Gaunt's Ghosts: First and Only (Dan Abnett)
The opening book in the long running Gaunt's Ghosts series, First and Only introduces us to many important characters and serves us the story of protagonist Ibram Gaunt's early life and motivations. Featuring one of the best casts I've yet to see in a Warhammer book and a very strong plot that is a nice mix of blunt action and shadowy intrigue, First and Only is a near perfect way to open the series.
First and Only is the tale of Commissar-Colonel Ibram Gaunt and his troops of the Tanith First and Only fighting during the Sabbat World Crusades. Their missions pit them against the forces of Chaos and comparatively tame rebel forces, but the twist here is that Gaunt's biggest enemy may actually come from within the ranks of the Imperium. An old bloodfeud between the First and Only and the Jantine Patricians crops up from time to time, and is used to set up an even more consequential and dire conflict that reaches into the highest ranks of the Sabbat Crusade. Using spy games, large scale action sequences, and dreadful family secrets to tell the tale of Ibram's life, the book manages many different conflicts of varying degrees of importance skillfully and with great flair. The unconventional plot structure works well in this aspect, allowing for a more nuanced story that gives a nod to Gaunt's past, while giving the side cast the opportunity to shine.
The book is structured as a series of chapters divided up into smaller subsections, with the conclusion of each chapter leading into a memory from Gaunt's past. Gaunt's past, including his father's fate and his early career in the military, plays into the main story in some crucial ways, so these parts aren't just filler or an out of place origin story. In fact, the whole thing ties together wonderfully and fits the dark and depraved themes of the Warhammer universe quite well.
First and Only moves along at a rapid pace, but never sacrificing a strong and nuanced plot for mindless action like many of its fellow Warhammer novels. There is a wide variety of entertaining action sequences, but there is also plenty going on with the story that you never lose sight of the bigger picture. Throw in a few devious plot twists and an excellent misdirection scene, and you have a story with plenty of substance and almost no filler.
Characterization is a resounding success in First and Only. Besides Gaunt, who you will learn quite a bit about and sympathize with by the end of the novel, there is actually a fairly robust supporting cast that is much more than just extra cannon fodder and comedic relief. Firstly, the author gives every single man under Gaunt's command a very interesting moral dilemma when explaining the origins of the Tanith First and Only. Without spoiling anything, this instantly establishes the most emotionally charged of love/hate relationships between him and his men, a connection that ties him to everyone from his lieutenants to the lowliest grunt. Gaunt's interaction with his men is always colored by this event, and even if nothing else was done to build other characters, this lone bit of back story would be enough to intrigue me about Gaunt's soldiers. Thankfully, there is a concerted effort to involve as many characters as possible in a meaningful and cohesive way. This is done through rapid fire point of view transitions during the book's main sequence, which give us other action oriented sub plots and a more in depth look at the less important characters. Characters like Corbec, Gaunt's second in command and Rawne, a curmudgeonly major, are brought to life through strong point of view sequences, while more common soldiers like "Try Again" Bragg and Mad Larkin are developed through the inclusion of their battlefield exploits and personalities. The end result is that characters that should have been nothing more than window dressing in a thrilling novel end up matching and occasionally even besting Gaunt in terms of likeability and charm.
That isn't to say Gaunt is a lackluster character though: despite facing insurmountable odds presented by both a stalwart opponent and a scheming and malicious cast of comrades and higher ups, Gaunt tackles his missions with skill and determination. His back story is incredibly sympathetic and pays off in some big ways for the story, and he seems to have a kind of quiet charisma and wry sense of humor that helps set him apart as a man. Gaunt is never an overbearing presence in the narrative, and is far from a super powered character, coming across as a very real person facing very challenging problems.
Author Dan Abnett does a phenomenal job of creating tension in this book, pulling out all the stops to making nearly every scene feel like an important and dangerous undertaking for our heroes. This has a lot to do with the way the characters are written: better characters leads to more emotional attachment which naturally leads to more tension when those characters are in harm's way, but there is more to it than just that. An ominous scene featuring the beating of thousands of drums somewhere in the distance builds an almost palpable sense of dread, while a perfectly written misdirection scene late in the book adds an extra layer of conflict to the story while also producing a substantial amount of tension. Some of the twists and surprises are fairly predictable, like a secret meeting gone awry, but even the more obvious moments are exceptional due to the strong sense of pacing and clearly described action. Even with the super dialogue and intense action, there is but one problem I had with the more basic elements of the work.
World building isn't the book's strongest element. Only one planet, the ice world of Pyrites, is fleshed out in any meaningful way, and most of the stops along the way are just non descript worlds for the action to unfold on. In addition, the whole idea of the Sabbat Worlds Crusade is more of an abstract concept than a fully realized thing at the moment, with no real effort made to explain much about the Sabbat Worlds, their inhabitants, or what is going on there. This is the only really meaningful criticism I could find with the overall writing, everything else is very strong.
First and Only is a shining example of what a Warhammer book should strive to be. Nuanced and comparatively complex, with a strong central character and endearing supporting cast, First and Only is a book with very few flaws that manages to blend heroic action scenes with layered conflicts in an exciting introduction to a promising new group of soldiers.