The Reading Canary: Gaunt’s Ghosts’ Second Assault

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The Story So Far

In my review of The Founding, the first Gaunt’s Ghosts omnibus (which I liked very much) I mentioned that Dan Abnett realised part of the way through writing the series that it could be divided into a number of smaller series, 3- or 4-book arcs within the greater structure of the saga (the 12th book of which, Blood Pact, is due out in May this year). The books that made up The Founding work together quite well, but only through a happy accident; it was only in the process of writing the books that comprise this second omnibus that Abnett hit upon the idea of splitting the series up like this, and began working to do so deliberately; all of the four books of The Saint feature the meddling of supernatural forces in the fate of the Ghosts, in the form of Saint Sabbat, a legendary figure in the sector of space the Ghosts operate in. But does she offer the series a much-needed coherency, or does she impose an unwanted and unnecessary structure on it? We’ll have to see…

Honour Guard

The first book in the series takes Saint Sabbat and puts her at centre stage, by basing the action on her homeworld of Hagia. When a tactical blunder causes the desecration of the major temples in the Doctrinopolis, the main shrine city on the planet, by the Chaos cultist forces led by the terrifying Pater Sin, one of the side effects is the sudden appearance of a warp beacon calling a Chaos fleet to Hagia. The Imperial general calls an evacuation, and intends to blame the whole debacle on Gaunt. Gaunt, the Tanith First-and-Only, and their allies in the Pardus heavy armour division are sent as an honour guard to retrieve the holy relics of Saint Sabbat from the mountain shrine where they reside; to add insult to injury, Gaunt is forced to allow one of the general’s commissars to join the force, the leadership no longer trusting in Gaunt’s ability to balance his duties as a command officer and as a commissar. Everyone expects Gaunt to be tossed out of the Imperial Guard in disgrace after this mission, thanks to the general’s machinations, and when it turns out that the Chaos forces on the planet aren’t quite as soundly defeated as everyone thought they were it begins to look like he won’t even survive to be fired – but when some of the Ghosts start believing they are receiving messages from the Saint herself, there’s a chance that a miraculous victory might be won.

Published in 2001, Honour Guard seems on one level to be a response to the war in Afghanistan; although the shrine world is not based on one specific world culture, it does sport a blend of mainly Byzantine and central Asian cultural features, and the whole “road trip from hell” concept seems to express the concern that the various allied forces in Afghanistan were woefully understimating the difficulty of shifting an insurgency that is strongest in rural areas and doesn’t intend to expend all its strength trying to hold onto cities it can’t keep.

But the main focus of the book is not on current affairs, but is instead on the figure of the Saint and what she means to the Ghosts. The series has, all along, been set against the backdrop of the Sabbat Worlds Crusade, a bid to reconquer those worlds claimed for the Imperium by Saint Sabbat in the thirty-fifth millennium that have since fallen to Chaos, but we haven’t really heard much about Saint Sabbat herself, and with a few exceptions the religion of the Ghosts hasn’t played much of a part, although they are devout followers of the Emperor to a man. Only Gaunt really knows much about her, and with the cares of the Ghosts on his shoulders he’s not really given her much thought in the adventures we’ve followed to this point; now, with his career apparrently in ruins, Gaunt turns to the Saint’s writings to try to find some answers, and his men similarly find themselves inspired by the sacred nature of their mission.

Smartly, Abnett does not subject us to long extracts from the Saint’s book, and doesn’t regale us with her full life story. He simply drops bits and pieces of background along the way, from which we can piece her story together – we know she was the daughter of a shepherd, we know she became an incredibly powerful Imperial general, we know that she was somehow associated with the White Scars chapter of Space Marines and was brought to her final rest by an honour guard of them and was given a suit of Imperator armour by them. The last point, if you know your Warhammer 40,000 background material, is especially significant – for Space Marines to have anything to do with women is pretty much unprecedented, for them to give them armour and accept them as a peer or an honourary chapter member is incredible, Space Marine chapters being almost invariably sausage parties.

However, the Saint’s life story is less significant to Honour Guard than the cult that has sprung up around her is. The concept of Imperial Saints and their local cults are a feature of the Warhammer 40,000 background that really hasn’t been explored much – almost all depictions of the Imperial religion focuses on the standardised worship of the Emperor espoused by the Ecclesiarchy. The local cult very clearly work on a different basis from the Ecclesiarchy, and yet are officially sanctioned nonetheless; you wonder whether the Saint’s patronage has enabled them to maintain their original form of worship, repurposed to satisfy the demands of the Imperium.

