Warhammer 40,000 is, at its core, a miniatures game artfully designed to separate wargamers from their money with peak efficiency. But it may be more broadly known as a shared-universe fiction franchise which occupies several shelves in the tie-in fiction wasteland west of “Z” at your local book retailer. Our very own John O’Neill has covered several books in the ongoing Horus Heresy saga, and odds are that even if you’ve never picked up a book, you’ve noticed the Black Library imprint occupying ever more space on the New Releases rack.
WH40k occupies a gray area between science fiction and fantasy. I’d categorize it most accurately as a very grim shade of space opera, but extra-planar daemons and dark gods play a central role in its varied mythology, and there are sci-fi races which correspond to elves, orcs, and even undead (with heavy shades of Terminator). It’s primarily a canvas on which to tell stories about war, and so none of the various factions are particularly given to the arts of peacetime.
The majority of WH40K fiction is stories about the Space Marines (Adeptus Astartes for purists): genetically enhanced super soldiers who go into battle against alien and daemonic hordes clad in heavy power armor and carrying an assortment of massive guns and chainsaw swords. They tend to be hyper-manly, grim, serious, and generally without concerns besides waging war.
Honestly, I’ve found most of the WH40K fiction I’ve sampled to be fairly shallow. Every story is perpetual war and violence, with characters who exist only as warriors, moving from battle to blood-drenched battle. Most of the time, I’ve felt that any sense of deeper meaning to the carnage gets obscured, leaving little more than loving descriptions of weaponry and slaughter.
But there are diamonds in the ashes, and Dan Abnett’s work shines brightest of them all.
Abnett manages the trick of taking the best elements of the 40K setting — the exotic settings, hideous adversaries, and hyper-gothic, doom-and-gloom atmosphere — and fusing them to stories populated by genuine, likable characters who have personalities beyond “is stern and loyal, prefers chainsaw axe to chainsaw sword”. The protagonists of his Gaunt’s Ghosts novels are the fragile, mortal men of the Imperial Guard, who face nightmare enemies in service to a vast Imperium which considers their lives expendable currency.
The first novel of the series, First and Only, introduces us to the Ghosts: A regiment of around a thousand men who are the only survivors of their homeworld. That world, Tanith was consumed by the daemonic forces of Chaos on the very day when the regiments of Tanith guardsmen were formed, making the Ghosts not only the first Imperium regiment drawn from their world, but the only men to survive its fall. Now, years later, they do the only thing left to them: fight the Imperium’s battle, their numbers diminishing with each warzone, still carrying the silver knives and wearing the ritual tattoos of their lost homeworld.
The Ghosts’ former lives on Tanith inform the culture and specialties of their regiment. Tanith was a sparsely populated world of thick forests populated by mobile trees, so the Ghosts are masters of stealth and pathfinding operations. Many of them had families who were consumed by Chaos, or can remember working as lumberjacks, blacksmiths, or doctors in their home villages. Tanith is portrayed as something of an island of peace and humanity amidst the pitch-blackness of the setting, and, in turn, it suggests that there may be similar, relatively happy worlds that the Ghosts are fighting to protect.
Colonel Commissar Ibram Gaunt is the man responsible for saving the Ghosts, and the only non-Tanith among them. His stand-out trait, compared to other officers in the Guard, is that he values the lives of his men and leads them from the front, sword and bolt-pistol in hand. He makes a point of wearing a Tanith cloak, and although he never lived on Tanith, he’s done everything he can to adopt the lost world as his own. Gaunt is motivated by a genuine sense of duty to his men, and has empathy in its classical sense: feeling their pain as his own. He’s also a cunning commander who leads from the front and swings a mean chainsword.
There’s a breadth of memorable personalities among the Ghosts: “Try-again” Bragg, the worst shot in the regiment; Mad Larkin, the master marksmen who hears the voices of angels; Rawne, a former gangster who one day plans to kill Gaunt for taking them off Tanith rather than allowing them to die in defense of their home; Colm Corbec, Gaunt’s towering second-in-command who prefers to solve disciplinary issues with his fists; Dorden, a veterinarian-turned-medic who, in contrast to every WH40K character ever, refuses to carry a weapon or take a life. It’s the most richly varied cast I’ve seen in any media tie-in novel, and most of them are flat-out likable. Even better, their experiences in various battles and campaigns change and mold them, so the characters don’t stay static from one novel to the next.
And the plot, you ask? I can’t imagine a fan of military sci-fi, or war stories in general, coming away from First and Only disappointed. There’s trench warfare against mutated cultists supported by daemons, chases through the icy streets of an Imperium hive city, an intra-regimental battle staged aboard an Imperial ship sailing through the extra-planar Warp, and an assassination attempt on Gaunt which is one of the best written knife fights I’ve ever enjoyed. There’s also black ops, conspiracy, and an ancient artifact of terrible power.
First and Only is primarily about infighting among the various regiments of the Guard, with the broader conflict against Chaos legions serving as the backdrop. Each regiment of the Imperial guard calls a different world home, and so they have their own cultures, their own warrior traditions, their own combat doctrines under the broad umbrella of Imperium dogma. When the Ghosts reach open battle with the elite Jantine Patricians, there’s a tangible sense of the stakes — on both sides.
The Gaunt’s Ghosts novels had largely slipped out of print, but First and Only was recently re-released in a deluxe paperback edition, as have the second and third installments. The whole series is available as e-books directly from the Black Library website. There’s also omnibus editions floating around the used market, for those who prefer the kind of volumes you can build houses from.
Our recent Gaunt’s Ghosts reviews include:
Where Extra-planar Daemons and Dark Gods Play: Gaunt’s Ghosts #1: First & Only by Sean Stiennon
Space Orks, Space Elves, and Tough Space Men: Gaunt’s Ghosts #2: Ghostmaker by Sean Stiennon
Street Fighters of the 41st Millennium: Gaunt’s Ghosts #3: Necropolis by Sean Stiennon
Road Trip from Hell: Gaunt’s Ghosts #4: Honour Guard by Sean Stiennon
Next up: a look at the second novel in the series, Ghostmaker, in which we learn more about the individual men of the Tanith First.
Sean T. M. Stiennon is a writer, martial artist, and doer of mighty deeds who makes his home in Madison, Wisconsin. He has much to learn.