Sunday, October 25, 2009

“Blood Pact”, by Dan Abnett (Black Library)


Far from the Front, trouble comes for the resting Tanith First & Only

Kicking their heels on Balhaut, far from the warfront, the Tanith First & Only are awaiting their next deployment. After the bloody events of Only In Death, Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt is recovering well, and getting used to his augmetics. While he finds himself slipping with ease into the easier life away from battle, the same cannot be said for his men: masters at war, unequalled in their given specialty (infiltration, scouting, and so forth), it turns out they don’t do well as a garrison force. As Commissars Hark and Ludd (Gaunt’s junior officers) discover, the more time spent with nothing-in-particular to do only makes restless Guardsmen go crazy, pushing the envelope and boundaries of what is allowed from Imperial forces.

All is going moderately well until Gaunt is called in by Section (the HQ of the Commissariat on Balhaut) to take part in the interrogation of a high-level prisoner. As events escalate to violence, Gaunt must navigate through the web of intrigue (on both sides of the conflict) to discover just what is so valuable about the prisoner’s knowledge. Without knowing who can be trusted, he has to rely on his wits and a small core of the Ghosts to survive and get to the bottom of things. The legacy of the Gereon campaign (in Traitor General and The Armour of Contempt) makes him distrusted by his superiors, and the Inquisition is sniffing about the Ghosts, looking for anything damning. Gaunt just needs to stay alive, keep his prisoner from being killed, and discover the truth that, supposedly, could help decide the fate of the Crusade. As Gaunt hunkers down, the various factions looking for him and his companions draw nearer, culminating in an explosive finale.

Each new Gaunt’s Ghosts novel is an event. Each time Abnett turns his attention back to Gaunt and company, he goes some way to reimagining the science-fiction war novel. He has been referred to as the “master of war”, which is a pretty good description: no other author can bring you into the mindset of the grunts on the ground, while retaining a keen eye on characterization, character development, and superb story-telling. Whenever there is a switch in perspectives, you really get a sense of the person’s character and voice. The author manages to keep things fresh and exciting each and every time (the only novel of his that I couldn’t really get into was Double Eagle, a stand-alone).

For Blood Pact, things are a little different in terms of style. For one, it’s is a slower novel, with the action only really starting quite a way into the book. The novel has a more thriller-feel to it, as he slowly unravels the story for the reader. From the very beginning, I was hooked by the story (it can sometimes take a couple of chapters for me to become truly taken with Black Library releases), and the plotting is expertly crafted for maximum effect. There’s a fair amount going on in every chapter – and, if it’s been a long time since you’ve read any of the previous Gaunt’s Ghosts novels, it might take a moment to remember who all the characters are – but the pace is balanced and there is never a lull in the story.

The second big departure is the more nuanced approach to the Imperials and Chaos/Archenemy forces. The Blood Pact soldiers of the title aren’t portrayed as mindless minions – rather they are presented in a more three-dimensional manner. Eyl in particular is a clinical, sociopathic adversary for Gaunt, frighteningly focused, with the perspective of a true believer. That the Imperials have taken an agent of Chaos prisoner, rather than execute him on the spot is also a new take on the galactic crusade that forms the backdrop of the whole series, and allows the author to take a look at the Imperium’s approach to non-combat warfare. Indeed, the author’s approach to the whole Warhammer 40,000 universe feels very different from other authors who take up the task of writing about it – things are more nuanced as a whole, deeper, and often far more intelligent and original, relying more on his own imagination than the information and background laid out by the army books. I wouldn’t be surprised, actually, if Abnett’s novels have gone a long way in redefining the universe he writes about.

Abnett’s sense of humour comes through well, without coming across as forced or out of place – it is almost Pratchett-esque, made up as it is of amusing asides and sarcastic remarks, slightly impish in nature; the interactions between different troopers and members of the regiment, as well as Ayanti Zweil and Dr Kolding adds further colour to the novel. Considering it’s set in a fictional future, it all feels very realistic, and Abnett’s skill at writing characters will make you care about each and every one of the Ghosts.

It’s difficult to go into much detail about the book without ruining the story, so I won’t go into the plot any more. Needless to say, Abnett has written another winner – perhaps the best so far – and any fan of his writing should snap this up ASAP. His writing is broad in scope, with a keen eye for human nature and the effects war can have on someone – not to mention the effects of reentry away from the battlefield.

Blood Pact should definitely appeal to readers of the Black Library’s wider catalogue, but also to fans of science fiction as a whole. Abnett’s noir-tinged war tales are exciting, engaging, and far more enjoyable than anything else in this genre. I also can’t help thinking that this is how good the writers of Battlestar Galactica wish their show had been (I was not a fan).

Military sci-fi at its peerless, superior best. Highly recommended.

Series Chronology: First & Only, Ghostmaker, Necropolis, Honour Guard, The Guns of Tanith, Straight Silver, Sabbat Martyr, Traitor General, His Last Command, The Armour of Contempt, Only in Death, Blood Pact

Abnett’s Other WH40K novels: Eisenhorn Trilogy, Ravenor Trilogy

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