Most significant, however, is the fact that the Saint takes an active interest in the fate of the Saints, in an manner in which the Emperor (who might, after all, be completely dead or catatonic on the Golden Throne) never does in Abnett’s interpretation of the Warhammer 40,000 universe – mainly through prompting the Ghosts through dreams, visions, and mysterious voices. Such direct but low-key intervention is not without precedent in the Gaunt’s Ghosts series – there’s a short story in Ghostmaker where Mad Larkin the sniper might or might not be being helped out by an angel – but in this instance the intervention is so widespread that it looks set to force a reevaluation by the company of exactly where they stand and what they believe in.

This is not the only culture shock that the Tanith First-and-Only are undergoing over the course of Honour Guard. At the end of Necropolis, the regiment enjoyed an influx of new recruits from the blasted shell of Vervunhive, including a large number of women: unlike the Space Marines the Imperial Guard is an equal opportunity employer, and the only reason the Tanith didn’t have any women previously was simply due to the cultural mores of Tanith itself, not a requirement of the Imperium. A lazy writer would take the opportunity to kick off an explosion of romance plotlines, but whilst a certain amount of pairing up happens Abnett keeps it low-key and makes sure he establishes his female characters as individuals in their own right before he starts considering how to pair people up. Instead, he treats the sudden injection of gender diversity as just one symptom of the wider process of the Tanith and Vervunhive troopers growing accustomed to each other. In some areas there are frictions, in others there’s a lot of common ground, and you can tell that the evolving identity of the Ghosts is going to become a major theme of the series.

Health warning time: this story ends with a deus ex machina. I honestly didn’t mind, because almost from the beginning Abnett throws signals that this is the way it’s going to go at the reader; he couldn’t have prepared me more if he had written me a personal note saying “Dear Arthur, just so you know: this story is going to end with a deus ex machina because I want to explore ideas about faith and miracles, so be ready for that and don’t be upset when it happens. Love and kisses, Dan.” The fun is really guessing what form the deus ex machina is going to take, and because Abnett ensures the reader’s expectations aren’t messed around with it’s completely forgivable; I forgave him, at any rate.

Two perennial problems of the series afflict Honour Guard – not to a massive extent, but they do irritate when they crop up. The first is the hero-worship of Gaunt; I’m getting really tired of Abnett telling us how much the various Ghosts respect him. I’ll forgive him this time – the characters are facing up to the possibility that Gaunt might be fired, after all – but he’s on notice now. The second problem is the failure of any of the major recurring Ghosts – from Tanith or from Vervunhive – to die. Given the mild redundancy that the Vervunhive influx has caused, this seems especially silly. Again, I’ll forgive him because in his introduction to the compilation Abnett promises that these are the books where important people start dying. I planned on holding him to that.

The Guns of Tanith

The Guns of Tanith is where Abnett really delivers. Not only does it contain the sudden and surprising death – but at the same time neatly foreshadowed – death of a character who has been a quiet but important member of the cast since the first book, but it also features a welcome lack of Gaunt-worship, a neat integration of the best cast members from Honour Guard into the structure of the regiment, a plot which seems messy and ramshackle towards the end but comes together brilliantly in the last twenty pages to deliver a powerful body blow, and some intriguing development of some plot threads that had been seeded in the previous book.

Most significantly, though, this is the book where I feel Gaunt loses his aura of slightly irritating perfection, a feature of the series that had begun to irritate me in Honour Guard. What’s more, this piece of character development is handled brilliantly and naturally; Abnett does not rely on Gaunt suddenly becoming an idiot or a horrible person, he simply allows Gaunt’s own character traits to lead him to make a terrible mistake for the best of all possible reasons.

In fact, there’s a general sense that the series is refreshed, revised, and generally refurbished with this volume. In the midst of a series of aerial assaults on important facilities on the world of Phantine, an ancient industrial planet whose atmosphere is so polluted a thick smog has descended across the planet and only the higher mountain ranges are still inhabitable, the top brass in the Sabbat Worlds Crusade decide that they have underused the special capabilities of the Ghosts in the past, and they really need to exploit their abilities as scouts and infiltrators more often. This new sense of purpose for the regiment is matched by a new and frightening enemy which seems intended to be more persistent than the various undisciplined cults and insurgencies the Ghosts have previously faced: the Blood Pact.

