Gaunt's Ghosts, stuck in a reverie on the eve of a battle with Chaos, must uncover the secrets of Monthrax before they are overwhelmed. In the dark future of the Warhammer 40k universe, Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt leads the Tanith First-and-Only, also known as Gaunt's Ghosts. The scouting and light infantry unit is the only survivor of their homeworld, fallen to Chaos on the day of the Founding of their Imperial Guard regiments. In Ghostmaker, Gaunt and his Ghosts prepare for a bloody fight on the forsaken world of Monthrax; while doing so, their minds cast back to events from their past.
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The first flashback is to the Founding of the Ghosts. Gaunt, newly-promoted and sent to muster the regiments on Tanith, initially suffers from misgivings at the low-born muster the planet has provided. This changes as the planet is invaded due to the miscalculations of Warmaster Macaroth. Gaunt is able to mobilize a good amount of the fighting men being prepared for debarkation, and gets them to the off-plant transportation, though at the cost of the officer cadre. Gaunt himself is nearly killed by marauders, until his life is saved by his assigned piper and attendant Brin Milo. On ship, Gaunt is confronted by a three-person delegation -- amiable Corbec, brutal Rawne, and the young Milo. Gaunt promotes the two Guardsmen to replace the absent officers, and appoints Milo as his new dogsbody. The unit quickly faces its first action on Blackshard, where Rawne reveals his animosity at Gaunt for leaving Tanith to die. Rawne attempts to kill Gaunt in the heat of battle, but Gaunt overcomes him, and carries him out of the warzone.
In the next flashback, the Tanith are again battling Chaos, this time on the world of Voltemand. Here they serve alongside the patrician Volpone Bluebloods, a heavy infantry unit bogged down in the terrain. The operational theater's leadership, assuming that the new Warmaster Macaroth would like the Ghosts, a remnant of previous Warmaster Slaydo's command, removed, deploys the Tanith into the dangerous forward position. The enemy position falls, thanks to the work of a Sergeant named Cluggan. The Ghost's rejoicing is short-lived, as the Volpone commanders order an artillery battalion to fire on the Tanith's route back to the main of the Guard; 300 men, including Cluggan, die in the bombardment. Gaunt storms into the C&C and threatens the leaders who slaughtered his men on a whim, with the aid of the commander of the artillery unit.
The fourth vignette follows Mkoll, the most skilled scout in the unit. He is training members of his elite ranger unit on the dangerous world of Ramillies 268-43. A mistake by one of the newbies sets off the planet's deadly flora, and draws the attention of a Chaos Dreadnought. Mkoll, thinking quickly, is able to use the fatal plants to overcome the much-larger Chaos brute, but refuses to take credit, saying that all he did was to allow the planet to kill.
On Caligula, Gaunt, Rawne, and several others are separated from the main of the Ghosts during a landing action gone wrong due to enemy sorcery. While the Colonel-Commissar struggles to lead his companions to safety through enemy lines, Corbec takes command. While the Ghosts clear out a city, Corbec and his command unit encounter a Chaos Daemon; their weapons prove ineffective against the extradimensional threat. Corbec establishes communications with an officer in the Imperial Navy he has befriended, circling high above the planet. With the coordinates Corbec provides, the naval vessel is able to launch an unorthodox and dangerous pinpoint strike against the Daemon, vaporizing it and ending the sorcerous storm blocking reinforcements. Meanwhile, Gaunt and his cadre manage to return to their unit, despite dragging two wounded.
The fifth episode follows Mad Larkin, the unit's elite sniper. Larkin has seemingly fled from battle on the world of Bucephalon, and cowers in an Imperial chapel, where he is talking to an angel statue. He reveals that he feels one of his epileptic madness-fits coming on. As the angel alternately implores and threatens him, Larkin sets up his rifle, claiming that his custom scope allows him to see through his own madness and find the truth. Larkin snipes Nokad, the leader of the local Chaos forces, before succumbing to his fit. Corbec finds him, shivering and prone and befouled, and tells him he is the battle's hero.
In the sixth chapter, "That Hideous Strength," the narrative returns to Caligula. "Try-Again" Bragg, the huge trooper with the terrible aim and the simple demeanor, has been placed in charge of protecting a convoy. As desert raiders attack, Bragg uses his signature heavy weapons and command to fend them off until the Imperial Navy is able to deploy bombers to end the threat of the bandits forever. Bragg reveals that not only was the convoy a feint to draw out the criminals, but that he was able to determine the identity of the traitor who sold the information on the convoy to the raiders in the process.
