First and Only – Dan Abnett

This is a lean book that took me to read way more than expected, mostly because it fits the “other read” while I was engaged with more meaty books. A debut, as a writer writing books instead of comics, and first in a rather long series made of standalones. This is where Dan Abnett started writing Warhammer 40K, accordingly to the internet not his best effort in the field, but a decent and solid one still. Optional as a starting point since one could start right with Eisenhorn or the multi-writer crossover of the “Horus Heresy” currently being published. Instead this specific series, whose opening volume is “First and Only”, is made of twelve books already released with more planned, but the number shouldn’t discourage as the story moves either through standalone stories or story arcs that are over in three or four books. There are also these nice & cheap omnibus that pack together those arcs in mammoths of 800-1000 pages, so you’re not chasing in frustration a conclusion that never comes. You can satisfyingly read just one and stop, or go on as far as you want, guilt-free.

Genre is military sci-fi. Common theme to the series are “Gaunt’s Ghosts” a specific regiment in the Imperial Guard faction and the ongoing campaign on Sabbat Worlds, whose name correctly implies dealing with Chaos and defining Abnett’s own playground. Gaunt being the name of their leader and main character/hero, Ghosts being the nickname of said squad (the story will give some insight into the choice of the name and origin). It’s effectively tie-in fiction, and so branded with prejudice, but the fact is that Abnett is a competent writer who can stay perfectly within the canon, know what his public wants, and deliver a successful product. There’s nothing bleeding edge, innovative, or breaking the boundaries of the 40K setting, but the execution is good and the book delivers what it is meant to. Abnett can understand and squeeze out of the setting all the specific tropes that make it interesting and fascinating, and can write it so that it doesn’t feel plain and spoiled by the game it’s based on. Meaning that the “canon” successfully empowers instead of trivialize and conform. That’s always the gamble, knowing the canon and so knowing the “range” of the possible story, tiptoeing within the strictly defined perimeter. Abnett proves then that you can have fun with those toys instead of creating new ones, that there are qualities within to exploit.

Writing a good book here pairs with giving a specific audience “tied-in” the canon what it wants. I’m not really familiar with the setting so I can’t comment if the picture Abnett gives is a faithful one, but he definitely seem to get the basics that make it work. WH40K is an apocalyptic setting about excess and exaggeration, but also about human traits and artifacts brought to the extremes. The potential for drama is high, but also the potential for something spectacular and epic and ultimately fun. In this book Abnett bundles epic infantry warfare with military/political intrigue, so while the plot goes through a number of setpieces/key battles on various worlds, there’s also an overarching story that links and gives meaning to these battles, leading to a culmination where the import of all happened before is finally revealed. Both of these story threads are handled well through a structure that alternates the main battles with flashbacks from Gaunt’s life that slowly build the character and plot, and why the reader should care about them. Every “block” adds a piece, chunking the story in an episodic way, in which each battle/chapter is brought to a conclusion, and then linked to the specific arc that starts and ends within this lean book (vaguely similar to the first Black Company book). This results in a tight structure and plot where nothing is superfluous and where the pacing doesn’t slow down. The aim is set from the first page and the pacing is resolute and constant. The “fun” is there on plain sight, the action scenes equally distributed, and you don’t have to wade through weak parts to get to it. If you enjoy the ride you’ll enjoy it on every page without being let down.

Daylight rolled in with a wet stain of cloud, underlit by the continued bombardment. The lightening sky was streaked and cross-hatched by contrails, shell-wakes and arcs of fire from the massive Shriven emplacements in the distant shrouded hills. Lower, in the wide valley and the trench lines, the accumulated smoke of the onslaught, which had now been going on for just about twenty-one hours, dropping two or three shells a second, curdled like fog, thick, creamy and repellent with the stink of cordite and fycelene.

Abnett is rather good at writing what takes the stage the most: action scenes and some spectacular setpieces. There’s a sort of unintended anticlimactic effect since the battles escalate in size and impact, but the first one is the most successful because it mimics some aspect of WWII, with infantry moving through trenches and trying to survive heavy bombardments. The perspective of those men caught in the mess just works and resonates with the real scenes one is already familiar with. Some acts of desperate heroism, some unlucky sudden deaths, sudden change of plans, last minute saves. You can see some canonical situations taken from a number of movies that are here reinterpreted in the new setting, all the while, but without pushing too much, trying to give a name to those soldiers, slowly learning their roles and a couple of personality traits for each. The recipe is well known, after all. At the end of the book I was still struggling recognizing who’s who and there’s no character that delivered substantial depth or anything more than two-dimensional, but I also don’t think the book tried to go in that direction. It’s relatively unpretentious and focused on the fun things. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and it is not even shallow. Characterization is proportional to its use and purpose within the scene. Some characters are even made for just one or two scenes, to then step out again (often dead). Fun, fast paced, straightforward, and with characters that are good enough to fit the situation and make it work. No more, no less.

