Sword of Justice + Iron Company + Battle of the Fang by Chris Wraight Review

As my gaming interests have turned more towards Warhammer Fantasy than Warhammer 40k, my reading has followed suit. Worry not, dear reader, I haven’t lost my love of the 40k universe, it’s just that I need some inspiration in order to face having to paint the 130 figures in my new Empire army…

Enter Chris Wraight’s latest book, Sword of Justice. Ironically, the excerpt of his writing that peaked my interest is from a book of his that I’ve yet to read, but this one was the book I picked up. First off, a quick note on the cover art, which I found really atmospheric:  it’s a great visual representation of the character and speaks volumes about who he is. Honourable mention must also go to Schwarzhelm’s beard, which any Dwarf–hell, any three Dwarfs–would be proud of and which, I’m almost certain, could comfortably house a badger.

 chris wraight

This is the first volume of a set entitled Warhammer Heroes that covers, no surprises here, the stories of well known personalities of the Warhammer fantasy world. In this case we take a very close look at none other than Ludwig Schwarzhelm, the Emperor’s Champion. The novel, the first of a duology, tells the tale of Schwarzhelm’s mission to oversee the selection of Averland’s Elector Count amidst the scheming of both potential candidates and the actions of other ne’er do wells.

This novel is, at its heart, a character study of Schwarzhelm; however, I did not really warm to him as a character until around halfway through the book.  For this reason the book sometimes felt a little slow to get started character-wise. I was therefore grateful for the other members of Wraight’s cast, who were quicker to worm their way into my sympathies.  But slow as I felt Schwarzhelm’s development to be, when he did finally grab me, he didn’t let go. While he proves to be a very single-minded person, a trait I find troubling (perhaps explaining my early dislike), there is a subtlety to his character that took me a while to grasp. I suspect that more will be revealed to me in a second reading.

What is interesting about Wraight’s choices in this novel is that he has set his title protagonist a task that is alien to his nature. Schwarzhelm is first and foremost a warrior of the highest order, a leader of men without peer. This is made clear in the opening chapters, where we get to see him in his element, fighting the enemies of the Empire. The battle scenes at the beginning are gripping and contain none of those oh-so-annoying references to the game that inspires them. The scene built by the author leaves a clear picture in the mind as to the situation, and the swing of each sword and halberd is made quite visceral, as are the conditions in which the soldiers have to fight.

It’s after this character defining set-up that Schwarzhelm is set the task of overseeing the succession in Averland, from where he originally hails, by the Emperor Karl Franz. That he is set a task of  law and diplomacy in the face of his rather more obvious strengths is a really great premise and one that over the course of the book really allows us to get into Schwarzhelm’s head.

It is also in this early stage that we’re introduced to another great character in the book, Verstohlen. His role is kept shrouded in mystery early on, so I’m not going to spoil it, but I have to say the revelation of his role and purpose was quite anticlimactic, though this is remedied as the character’s background is slowly revealed. In the first half of the book he is a far more sympathetic character than Schwarzhelm. This changed for me as the story progressed.

Special mention must also be made of Wraight’s ability to paint a word picture of the Old World and the Empire in particular. It’s not often I’m left with the feeling that I can really see what life is like in any sci-fi or fantasy book, but here the world really makes the leap from page to mind.

There are many other characters of note throughout the book, each of them with a personal story that stands out.  They range from Bloch, recruited from the aftermath of the opening battle; to the two very different candidates for the position of Elector Count; to the significant appearance of Kurt Helborg, Grandmarshal of the Reiksguard, whose rivalry with Schwarzhelm is a central theme. The story twists and turns through them all, though at times I found myself somewhat confused by a twist.

However, dear reader, don’t fret, for in the closing chapters of the book, the author goes from the merely gifted to the genius category. I don’t want to give anything away, but the twists and turns I mentioned earlier pale into insignificance in the face of the final revelations. That isn’t genius in itself; what’s genius is how his closing chapter opens out all the subtleties and nuances of the whole book, revealing to me the meanings behind all the minor niggles that had been building in my mind as the story progressed. Suddenly all becomes clear, and the enormity and scope of his story really took my breath away. All the little foreshadowing clues I’d picked up on subliminally throughout the book stood up and took a bow, and Schwarzhelm’s true strength of character was tutting me for my haste in judging him. A remarkable reading experience.