The next section has Gaunt and the hostile Rawne trapped behind Orkish lines on the ice world of Typhon Eight. While Rawne contemplates fraging his hated foe, the greenskins attack, forcing the two to work together to survive. The pair commandeer an Orkish vehicle and make a danger-fraught escape. As they do so, Rawne loses his traditional Tanith knife saving Gaunt from roiling waters. Gaunt gives Rawne his own knife and asks the major why he saved him; Rawne replies that one day, he will be the one to kill Gaunt, on equal terms.
Medic Dorden is the focus of the next vignette. On Nacedon, the Ghosts encounter an abandoned farmhouse filled with the Volpone Blueblood's wounded. Gaunt prepares his unit to pull out, claiming they can do nothing for the soldiers. Dorden defies his commander and insists that he be allowed to stay and try to defend the wounded with a small detachment. Gaunt agrees, and Dorden and nine other Ghosts dig in. As night comes, Chaos begins to attack; the Ghosts and those of the Bluebloods able to fight stage a desperate defense, fending off an initial infantry push. When the enemy forces begin to position artillery support, the battle seems lost, until Gaunt, who has united with the main of the Imperial forces, directs the Guard's own artillery to target the Chaos unit, inflicting heavy causalities and breaking the assault.
"A Simple Plan" features Caffran, the youngest of the Ghosts, who are landing on Sapiencia. After a botched aquatic landing, the Ghosts, who have lost men to the deadly waters, are told that they are to act as reserves for the heavier units. Unsatisfied by this, Caffran and a small detachment follow a set of tunnels behind enemy lines. There, they demolish refinery facilities to disrupt the foe. The enemy commander Sholen Skara, convinced his lines face a larger breech, begins sacrificing his own men to his foul Chaos gods, weakening his lines and allowing an easy victory for the Guard. Caffran is offered the opportunity to execute Skara, but correctly surmises that being forced to live with his shame is the worse punishment.
Brin Milo, Gaunt's attendant, is renowned and feared throughout the unit for his uncanny ability to anticipate events. In "Witch Hunt," this ability, as well as his participation in a gambling scam, puts Milo under the scrutiny of Imperial Inquisitor Lilith. As the unit prepares to disembark on Monthrax, the Inquisitor, who has been sent to investigate reports of witchcraft on the world, is put on to the scent of Milo by the Ghosts' Volpone rivals. In an interrogation, it initially seems that Milo's odd talents might lead to his execution, but instead, he reveals a more mundane explanation for the rigged game, saving his life.
Throughout the book, brief passages have put us on Monthrax as the Ghosts ready for the assault; in the final chapter, the attack happens, pulling together all of the threads of the novel. Gaunt is deployed to the strange world alongside the Bluebloods and the artillery battalion from earlier; Inquisitor Lilith, with a retinue of bodyguards, also lands, to sniff out the source of her psychic unease. As the units engage with Chaos, Mkoll seeks out a ruin he glimpsed in passing while scouting; he finds it under heavy siege by a vast horde of Chaos warriors. Meanwhile, an unnatural storm arises, confusing the minds of the troopers and spawning Chaos abominations. Although Lilith and Gaunt initially worry about Chaos sorcery, the true source of the storm is a group of the ancient and bizarre Eldar race, who seek to buy time to close one of their Webways on the world. A co-opted group of Ghosts, led by Rawne, become convinced they are on Tanith, fighting to save their world from Chaos; they are led to the Eldar and work with them under the veil of the dying Eldar Farseer's powers. Gaunt and Lilith figure out that the storm originated with a third party, and, around the same time, Mkoll returns to their lines with reports of the activity at the ruins. The Ghosts and Bluebloods, under-strength but determined, unite forces and push against the flank of the Chaos horde at the ruins, allowing themselves to fall under the Eldar spell to bolster their efforts. Once the horde is dispersed, Lilith finds the Farseer, now too weak to close the Webway. She gives of her own power to seal the gate. The Ghosts regroup, worn but strangely heartened by the opportunity, however falsely-created, to reverse the retreat at their Founding and seemingly fight for their homeworld.
Best part of story, including ending:
Ghostmaker showcases Abnett's aptitude with using the mass-market form as a base for experimentation, with its vignette-style narrative structure stringing together a set of stories about Gaunt's soldiers before unifying them into the final battle episode. Those who like their mass-market with an above-average degree of smartness will approve.
Best scene in story:
The interrogation of Milo is suspenseful and smartly played-out.
Opinion about the main character:
Gaunt continues to be somewhat blank, a slab of duty without much behind him, He's not an unpleasent main character, but nor is he all that memorable without his Ghosts.