It has been nearly 20 years since I first read a Warhammer 40K novel, way before Games Workshops publishing company Black Library was formed. I was and always will be a big fan of anything Games Workshop related, spending a vast amount of my formative years playing a myriad number of games and painting thousands of miniatures (some of which I still own). Alas life has a habit of steering you in different directions and it's been years since I have played a Warhammer 40K game and prior to last year the only Warhammer 40K books I owned (apart from the game ones that is) were the Ian Watson classics Space Marine and Inquisitor.
I have however always desired to return to this incredibly rich world (as soon as my kid's are old enough they will also be introduced) and I knew that Dan Abnett - author of the incredible novel Embedded had not only been writing these books for years but had begun his novel writing career doing so. I took advantage of Waterstones fantastic 3 for 2 offer last month and purchased 3 omnibus editions of his work - Ravenor, Eisenhorn and The Founding (I have also since acquired 5 Horus heresy books, another omnibus, a space marines battles novel and the third Gaunt Ghosts Omnibus "The Lost").
I have heard the Gaunt Ghosts series whispered with a kind of awe by a number of people and so thought it best to start my journey there. First and Only marks the beginning of this series and also happens to be the first novel published by Dan Abnett (although he wrote countless comics and short stories before this time). This edition is part of The Founding Omnibus which also includes Ghostmaker and Necropolis (along with a short story).
Gaunt Ghosts is all about those stout troopers that make up the regular army of the Imperium, the Imperial Guards - more specifically a die hard, fierce regiment of the Tanith "First and Only", also known as the Gaunt's Ghosts. This band of warriors is led by the political commissar Ibram Gaunt, an intelligent, brave and decisive commander who does his best for the Emperor despite being thrown to the wolves on a number of occasions by ambitious and jealous superiors.
When I used to play Warhammer 40K my main army was a regiment of Blood Angel Space Marines - which also included the support of a 100 strong Terminator squad (some of which were made up by miniatures from the 2 space hulk boxes I had). Back then I considered the Imperial Guard (Impy's) to be a weak force compared the vast might of the marines and not one worth fielding in battle. Here though Dan has managed to correct that oversight and opened my eyes to the effectiveness of the Imperial Guard, an under appreciated soldier and the front line for many Imperial battles.
Each regiment is also quite unique, conscripts originating from one home world (for the most part) - imparting much of their individual culture, style and technology. This means that each regiment has it's own strengths and weaknesses, for example the Vitrian use a reflective glass-like armour and hold to a rigid discipline while the Ghosts take a more stealthy and mobile approach well suited to reconnaissance - assisted by their excellent camouflage equipment, experience and innate skills.
The most striking thing about this book is the almost non-stop action sequences that seem so real you could be forgiven in thinking that Abnett was a decorated veteran soldier - it's simply incredible and around these fields of fierce battle he manages to weave a spell that is simply mesmerising. The characters are brilliant and I loved the confidence the author has in killing them off when the story requires it - bloody brilliant. In part it felt a little like a far future version of Sharpe, in so far as the regiment have that same close bond and are led by a master tactician who get's treated like crap and yet succeeds despite his less than talented superiors.
Characterisation is handled exceptionally, you can't help but care about these tough soldiers and it really does tug a little at the heart strings when one of them meets their maker. This is a testament to the authors skill as a story teller - his imagination is limitless and unbounded, First and Only is Warhammer 40K at it's finest.
Written on Friday 30th September 2011 by Antony.
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