It’s a rare thing for me to do an outright book review here on Variance Hammer – I figure there are likely other places that do that better. But I’m going to make an exception for Wolf King. First, because it was a limited edition novella, and those seem to have a far lower readership than the mainline Horus Heresy books, and second because with upcoming posts on both 30K Void War armies and a review of the Warzone Fenris books, it seems fitting.
In a limited edition, $50 book, I could see why people might avoid it. Honestly, I’m a little puzzled with Black Library’s strategy with those, save for cashing in on long-tail collector revenue, or to give their relatively small stable of writers a little breathing room, keeping the line “fresh” while letting them stretch their legs in new areas. But it’s a much more reasonable $28 as an eBook, and while still spendy, I’m a Space Wolves fan, so I decided to give it a go, and hope that it was as good as Crimson Fist, which basically sold me on Imperial Fists as an army.
The question is, as always: Did it work?
After something of an unnecessary preamble of random (and largely already known) Space Wolves fluff, which includes things like a full page description of the Space Wolves flagship Hrafnkel that could be summed up in two sentences (“Big nasty Gloriana-class Battleship. Approach with caution.”), we open on the current state of the Space Wolves. And my beloved VI Legion is in dire shape. Following the events of Thousand Sons, Prospero Burns and White Scar, the Space Wolves are bloodied from the destruction of Prospero, and being pursued by Alpha Legion warfleet of unexpectedly large size. They’ve already been bested by said fleet once, and the Space Wolves are definitely on the back foot. They’ve fled into the Alaxxes Nebula, which has bought them some time, but is a labyrinth of nearly unnavigable space. Eventually, they are going to run out of room to run.
This is what I like most about Wolf King as a book – it portrays a Legion in distress, but not one that’s shattered like the Raven Guard or Salamanders. There’s the temptation – and indeed this is an idea advanced by a number of Space Wolves in the book – that they’ve done what they can, it’s time to say “Fuck it” and charge headlong into the enemy to die gloriously and well. But instead of a blaze of glory, you get a remarkable introspective Primarch. His legion has been isolated by his own actions – the position of “Emperor’s Executioner”, whether truly appointed or taken on by Russ on his own – is inherently one that depends on a working Imperium. You can stand alone when the rest of the galaxy is united, but it’s left the Space Wolves vulnerable. They have, very recently, called for help from another loyalist legion and had that legion pass. Leman Russ is, for lack of a better term, in a funk, and it’s chafing the more bellicose elements of his own legion. That’s in stark contrast to his image as a hard drinking, hard fighting, about-as-subtle-as-a-freight-train warrior, and it’s actually pretty refreshing. There’s suggestions, as there are in other books, that a tremendous amount of Leman Russ’…Russ-ness…is essentially performative. He is what the Vlka Fenryka and the Imperium need him to be.
Character development aside, it wouldn’t be a Horus Heresy book without some killing (even Unremembered Empire had killing…). It comes this time in the form of a void battle between the Space Wolves and the Alpha Legion, and it’s great to see both armies get some time to explore how they fight in space. The Space Wolves, unsurprisingly, love them some boarding torpedoes, dispatching small squads all over the battle to disable, destroy or capture enemy vessels. The Alpha Legion are up to their usual tricks – feints, bluffs, redundant transponder codes, etc. Both methods are a refreshing change of pace from just brutal slugging matches, and let you get some fun action scenes in – many of which feature Bjorn, being excellent, and also hinting at why Russ is growing to trust his newest Wolf Guard enough to leave him at the Fang when he departs. The battle scenes are great without lasting too long, you get a picture of just how strange it is for a legion to be fighting another legion (when you board a ship, you know the layout, and if you can take the helm, the controls are pretty standard) and a legitimate explanation for why Space Wolves might not wear helmets.
I won’t spoil the ending too much, but it was an unexpected twist, and is another fun glimpse into the loyalist legions. While much is made of the various far flung factions of the traitor legions that have stayed loyal to the Imperium, the loyalist legions – especially those still functionally in the fight – are often portrayed as being united and of single purpose. The ending shows that that’s not at all true, and just how fractured a legion deployed over the length and breadth of the Great Crusade might be.
Overall, void war and Space Wolves are, for me, like chocolate and peanut butter, so I was pretty much guaranteed to like Wolf King. I thought it did add some depth to Leman Russ, who is often thought of as a little bit one-sided, and does fill in some “What the hell happened after Prospero!?” gaps in their fluff. That being said, as a general story, it’s not essential to the plot, and $28 is pretty expensive for a brief novella that I read in one sitting. If you’re a fan of the Space Wolves, or a longtime Battlefleet Gothic player who knows the joy of a properly done boarding action, it might be worth a look. Otherwise? It’s probably something you can skip.
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