The third Dan Abnett novel to be included in the series so far, book eight in the Warhammer 40,000 Legends Collection from Hachette and Black Library is First and Only. In 40k terms they don’t come much bigger or popular than Gaunt’s Ghosts, so the first book in the series is another complete no-brainer, the sort of book that long-running fans will enjoy revisiting and brand new fans will love reading for the first time. It’s also, fact fans, the first ever Black Library novel – previous books, including classic novels by the likes of Ian Watson, were published by various imprints before Black Library was launched.
I must confess, it’s been a long time since I last read a Gaunt’s Ghosts novel – the last one I read must have been Salvation’s Reach back in about 2012. There’s been the Sabbat Crusade anthology since then, and I loved re-reading and discussing the not-at-all-confusingly named Ghostmaker short story – including chatting to Dan himself about it – but the temptation is strong to go back and read the whole series again. Especially with the latest novel, the long-awaited Warmaster, due for publication later in 2017. That’s all beside the point, however, as First and Only the novel is what we’re talking about here.
The first Gaunt’s Ghosts novel but not the first story (that honour goes to Ghostmaker, in Inferno! magazine issue 4), it features two interlinked plot lines – in one, Gaunt leads his still-newfound Tanith regiment through various war zones, while in the other we see Gaunt at various earlier stages of his career, along with his mentor Commissar-General Oktar and his uncle, Dercius. Key events from these periods come together with goings-on during the other half of the narrative, and build to a powerful climax for Gaunt and his regiment.
Now, this isn’t the first Imperial Guard book in the 40k Legends Collection so far, with Mitchel Scanlon’s Fifteen Hours already featured as the fourth title in the series. There’s no doubt, however, that the Gaunt’s Ghosts series is the biggest and best-loved Guard series – in fact only the mind-bogglingly huge Horus Heresy series features more books than Gaunt and his men have to their name. I mentioned back when I looked at Fifteen Hours that while that book might not be as popular as some of the Gaunt’s titles, it really does nail the core idea of the Imperial Guard…which I stand by.
Do the Gaunt’s books, and First and Only specifically, capture the quintessential Imperial Guard story? Well, it’s hard to say really. On the one hand they’re some of the most emotionally brutal books ever published by Black Library, cementing Abnett’s reputation for cruelly killing off well-loved characters, and they feature some really powerful depictions of human-scale (for 40k, at least) warfare. On the other hand, the Tanith are stealth experts, which means that – for the most part – these stories show a particular side to the Imperial Guard, at least in the action stakes.
What I think makes them so good, and so worthy of the acclaim – and First and Only had this right from the outset – is the way Abnett created such a rich set of characters. Thirteen novels in and counting (soon to be fourteen), the Gaunt’s Ghosts series is as much a soap opera (in the best possible sense of the term) as it is an ongoing war story. These characters have had so much time to develop, and readers who have followed the series have gone through so much with them…you don’t get that in any other series. First and Only is where that all started…and so yeah. This is absolutely worth including in a series which aims to showcase the best of Warhammer 40,000 fiction. It shows that you can take the war out of Warhammer and what you’re left with is – or at least can be – just a great story.
As always, if you’re counting – this has number 45 on the spine.