Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 1999)
Series: Gaunt’s Ghosts – Book One
Length: 10 hours
My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read. For this week’s Throwback Thursday, I check out the first entry in the Gaunt’s Ghosts series, First and Only, by Dan Abnett, which proved to be a very impressive Warhammer 40,000 novel.
You only need to look through my recent Throwback Thursdays to see that I have been in a real Warhammer mood lately. I recently got into the Gotrek and Felix series by William King, and quickly made my way through the first three books, Trollslayer, Skavenslayer and Daemonslayer, all of which were incredibly awesome. While I have got the fourth book, Dragonslayer, ready and waiting, I decided to take a break from the fantasy Warhammer novels and dive back into the science fiction Warhammer 40,000 universe. While I only used to play Warhammer Fantasy, I have a great appreciation for the Warhammer 40,000 lore, and I have recently enjoyed two great books in this massive franchise, Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker and Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty.
While there are several intriguing Warhammer 40,000 novels on my radar, I decided to listen to the very first entry in the acclaimed Gaunt’s Ghosts series by Dan Abnett, First and Only. Abnett is an impressive and prolific author and comic book writer who has done a lot of work across several franchises and companies, including Marvel and DC. While he has a massive back catalogue, Abnett is best known for his input into the Warhammer extended universe. Abnett has written an immense number of novels for the franchise, including Warhammer Fantasy books, such as the Malus Darkblade series (on my to-read list). Most of his work is in the Warhammer 40,000 range, where he has written several major series, including the Eisenhorn and Ravenor series, as well as several major novels in the Horus Heresy extended series. However, the most iconic of these is the Gaunt’s Ghosts series.
The long-running Gaunt’s Ghosts series follows a regiment of Imperial Guard, the basic foot-soldiers of the Imperium of Man, a major faction in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Starting back in 1999 with this novel, the Gaunt’s Ghost series featured 15 individual books, as well as several short stories, and only recently finished in 2019. The Gaunt’s Ghosts series is one of the most iconic entries in the entire Warhammer 40,000 novel range, and I have heard many positive things about it over the years. First and Only was one of the first books published by the Black Library, the Games Workshop publishing arm, and is a major feature of their catalogue. So I felt that I was going to take the plunge and read more Warhammer novels, this would be a pretty good place to start, and boy was I glad that I did.
In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war….
Throughout the entirety of space, the armies of the Imperium bring the fight to their enemies on every planet, battlefield and hellscape they can find. One of the most deadly and destructive theatres of war is the massive Sabbat Worlds Crusade, where Imperial forces fight and die to defeat the armies of Chaos and bring an entire sector back into the Emperor’s light. Many regiments of Imperial Guard have been recruited to battle in this war, but none have a background more steeped in blood and tragedy than the Tanith First and Only.
Formed to serve in the crusades from the once verdant world of Tanith, the first regiment of Tanith Imperial Guards could only watch in horror as their planet was destroyed by the forces of Chaos, with them the only survivors. Now under the command of Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt, the men of the Tanith First and Only have taken to calling themselves Gaunt’s Ghosts, due to their superior stealth skills and in recognition of the pain they feel at being the only remnants of their planet.
Fighting in the latest phase of the crusade, the Ghosts find themselves where the fighting is thickest, using their unique skills and experiences to confound the enemy and bring about impossible victories. However, the Ghosts are about to discover that not all battles are fought on the field, and not all enemies are in front of them. A power struggle is brewing in the upper ranks of the Crusade’s high-command, and the Ghosts have fallen right into the middle of it. Entrusted with a mysterious encrypted data transmission by an old friend, Gaunt soon finds himself targeted by the agents of an ambitious general. After several devastating attacks, Gaunt is forced to choose a side, especially after he uncovers a deadly secret that could destroy everything his men have fought for. His mission will lead him to the most dangerous battlefield in the crusade, where the lines between friend and foe have never been blurrier.
Now this was a really incredible and exciting novel. Abnett has produced an outstanding story in First and Only, and I loved how he perfectly translated the unique feel of the Warhammer 40,000 universe into a captivating narrative. Featuring some great characters, a dark setting, and a fantastic look at this great franchise, First and Only is a captivating and explosive novel and I had an amazing time getting through it.
Abnett has produced a pretty epic story for First and Only that not only serves as an excellent introduction to the characters and wider narrative but is also full of excitement, intrigue and action. At its core, First and Only is a tough and gritty military action adventure, that follows the Tanith First and Only through several gory fields of battle. The narrative is broken up into several distinctive sections, set across three separate planets and one massive spaceship, as well as several shorter scenes and flashback sequences that add context and strengthen character development. These separate sequences flow together extremely well and form a tight and compelling overarching narrative. I loved the way in which Abnett combined his fantastic military story with treacherous and thrilling political intrigue, as the protagonists are forced to deal with treachery from their friends and attacks from their own commanders. The author really does a great job setting up the key plot points at the start of the book, and the entire narrative seamlessly flows on after that. I was deeply impressed by all the amazing action sequences, and I loved the author’s use of multiple character perspectives to tell a complex and powerful narrative. The entire narrative comes together extremely well into a big, explosive conclusion. I really enjoyed some of the great twists that were revealed in the lead-up to the conclusion and I was pleasantly surprised by several fun turns and reveals. An overall exciting and terrific narrative, I had an absolute blast getting through this awesome novel.