All in all I highly recommend this book to anyone with a taste for darker fantasy, whether a Warhammer fan or not. I really thought I couldn’t be surprised by fantasy books anymore. I was wrong.

I eagerly await the next in the series!

iron company wraight

I’ve been meaning to review this little beauty for a while, so, straight to business.

Iron Company was Chris Wraight’s first Black Library novel and yet somehow managed to tick almost all the boxes for Warhammer fantasy writing. As my first review for Boomtron made clear, this isn’t something to be taken for granted.

Iron Company is not, at its heart, a new story. It tells the tale of a once famous Empire engineer, the son of famous Empire engineer who has fallen from grace and is given what appears to be a last chance for redemption. The fallen hero searching for salvation isn’t new, but it turns out that doesn’t bother me at all, as long as the tale is told well and has within it an original variation on the theme. Wraight provides all this and more.

The primary focus of the story is that of Magnus Ironblood, a once respected master engineer who is offered the opportunity to command an Empire gun line in battle against a surprising foe. The Margravine of a neighbouring province has taken over and fortified a former Dwarf mine, Morgramgar which falls within the state of Hochland, and refuses all contact with the nobility of the state. The elector count decides that this cannot go unchallenged and decides to meet her forces in battle, but how to get her and her forces out of the impregnable Dwarf fortress?

Enter Magnus Ironblood, who is recruited from a slum town while drowning his sorrows. It’s at this early stage of the story that I got my first taste of the quality prose that seems to be this author’s signature. Wraight paints such a vivid picture that even at this opening scene, a sense of the adventure to come starts to be felt and then steadily builds as Ironblood gathers together the command group that will mold Hochland’s ragtag gunnery troops into soldiers worthy of an Empire gunline.

The supporting cast of characters add a great deal to the story, and the different perspectives added welcome depth to Ironblood’s quest, from Silvio the foppish but gifted Tilean engineer to Thorgad the hard-as-nails Dwarf with a mission of his own. Wraight doesn’t just weave his tale from point of view of our heroes; he also shows us the darker side of the story by taking us behind the walls of Morgramgar to the Margravine’s army leaders. While the army general is every inch the born warrior, it’s the master engineer who takes centre stage as the antagonist, for reasons that I won’t give away here. As a character, he’s actually quite comical, sort of more-evil-than-thou in a hand rubbing muahaha-ing into the shadows kind of way, and yet he conveys a very real sense of menace that I felt was built upon his tenuous grasp of sanity.

The story takes us from Magnus’s recruitment to his training of the Hochland gunline to the journey to Morgramgar and the sinister happenings on the road that set the stage for later revelations. There are plenty edge of seat moments, and Wraight builds the tension nicely as the story progresses and really made me feel the hardships of the road to battle and the spectre of worse hardship to come.

The setpiece battle is a tale wonderfully told from a number of perspectives as the story rushes to its conclusion, and the twists and turns at this stage really leave you with no idea where the battle is going until the last pages. I have to say that the revelation of the nature of the Margravine is really a bolt from the blue that I would never have seen coming, and the way he got me to ponder her nature while she remained a sinister presence in the background was masterful. My only criticism of the story was that the finish was a little too neat and tidy, by which I mean it was a happy ending–too happy for the Warhammer world. While a good story will finish on a hopeful note, this was too riding-into-the-sunset, living happily ever after for my taste. In Warhammer writing there needs to be an edge to even the high points to keep in mind the grim nature of life in the Warhammer Fantasy world.

