helps to slow down what is happening. Which is great, mainly due to the amount of characters being introduced – last time I counted (I got bored of it in the end) was 31 in the first 100 pages or so. That’s a lot, George R R Martin might struggle with that amount for the opening of Game of Thrones – who wins? I’ve no idea, let have a raffle.
Anyway, so yes, at times the story is a bit ‘jerky’ with that – but really doesn’t get confusing as the writing is smooth, precise and flowing with his narrative. It’s easy reading, for a military science fiction novel, that’s some remark for me to make.
What of his actual Ghost’s, there stealth specialist and good to have around in a pinch. Character wise, the series has been compared to Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, which is a fair one in my opinion. Speaking of characters, some of the favourite are in Gaunt’s Ghosts; ‘Try Again’ Bragg (a bit slow, can’t hit a barn door), Milo (freakishly accurate with his sixth sense), Caffryn, Mkoll, Chief Medic Dorden (bitter but philosophical at the same time), Major Rawne – my personal favourite, mainly as he is the complete human being, flawed and brilliant.
If you want to venture out of that whole Star Trek sterilized universe (Why would space faring change our baser selves? It’s balls!) and into something more real and dark, give First and Only a thought, as the series just keeps on getting better and better. I mean who wants to live forever!
Contributed by Stuart West.
About Stuart (In his own words):
Stuart: Well I’m a contributor towards Bookwraiths content. When it comes to writing reviews I like to think I’m sat chatting with someone rather than at them; so my style can be conversational and abrasive at times. Read at your own peril!
In the 80s I grew up with books such as; The Famous Five and Secret Seven throw in an uncle who was obsessed with comics such as; The Beano, Topper, Asterix and Obelix, Batman and The Incredible Hulk. You’ll get some idea of the adventures that I got up to.
I’m all about fiction that doesn’t hold any punches that gets stuck in and takes you on a ride where terminal velocity means your fingers are going to burn the pages as you turn them. Apply Aloe Vera where needed! Favourite current authors include (how long do you have?) Dan Abnett, Jame Clavell, Bernard Cornwell, Simon Scarrow and Anthony Ryan.
Outside of reading I’m a big fan of Rugby Union, I play and watch. I live in the United Kingdom and have two nephews to put through super heroes’ school. I’ve not told them I’m the anti-hero of the story yet.