Gaunt is Colonel-Commissar, leader of the Tanith First – the first and only. With their home world destroyed in an attack that happened as the first regiment was leaving they became the last survivors of the planet, gifting them their nickname, Ghosts. With exceptional tracking and scouting skills due to the unique moving forests on their world, Gaunt’s Ghosts are a formidable foe with many victories over the enemy, the forces of Chaos.
When a Vermilion level communication is intercepted by a spy network and falls into Gaunt’s hands he must make a decision on how deal with the artifact mentioned within the information. With political enemies wanting the information Gaunt must trust his allies and work to complete his goal. From fighting a war on Fortis Binary and then on to Menazoid Epsilon – the world where the artifact resides – Gaunt faces numerous challenges, each requiring not only his full attention and training, but that of his Ghosts and allies too.
My first venture into the Warhammer 40,000 universe was Titanicus, also by Dan Abnett, and although I enjoyed it I found myself at a loss with all the details and history – I really didn’t know what to make of it and it affected my enjoyment of the novel. First an Only was recommended to me and The Founding – an omnibus containing the first three Gaunt’s Ghosts novels – soon landed on the doorstep (a huge thanks to Black Library for it!). I’ll admit that I was still a little hesitant to jump into the rich history of Warhammer and approached First and Only with a hint of scepticism – all of which was completely unfounded and I thoroughly enjoyed the novel from start to finish!
I think the most important thing to say straight away is that although this is a solid Warhammer novel, it could easily be set in any fictional universe which really helped in getting my teeth into it and enjoying the story underneath the details. When there is a setting with so much history the story can get bogged down in detail, or even info-dumping. It would be unfair to say there are no sections in First and Only like this, after all, all books have to have this to some degree to engage the reader. The difference here is that the story flows well enough to make these sections blend into the narrative.
Gaunt is the main character in First and Only, commanding the Tanith First, although there are also many supporting characters from the higher ranks of this legion. Gaunt is a great character – a leader that cares for his men and doesn’t consider them cannon fodder like many others. He is also a great tactician and while working with his men and allies some great scenes come about. Major Rawne is another character that has a good depth to him compared to the rest. With his hatred of Gaunt it instantly makes him a character that you keep in the front of your mind and wonder if he’ll do anything he shouldn’t. All in all the character dynamics work very well within this sort of military setting and are one of the highlights of the novel.
The story was also very enjoyable and I couldn’t really find many faults with it. The progression and events are well executed and the descriptiveness brings it all to life exceedingly well. Set into a few main sections we focus first on the battle at Fortis Binary which introduces us to the setting and characters. It also gives some of the best scenes of the novel during the final assault on the Chaos base. From there it’s a steady journey that brings Gaunt and his men to Menazoid Epsilon and the final attack and journey to the story’s conclusion. Mixed in with all of this we get some flashbacks of Gaunt’s earlier life, revealing precious bits of information piece by piece that keep on making those pages turn to get the full story.
One of the only weaknesses that I could see was this dispersal of information. Some of it, like Gaunt’s flashbacks, were set out well enough and contributed to the feeling of suspense within the story, always making you guess at what exactly he knew from his past. Other parts, specifically the whole Vermilion artifact, are alluded to so vaguely that you never really know what it’s going to be until the big revelation at the climax. I guess it’s that fine balance between giving enough information to keep the reader hooked and guessing to giving a little too much that would ruin the ending. It’s really only a minor niggle in what is otherwise a superbly told story.
All in all I can say that First and Only is the exact entry point into the Warhammer 40,000 universe that I was after. Not only has it been an enjoyable novel, but it’s given me a reason to follow through with the rest of them in the omnibus – and beyond! Abnett is a great storyteller and the combat and war scenes he conjures are amongst the best I’ve read. This series is going to be a mainstay on my reading list and with 11 out there at the moment I’ll have more than enough to keep me happy!