The Warmaster, Dan Abnett: Review
I think I’ve said this multiple times over the course of my blog posts, but I’ve been reading the Gaunt’s Ghosts series for about 15 years now. It remains one of my favourite series of books. Picking up a new one feels like coming home, comfort food for the mind, taking me back to those long summers spent in the Lincolnshire countryside where I first started writing my own science fiction. Back then the Ghosts and the Black Library generally provided me with a rich seam of inspiration, and I always enjoy thinking back to the times when I would be out walking the dogs for hours, dreaming up new ideas and storylines.
Given how important they are to me, it’s about time I did a proper long review of at least one of them. I should probably do a series retrospective at some point. In the meantime, here is my review of the Warmaster:
I love the series. There aren’t really any bad books, just weaker and stronger ones. Abnett has been releasing them relatively regularly now for decades, and the old unofficial strapline “like Sharpe in space” pretty much still holds true. They have the well-deserved reputation as being BL’s flagship series (probably now knocked off that perch by the Horus Heresy novels, although I haven’t read beyond the fourth one of those and that was some years ago). Needless to say, they have a special place in my heart, as close a companion as any human friend.
GG has been retroactively split into arcs: the Founding, the Saint, the Lost, and now the Victory, which are linked thematically. We are currently in the somewhat spoilery-titled the “Victory”, though I suppose technically we don’t know whose victory we are concerning ourselves with.
[The below plot summary contains mild spoilers so skip it if you’re yet to read the book].
With the Warmaster, Gaunt and his men have just returned from their desperate Salvation’s Reach mission, recovering a cache of vital, potentially war-winning Archenemy intelligence in the process. However, thanks to a Warp accident en route back to relative safety, the Ghosts—and everyone else on the ship—lose ten years of real time. Gaunt and his men are presumed lost, and when they finally get back to safety, Gaunt finds himself in the slightly uncomfortable position of having been posthumously lauded as a hero of the Imperium—and promoted to Lord Militant to boot.
Now back on one of the key worlds of the Sabbat campaign, Urdesh, the crusade’s lords militant bring Gaunt back into the fold, turn the posthumous promotion into a humous one, and begin the difficult task of trying to win the campaign whilst simultaneously plotting to overthrow their brilliant but reclusive and slightly insane (and eponymous) warmaster.
In true Abnett form, battles are fought (both the war kind and the political kind) and characters’ and story arcs are developed. In other words, hijinks ensue, and a generally bad time is had by all.
OK, so what isn’t so good about the Warmaster? Well, the ending for starters. I do not tend to read reviews or interviews or generally read about authors or their lives, so I was a bit out of the loop on this, but apparently Abnett forewarned readers that the Warmaster would end on a cliff-hanger.
Although, I’m not sure that cliff-hanger is necessarily the right word; it’s not abrupt and dramatic enough to be a cliff-hanger. It’s more just a petering out. It’s the kind of ending you’d get at the end of a chapter, or a part of a book, rather than an entire book.
Normally with this kind of ending, where you’re writing another book in a long running series, you tie up a few sub-stories by the end so that the reader achieves some closure, whilst leaving the meta-arc running. Abnett is usually very good at this; read any given GG book and you’ll find that an individual battle or engagement is won (or at least brought to a conclusion) whilst the wider war rumbles on.
In the Warmaster, nothing ends. The main war hasn’t ended, the battle for Urdesh hasn’t ended… hell, most of the minor plot threads haven’t even really started.
The result is that the Warmaster feels like the first half of a book split into two parts. This may well have been the intention, but if you’re like me and you don’t know the IRL context or background or the author’s thoughts on the matter, all you’ve got to go on is the book itself. So that was a bit pants, although really it doesn’t matter too much. When you’re on book 14 of a series, the odd cliff-hanger can be forgiven.
What else? Well, not much really, except perhaps the volume of characters. GG has been running for so long now that we really are into a cast of thousands. Unlike many other mil-si-fi authors (or just military fiction authors), Abnett eschews prefacing his books with a regimental structure for reference, even a basic one. One can only assume that such a structure does exist for Abnett himself, probably, we might conjecture, in Microsoft PowerPoint or Excel, with new sheets for each book with lists of character deaths etc.
