In 2002, I was looking for a new military sf series and discovered Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghosts series in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. I had never played any of the Warhammer roleplaying games, but I had bought the miniatures and many of the Warhammer fantasy supplements for use in other games. Looking back, it seems to me that the series didn’t really take off until book three, Necropolis, when it became one of my favorites and encouraged me to read a lot of other books in both the Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer universes.
Warhammer 40,000 is a bleak place to live. What I’m about to describe comes from my impressions after reading dozens of books about the universe. It appears to me that when humanity discovered faster-than-light travel, they inadvertently exposed themselves to the mutating and corrupting forces of chaos which existed in the warp. This force began to drive people insane and it spread among humanity as a sort of contagion. It activated psychic powers in many people and triggered a civil strife that seems to have essentially overthrown what we would think of as a scientific age.
Civilization survived by moving into a state of permanent warfare against the forces of chaos and by rejecting the advanced science that had led them to discover the corruption. Yet, they needed that corruption, so science was turned into a religion and scientific knowledge was turned into a catechism of secret knowledge guarded by various guilds. A political officer class, called commissars, was created to guard against the corruption of chaos and cowardice in the ranks and for tens of thousands of years the war has continued.
Gaunt’s Ghosts occurs within a multi-decade effort to liberate the Sabaat
Worlds, a cluster of nearly a hundred star systems. Excerpts from historical
chronicles that start each book help us to understand the context of the
current fight and make it clear how important the crusade was and of the
special role that Gaunt’s Ghosts played in winning it.
First & Only is the story of Commissar Ibram Gaunt—the man who led the critical action that won the most important victory in the first ten years of the Sabaat Worlds Crusade—the Battle of Balhaut. As a reward for his skill and valor, dying Warmaster Slaydo made the commissar a colonel and gave him his own command, the Tanith First, a regiment whose world was destroyed after they were mobilized and so they are the very last of their kind.
The crusade after the death of Warmaster Slaydo is bogged down in terrible intrigue between different factions of the imperial war machine—men who resent the fact that the new warmaster is the relatively young Macaroth. First & Only is a tale of that intrigue and of how Ibram Gaunt and his Ghosts get caught up within it. It’s also the story of a heck of a lot of battles that have the feel of World War I—a brutal slog with tremendous casualties on both sides.
The enemy are insane by any reasonable definition. Their minds and often their bodies have been twisted by chaos and the warp so that they are fearsome and often terrifying opponents. There is nothing respectable about the forces of chaos, but interestingly enough, there isn’t that much that is respectable on Gaunt’s side either other than the sense of honor, integrity and loyalty that he and his Ghosts adhere to. The Imperium is a fascist state—apparently driven to this condition by the demands of maintaining the never-ending war against the forces of chaos.
This is a solid story with a lot of military action and intrigue. It also does a great job of establishing the Warhammer 40,000 universe as a bleak and violent place. I first read this book roughly eighteen years ago and many of the scenes have remained vividly with me throughout all that time.