“You’re Imperial Guard, servants of the Emperor first and nothing else second.”
His second Black Library short story, Dan Abnett’s Ghostmaker introduced the world to Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt and the proud soldiers of Tanith, who would become Gaunt’s Ghosts. Given the command of three freshly-raised regiments, Gaunt barely has time to reach Tanith before a Chaos splinter fleet forces him to gather whatever fragmentary resources he can and escape to Imperial lines. Haunted by the loss of their world, the Tanith are resentful of not being allowed to stand and fight, but Gaunt is determined to begin the process of putting their unique skills to use on the battlefields of the Sabbat Worlds.
It’s early days for the Ghosts, but already the shape of things is visible with many of the now-familiar names already in place as Abnett weaves a fragmentary tale of the regiment’s first, early actions. It begins on Tanith, but the planet’s loss is finalised less than halfway through, with the remainder of the story focusing on the skills of the regiment and Gaunt’s gradual realisation that he’s found something important. There’s action aplenty but right from the off this is classic Abnett, layering details onto the characters that immediately brings them to life. It’s an auspicious start, that’s instantly powerful and engaging.
While not his first short story for Black Library (that was Gilead’s Wake), this has had a profound impact on both his career and the shape of Black Library. First released in 1997, it led to the very first original novel to be published by Black Library – First and Only – and kicked off a series that currently sits at thirteen published novels plus anthologies, short stories, and various spin-off novels set within the Sabbat Worlds. That’s important to remember: without Ghostmaker, not only would there be no Gaunt’s Ghosts series, but arguably there might not even be a Black Library.
The question of how this fits in with the current look and feel of 40k stories is an interesting one here. Abnett’s work with the Gaunt’s Ghosts and Eisenhorn series has had such a tremendous impact on Black Library that there’s an argument to say that 40k as a setting – both in terms of the fiction and the game – wouldn’t be the way it is without this story. Nonetheless, let’s take a bit of a closer look…
First of all, there’s no doubt about it – Abnett went a touch off-piste when he came up with the idea of a Colonel-Commissar. Or at least, the idea of a Commissar as a commanding officer – in this story, Gaunt is only referred to as a Commissar. It wasn’t until later that the Colonel-Commissar title actually appeared. Still, if we’re being pedantic…a Commissar shouldn’t be able to be a commanding officer too as well as a political officer. It just doesn’t fit with how things work for the Imperial Guard…Astra Militarum, whatever. Does it matter though? Does it feth.
In this story, Gaunt is a Commissar in name only – we see the occasional hint of his political savvy, but for the most part he’s a straight-up commander. In that respect, he’s nothing more or less than a simply and beautifully described character, from the way he interacts with his adjutants to the change he goes through just between the start of the story and the first proper mission he leads his men on. There’s detail layered onto his character already, and the first flashes of similar detail are starting to show with some of the other characters, like Corbec, Rawne and Milo.
How about the rest of the story then – are there other elements that don’t quite fit with 40k? Well…not really, no. To be fair, there’s not a lot of opportunities for that to be the case, as most of it is a quite traditional military-style story set in a part of the 40k universe that we just hadn’t seen before. Grimdark tone? You remember the bit about Tanith being destroyed right at the beginning, right? Explosive, ground-level action? Yep – Chaos invasion, action in the Blackshard Deadzone…got it covered. Relatable, human, against-all-odds heroism despite the bleakness? Again, not a problem – this is the point at which the enmity between Gaunt and Rawne really begins…if you don’t know or can’t remember what happens, let’s just say it’s right on the mark.
I’d argue that what’s most impressive is that way that this feels completely, utterly part of the Sabbat Worlds, despite the fact that Abnett hadn’t yet created much more than the most basic outline of things by this point. If like me you haven’t read a Gaunt’s Ghosts novel in quite some time, be warned – reading this is DEFINITELY going to give you pangs of nostalgia, and offer considerable temptation to pick up First and Only again…and start the whole thing again!
Last of all, as usual, is the question of how to get your hands on this story. A little like Gav Thorpe’s Last Chance, this was originally released in Inferno! magazine (issue four, in 1997) but was subsequently adapted into/included in (depending on how you look at it) the second book in the Gaunt’s Ghosts series – also called Ghostmaker. I’d say don’t get confused between the short story and the book if you’re looking for it online, but it won’t matter – Ghostmaker the short story is one of eleven chapters in the overall book, each essentially a standalone short story in its own right. Happily, you can still buy Ghostmaker (the book, keep up) in both paperback and ebook formats – £8.99 for the former and £6.99 for the latter, from either Black Library or Amazon. Alternatively you could pick up one of the various collections and anthologies available – a £14.99 ebook collection of the first three books in the series, a limited-edition hardback boxed set of the same for £50, or a £64.99 ebook collection of EVERYTHING that could even vaguely be connected to the Sabbat Worlds. There are options – choose the one that suits you!
If you want to check it out on Amazon, click here.
I hope you enjoyed this instalment of Forgotten Texts. If there are any classic Black Library stories that you would like to put forward for a review, please do let me know, and likewise if you’ve got any comments or feedback. Check back next week for the next instalment where I’ll be taking a look at another story from the Black Library archives – and click here to see the full list of reviews and author interviews in this series.