This week I’m changing it up. Sci-fi/fantasy novels are close to my heart. And typically I like to switch up genres frequently; usually every other book. Mostly because reading realistic fiction can get quite boring no matter how well it is written. So I take a break and escape into constructed worlds. World-building is one of my favorite parts of writing and something special happens when you read one.
“First and Only” comes to me from my boyfriend. He’s not a big reader, doing most anything to avoid it usually, so I wanted to see what about this book made it worth his while. I wanted a better understanding of what he likes because books are so important to me and it’s always been an uneven point for us. I’ve known he reads almost exclusively Warhammer 40k books from the evenings he has spent trying to explain certain storylines to me. In this exercise, it has resulted in me broadening my horizons. He’s been playing Warhammer games since before we started dating but it was boy time and I never learned much about the universe. I have never played a table top game or involved myself with the stories before now. Because of my unfamiliarity, he recommended a book involving the human species, to keep it a little less complicated. It’s one thing to be 38,000 years in the future, traveling through the universe on giant spaceships with humans and quite another if they’re robot hybrids or orks. I want to ease into something like this.
The most important message I can convey is, you do not have to have prior knowledge of the daunting 40k universe. I did not, and I enjoyed the book. Approach the story with an open mind, frame it in your head as a sci-fi novel, and just accept what the author is telling you. The spaceship is the size of a floating city and it travels through something called the Warp, basically the equivalent of a rip in the space-time, sure why not? Although I did try to keep an empty mind, for the first two chapters it was hard to accept some things. Just stick with it, and I recommend trying to read this time of book for the first time in longer sittings to minimize getting lost.Because this book was the first of a series it was an easy place for me to start. Also, be prepared for many a battle sequence, they’re fun. What I didn’t expect was how deeply I would fall in love with the characters.
Fun side note I learned during my educating Warhammer experience: the Black Library publishes all canon Warhammer 40k books. There are hundreds of Warhammer books. Meaning they are written by many different writers. All writers have to go through The Black Library to be published in the universe. There is a panel each novel is presented to for approval before it is made official canon lore. I especially like this because the name Black Library comes from the Universe itself, in the lore, it is a library housing all known forbidden lore of ruinous powers (Chaos).
This book provided me a bit of a humbling experience. Reading has been second nature all my life. I would say I am “good” at reading, whatever that means. Throughout this book, I had to look up words and their definitions. I appreciated it as a good exercise in what reading is good for, learning and expanding vocabulary. The author seems to have made it a point to include more difficult language which I can appreciate. But provided I didn’t know the universe of the story, context clues were a bit harder to form.
The book launches right into the middle of things. Do not get disheartened the first chapter serves only as foreshadowing! I spent a good 20 min texting my boyfriend questions about the little details only to discover it wasn’t really important to the heart of the novel.
Gaunt is our main character. He is likable and above all honorable. He values his men and although he does no have to, he fights among them in battle. As the book unfolds, the reader gets a taste of Gaunt’s history and the history of his regiment. I like the way information is presented to the reader, in flashbacks tucked into the story. It isn’t until the final chapters that the entire story is laid bare to see. This is a unique skill that I personally LOVE in an author, I want all the puzzle pieces to fall into place neatly at the end and Dan Abnett delivered.
Gaunt is a Commissar-General in the Imperial Guard. He was given command of a new regiment, the first of Tanith. In the Imperial Gaurd, the stakes are high. Once you leave your home world it is likely you will never return. Soldiers lives become a blur of battles fought against Chaos and a hopscotch of planets. The greatest prize would be to win a key battle and be rewarded with planets on which to live out their lives.
The Tanith are a special regiment, their history is the main focus for Gaunt’s behavior. Gaunt respects his men, he values their lives. He has created a strong relationship with the troops, he is one of them. This relationship makes Gaunt unusual. In the Imperial Gaurd, men of Gaunt’s rank as Commissar do not fight in the field with their men. In fact, there is a man repeatedly mentioned for using his troops as “cannon fodder” because eventually, any enemy will falter if you keep throwing troops at them. Gaunt disagrees, the Tanith hold a stronger meaning to him. They are his men, the men he rescued, the men that will bring him glory.
The Tanith regiment is known as “the first and only” because they are the last of the Tanith and simultaneously, the first regiment from their home planet. Their title as Gaunt’s Ghosts has multiple layers. The first referring to them being the ghosts of a dead planet, the only Tanith left in the universe. Another is found in the form of their fighting. The Tanith use camouflage, stealth, and cloaking technology to gain the upper hand in battle. They are sent into missions other regiments would fail because of their unique skill.
The author creates a dynamic that left me always rooting for the Ghosts. Gaunt appears to be a light in the dark, he is loyal even when faced with peril. He has been taking part in a long war against the forces of Chaos (this does not get an in-depth explanation during the novel but I found it easy to roll with the force of evil trope) when he is tasked with the somewhat harder job of fighting his own command. A piece of information has been guided into his loyal hands by an undercover resistance. There are higher ranked men attempting to gain power for a coup. He must position himself and his men against his own command. This process displays the contrast between Gaunt and his fellow officer. It creates a friction that only heightens the respect I have for Gaunt and the way he leads his men.
More than anything I appreciated the wide range of characters and personalities included throughout the novel. I genuinely liked the men in Gaunt’s ranks and the backgrounds given to them were well thought out. Considering the number of characters included it is surprising how the author managed to give so many of them a backstory. Not many characters are two dimensional, you come to understand how they think and in some cases glimpses into how they have grown.
The visual description was at times overwhelming, but it serves to create amazing imagery of the surroundings. A small language barrier caused me to look up some British terms in this department. I was somewhat disappointed when one of these words was simply a fern but I appreciate the detail all the same. This is an important skill when the reader is unfamiliar with the setting. When the men are on a planet so unlike Earth I was grateful for the information to form terrain and atmosphere in my imagination. No detail is spared. When the troops are on a ship being transported I can see the steel grating but at the same time, I know it is worn. The ship is from another time, old and dingy. But when a glass-domed room is described I can see the massive scale and the stars beyond the windows. The aesthetic is perfect and well done. A lot about the ships remind me of steampunk, I can’t exactly place why, it might have to do with some information I had before ever reading the book.
There is a playfulness throughout the beginning of the novel, making the story light and the characters relatable. As the novel progresses it gets darker until I was nervous and on edge for the climax of the story. I went from giggling with the men in the beginning to worrying for their lives. This read gave me the sneaking dread I love in a thriller. War is bloody and dangerous and this author made me care who made it out alive.
I want everyone to read Dan Abnett. If you are a comic fan, you probably already have. But this man’s world building, character development, and attention to detail are out of this world. He is one of the few that have perfected their craft. I know Warhammer is sometimes seen as a niche community or interest but I implore you to give it a chance. I am currently on the third book in the series of Gaunt’s Ghosts and they have only gotten better. Just start with this one and fall in love.