Friday, 13 December 2019

Dab on them haters; The Sabbat Worlds Crusade by Dan Abnett


For anyone who doesn't know what this is;

For twenty years and fifteen novels, Dan Abnett has been writing the 'Gaunts Ghosts' series, set in a particular segment of the Warhammer 40,000 galaxy; the Sabbat Worlds.

And not just a particular segment of space but a particular segment of time, about 250 years before the current 'now' of the 40k reality.

All of these stories take place in an area called the Sabbat Worlds and over the novels, short stories and various other entries, a handful by other creators, the history of the Sabbat Worlds Crusade has deepened and extended.

This Crusade, as a pseudo-historical event, got a background book back in 2005, told from an in-world voice.

Now its 14 years and several books later and Games Worship is BANGIN' with money, so Dan Abnett gets to make a new background book for the Sabbat Worlds Crusade, except this time its hardback A4 with gold goddamn leaf on the spine and loads of new art and maps, and a ribbon. This one is also written from an in-universe voice, and as it takes into account all the stuff that has happened in the last 14 years worth of novels, its written from an imaginary date several years on from the last book.

Being a shameless wehraboo, I ordered this as soon as it became available and Black Library were actually terrifyingly efficient and got it to my door incredibly quickly.

Considering that this shit is my jam, I own remarkably few highly-diegetic pseudo histories, I think this and the Gloriana book are the only ones that go this deep into it

My tldr review;  I have a few quibbles but essentially the only thing I would ask for is more.


That's; "how deep did they go on this in trying to make sure the whole book really feels like it comes from inside the imagined world."

The answer is; slightly imperfect but honestly pretty fucking far.

The only references to the real world are Dan Abnetts name and Black Library on the cover and an ISBN & Credits page at the back.

The book opens with an Inquisitorial investigation. This particular text was created on the world of Urdesh specifically to commemorate its liberation (as seen in the latest books) and draws information from a wide variety of sources.

Unfortunately for Garnyme and Brothers Printworks and Bindery, Strallent Street, Great Eltath Municipality (who have their own pseudo-publishers page at the front) and Ludovik Dypole, Emeritus professor of Military History Scholam Univeritariate of Ghreppan, Urdesh (who has his own author page), in interviewing a bunch of people and clawing sources from everywhere they have regrettably put CHAOS STUFF and SECRETS in here, which is one thing you are absolutely not meant to do, so now they are going to get a visit from the people Nobody Expects.

And it seems the book has been pulped and only this copy has been retained for study. So in the strange relationship of reality between our world and 40k, your copy of the book, the one you are holding, is the Only Copy.

Tanks with legs! Only dangerous in fiction, which, unfortunately for that Guardsman, this is.


The Gaunts Ghosts series  is a mad Collision of different kinds of stories - even within Abnetts main series,  the opening ones are very genre and pretty much 'Sharpe-In-Space', then they develop into this chimeric pseudo-militarism.



Most fantastic paracosms, especially science-fictional ones, are chimerae of the structure of an imagined future and the elements known to the present.

There's a William Gibson view that Science-Fiction is really always about the 'now'. This gains credence when you look back at old science fiction because it utterly reeks of its specific decade and time.

I believe that most (good) science-fiction is about the interrelationship between an imagined future (or just an imagined other) and the present. Most functional science-fictions concepts, be they machines, social systems, aesthetics, worlds, environments or whatever, are chimerae made up with the shape, form or blood of the future, but with the scales, feathers and claws of today.

So everything you sense of the Other comes in the clothes of the Now.

Then you can understand it.

And then once its dead or old and someone looks back at it, it seems almost like a ridiculous costume of the Now.

But they are never just symbols for known events or current things, and rarely are they pure dreams of the Other.

They are complex living relationships formed of an exchange of energy between the two things and explaining the nature of one with the matter of the other.


