First and Only – Dan Abnett

2 out of 5

I knew Dan Abnett’s name from the plethora of mainstream work he’d done – especially when he was known as something of a ‘cosmic guy’ when Marvel’s space Annihilation stuff was going on – but despite his books sounding pretty interesting, I couldn’t really get into ’em, and Abnett’s name was set upon the “skip” pile of releases for me.

Then I started reading 2000 AD.  As many stories with that detail develop, my opinion on Abnett completely shifted.  The dude is all over the book, and when he’s not fiddling with something that’s just plain inventive fun (e.g. all of SinDex, Grey Area), he’s dropping something outlandishly awesome (Kingdom forever for the win) or toiling upon a mini-masterpiece (Lawless).  And so I love, and look forward to, Dan’s 2000 AD contributions.  Enough such that I gave his Big Two stuff another shot… but, well, the mainstream is still the mainstream, where editorial reigns supreme.  My wallet is happy to pass, though.

However, when listening to Dan talk about his works on a 2000 AD podcast, he got rather giddy talking about one of his prose works (he’s a pretty prolific book author for several properties – like Warhammer – as well), and I realized that was another avenue worth exploring.  And because my explorations always start at the ground floor, I went for his first book – the Warhammer Black Library entry, First and Only.

Note: I don’t play Warhammer 40K, which is a tabletop game, nor any tabletop games at all.  The plus here means that my opinion of this book is untainted by that; the minus is the flip-side: Any specific or general genre references which may enrich things will have gone over my head.

Now I’ve kept you here long enough; let’s jump ahead and spoil the gist: First and Only is not a great book.  Structurally, at least.  It’s too clearly a first effort.  However, Abnett gets some good faith here: I don’t dig the Marvel and DC stuff because I feel like you can almost always sense the limitations of that arena preventing the author from taking the story where it needs to go.  In this case, that wasn’t the issue.  If anything, this would’ve made a good comic, and that, instead, is the central issue: That Dan hadn’t nailed the format at this starting stage.  But I be he does, and the Warhammer universe is rich enough to give it a few shots to find out.

Describing said universe might not encourage that notion – it’s essentially just a war-torn future – but the many characters and clans give that basic setup some flavor, along with the unfortunately unexplored ‘Chaos’ (I.e. Evil magic) and Warp Zone (I.e. phantom zone, or a warp space, pick your poison), which I’m sure have better precedents in the game.  Along the way, our main character, commissar Ibram Gaunt, and his dedicated crew of planet-orphaned troops – the Ghosts – interact with various factions / planet dwellers with their own realized sense of culture and personalities.  But we jump around too much to really dig in with any of those, Dan continually switching up the POV – hiccup number one in the pacing – and then having the Ghosts get invested in several missions which, on the surface, have nothing to do with the central plot – a ruling class conspiracy, essentially – except to put a select piece of information or a character in place.  That’s hiccup two: It’s a lot of groundwork for very little actual payoff.  Hiccup three branches from this: Given how wandering the structure is, its impossible to determine when the actual plot begins, which isn’t until halfway through the story.

Once that kicks in, there are some impressive and tense scuffles and shadowplay, but Abnett is thinking visually, and tries to effect some twists and delaying tactics that are somewhat of a drag in text.

Overall, the 300 page book takes much longer to read than necessary, due to these diversions.  However, as stated, I’m willing to see what Dan does with the corner of the W40K universe he’s carving once he’s settled in; First and Only is slow to the punch, but its enjoyable in brief spurts, and certainly enough so to stick with its sequels for a bit.