The prose is functional too. It’s not bloated and at the same time it gives some impressive and effective imagery. Battles on a big scale are a complicate thing to deal with, especially battles that have so strong fantastic elements. Abnett deals with all this with ease and familiarity, not betraying the fact the book is a “debut”. Action is crystal clear, never confused and keeping a pace that doesn’t disrupt the flow. I guess that’s the most important aspect in writing this sub genre of military sci-fi. With the plot filled with surprises and the mysterious aspects being well managed, the book is quite successful all over. The only quirk in the prose I don’t personally like is that it can be way too pompous and rhetorical, including the metaphors used and the uncompromising manly men described. “Subtlety” is something banished here, everything is upfront and direct and explicit.

Fire patterns winked in the russet darkness. Yellow traceries of venomous death.

The turret guns screamed into life, blitzing out a scarlet-tinged, boiling stream of hypervelocity fire.

The plasma guns howled phosphorescent death into the void.

One has to wait the final battle develop to get the big revelation about what it was that Gaunt and his Ghosts chased for all the previous pages. While I said the structure of the book is solid and well executed, this can also be a problem because it’s as if the import and meaningfulness of what happens is left hanging and undecided till the end. It’s hard to trust the book because one can’t say till the last 20 pages if it’s going to be worth it or if it will be an hoax. The pre-finale, after the big revelation is dropped, is painfully predictable, but there are a number of pages left and even if the plot seems to have exhausted its fuel, it keeps going on and keeps surprising, tying together every small subplot even too neatly, including a nice bow. The surprises continue to come till the very last line, so even if the whole conclusion is made by a number of scenes that all feel somewhat trite and cliche, the overall result is fun and convincing thanks to the good execution of those traditional elements and scenes. Like an action movie that doesn’t disappoint.

I haven’t read any military sci-fi before this book, so I can’t gauge how it may compare. I think it is well executed and its strength are in its deliberate focus on action and intrigue, making a reckless and fun journey. The battles excellent and varied, from huge showdowns of thousands of men to chainsword duels, described in vivid gory detail. The downsides are built-in the model, many of the elements that compose both the story and characters are cliche and drawn/taking inspiration from the multitude of books and movies that have something in common with the genre, but I wouldn’t point this as a “flaw”, since the use of these conventional elements is competent and well realized. Even if dipped in predictability in various points I wasn’t bored by the plot and the pacing was perfect. I only faltered about the trust in the book, since as I said the stakes are only revealed at the very end and so the reader is kept in the dark about some major motivations. Also consider that this is a starting point and, accordingly to other readers’ comment who read more than me, Abnett only gets better. Truly recommended for those who look forward to some pulpy military sci-fi with a fast paced plot and epic battles that rock whole worlds.

Then, everything fits so nicely

So I finished writing down my Warhammer 40k hype, coming on the blog after my rant about genre prejudices (and prejudices in general), and then I discover this awesome conversation abut tie-in fiction between Mark Charan Newton (new kid on the fantasy block) and Dan Abnett himself:

Mark Charan Newton: For an author to write tie-in fiction – that is, fiction connected to a franchise or character, that isn’t technically owned by the author – it is still treated as a gaucherie by the majority of genre fans. The books suffer by not getting proper review coverage, and sometimes they are not even considered as ‘real’ works. Why do you think tie-in fiction is treated as the second-class citizen of the genre world? I mean, the same could often be said about the treatment of genre fiction and the literary world.

Dan Abnett: There are any number of contributing factors, and many of them are inevitably contradictory. Let’s start with a basic assumption: if you write as a hired gun, you must be in it for the dosh. You don’t really care what you’re writing. Therefore (obviously), you’re just crapping it out, words per square inch. In other words, tie-in fiction MUST by the very nature of its manufacture, be poor, disposable and second-rate.
It’s possible that an awful lot of people think this. They may not even mean to think it. There’s also a possibility (actually, a very high probability) that an awful lot of people in what I’m happy to refer to as “my line of work” believe that’s what other people think.

I think it’s worth getting this out of the way right at the start: writers of tie-in fiction may, sometimes, involuntarily, feel slightly guilty. They may be, involuntarily defensive. They know what the perception can be, and it contaminates them slightly. Tie-in writers can be their own worst enemies.

