“Men of Tanith! Do you want to live forever?”
Unlike other Forgotten Texts articles, this time I’m taking a look at a book that I’ve reviewed separately – in this case First and Only by Dan Abnett. If you haven’t already, you might want to take a look at that review first, which you can find here. As a quick recap, however, First and Only is book one in the still-running Gaunt’s Ghosts series, first published in 1999 as – I believe – the very first ‘original’ Black Library novel. Nearly twenty years later (as I write this) the fourteenth book in the series is due out imminently, with the fifteenth already in the pipeline!
It’s not the very first Gaunt’s Ghosts story – that would be Ghostmaker, about which you can read my Forgotten Texts review and also Dan’s interview – so it isn’t an origin story for the Tanith First and Only as such, but it does lay a lot of the groundwork for the series to come. It does also provide a fair amount of detail about Gaunt’s own early years, so I suppose you could say it is sort of an origin story after all. For the purpose of this article, however, the question is as always – how does this hold up against contemporary Warhammer 40,000 stories?
One of the interesting things about reading a lot of Dan’s early 40k work is just how much of what he wrote went on to influence the common language of 40k fans – terms like vox, or promethium, these originated in Dan’s stories before percolating into the setting as a whole. As such, it’s slightly strange to read First and Only and still see a lot of the older terminology popping up, clearly before Dan had got stuck in and started influencing things as he would go on to do. For example, we see characters using the radio, like they would in a real-world military story – no vox-casters yet! That tallies with other stories coming out around this time, as a lot of what we now take for granted just hadn’t been invented yet!
That’s not to say this doesn’t feel like a story set in the 40k universe, however. Despite a few bits of real-world terminology, it’s inescapably 40k – take the weapons, for example. There are few things as 40k as chainswords and bolt weapons, and while Dan does slip into the habit of making bolt pistol and bolter strangely interchangeable (so many authors used to do that), they’re all present and correct and just one example of the sort of 40k tech that instantly grounds a story. It’s the same with lasguns – these days you don’t see the word laser used a lot, as las is the accepted term, but it’s close enough to feel instantly familiar.
Of course the question of Gaunt’s rank will inevitably crop up, but like I mentioned when talking about Ghostmaker we’re very much seeing Gaunt as a military commander at this point, rather than a political officer. That comes later in the series – for now, despite many references to the Colonel-Commissar, his odd rank just doesn’t really factor into the story besides the odd snide comment from a jealous ‘ally’. Like many of the series’ oddities – including the way the Tanith’s regimental structure really doesn’t conform to how the Imperial Guard normally work on the tabletop, in the game itself – it’s all written well enough to not stand out unless you yourself make it an issue.
Then you’ve got the tone – every 40k book needs to have lashings of that awful word, grimdark, right? Well, while the characters aren’t yet quite developed enough for Dan to pull off one of his trademark emotional gut-punches and kill one of the key cast, there’s plenty of matter-of-fact deaths as Ghosts drop to some pretty brutal wounds. Some prove fatal, for typical disposable redshirts who get little more than a name check, but others – like Domor’s rather horrific eye injuries – aren’t enough to kill characters, but still hit pretty hard. Even though there are only a few thousand of them, the Ghosts’ body count is pretty high, and Dan doesn’t pull any punches in terms of the manner of their deaths. These days we’re used to betrayals by allies, having spent time in the Horus Heresy, but the cold, callous way some of the Ghosts’ supposed allies turn against them here is really rather dark.
I often find that my first thoughts when thinking back to Gaunt’s Ghosts novels turn to the character development and the way we see them growing and changing both on and off the battlefield. The trench-level viewpoint of these appalling situations is something that Dan depicts remarkably well, though, so while that soap opera-style cast of characters is beginning to come together in First and Only, there’s no doubt that their setting is no less bleak and horrifying than your typical 40k book.
Having re-read this, for perhaps the third or fourth time, I was struck by the way it was not quite the full Gaunt’s Ghosts experience, but still quintessentially 40k. There are clearly elements that you wouldn’t see these days – things like Gaunt’s rank, and probably the final reveal of what the big conspiracy was revolving around – but if you strip those out they leave a story that, with different characters and set on different worlds, could easily be something written much more recently. Largely that’s down to Dan’s skill with characters and with his overall storytelling, but it’s also testament to the grasp he had of the 40k vibe right from the beginning.
Obviously this isn’t a Forgotten Texts article where I need to talk much about how to get hold of the story, as it’s still available to buy from the usual places – click here to check it out on Amazon. With The Warmaster about to come out, as well as some nice redesigned omnibus editions, we might just be able to hope for a paperback reprint of First and Only as well, alongside the ebook edition! What I will say is that there’s never been – in my opinion, at least – a better time to get into the Gaunt’s Ghosts series if you haven’t read them before. If you have, I can testify to their inherent re-readability – so why not go back and start again from the beginning?
If you do read or re-read First and Only, make sure to let me know in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter, how you get on with it!