First published in 1999, Dan Abnett’s First and Only is book one in the epic Gaunt’s Ghosts series, following on from several short stories in Inferno! magazine. On the forge world Fortis Binary, the Tanith First and Only are one of many Imperial Guard regiments arrayed against the once-loyal population, now turned to Chaos. As Colonel-Commissar Gaunt and the Ghosts are drawn deeper into the brutal conflict, they’re faced with not just the forces of Chaos but enemies within the ranks of their allies, as a horrifying conspiracy is gradually revealed within the ranks of the Sabbat Crusade itself.
Despite not being their first ever appearance (look to the short story Ghostmaker for that), this provides a solid introduction to Gaunt and his Ghosts as well as a great story in its own right. We’re introduced to many of the characters who will, as the series progresses, become hugely popular figures – Corbec, Rawne, Larkin, Bragg, Caffran and many more – both in battle and, equally enjoyably, at rest. There’s also a hefty dose of Gaunt’s own backstory, which provides a nice amount of context and depth to his character and a smart link to a key plot point. Abnett has a knack for lifelike, relatable characters, and the Ghosts are instantly likeable whether you’ve read the short stories or not.
Events are spread across two main warzones, but linked by a slowly-revealed wider narrative that adds a sense of scale to what begins as a fairly small story but grows into something much more ambitious. The first part of the book is almost a novella in itself, with a clear start, middle and end, but that wider narrative, tied into a growing feud with a rival regiment, provides just about enough of a connection for the whole thing to sit together well. Both the plot and the way Abnett constructs the story set the tone for the series as a whole, with a gritty, life in the trenches viewpoint balanced by enjoyably heroic characters and a strong emphasis on their relationships and development despite all the action.
As an introduction to the series, there’s so much to enjoy here with a fast-paced plot that’s tight where it needs to be but with enough breathing room to let those characters really shine. It sets up so many characteristics that the ongoing series takes on and develops – great characters who feel real and (sometimes shockingly) vulnerable; a sense of the Tanith as underdogs, sneeringly underestimated by other regiments; a great balance of on- and off-battlefield events, and Gaunt’s involvement with the more strategic elements of the Sabbat Crusade. The Daniverse isn’t quite in evidence yet, but the beginnings are clearly visible with strong worldbuilding around the crusade and the Ghosts’ place in it. This isn’t quite the fully-developed product that the series eventually becomes, but it’s a great story and the beginning of something massive.