All too often in Warhammer 40,000 fiction and setting material one gets the impression that the mortal forces of Chaos consist solely of Chaos Space Marines and an unholy rabble of misfits and mutants (the adversaries the Ghosts have been fighting so far in the series falling decidedly in the rabble category). Abnett’s invention of the Blood Pact is an example of an organised force of Chaos that exhibits military discipline (so long as they are under the thumb of their psychotic commanders) but is staffed by ordinary human beings who have turned to the dark path; there is one Chaos Space Marine in the Blood Pact, their ultimate leader Urlock Gaur. This makes a hell of a lot of sense; Space Marines of both varieties are meant to be fairly rare, and I like the idea that Chaos Space Marines could potentially choose to act as overlords of lesser human servants of the Dark Gods in addition to serving in their alloted chapters. The combination of the organised nature of the Blood Pact and the new infiltration role of the Ghosts gives Abnett an opportunity to depict, to a suitably limited extent, what life in a Chaos-occupied city is like in the second of the two major battles depicted in this book.

That said, the battles aren’t really the focus of The Guns of Tanith, although they are pretty important. This is one volume where the barracks-room politics takes centre stage. Commissar Hark from the previous book has been taken on as a full-time commissar for the regiment, allowing Gaunt to focus on his command duties (and allowing Abnett to write about a commissar doing properly dodgy commissary stuff); Zweil, a wandering priest of Saint Sabbat, has likewise joined to become the Ghosts’ chaplain. The attention of the more benign otherworldly powers continues to be focused on the Saints, as precognitive phenomena affect a number of members of the regiment. Gaunt struggles to reconcile the culture clash between the Tanith and Verghast elements of the regiment, and realises that he himself has been showing favouritism towards the Tanith. Trooper Cuu, an increasingly unstable Verghast recruit who first gets spotlight time in the previous volume, crosses the line in an outrageous way – and gets away with it. And nice guy Caffran, the cuddliest Tanith trooper, is accused of the rape and murder of a civilian and faces military justice. (The last three plot points, in fact, come together quite nicely in what is probably the best and smartest subplot the book has to offer.)

I came to The Guns of Tanith with the wary feeling that the Gaunt’s Ghosts series might be beginning to lose its appeal, and until the conclusion it did feel a bit messy; however, by the conclusion I was both surprised by how well Abnett was able to tie all the strands together, how natural and sensible the structure of the book seemed in retrospect, and how much Abnett had been able to inject new life into the series and break a few of his established rules without turning it into something it wasn’t. I went into Straight Silver expecting great things.

Straight Silver

By and large, Straight Silver delivered. In this volume the Ghosts and a number of other Guard units are sent to a balkanised world, to support the loyal forces of the Aexgarian Alliance against the Chaos-tainted Shadik Republic. The Aexgarians have the distinction of being pretty much the only Imperial force that managed to withstand the incursions of Chaos during the decades between the loss of the Sabbat Worlds and the launching of the Sabbat Worlds Crusade, but as a result of this extended period of isolation their tactics and strategy are hopelessly outmoded (and, for aesthetic purposes, nigh-identical to World War I trench warfare). Furthermore, their culture is extremely rigid and unyielding – so when the Imperial forces are sent along as auxilliary units (the Warmaster of the Sabbat Worlds Crusade deciding not to rattle the Alliance by taking supreme command away from them), they’re treated as yet more cannon fodder to be tossed into the trenches.

This, of course, gives Abnett an opportunity to rail against the senseless waste of life in World War II. It also means that in the early part of the book he can line a bunch of characters up in a trench and drop artillery shells on them. Most-to-all of the recurring characters survive, although some are injured so badly that they are effectively taken out of the action for the rest of Straight Silver, which allows Abnett to shake up the unit composition and the mix of characters a bit for the missions in the latter half of the book. Furthermore, the needless waste of his troops puts Gaunt on edge and makes him angry enough to actually act like a commissar for once, which is a joy to see; Abnett’s continuing project of making Gaunt seem more human has certainly paid off.

Abnett putting characters in danger and having the recurring characters come through is nothing new for the series, of course, but there’s an additional tension this time around thanks to Abnett finally kiling off a major recurring character in The Guns of Tanith: now that we know that Abnett is willing to kill characters, the danger the Ghosts are in feels so much more real. (That said, I’m extremely glad that Abnett didn’t go all George R.R. Martin on the cast; one major character dying is shocking, a dozen dying is a statistic.)

