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 Sabbat 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.
Gaunt’s Ghosts 2 Ghostmaker by Dan Abnett
Whereas the first book in this series was all Gaunt all the time, this novel focuses almost completely on the Ghosts who make up Gaunt’s regiment. It does this through a series of flashback stories, starting with the “founding” of the regiment and then highlighting specific ghosts so that the reader can get to know each of them better. The least successful of these stories for me was the first one, Ghostmaker, which tells how Gaunt pulled the Tanith First off their home world in the face of an unexpected attack by a Chaos fleet. This is the critical moment in explaining the complex relationship between Gaunt and his men. All through the first book they blamed Gaunt for not letting them fight for Tanith. Unfortunately, this story doesn’t satisfy. The fleet sneaks into the system, lands some chaos troops who are killing people, and Gaunt runs. Supposedly the whole world is lost (i.e. destroyed) and Gaunt decided that his regiment wasn’t enough to protect it. I had expected the planet to be destroyed by some sort of nuclear bombardment from orbit, but the enemy soldiers are on the planet and it just doesn’t make any sense that the wholly militarized Empire couldn’t get some relief forces to help save the day before an entire planet was destroyed by troops on the ground. I won’t say this often about Abnett, but I wish he had simply not written this story because to my mind, it makes the founding myth of the regiment ridiculous.
The other stories are much stronger. I won’t mention them all, but I would like to highlight a few. Mad Larkin the sniper gets his day in the sun in “The Angel of Bucephalon” where we find him high in a church spire after having apparently abandoned his fellow soldiers. The whole story is a conversation he has with a stone statue. In it we learn that he needs pills to keep from hallucinating, but even with the pills, the only time he sees the world as it really is, is when he looks at it through his sniper scope. He comes off as a strangely timid soldier who is a simply brilliant marksman. And as the angel, playing the role of commissar, demands he defend himself against her charge of desertion and the punishment of death, he slowly gathers himself together, waits his opportunity, and assassinates the head of the chaos resistance force which the Ghosts had been sent to kill. It’s a very effective tale which will leave you loving Mad Larkin.
“That Hideous Strength” tells the story of dull-whitted “Try Again” Bragg, the strongest and mentally weakest of the Ghosts whom Gaunt puts in charge of a supply convoy that no one thinks can make it to its destination. Bragg is simply awesome—not only as a soldier who won’t quit and remains steadfast in his loyalty to Gaunt—but because we learn that “slow” is very different than “stupid”. It’s just a great story all around.
And finally in “Blood Oath”, Ghost Physician Dorden, oldest man in the regiment, and the only one who is unwilling to carry a gun, finds his values pushed to the limit when he’s told to abandon scores of injured men from a rival regiment because the whole army is retreating. War is an especially terrible place for doctors and we learn a lot about the physician that the whole regiment depends so heavily on. It’s a moving tale.
As a way to quickly introduce the Ghosts who will be the mainstay of this series, this novel is effective. But as a story on its own, it’s weak, probably because it’s not truly a novel, just a collection of loosely braided together short stories.
Necropolis Gaunt’s Ghosts 3 by Dan Abnett
Abnett finally hits his stride in the third Gaunt’s Ghost novel. Part of the reason he’s so successful here may be that this is the first true novel of the series. The others are braided collections of short stories. Yet in Necropolis, Abnett takes the time to fully develop a great hive manufacturing world falling before the onslaught of chaos and he puts his imperial armed forces—especially the Ghosts—smack in the middle of it.
The Ghosts are light infantry who specialize in infiltration, but keep getting put in shock troop or hold-the-line style engagements. As a result their numbers are dwindling rapidly and they can’t be reinforced since their home world has been destroyed. Their commanding general despises them and has already purposefully subjected them to friendly fire from artillery. It’s an unfortunate situation to say the least, especially in their new mission where Gaunt, their commanding officer, and a tank commander want to use their mobility to slow an overwhelming enemy down and the general insists on squandering their advantages to depend on supposedly impregnable siege fortifications. It’s not hard to imagine that the walls are not nearly as durable as the general hopes.
This is a book about courage and honor and surprisingly human caring. It’s about leadership—the good and the bad. And it’s about people pushed beyond human endurance learning ultimately what they stand for.
One of the things Abnett does well is introduce an impossibly large cast and make them shine for a few pages. He does this mostly so that it hurts when huge numbers of them get killed off, but here he has an additional reason which I think every reader will appreciate in the next novel.