I’ve always been wary about reading science fiction or fantasy set in a universe that isn’t the creation of the author. Maybe it was just stumbling upon some really bad Star Trek novels in the library when I was younger. Possibly it’s just the logical assumption that if an author has to use someone else’s ideas or a setting with a ready-made fanbase in order to sell their work that there has to be something wrong with it.
The reviews by Werthead were very positive though so I decided to give the series of books by British writer Dan Abnett a go despite them being set in the Warhammer universe. Warhammer is a setting I had very little knowledge of. I knew that they were very geeky and involved little figurines in a complex board game but the actual storyline was a mystery. I’ve been absolutely delighted with the three stories I’ve read so far though.
Warhammer 40,000 is tremendously dark, dystopic and nihilistic. Mankind is locked in an eternal war with the chaos, the emperor is virtually dead and quite possibly mad. There’s a lot of back story that’s hinted at occasionally which I’ve no knowledge of such as The Horus Heresy, seemingly some sort of civil war. It isn’t really essential for Dan Abnett’s books which are set in one particular campaign and follow one particular troop of soldiers. Think HBO’s excellent Band of Brothers and you’re pretty close to it (or very close if you don’t look past some standard tropes of the military genre like the heroic medic).
Out of the first three Gaunt’s Ghosts novels Necropolis easily stood out as the best with a well-paced story of a hive under siege. Essentially a retelling of Stalingrad the book covers the conflict from start to finish. Dan is liberal with character deaths and wounds, it’s a wonder any of them will be left after 15 more books. Whilst the characters are all basically standard clichés this is needed. It helps bring them to life quickly and ultimately military sci-fi set in the Warhammer 40k universe has to be a little trashy. It lets us immediately connect with them and lets Dan concentrate on an area he excels at from his comic writing days: punchy dialogue, dark humour and troop banter.
Not to say that this series is complete slush though. The books are well written and gripping. Military scenes and maneuvers which could become confusing, particularly to someone who isn’t that into their military SF, are vividly depicted and easy to follow. The horrors of war are well-balanced with making the conflict exciting which is what most readers will really be after. I’m three books into the series and plan to read many more of what essentially just mounts to people getting shot at by lasers. They’ve got to be doing something right! Quite happy reading these on the tube and quick to get through so perfect for some little light entertainment.