Book two of Dan Abnett’s long-running Gaunt’s Ghosts series, Ghostmaker – not to be confused with the short story of the same name – is an unusual book in that it’s essentially a series of short stories framed by a single loose narrative, rather than a full novel. In a lull between actions on the jungle world of Monthax, Colonel-Commissar Gaunt walks the line sharing a few words with his men, each conversation prompting a new story. Beginning with Gaunt’s recollection of Tanith’s fall, it continues with tales showcasing the exploits of Corbec, Larkin, Rawne, Milo and more.
From that original introductory story detailing Gaunt’s first, fateful actions as commander of the Tanith – the events of the short story Ghostmaker – to the series of character studies digging into key aspects of some of the other main characters, this is the closest thing you’ll get to a full-on origin story for the Ghosts. What it isn’t, is a novel – while the overarching narrative of Monthax provides a framework for the stories, and a suitably explosive setting for the final part of the book, in essence this is an anthology of short stories, many of which were published elsewhere before being woven into this collection. Don’t let that suggest that this isn’t good, however…it really is.
Some of the most entertaining and satisfying Gaunt’s Ghosts stories are within these pages, offering individual explorations of characters who are already, so soon into the series, becoming detailed and many-layered. Take ‘Try Again’ Bragg, for example – in That Hideous Strength we see beyond his bulk, and genial nature, to the thoughtful man beneath, a story that works as well as it does because it focuses so closely on one character, emphasising his obvious characteristics before pulling the rug away from under us to reveal hidden depths. Each character gets a different type of exploration, from Larkin’s fragile strength to Mkoll’s humble, modest skill, in a range of stories that demonstrate Abnett’s skill with characters as much as his knack for spinning a fun story.
It’s arguably a bit strange, in hindsight, for the second book in the series to be a book of short stories, and also to include the first Gaunt’s Ghosts story both narratively and chronologically. That’s the nature of how the early series developed, however, and shouldn’t take away from the fact that these stories do a great job of expanding upon and developing the characters from First and Only. Equally, re-reading this provides a great reminder of these fantastic characters, and revisiting some of these stories feels like spending time with old friends. Whether on the first or subsequent read-throughs, this marks the beginning of the Gaunt’s Ghosts series as not just a war story but also a soap opera, dealing with the characters and their relationships as much as the individual narratives.