It's strange to think this is the first time this website has visited this series. It's stranger still to think that we have gone so long after the previous novel's cliffhanger. Serving as one of Black Library's big flagship series and rivaled only by the Horus Heresy novels now Gotrek and Felix has ended, Gaunt's Ghosts is quintessential Warhammer 40,000. Equal parts Napoleonic War epic and science fiction battle campaign, it follows the efforts of Commissar-Colonel Gaunt and Tanith First and Only light infantry regiment. Fighting their way across the Sabbat worlds, they are shown fighting various opponents across a multitude of battlegrounds.
The series was praised for its balance of Warhammer's key elements, its "anyone can die" mentality without it becoming gratuitous, and was one of the key sagas which promoted the Imperial Guard's popularity. So, as you can imagine, its return is a big thing.
Following the harrowing battle of Salvation's Reach, the remaining Ghosts are on their return flight back to Imperial lines. Still reeling from the heavy casualties taken in the conflict, the atmosphere is tense and tempers are running high. Yet, they are not out of the fight just yet. Assailed by Chaos forces as they attempt to return, the Ghosts must fight tooth and nail to hold their transport vessel against the corsairs aligned with Sek. Even should they survive, stranger things still await them back with Imperial Command, along with an astounding revelation for Gaunt himself.
Trying to start up a series after a six year gap was always going to be difficult, especially in the case of this one. Rather than having any kind of conclusion, Salvation's Reach was almost a cliffhanger, with the deaths of several major characters and the heroes stuck in enemy territory. They were on their way out, the journey and their return still had to be dealt with. So, this left the conundrum of both trying to directly resolve the stories established in that book while leaving it open to anyone who simply wanted to start up again. Thankfully Abnett pulled this off spectacularly. The intro reminds the reader of who is alive and dead, but it does so in a natural and understated way. This is also folded into reminding people of the ongoing character changes, developments and recent repercussions as well. This is all done within the first few pages and, while it is clearly written with series familiars in mind, it's open enough that anyone who has missed one or two books can quickly adjust to the current events.
There is enough character drama on hand in these early stages to remind readers of the major issues plaguing its heroes, and of the tensions between units. The First and Only has been reborn several times now, with the most recent event still fresh in the memories of its troopers and the book does a good job of balancing this out against greater threats. While it does prove to be combat heavy even by Gaunt's Ghosts standards, it nevertheless still has the quiet moments of character drama people value most. These serve to divide up the combat, but also to keep people guessing when it comes to certain new revelations. A mystery surrounding Gaunt's son in particular runs throughout the first act, and as one ends another quickly starts up. The book doesn't string you along with these plots, nor does it deny you answers. It just makes sure that there is enough character drama and questions to keep you hooked. That and very concerned when the Ghosts are put on the firing line.
Right from the outset, the book puts its heroes in a number of extremely desperate fights, from close range engagements to a sniper duel while they are running low on ammo. It repeatedly hammers home just how dangerous and utterly hellish a Guardsman's life is, even for hardened veterans like the Ghosts, and many of the problems which come with it. Both from within and without, the regiment struggles to hold itself together, beset on one side by a relentless enemy and confronted on the other by both rival officers and conflicts borne of their strange merged status. While there are clear divides and periods of peace throughout the book, it nevertheless manages to make sure that no single scene serves as conscious "downtime" to another. The aforementioned sniper scene runs concurrently to a major revelation surrounding Gaunt himself, and is then followed by a similar act with a major character. This gives the book a constant pace, preventing it dragging at any moment, and combined with its treatment of sub-plots as events which can arise or stop at any moment, it gives the book a sense of real life.
The use of acronyms in Warmaster is far more pronounced than those of previous books, which have started to notably downplay a few of the more aged qualities to the universe. While the series itself has always seen an odd relationship with this quality, to the point where it juggles between various eras at a time, here it is obviously fixed upon a blend of Napoleonic and 1940s societal aspects. These are deftly handled at various points, and Abnett makes the time to delve into the problems with a few particular ones. The issues of nobility fighting one another and how that might impact its recruits proves to be a surprisingly pronounced and well written moment for the book. Equally, the shadowy actions of Gaunt's superiors could have been written off as a cartoonish moment of self-interest when they come into play later on. Instead, the book makes it very clear just why they are following through with their actions, and how the years have reshaped them.
Even when the book does opt to focus upon territories which have been trodden many times before, there's always a new spin to them. This is especially evident when it comes to the subject of the Inquisition and possible corruption. The Ghosts have been questioned about such matters from Ghostmaker onward, and yet the use of the divine KGB of the Imperium is an interesting take to be sure. There's different methods of censorship on display, different figures and different methods behind the faces, making sure you can never be wholly reliant upon past experiences. The same is even true of the command staff up to Warmaster Maccaroth himself, who have a few notably different takes made on them than you might expect. It might take you some time to even fully realise just why the book has been named after a character who is barely in it, but the reasoning quickly becomes evident as you progress through the chapters.
The bad here largely stems more from the awkward nature of the book's placement over anything else. While Abnett certainly handled an awkward situation extremely well, there is no denying that a few key plot elements stand out like a sore thumb, and are abruptly disposed of with little ceremony. The trio of space marines who were accompanying them to Salvation's Reach are hit hard by this factor. While they certainly make an impression, and you are reminded of the rift between humanity and its enhanced angels of death, they serve as a walking plot device here. They show up, deal with a few situations, wait around in the background for a while, and then promptly vanish partway through a chapter. There is a goodbye, but it's fairly clear the author wanted them out of the way at the earliest opportunity.
The problem of trying to weld both older narrative arcs and a new beginning divides the book into three clear-cut sections. While this isn't a problem in of itself, you can also separate these out into mini-stories with a few loose links connecting them together. The series has done this before, but it often worked best when it came to the early tales or brief side stories. For a main book it is oddly distracting, as you can almost immediately see the immersion breaking intent behind how it was structured to serve the series as a whole. This hurts it primarily because a few particular sub-plots seem rushed in order to fit them into certain events, while one or two deaths are so quickly breezed over that it lacks the expected punch the series is known for. It doesn't necessarily make the book weaker as a whole, but it does limit the potential behind certain ideas.
In addition to the above points, the story also seems to have problems fitting in so many characters now. It re-introduces many, reminds the audience of their role and jumps between them, but some can arise for just one or two chapters only to fade away again. These aren't minor figures either, these are a few major players who have been here since the initial trilogy. As a result, it's difficult to get to grips with what archetypical role each figure is playing within the narrative or how they will be important to the overall tale. This might sound like a strange criticism, but it's as if the book is desperately trying to find something of importance for each of them to do, rather than fitting it naturally into the narrative as a whole. As a result of this, certain stories can come across with an uneven feeling, and it contributes to a rather abrupt end to the novel.
You have to credit Abnett at least this much with his works - Upon returning to an old favourite he proved once again he was unafraid of change. While he could have easily relied more upon past victories or re-establishing old ideas, he very effectively managed to balance the role of a re-introduction to the series with a new status quo and major changes. As a result, it's a book which relies upon prior familiarity with the series, but almost anyone who has kept up to date with the last trilogy can quickly get to grips with it. More importantly though, rather than feeling like some throwback to a past saga, the conclusion makes it clear that there is a much bigger tale yet to be told with Gaunt. How this will impact the Ghosts or the war in general we will only find out at a later date, but it makes one thing very clear: Gaunt's Ghosts is back, and it's as great as ever.
The Verdict: 8.0 out of 10