Book three in Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghosts series, and the final part of the first The Founding arc, Necropolis is widely cited as many fans’ favourite of the entire series – it’s also the highest-rated on Goodreads. On the Imperial world Verghast, the inhabitants of Vervunhive are stunned when their old-enemy-turned-ally hive Ferrozoica launches an all-out assault. As Imperial Guard reinforcements, including the Ghosts, join in the defence of Vervunhive, it becomes clear that this is much more than a trade war – Ferrozoica has been turned to Chaos.
Where First and Only and Ghostmaker covered a lot of ground, Necropolis focuses on a single warzone – albeit a damn big one. Into the madness of a hive city at war come the Ghosts, caught up in a war they don’t want to fight and a tangle of politics and rivalries that puts the Imperial defenders on the back foot from the off. Siege stories are usually pretty brutal, and this is no different, but in a masterclass of military fiction Abnett combines a dry, historical narration with varied on-the-ground perspectives to show both the strategic overview of events and the horrific reality of city fighting. It’s not just the Guard either, as he weaves in multiple narratives from the perspective of Vervunhive civilians caught up in the conflict.
This is, essentially, one huge set piece – they don’t come much bigger than the siege of a hive city. As you might expect from this series, however, the core of the story is still the relationships between the characters as they continue to develop, as well as the introduction of a whole new set of characters. All the usual names are present and correct, including some old antagonists, but some of the most powerful elements of the story involve new names, natives of Vervunhive whose arcs are filled with heroism and tragedy. Set against the backdrop of truly brutal action, we see Gaunt rising beyond the constraints of his role that we’ve previously seen, and the ties between him and his men (and, for the first time, women) growing ever tighter.
It’s easy to see why so many people consider this the best of the series, as it’s got absolutely everything. The scope of the book is huge, but by combining the myriad vignettes and smaller set-pieces with the overarching narrative of the siege Abnett gives us the best of both worlds and makes the whole picture understandable and believable. It’s pacy without being rushed, superbly plotted with twists, turns, and threats both external and internal, and continues themes from the first two books – like the idea of the Ghosts being forever underestimated and looked down upon – while never getting bogged down with complexity. It’s a fitting end to the first Gaunt’s Ghosts arc, but also a stepping stone to the increased sense of scale, both character-wise and narratively, that the series grows into. It’s a must-read.