The point is, it gets hard to keep up with all the names. Some are easy because they are primary or mid-tier characters in and of themselves; Mkoll, Larkin, Blenner, Curth, Criid, Wilder, Meryn, Rawne, Brostin, etc. etc.; these are people who have been with us for a very long time and have their own distinct feel (see The Good below). But there are many others who are just names, even familiar names. Some names are just throwaways, redshirts who we don’t care about. But there are dozens (literally) of names which I know I’ve seen many times before but I just can’t quite remember who they are. This becomes more frustrating when some of the Ghosts themselves are the baddies, running little criminal rings within the regiment etc, because then it matters who the minor characters are. Are they good Ghosts, bad Ghosts, redshirt Ghosts? When you read a GG novel once every one or two years like I do, these minor and mid-tier characters quickly fade from memory and whilst Abnett does go to some lengths to remind us of what’s going on, he also probably expects too much of the reader’s memory.
I imagine the answer to why Abnett does not have a structure is “because it would be massive” but I don’t know. If you can get maps in there, you can get an organogram. Look at James Jones’ The Thin Red Line as an exemplar of how to do it.
I’m pleased to say that despite the gripes above, I thought the Warmaster was probably one of the best in the series. Abnett has always been a good writer, but like Cornwall with Sharpe, one can see in the early books a writer perhaps still honing his long-form craft. Here, the writing is assured. I imagine Abnett can hammer out books like the Warmaster now with relative ease and probably relatively little editing. The pacing is all there, the prose flows, and the book is generally very engaging.
When I was a teenager I loved the huge battles, and one of Abnett’s true skills is writing battle scenes, even ones that last basically the entire book (ref. the fan-favourite Necropolis, or one of my own favourites, Sabbat Martyr). As an amateur author myself, I often find writing battle scenes that are engaging very difficult and actually quite boring, but Abnett is really an auteur when it comes to this. It is little wonder that BL shovels all their flagship books his way.
Now I’m a little older (30 trips round the sun this year), however, I find that my interest in the battle scenes wanes. I sense that, perhaps in some respects, Abnett’s does too. I’ve noticed in his novels of late we are treated to lengthy scenes behind the action; a greater focus on regimental life, of the nightmarish logistics of transporting the regiment, of the relationships between the retinue and the soldiers, of internal struggles, criminal schemes, sexual tensions (PG rated!), of the difficulties of commanding a crusade, the strategies, the meta campaign, the Ordos interrogations, the departmental conflicts, church vs state, inquisition vs military… Here the inspirations from Abnett’s other wildly popular Eisenhorn and Ravenor works are clear. Whereas before this stuff would have been window dressing, a mere precursor contriving to gett the Ghosts to the front lines as soon as possible, now we get as much as half the book or more dedicated to these intrigues.
This fresh approach is to be commended to the highest degree. The books are so much richer and more interesting with these different angles explored. With the Warmaster I found myself reading the battles very quickly to get back to the political manoeuvrings at high command. I do hope that Abnett continues in this vein, because the books are so much better and more mature as a consequence.
Similarly, the characters have real depth now. The cowardly but charming Blenner is a joy to read. Curth is becoming a reckless, depressed alcoholic. Mkoll is becoming a joyless old man. Rawne’s arc, from sullen, vengeance-seeking asshole to respected brevet colonel of the regiment, is really satisfying. Zweil is still the rambling, awkward and mad old priest. Kolea is the tortured father (and I sense not long for this world). These characters, once somewhat two-dimensional, have really come into their own, and it’s clear why Abnett chooses these people to tentpole the novel.
With these adulations I therefore add this book to my unofficial and uncodified list of the best Gaunt’s Ghosts books.
Never judge a book by its cover, goes the old adage.
I have been buying these books for years, and I have been getting them in paperback in this style of cover (and which is awesome):
Now we have this (which admittedly isn't awful but it's certainly a lot worse):
And for the omnibus editions, sweet lord we now have this smoking trash fire:
Which seriously used to be this (just on another plane of existence in terms of high quality):
Whilst the Warmaster’s cover is not, in and of itself, that bad, the omnibus editions are woeful. We lose the gritty, realistic / artistic stylings of the previous covers in favour of these pseudo-anime creations which look cartoonish and surprisingly undynamic. It’s like Yu-Gi-Oh fan art. It also really ruins the look and symmetry of my bookshelf as the newer books are bigger and more padded with space.
Sigh. I know it is wrong to fixate on the cover art (is it though? Does the cover not ultimtately guide your thoughts, however subconscious, on the feel of the book), and ultimately it’s the writing I love and enjoy, and I will of course continue to buy them. But I just wish they hadn’t tinkered with the artwork so.
Now on to the Anarch!