One of Abenetts greatest strengths in these stories has been his ability to comprehend and accumulate vast and (relatively, for a genre writer) deep awareness of different kinds of warfare over a huge number of fields and to incorporate that into active pseudohistories which involve wildly different scales and forms of technologies, and to incorporate those with solid, animated, visceral and sympathetic characters so that you feel the characters and you feel the world they are moving through.

I've really taken to writing long sentences recently, no idea why.

He is really really good at making these fields of conflict, which are truly more like dreams, because if they were considered coherently; well the delta v for orbital war doesn't work, the titans will sink up to their knees, the space marines can be taken out by hordes of suicide bombers who cost 1 per cent as much as they do, whoever has orbital control essentially rules a world, the ammo logistics don't work, etc etc etc.

But you rarely feel these things in the best of Abnetts work because the of depth, coherency and selection of detail and his creation of a mosaic of details drawn from all over military history, here’s a bit of Stalingrad, here’s a bit of the Iraq war, here's a 20th century air battle at a scale at which those battles almost never took place, here's some 21st century tank fights but also giant robots stamping about, here's an early 21st century special ops team fighting their way through an early 2oth century trench war etc etc.

Militarism I would say. not militarism as absolute chauvinism or love of warfare and killing for itself, but militarism love of, and interest in the military and military things as and for themselves. Which is parallel to, but not the same as, the love of war for wars sake, (not always the same people at the same time).

40k warfare through Abnetts eyes is to me, very much a crazed fever dream of 20th century warfare, swollen to enormous scale and delivered calmly. Militarism as as art.


Well there are literal diegetic gods in the setting, and there is literally a god of Fate, and the duelling prognosticator thing that we have in the Heresy books.

A pretty strong developing theme in a lot of Abnetts warhammer work is of these forces beyond time and space 'picking up' individual characters and in a sense moving them around, or presenting them challenges and opportunities, and preparing them for conflicts with each other.

The way characters respond to these challenges, whether they succeed or fail, can differ. I get the sense that there is some level of individual choice or low level randomness, so even the gods don't know exactly what’s going to happen in any individual circumstance, or which particular playing piece will make it to the end.

But there is a strange relationship here between the will of the Emperor and the desire of the writer to make a good story.

It seems like the one thing the Emperor and the Chaos Gods agree on is that things should play out in as dramatic and high-risk a way as possible, with as much as possible riding on a small handful of people and choices over a limited period of time.

Which, as it happens, is also the substance of a plot for a really good book.

So Abnett and the Emperor both have an interest in the plot being good. The Emperor Protects, he protects your fanbase and your book sales. Ave Imperator.


I've often thought that if genuine chaos (small-c chaos as in Randomness) were a force in human affairs then it would be almost impossible for a structural historian to see.

I do think large events can turn on very small incidents, especially in war, and bits and pieces of military theory do seem to suggest that many battles and encounters are essentially decided by a relatively small number of people who are willing to do very extreme high-risk things with a great majority of people behind them following along and being more systematic and sensible.

So is Abnetts pseudo-historical fate-influenced 'heroverse' in some ways a reasonable image of what history might actually look like? No idea.


Abnett loves ice-cold REALISTIC pseudo-histories and really HEROIC characters.

In the Ghosts books, the Taniths super-duper badass scout mkoll kills a chaos dreadnought with a grenade and some plants (thanks 1d4 chan) out-stealths a magical space elf from the stealth dimension, and most recently, defeats a warp-empowered chaos ultimate bad guy by shoving a det charge down his gob.

Its fun in the moment, and it gets a little silly considered as a whole.

That's an extreme example but tonalities of that are written throughout all of Abnetts work. He is perhaps the least 'dark' writer of the Dark Millennium (except for Sandy Mitchell).

The two don't go together well, except they kinda do but just awkwardly. In this pseudohistory 'good' commanders who try to do the right thing get shitcanned for political reasons and end up shooting themselves, innocent worlds are left to burn, purges take place and lots of random military stuff happens which inevitably leads to completely, or largely, innocent soldiers getting screwed.

