First and Only – a classic, or better best forgotten? Ath reviews

Over at the Bolthole, we like to remember the good things. The Gaunts’ Ghosts series, written by the superb Dan Abnett, has been going since 1999(!). Over the coming months we will be taking a fresh look at the series, reviewing the novels and seeing how they fit into Warhammer 40k as we know it now.

Kicking us off is a review of the series opener, but is First and Only a classic novel, or merely the start of something greater? Athelassan has put together this excellent review for you. If you are interested in forming your own opinion, the novel is soon available in print through the Black Library as part of the “Founding” omnibus, incorporating the first three novels in the series.

 

Without further ado, I will hand over to Ath…

First and Only
By Dan Abnett, 1999

It is always hard to review a book like First and Only. This was, after all, the book that started it all: the first 40K novel published by Black Library, and the opening instalment in its longest-running and probably most successful series. Such a book is unavoidably compared to its successors and is difficult to appreciate without the shadow of that context.

The story, for those unaware, follows a regiment in the Imperial Guard, the eponymous Tanith First (and Only), so called because after its first founding the planet was destroyed by a Chaos fleet, leaving only one battalion surviving of the three initially raised. They’re fighting on the front lines of the Sabbath Crusade when they encounter a mysterious message encoded with unheard-of levels of security. This draws them into a situation with potential ramifications stretching far beyond the Crusade itself – and all the while they are struggling with a deadly rivalry with another regiment.

Their commander is Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt and this is probably the novel in the series with most focus on him personally, giving us flashbacks to his childhood and training, and with incidents from his past coming back to affect the main plot. There is perhaps an air of the trite about this, the level of coincidence piling up as the story goes on, but never quite crosses the line into the absurd or the preposterous.

In contrast to Gaunt, most of the Tanith characters are fairly lightly sketched. Those who will become the core cast of the series are present and visible but at this point in the story they are hard to distinguish from the rest. The number of names thrown at the reader is large, and with a limited space to develop so many characters, the Tanith inevitably form more of a background to the plot than a fundamental part of it.

That is not to say that the characters feel like they are making up the numbers, but there is little scope to develop them beyond broad strokes. Some, like Rawne, are intriguing; others feel archetypal, like Corbec, the bluff colonel, Bragg, the amiable but slightly slow big fellow, or Larkin, the quirky sniper, who seem to have drifted in from central casting. Those au fait with Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series will spot some familiar faces, even if the names are changed.

In some ways, this makes this novel atypical of the Ghosts series, where normally Gaunt is more distant, and the main Tanith characters are the focus, with much more attention paid to their abilities and personalities. (It has always stood slightly apart from its successors even in appearance, the spine of First and Only‘s first edition having a red background while the next four novels had the same style but a green background). It is probably for this sense of not being a typical Ghosts novel as much as anything that the novel is controversial among fans of the series, with some considering it barely worth the read.

I would disagree with them. Something which I think this novel achieves better than any of its successors is to portray the faceless nature of war in the 41st millennium and the expendability of its human personnel. As the first novel, where the main characters of the series have yet to become apparent, there is a strong sense, rare in Black Library fiction and the Ghosts series in particular, that anyone can die, with characters being introduced on one page and immediately being killed without fanfare. The third Ghost to be named is (implicitly) executed by firing squad within the page. Some of the characters who receive most attention are revealed as decoy secondary protagonists who die before the book is out. That the characters are for the most part unremarkable without special abilities gives them an individual vulnerability and powerlessness entirely appropriate to the setting.

This is just as well, because much of the rest of it is rather at odds with the setting itself. Dan Abnett famously had an incomplete grasp of the intricacies of the 40K universe when this novel was written and as such a number of the details fall foul of a number of howlers which are sure to bother the more uptight afficionados among its readership. The MacGuffin in the plot, once revealed, seems almost impossibly significant while at the same time being strangely personal – and this is something which perhaps damages the rest of the series. Having saved the universe in their first book, how can anything the Ghosts face from now on measure up?

The prose is also a little hesitant and clunky in places, Mr Abnett perhaps still finding his feet with the format in his first full-length novel. It is by no means badly written but it is certainly less elegant and polished than his work would later become, and this may also account for the structure of the novel which borders on the cliché even if it never quite falls foul of it.

So the book has its flaws, but I would suggest these flaws are no more significant than those in the now-classic Inquisition WarSpace Marine or Genevieve. The book has enough about it that the fact its depth of imagination occasionally strays outside that which is strictly speaking sanctioned by the rulebooks feels like a positive feature as much as anything: it’s adding the sort of depth to the setting which I think the novels are ultimately supposed to be doing.

Similarly, I think that its differences from the rest of the Ghosts series are more of an asset than a liability. More than almost any of its successors this feels like an Imperial Guard novel, rather than a Tanith novel. Inasmuch as it is derivative, this is inarguable – albeit a criticism that remains valid for many other Ghosts books – but that derivation was at the core of what 40K used to be. In a universe with such little truly original context, an engaging story told well is about as much as we can ask for, and First and Only absolutely delivers on that.

Thanks Ath.

Talking of the classic Warhammer 40k novel, Space Marine, keep an eye out for a future review of the book, accompanied by a short interview with the author himself, Ian Watson!

See you in the Bolthole!