As a sign of the Black Library’s increasing confidence in the series, this is the first Gaunt’s Ghosts novel which makes direct reference to the next book. As well as the next field of battle being named as the Ghosts pull out, all of the continuing strands that link together the volumes of The Saint – the madness of Trooper Cuu, the emergent psychic powers of Soric, and the frequent reminders that Saint Sabbat may be taking a personal interest in the regiment – are stepped up a notch, building towards a promised climax.

Speaking of climaxes, whilst Straight Silver does have a couple – a furious firefight on the grounds of an abandoned country house, and a desperate attempt to silence the Shadik artillery – it also marks the first time that the presence of the Ghosts doesn’t decisively finish the conflict at hand. Whilst we do get the impression, by the end, that the Ghosts’ stealth tactics have opened the eyes of the Alliance commanders to new tactical and strategic approaches, the Ghosts are simply transferred away to a different part of the Sabbat Worlds Crusade at the conclusion of the novel, which strikes me as being extremely appropriate since the war against Shadik doesn’t really come across as the sort of thing which can be solved by a few daring guerilla raids.

Straight Silver is one of Abnett’s own personal favourites of the series, and it’s a very strong entry indeed. Apparently it’s also one of the books he receives the most negative comments about, mainly because he doesn’t bring Trooper Cuu’s arc to a conclusion this time around, although I can see why it made sense not to. Of course, the idea of splitting the Gaunt’s Ghost sequence into specific themed arcs only really came about midway through the publication of The Saint, so perhaps knowing that there is a fourth book in this segment which concludes many of the plotlines begun in Honour Guard helps.

Sabbat Martyr

It might give you a measure of how intense Sabbat Martyr is if I say that the sudden and unexpected death of a major character who has been central to the Ghosts since the first book is possibly the least important thing that happens in it. Having assembled a large number of dangling plotlines Abnett herds them into an empty warehouse, locks all the doors, sets fire to the place and has men posted at the exits poised to gun down any renegade plot that tries to flee. Every piece of unfinished business for the last three books comes to a head as Saint Sabbat is apparently reincarnated in the person of a character last encountered in Honour Guard, and the Tanith First-and-Only are called on to help her withstand a terrifying assault of Chaos forces determined to slay her. In fact, Abnett’s made a bit of a problem for himself since there’s slightly too many loose ends to be dealt with in the space allotted to him, so some elements of the book (like the death I mentioned) seemed rushed, almost like an afterthought, and a puzzling incident at the beginning of the book is simply never addressed.

What’s more, Abnett seems intent on making life even more difficult for himself, adding a fairly needless depiction of a space battle from the point of view of numerous different participants, and sending five or six different groups of assassins after Saint Sabbat – while it’s nice to see Pater Sin and an honest-to-Khorne Chaos Space Marine dreadnought in action, none of the hit squads ever quite get the spotlight time it deserves, and in general almost none of the interludes that take the focus of the book away from the Ghosts themselves quite work. That said, I did enjoy the prologue which is told from the point of view of the demon bodyguard of the Chaos warlord, especially since it shows the forces of Chaos displaying a strangely cold, dispassionate, and scientific interpretation of the Warhammer universe (the Chaos gods are referred to as “sentiences of the Immaterium”, for example).

Even though a few of the plotlines turn out to be duds, the others unfold beautifully, especially the redemption of brain-damaged Gol Kolea and the fate of the emergent psyker Soric. Sabbat Martyr is a bold and ambitious book which doesn’t entirely meet the targets it sets itself, but it’s a satisfying enough conclusion to the most satisfying arc of the Gaunt’s Ghosts series so far.

The Canary Says

Between The Founding and The Saint I would say that The Saint is the superior collection; that said, I would still recommend that newcomers read The Founding first. Even though in principle they can stand alone, The Saint will have a greater impact if you are already familiar with the characters from the start; furthermore, the individual stories in The Founding are far more complete in themselves, whilst The Saint is a much larger commitment in terms of time and attention. If you enjoy and make it through The Founding you’re going to love The Saint, but if you didn’t enjoy the first omnibus the second omnibus isn’t going to sell the series to you.

Neither is as good as the Eisenhorn omnibus, of course.

4 thoughts on “The Reading Canary: Gaunt’s Ghosts’ Second Assault

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