The peaceful, arboreal world of Tanith is commanded to raise a legion of troops to serve in the Imperial Guard, the billions-strong regular army of the Imperium of Man. On the day the Tanith1st is commissioned and depart for deep space, their homeworld is annihilated from orbit. Thus, they are the Tanith First and Last. The Tanith First and Only.
Many years later, the Tanith 1st has a new name: Gaunt's Ghosts. Under the command of Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt, the Ghosts have become a respected unit, skilled in battle and reliable under fire. But Gaunt, a political officer filling a military role, has made some very dangerous enemies in the High Command of the Sabbat Worlds Crusade. The Ghosts are now part of the attempt to liberate the Sabbat Worlds from the forces of Chaos, but Gaunt discovers corruption and heresy may be taking root in the High Command, and he cannot trust anyone but his men in an effort to find a weapon of unimaginable power on the dark world of Menazoid Epsilon before his enemies do the same.
Over the past decade, Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts series of military SF novels and several related series have sold more than a million copies for the Black Library, a remarkable feat that has made Abnett one of the UK's biggest-selling SF authors with sales on a par with the likes of Peter F. Hamilton, Iain Banks and Alastair Reynolds. Many of these readers have gone on to become fans of the wider Warhammer 40,000 universe of which Abnett's series is part (although self-contained; the Ghosts books can be read with no pre-existing knowledge of the setting), boosting sales of the related computer games and the miniatures line.
First and Only is where the story began. For a first novel - although Abnett had previously done successful work in comics - this is a remarkably polished effort, with a superbly-executed structure as the main story thunders forward, interspersed with brief flashback interludes to key moments in the history of Gaunt and his unit. As a slice of military SF, this is top-notch stuff, with Abnett providing a reason for the carnage and using deft but not overdone characterisation to differentiate the various officers and grunts from one another and make the stakes in the battles clear. Military SF is a subgenre where it is remarkably easy to fall into cliche quite easily, but Abnett manages to avoid most of these issues and makes the few uses of standard military tropes - such as the unit's doctor who treats soldiers injured in battle willingly enough but refuses to fight himself - almost a welcome nod to a classic trope rather than anything too corny.
With a firm grasp of character and a superior ability to convey action (you can almost hear the bullets roaring overhead and feel the apprehension of troops stuck in foxholes), Abnett delivers a great, readable SF novel here and earns his comparisons to an SF Bernard Cornwell.
First and Only (****) is a fast-paced, SF military thriller. It is not generally available by itself anymore, but is readily available as the first part of the omnibus volume The Founding (together with its two immediate successors, Ghostmaker and Necropolis), available now in the UK and USA. There are currently twelve novels in the Gaunt's Ghosts series with several more planned, along with three spin-off works and several related Warhammer 40,000 game accessories.