Despite the odd and inevitable case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, surely readers can tell if something’s good or not by their gut response? They can tell if someone’s just banging it out and their heart’s not in it? Can’t they? Please tell me they can!

I should honestly admit that sometimes I doubt of myself ;)

Books at my door – Warhammer 40k edition

Volcano cloud be damned, but I’ve still got my 5-book order from the UK today. 1 wrap for each book, for a total of 5 wraps and 13 books (?) to unwrap with glee like if it’s Christmas again.

All of 5(13) part of the same lineage: Warhammer 40k.

One would think that books based on the Warhammer universe are in the same league of novelization of movies or books based on Star Wars, Star Trek or AD&D and similar, which means basically little more than garbage and totally forgettable. Instead the reason why I got interested in this (and invested enough to make this order) is because the premise is totally different. I read everywhere that these are damn good books that are worth reading even if one has not played Warhammer (the miniature wargame) or hasn’t a particular interest or knowledge of the setting. They say these books are good on their own terms and written well: read them, it’s cool stuff.

So: do not come with prejudices.

Which fits me. So I come, and with great hype! The great majority of this supposed quality comes from a particular writer who consolidated as the main pillar of the whole Black Library, and so of the Warhammer 40k universe in literary form: Dan Abnett.

After a lengthy and careful research among reviews and forums of every kind I narrowed a list of “best of the best” of these 5 books that I have then ordered in one block:

Eisenhorn – Dan Abnett – 760 pag
This is an omnibus, written small, and contains a complete series. It tells the story of an inquisitor, written in first person. This is considered by fans and reviews as the very best and most famous thing of the whole Black Library, recommended even to those who don’t have a particular interest in reading in the Warhammer universe. It should have a grand scale even if it focuses on one protagonist and should be filled with political intrigue.
Ravenor – Dan Abnett – 890 pag
Another omnibus even more massive than the previous. This is truly sexy with the black cover and the stylized silvery embossing, spectacular edition. It should be a sort of follow-up to Eisenhorn, with various characters reappearing. Ravenor is the name of the inquisitor featured in this omnibus. Quality-wise this is compared to Eisenhorn, the first series is still considered the better one but the quality is supposed to be similar and if someone liked the first he should like this too.
The Founding – Dan Abnett – 760 pag
Another omnibus, part of the series Gaunt’s Ghosts. There are two other omnibuses already published and a fourth in preparation. Quite a bit to read considering the others exceed the 1000 pages. It’s with this series that Abnett starts writing in the Warhammer 40k universe. Even if this is the earliest work, it’s here that Abnett got his reputation and in the introduction (all omnibuses have one) he says he’s absolutely proud of what he did here. I know the third book contained (Necropolis, which comes with a pretty map) got enthusiastic reviews and should tell the desperate story of a city under siege. From the handful pages I read I got the impression of World War II stories, down in the trenches and face to face with soldiers and their obsessions. The whole series has a good reputation, with the books filled with unrelenting action and good characters. It’s considered as some of the best military Sci-fi even outside the Warhammer setting (for example John Scalzi).
Ciaphas Cain – Sandy Mitchell – 760 pag
Another omnibus, but non-Abnett. Good edition with plasticized cover. From what I read this was heartily recommended as very good stuff much different from the dark, gloomy apocalyptic setting typical of Warhammer 40k. More lightweight and humorous. The subtitle reads: “Surviving the 4ist millennium, one battle at a time”. It tells the story of a “hero of the Imperium” written down by himself years later. The peculiar part is that this hero is in truth a coward who only tries to come alive out of the most desperate situations with a mix of luck and survival instinct. This even got notes at the bottom of the page and commentary written by the “editor”, so I guess with humor emergent from the interaction of these parts. The series doesn’t end with this omnibus since there’s already another out and a third in preparation.
Horus Rising – Dan Abnett – 412 pag
Back with Abnett but not omnibus this time. Meaning that instead of a 800 pages monster this one is 400 pages (written bigger). This should be the founding pillar of a series of 15 books “The Horus Heresy” (halfway through at this time) written by different authors. It’s the tale of probably the most important event in the whole 40k universe, with plenty of repercussions. The book is considered the best of the best Abnett wrote as of yet, on par with Eisenhorn (Abnett then has a total of three books of his own planned in this 15-book series, and even if quality depends on who’s writing, overall the series should stay high).

That solves the mystery of 5 books for a total of 13. Four omnibuses with 3 books each.

Lots of stuff to read. I’m rather sure that I narrowed the best stuff to get here. I’ve read mention even of other good authors but this should be (way) more than enough to figure if it’s good stuff or not. I expect at the very least some good fun and a “calmer” companion while I tackle Erikson.