The Warmaster is the fourteenth novel in the Gaunt’s Ghost series, and marks Dan Abnett’s long-awaited return to Black Library. Incredibly, the thirteenth entry in the series – Salvation’s Reach – was published all the way back in October 2011, and left Colonel-Commissar Gaunt and his famous Ghosts in the aftermath of a tremendous victory against the Archenemy – but a victory that had cost them dearly…

Limping home after the Salvation’s Reach mission, the Ghosts reach the planet Urdesh: now the location of the Warmaster’s high command, in the Sabbatt World’s Crusade. Due to an error in Warp-navigation, the Ghosts have suffered a real-time lapse, and find the Imperial war effort in complete disarray. Whilst Gaunt and his Ghosts are applauded as war heroes, and Gaunt finds himself the recipient of a significant promotion, command is losing faith in Warmaster Macaroth. Gaunt himself suspects that the Imperial forces are falling into a trap set by the Archenemy commander Anarch Sek: an adversary either insane, or strategically brilliant. Meanwhile, Gaunt and the Ghosts’ command complement struggle to hold the regiment together, and the fortunes of the Salvation Reach – the so-called “eagle stones” – may yet prove to be of interest to the Archenemy forces…

I’m a tremendous fan of Dan Abnett’s writing style, and I think that he has done great things for both Games Workshop and Black Library. He’s a big name in the BL pantheon; and whether you’re a fan of GW’s particular brand of science-fantasy, an Abnett book is a very big deal. But it’s been a long time since the last Ghosts book: does The Warmaster still cut it?

Absolutely. The Warmaster shows exactly why Dan Abnett is still regarded as being at the top of his game. He writes excellent war stories, and that really is his best strength. The fact that the Gaunts Ghosts stories are set in the worlds of Warhammer 40,000 is almost irrelevant, a side dressing. Abnett’s focus is on the characters, and how they drive the plot forward. There are some gripping action sequences throughout the book, but even when describing the macro, Abnett’s focus on the micro is what makes the reader really care.

Plotwise, there is surprisingly little attention on the forces of Chaos (always referred to as the Archenemy in Abnett-verse). The antagonists almost always come from within: not necessarily traitors or rebels, but those whose intentions are less than honourable, and who see the corrupt and sprawling Imperium as an opportunity for personal gain. The plot concerning Macaroth and high command’s attitude towards him is the best example of this; perhaps suggesting that these well-meaning and overly-ambitious officers are as dangerous to the Imperial cause as the Archenemy…

I found it surprising how comfortably I drifted back into the world of Gaunt’s Ghost after such a lengthy hiatus. The characters easily come back to mind, and within a few pages I was back into the world. These soldiers are so much more than just that: the Ghosts are now followed by an entourage of friends and family, which ups the emotional stakes for every battle in which the regiment is threatened. There are hints here that some of the characters will become more central in future novels. Gaunt himself was united with his son Felyx in Salvation’s Reach, and this character returns in Warmaster. The inclusion of this aspect of Gaunt’s character is welcome; giving the main protagonist some real depth, and again offering new emotional threat.

The Warmaster’s plot is necessarily linear, but if you’re a fan of the Ghosts series this won’t surprise you. It feels in some ways like a bridging novel – between Salvation’s Reach, and perhaps a new direction for the Ghosts – but this is no bad thing. There is no huge, Imperium-defining moment here: like so much of Abnett’s war-fiction, the granular examination of conflict is his emphasis. It’s more powerful than many military SF novels as a result.

Overall, The Warmaster is a terrific return to form for Dan Abnett’s Ghosts series. Whether you are a fan of Black Library’s fiction or not, this is a great war story and highly recommended for all readers of military SF.