Straight Silver by Dan Abnett – Review [EJ Davies]
With the Ghosts mourning the loss of Try Again Bragg at the end of The Guns of Tanith, they are committed to the ancient battlefields of Aexe Cardinal. EJ Davies casts his baleful eye over the third in The Saint cycle as the Ghosts tackle a war of arms, and of minds.
“Dan Abnett serves up gripping action, compelling characters, and nail-biting relationships.” ~The Founding Fields.
From The Black Library:
On the battlefields of Aexe Cardinal, the struggling forces of the Imperial Guard are locked in a deadly stalemate with the dark armies of Chaos. Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt and his regiment, the Tanith First-and-Only, are thrown headlong into the living hell of trench warfare, where death by an unseen enemy is always just a moment away. The only chance for Gaunt and his lightly armed scouts to survive is to volunteer for a mission so dangerous that no one else dares accept it!
So – here’s what the blurb doesn’t say. First off, the ‘dark armies of Chaos’ don’t really appear until the latter section of the book – so this really serves as a spoiler. Aexe Cardinal has been locked in a deadly, stifled, trench war for generations – the Alliance battling the Shadiq Republic. Warmaster Macaroth commands Van Voytz and his Imperial contingent to break the deadlock, thus committing Ibram Gaunt and the Tanith First to a style of war they have never experienced, nor are particularly well suited: Slow, painful, costly, blood, horrific trench warfare. Worse still is that Gaunt, and Van Voytz, are actually not in command – but under the command of the High Sezar of Aexe Cardinal and the bureaucratic nightmare of his army commanders.
Add to this that we get to explore the conflict through the eyes of some new, and newly promoted, characters. Each chapter is preceded by a quote from the chapter’s main focus character, and it’s great to spend some time with characters that we don’t normally get to spend time with. Early on, Major Rawne – Gaunt’s fiercest critic and out-and-out snake; having developed an interesting view concerning the Verghast women serving with the Ghosts – and Jessi Banda are injured in a long range shelling of the front lines forcing them out of the main narrative and together to recuperate and develop a potential relationship for later exploration. Corbec is still recovering from the injuries and illness in recent engagements, and also battling with his age – truly feeling the injuries he’s sustained and his confidence beginning to erode – and so Ban Daur – keen to prove the Verghast’s worth in the Ghosts – is promoted to XO.
Tona Criid has been promoted to replace the injured Gal Kolea, and Sergeant Criid is not only fighting to prove her worth as platoon commander, but has to contend with the murderous and untrustworthy Lijah Cuu – although this plays out in an interesting scene between the two of them, the former a street ganger from Vervunhive – the latter and underhive ganger. Cuu’s influence runs right through the piece with him keen to exact vengeance on both ‘rats’ from Guns of Tanith – having already taken care of one, he focusses his attentions on Larkin. Larkin is one of my favourite characters – along with Varl, Hark, Milo, and a few select others – and to see the flawed but expert marksman trying to deal with the psychopath Cuu is interesting.
We also get to see more of Rawne’s group with Feygor and Brostin participating in a scouting mission along with Larkin, MkVenner, Murin, Piet Gutes, and Caffran. Their discovery shows just how deep the rot goes with the Shadiq Republic, and thus develops the last act of the book. Soric, too, gets an interesting plot thread with a message shell and blue pieces of paper and I liked where this thread took the Ghost, and also where it may very well be taken.
As with all Dan Abnett’s work the battle forms the backdrop to the relationships developing between the Ghosts. There are a myriad of interesting scenes to go along with them. About half way through Gaunt is invited to dinner with the Alliance commanders and, not only the journey, but the dinner itself serve as development of Gaunt’s relationship with his adjutant Beltayn – and also that of Van Voytz; but also alters the course of the whole war. The verbal regicide match is plotted out brilliantly and echoes (for me) the final courtroom scene in A Few Good Men. The previously mentioned scene between Criid and Cuu; and the final confrontation between the Ghosts within MkVenner’s team.
I haven’t, until Straight Silver taken the Ghosts to my heart quite as passionately as other readers appear to have. For instance, I was not stunned by Cuu’s target at the end of Guns of Tanith, yet the close of this book – and most of the scenes in the Montarq forest with MkVenner’s team – had me reacting viscerally. I don’t generally laugh out loud when I’m reading, nor say things like ‘oh no’ or ‘don’t’ but I found myself doing just that. Testament, I believe, to the slow burn set up of these characters throughout preceding works and the point to which they have arrived through the various battlefields.
There is a scene with an old woman that Gaunt and Beltayn discover on their journey which feels a little deus ex machina but as this is revealed it sort of resolves itself very nicely. There’s also a reference to the movie/TV show M*A*S*H* with Dorden and Curth’s field hospital being designated 4077. The entire set up of the trench war feels very ‘World War I’ down to the gas masks and yellow chemical gas attack (mustard gas anyone?)
Straight Silver is an excellent read and one I’d struggle to come up with any significant weaknesses for. So thank you, Mr. Abnett, and I’m grateful I stuck with the development of the Ghosts.
Straight Silver is available as a single eBook from Black Library, as part of The Saint omnibus from most good bookshops and Black Library; or if you wanted every single Gaunt publication ever Black Library have made available an eBundle containing just that.