Book Review: First and Only (20th Anniversary Edition), by Dan Abnett

My review of the special anniversary edition of the first book in the Gaunt’s Ghosts series, by Dan Abnett. This fair and unbiased review was conducted with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received.

Twenty years. Has it really been that long? I’m not normally one of those people who gasps at those social media posts that point out how long ago your favourite childhood cartoon stopped showing or whatever. It’s the passage of time, I think to myself, Deal with it. But recently, The Distillers were announced as appearing at Download, and I realised it had been seventeen years since their last album, Coral Fang. An album that I heard when it was new, and had seen them touring. Finding out that First and Only was twenty years old was even more of an eye opener. Twenty years ago, I was taking my first steps into the expansive universe of Warhammer 40,000 (also known to fans as 40K) with a Space Ork army rapidly increasing in size as I amateurishly assembled them (and even more amateurishly painted them). I was enjoying myself, but found I wanted context. Just as with Star Wars the year before, I craved backstory. Enter Dan Abnett with First and Only, the opening novel of the Gaunt’s Ghosts series. But rather than a story which slotted around existing characters and plot points like so many of the Star Wars novels – with varying degrees of success – here was a whole galaxy full of characters that anything could happen to. It took place within a setting that was clearly identifiable as the one I was falling in love with, but wasn’t constrained by it. It would be the first of many Black Library books I would borrow from friends, before I started buying my own and filling my bookshelves with them. Twenty years on, it’s time to reassess it, now in its newly updated 20th Anniversary Edition. This new edition contains a lovely intro from the man himself, Dan Abnett, but I would actually advise newcomers to avoid reading it, as there’s a pretty big spoiler for a fairly significant event in a later book. For anyone familiar with the series just picking up a new copy of this beloved classic though, it’s a nice opening.

First and Only is the first book in the ongoing saga of Gaunt’s Ghosts. To date, there have been fifteen novels in the series, but it all started here, not just for the eponymous Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt and his regiment, but for Dan Abnett and (arguably) Black Library too. The story follows the role Gaunt and his men, the Tanith First and Only, AKA the Ghosts, play in the Sabbat Worlds Crusade under Warmaster Macaroth. The regiment barely escaped the destruction of their homeworld, and was consequently the only one to be founded, hence the official designation of “First and Only” and the more colloquial “Ghosts.” Founded under such tragic circumstances, the men are haunted by the loss of their loved ones and their home planet, Tanith, an agrarian world of constantly shifting forests that breeds excellent trackers and huntsman. It’s thanks to this environment that the men of Tanith doubly earn their nickname as ghosts, being masters of stealth and ambush. Their uniform incorporates a camo cloak, which combined with their mastery of stealth makes them all but invisible in all kinds of settings, and they all carry long knives of Tanith silver. What they lack in numbers, they more than make up for in ability, their tactical subterfuge coupled with the foresight of their leader enabling them to take on foes that outnumber them many times over. Often superstitious tellers of folkloric wisdom, they are a regiment of nomads who cling together because their fellow troopers are the only home they have left, and it’s this set up and the deft individual moments of characterisation that makes the Ghosts feel instantly like characters that you know and care about. Many of them sport blue tattoos and shaggy beards too, so if you were struggling to name the coolest fictional fighting force there is, you might just have struck gold here. The Ghosts are not just some mass of nameless men either. We’re introduced to a number of the individual soldiers over the course of this first novel. There’s Gaunt’s aide and regimental lucky charm (and musician) Brin Milo, big-hearted Bragg, steadfast Colonel Corbec, scheming Major Rawne, Mad Larkin the sniper, and more besides. Abnett never struggles to make each character distinct from the rest, whether it’s through their behaviour, their appearance, their dialogue or all three – frequently, a paragraph will tell us everything we need to know about a character, without ever feeling like clumsy exposition.

Of course, I can’t talk about Gaunt’s Ghosts without discussing the Colonel-Commissar himself. We first meet Ibram as a young Cadet Commissar in a flashback which shows his first assault action, which is soon followed by the prophecy which will haunt him for years. Throughout the novel, there are a number of these flashbacks, in which we see the making of the future hero. His motivations, personality, background, even old alliances, are shown here, and these flashbacks also aid the pace of the book. It’s not all relentless action against crazed zealots – not that there isn’t plenty of that – this is a real character study. These flashback chapters also serve to make the scale feel even more epic than it is, with old rivalries and bitter vengeances stoked at every turn. Gaunt finds himself in the middle of all of these of course, and it’s only with his intelligence, steely determination and heroism that he can hope to come through. Thanks to the tightly woven backstory, we see where he acquired these traits too. By making Gaunt the rare rank of Colonel-Commissar, Abnett cleverly justifies the character’s skill at battle oratory, spurring his men on to acts of heroism, as well as allowing Gaunt to get into the thick of the fighting himself, all whilst plotting his next move on the grander stage he finds himself on. The political side of his commissariat training, coupled with his military mind, make him a formidable opponent for those who cross him, both on and off the battlefield.

Somewhat surprisingly for a book based on a science fiction tabletop wargame, there is also plenty of commentary on the futility of war. Gaunt himself reflects on it a number of times, lamenting the loss of every individual trooper, and their battles are frequently desperate, bloody and harrowing. Abnett writes action incredibly well, and every battle is vividly depicted, but this acknowledgement that war is hell elevates the book above simpler fare that merely serves to glorify it. And of course, in the grim darkness of the far future, there are things so much worse than hell. The enemies the Ghosts face off against are like something out of a nightmare – enemies like the Shriven, twisted, gas mask wearing shells of human beings, their clothes stitched into their skin. The locations these enemies are defending are often equally unpleasant; formerly loyalist locations now daubed with symbols of the dark gods of the Warhammer 40,000 universe that pain the eyes, dimension twisting catacombs, cratered wastelands… Abnett is endlessly inventive. This invention carries on in other, less combat-centric settings too. Not for him the Star Wars convention of picking one geographical feature and copy pasting it across an entire planet (Tatooine, Coruscant, Bespin, Mustafar, so on). No, in a trait which he would display in later books, he relishes world creation and the possibilities it offers – class structures, topography, architecture, particular quirks of local culture, even the cuisine are all discussed, with each setting a story in itself. This is a system that has been built world by world by a gifted creator.

There we have it then. Twenty years on, it’s safe to say I’m still a fan. In fact, I am now tempted to go back and read the rest of the series. I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in science fiction, especially military science fiction. Well, I say “would,” I already have. Lack of understanding of the universe in which the novel is set is no barrier to entry – certainly, with my cobbled together patchwork of 40K knowledge all those years ago, I never struggled, and it drew me deeper into a richly detailed world full of lore and excitement, a world I have no intention of leaving, two decades later.

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