In the _novels_ all the same stuff happens, just less of it and less often to 'our' characters and our characters aren't the ones who do it and so on and so on.

So its a very Dark Millennium but if Gaunts Ghosts are involved in your million-to-one last stand theres a nine out a ten chance that you will win.

This seems to me part of the books old DNA, going back to Sharpe, which is a tough-guy edgier Hornblower, and back to Hornblower who I think may have started the 'paragon-military-dude-in-an-unfair-world' genre

This hardly hurts the book, its probably part of the reason it works as a whole.


The artists list at the back reads like a 'whos who' of warhammer art; David Alvarez, John Blanche, Luke Blick, Daniel Bolling Walsh, Alex Boyd, George Brad, Da Yu, Paul Dainton, marta Dettlaff, Tomas Duchek, Johan Grenier, Aaron Griffin, mark harrison, Ralph Horsley, Akim Kaliberda, Dave Kendall, Nuala Kinrade, Vladimir Krisetskiy, karl Kopinski, Anna Lakivosa, Clint Langley, Phil Moss, Nicotene, Filipe Pagliuso, Grzegorz Przbys, Fred Rambaud, Mikhail Savier, Lie Setiawan, Evan Shepard, Adrian Smith, Raymond Swanland, Jason Rainville, Thomas Rey, Adam Tooby, Tiernan Trevallion, Wayne England, there's a LOT, and it all comes from different origins, different books and publications over the last twenty years

For Nu-Warhammer, its good.

I don't think Nu-GW can be as good as the best of the old stuff

Firstly, we are comparing a wide range of current stuff with the very best of the old stuff.

Second, while you can do a lot with digital, in the final analysis for me its highest reaches simply can't compare with the base-reality texture and feel of fully-physical art.

In some ways I think it might be better for GW to just completely forget John Blanche because no-one can do what he can do and trying to imitate him just produces lesser things. If they broke free from him they might be shit for a while but then maybe produce entirely new stuff?

I can't tell if that's a radical statement or not.#

Kylo Ren baby! Somtimes you gotta talk about breaking free from the past but then don't.

There's a strong RPG-art influence, which is mixed, it does give us an interest in portraiture and human character which hasn't been a big element of 40k stuff previously, it also has the slight blandifying effect of most rpg art


this volpone blueblood;

Its an RPG style but its pretty good

The shiniest possible guns for my men!

and this portrait of macaroth

Millennial Warmaster

Are both really good and good examples of the new style

And this Slaydo portrait in the older style

Gen-X Warmaster

There are some images in here which were in White Dwarf and, in my opinion, should not have been cut down to A4 size as it made them look more stiff and rubbish than they are.


Like the rest of the Diagesis, its slightly imperfect but a damn good effort. All the art as these little 'museum tags' giving an in-universe origin for them. Like;

"(right) Engraving of Kolstec infantry and Prefectus officer at Lyuobhive."

Often with little micro-histories which work really well, especially with the chaos stuff which is all from creepy images recovered from enemy strongholds, or seen in obsessive dream-visions by madmen, and which are inevitably haunted. And there's a note at the end saying 'yeah we had to inquisition and/or destroy this one because fucking ghosts kept coming out of it'

(Will ghosts come out of my copy of this book Games Workshop? And if not, why not?! I demand actually literally haunted images for the third edition!!)

Which leads us back to the Inquisitorial Statement at the front of the book and an in-universe account for writing a 'True History' in a universe where, famously, no History is True.

There are some fun bits when a picture is very clearly from some other 40k book and entirely different conflict and the in-world description is "possibly mis-labelled" or "likely a generic image of war later filed with the Sabbat Crusade section" or "likely done from descriptions of the event much later".

There is an attempt with some of the newer stuff to do a kind of version of 8th and 19thC British Imperial war images in which someone defends the gates of khatmandu with a pistol or cradles their dying general while blasting away at the French/Colonials/natives with a Brown Bess.