One of the best things about this fun novel is the author’s great use of the dark and gothic Warhammer 40,000 setting. Abnett obviously has a lot of love for this universe, and he painstakingly recreates it in his novel in all its fantastic and gritty glory. As a result, the reader is treated to some outstandingly portrayed background settings of destroyed worlds, bombarded warzones, and overpopulated Imperial worlds. This proves to be really impressive to see, and the author makes sure to use this setting to full effect, enhancing the cool narrative and making it an excellent backing for the various fight scenes. This attention to detail also comes into play perfectly during the book’s various action sequences, and I felt that Abnett perfectly captured the unique and chaotic feel of a Warhammer 40,000 battle scene. I have to say that I also deeply appreciated the way in which Abnett introduced the reader to the Warhammer 40,000 universe. I personally found that very little pre-knowledge of this extended universe is needed to enjoy this book, and while those readers familiar with the game or other Warhammer novels will obviously get a lot more out of First and Only, this is actually a pretty good way to experience Warhammer 40,000 lore for the first time.
Another cool aspect of this novel was the insightful and intriguing focus on the Imperial Guard. The Imperial Guard are the basic grunts of the Imperial faction and are often overshadowed by the flashier Space Marines in both the tabletop game and the wider extended universe. As a result, it was cool to see a novel that focuses on a regiment of these troopers and shows them during a deadly and bloody war. Abnett does an outstanding job capturing this faction in First and Only, diving into the psyche of the common soldier, while also showcasing their tactics, weapons, machines and motivations. Thanks to the author’s excellent use of multiple character perspectives, you get to see various aspects of the regiment from commander down, and I loved the fascinating combination of perspectives from all the different types of soldiers and specialists. I also really appreciated the way in which Abnett highlighted different regiments of Imperial Guard throughout the novel, which corresponds with the varied regiments and styles that can be fielded in the tabletop game. While most of this novel focused on the Tanith First and Only, Abnett also strongly features two other regiments, the Vitrian Dragoons and the Jantine Patricians, who act as allies and rivals to the Ghosts respectfully. It was extremely interesting to see the variations in mentality, uniforms, and tactics between these regiments, and I really enjoyed the way in which the author highlights their diverse backgrounds and planets. This ended up being an incredible introduction to the Imperial Guard, and I imagine that quite a few Warhammer 40,000 players gained a new appreciation for this army after reading this novel.
First and Only features a fantastic collection of characters that serve as the heart and soul of the narrative. This book follows the adventures of the Gaunt’s Ghosts regiment, and you get to see various members of this squad in action, as well as some antagonist characters. Abnett ensures that each of the characters featured within the novel have intriguing and well-established backstories and traits, and you quickly understand their motivations. Much of First and Only’s focus is on the leader of the Ghosts, Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt, who serves as the main protagonist. Gaunt proves to be an excellent and enjoyable main character, who serves as both the regiment’s leader and its inspirational political officer. Abnett really develops Gaunt’s personality and backstory, and all of the flashbacks focus on his past, setting up his relationship with several of the characters featured in the novel and showing how several rivalries were formed. Other fascinating and complex characters included Colonel Corbec, who was the main secondary antagonist; Major Rawne, an officer with a hatred for Gaunt who has a pretty traumatic time in this novel; Brin Milo, Gaunt’s adjutant with extreme perception (they are obviously setting up something there); and Colonel Flense, a guardsman from a rival regiment who bears a great grudge against Gaunt. All these characters, and more, are really fun to follow, but readers are advised not to get too attached, as this is a brutal war story. I will admit that I initially had a little trouble connecting to several of the characters and I lost track of who the different protagonists were. However, once I got a further into the story, I grew to know each of the distinctive characters, and I appreciated their fun characteristics and capacities.
As I have tended to do with all Warhammer recently, I grabbed the audiobook version of First and Only. This proved to be a fantastic decision, as the First and Only audiobook was an excellent and fun production that I was able to power through quickly. First and Only has a decent run time of 10 hours, and features some amazing voice work from veteran narrator Toby Longworth. Longworth, who has previously narrated a swathe of Warhammer audiobooks, does an outstanding job with this novel, and he moves the narrative along at a swift and exciting pace. I love the range of great voices Longworth brings to First and Only, and each character is given a distinctive voice that fits their personality and background perfectly. There is a certain grim nature to the voices of many of the main characters, which reflects the dark, gothic nature of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. He also utilises a series of different accents for some of the various Imperial Guard regiments, which helps to distinguish their divergent backgrounds and the influence of their home world. This amazing narration turns the First and Only audiobook into an absolute treat, and this was an incredible way to enjoy this excellent book. As Longworth provides the narration for the rest of the Gaunt’s Ghosts audiobooks, I will probably check out the rest of this series in this format, and I already know that I will have an awesome time doing so.
First and Only by Dan Arbnett is an outstanding and fantastic novel that takes the reader on an exciting journey to the heart of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Featuring an incredible and epic war story that makes full use of its dark setting and amazing characters, First and Only serves as a captivating first entry in the Gaunt’s Ghost series. I had a wonderful time listening to this book, and this was one of the best Warhammer tie-in novels I have so far had the pleasure of reading. This novel comes highly recommended, and I full intend to check out the other entries in this series in the next few years.