Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Gaunt's Ghosts: Honour Guard by Dan Abnett

Following the epic Battle of Vervunhive and his impressive achievements during it, Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt's star has risen and he and his unit, the Tanith First and Only, are tasked with a glorious mission, liberating the shrineworld of Haiga, homeworld of the Saint Sabbat in whose name the entire Sabbat Worlds Crusade is being fought. Unfortunately, the final assault on the planet's major city goes awry and Gaunt finds himself disgraced and out of favour once more.

Gaunt now has only one chance to redeem himself: to travel through enemy-infested countryside and mountains to the Shrinehold of Saint Sabbat and evacuate her relics and remains safely from the planet. For the Ghosts and their allies, the Pardu tank regiment, this will turn out to be one of their most dangerous and desperate missions...

Honour Guard is the fourth novel in the Gaunt's Ghosts series and the first in its second 'story arc'. The action picks up a few months after Necropolis and sees the Tanith First and Only bolstered by new recruits from the scratch companies who defended Vervunhive so bravely during the battle there. This leads to a minor storyline where the fresh Vervunhive troops find themselves trying to integrate with the older, more established Tanith troops with mixed results. The main focus is on the road trip mission, however, with Abnett deciding to base each novel in this arc around a different kind of military mission (the book following this one, The Guns of Tanith, is an airborne drop, for example) to keep things fresh. Another of Abnett's decisions is to focus on large-scaled armoured action, with massive tank battles the order of the day here, although the Ghosts are still right in the thick of the action.

What sets the Gaunt's Ghosts books apart from most military SF is the characterisation, with a number of well-drawn central characters and many supporting ones whom Abnett is only able to paint briefly, but still come across as fully-rounded figures. With this fourth book Abnett is also showing increasing proficiency at inverting or dismissing cliches, with Commissar Hark a notable new character whose motivations and goals are not quite as clear-cut as they first appear. Most startling, however, is this book's focus on spirituality. The Warhammer 40,000 setting's religion - which sees the immortal Emperor venerated as a god and his greatest generals and tacticians as saints - is pretty ludicrous, but here Abnett makes it work. For the first time the reasons for the colossal scale of the Sabbat Worlds Crusade become clear, and we get a better appreciation of Gaunt and his own sense of faith.

Honour Guard (****) is well-written, briskly-paced, well-characterised and brings some new tricks to the Gaunt's Ghosts series, showing that Abnett is not resting on his laurels. The book is perhaps not quite as gripping as Necropolis, but is still a solidly entertaining slice of military SF. The book is available as part of The Saint omnibus, in the UK and USA.

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