It’s sort of successful. The arrangements of the figures in the images seems about right and the quality ranges from high to ok but they are still digital images and very clearly not the oil paintings they are simulating.

Points for effort!

Also I thought the Sabbat Worlds crusade was browner than this? I got the impression that the Vervunhivers and Belladon may have been non-white? But not sure where I got that from or if its accurate as I don't have the books. There's a few dark-skinned people in this but less than you would see walking around Nottingham today.


MAPS - Francesca Baeralds multi-page fold-out mapi is really beautiful and a very classy thing for GW to include in the actual book (so thanks).

The quation as maps in fantasy books as tools and art and storytelling devices and global forms of organisation for world and play information is a whole world of criticism which I will hopefully one day have the energy to address properly.

EDITIONS – The first version is also an in-world text which by a different in-world character. This new edition is an in-world text by a Historian who has read the first edition (probably he got it off eBay).

So when a third edition comes out, as I am sure it will once the series ends. (And like Sharpe, the series end will probably not be the actual end), but that in turn will be an in-world text by someone. Will they have got their hands on a copy of this redacted history? Will they be writing post-Nihilus?

This combination if diagetic analysis does allow Abnett the possibility of doing some crazy in-world out-world shit where you have to read all three editions to get it, which is something very few writers actually get to do.


I hope there isn’t any?

I don't hate Nihilus , and there are some interesting questions about whats gonna happen to the Sabbat worlds in about 250 years when the supercell hits.

Abnett has worked in the Kinebranch, who I think are the alien race from the start of the Horus Heresy (so are the Sabbat worlds the place where all that started?)

(And also I lost track of where exactly the Sabbat Worlds are. Are they on the Happy side or the Doom side?)

But I really don't want the Sabbat worlds to be 'explained' from the pov of later 40k

I quite like the 'Age of Man', that period from the Guilliman entering his stasis field until the big storm hitting and him waking up where the only Primarch you would see is the occasional demon one on an Epic scale battlefield.

I liked that it was all up to humanity, and I liked that it was much more Alan Bligh influenced pseudohistory rather than primarch ping-pong 'everything is the heresy' stuff, and I liked that it felt deep, it felt like there was time there and the galaxy had a sense of scale

I don't hate the new stuff but I was actually looking forward to GW forgetting about those intermediate 10,000 years, then nerds could have it and do interesting stuff with it.

So not only are the Sabbat worlds old Kinebranch territory, but there’s a mcguffin, the 'eagle stones' written in some ancient alien language, which everyone is chasing

And goddamn it better not be Horus's shopping list or a REFERENCE TO HORUS RISING.



  1. Patrick, this sounds pretty damn fantastic and I have never heard of it. Can one start with this book, or is there a better beginning for a beginner?

    1. 40k Lore is essentially infinitely large so not really. If you want, read Dan Abnetts 'Necropolis' and see if you like it. Its not the first book but its where the Ghosts series really takes off.

  2. A nice read - thanks for writing this up. Having read all of the Gaunt's books it's nice to see some solid takes on what to me are unformed thoughts on what goes on in them.

  3. Enjoyed Gaunt’s Ghosts and bought this based on your review. Re the art - there’s nothing immediately wrong with it (to my untutored eye), but the bulk of it doesn’t feel especially 40k, although that may be because my vision of 40k is irrevocably influenced by John Blanche, Ian Miller and the other old-school Warhammer artists.

    I would say that Abnett has always struck me as the least Blanchian of the high-profile 40k authors, if that makes sense - while his stories tend to be more competently written than the average Black Library output, they also tend to be too grounded in near-reality to capture the anarchic spirit of Blanche, Miller et al. (That’s not a criticism, to be clear - just a recognition of stylistic differences.) I suppose in that sense it’s fitting that it’s an Abnett book heading down the more prosaic RPG art route.