I’ve fast become a big fan of Wraight’s writing, and this, his first Black Library novel, is a very worthy addition to the Empire army collection. It is a vividly told tale that I found thoroughly entertaining and that was, frankly, damn good fun to read. I love his descriptive prose, and I feel sure that he will very soon be joining the ranks of the fans’ favourite writers.

battle fang wraight

Though not billed as such, this book is the last part of an unofficial trilogy. Battle of the Fang effectively bridges the story begun in McNeill’s A Thousand Sons and Abnett’s Prospero Burns to the ‘present’ of the 40K universe.

A thousand years has passed since the bloody end of the Horus Heresy, and the leader of the Vlka Fenryka (aka the Space Wolves), Harek Ironhelm, learns of the location of the Thousand Sons’ renegade primarch, Magnus. Presented with the chance to put Magnus’s evil to an end, Ironhelm musters all but one of the great companies and sets off to hunt down Magnus and destroy him

Meanwhile, back at the Aett, the leader of the only remaining great company, Vaer Greyloc, prepares the defences for what he sees as an inevitable attack on the base in their reduced state. Sure enough, he isn’t disappointed, as an enormous Thousand Sons fleet begins to make planetfall and lays siege to the Aett, marking the start of the next stage of a bitter struggle between blood enemies.

Though Wraight has written a number of 40k short stories, this is his first 40k novel, and it is a very welcome addition to his growing Black Library portfolio. It’s clear very early on that Dan Abnett shared his notes about the Vlka Fenryka and Graham Mcneill about the Thousand Sons with Wraight to ensure consistency between their tales. This was very welcome, however, Abnett effectively reinvented the Space Wolves while Wraight appears to be trying to bridge the gap between the old and the new.

One of the very clear subtexts in this novel is the unexplained degeneration of the Space Wolf geneseed, the Canis Helix. It is through this, I felt, that Wraight was trying to show how the Vlka Fenryka–controlled, cunning and ruthless–became the Space Wolves, barely controlled savages that 40k old-timers like myself once knew. There were still hints of Abnett’s Rout warring with a more savage and uncontrolled version, and I found myself wondering whether Russ’s absence had triggered their degeneration.

Wraight really does provide all possible perspectives on this old tale of revenge; Greyloc and the defenders of the Aett, Magnus and his Thousand Sons, as well as Ironhelm and his pursuit of the ‘completion’ of the hunt for Magnus. Each side of the story added to a really great big-picture view, and each character felt well crafted and unique, though some of the ‘rank and file’ Rout in their current iteration were a little too cookie-cutter Space Viking for my tastes. On the other hand, I thought Wraight captured perfectly the tragic nature of the Thousand Sons and really brought to life their world one millenium on from McNeill’s epic story.

Wraight’s writing style in this novel is also worthy of mention; he seems to have gone for a rather Skald-like or quasi-poetic tone to the writing, which flowed well most of the time and felt really congruous with the vast and epic nature of the narrative. I’ve mentioned the great quality of his descriptive prose in other reviews, and it is without doubt present here…and yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he’s more comfortable in the Warhammer Fantasy world. There is a richness to his fantasy writing that wasn’t quite as present for me here.

To be fair, this is the fifth or sixth novel in the Space Marine Battle series, and this collection is all about action, so I know I’m being very nitpicky–and this is mostly because Wraight has set the bar so very high with his previous works.

The action scenes are, as you can imagine, really intense and plentiful, though there are one or two scenes where I found my suspension of disbelief challenged by a Space Wolf surviving something that, even with their enhanced physiology, seemed a little far-fetched. Other than that, the battles are epic in scale and firepower and are quite exhausting to read. In fact, the exhaustion experienced by the thralls helping with the defence of the Aett became a sensation I shared as I read. The relentless nature of the fighting and enormity of the stakes stand clear of the page, and the final setpiece battle between Magnus and the Wolves is a no holds barred page turner!

Wraight has also added to the mythos of the Space Wolves by developing the background of the human thralls that live amongst the Wolves. He has even done something unprecedented: he has brought the concept of female thralls to the story and, more than that, has made her a character in the tale! In fact his development of this rather fascinating subculture was a great way of conveying a needed human element to the saga that made the plight of the Space Wolves easier to relate to in some ways.

Despite my very personal nitpicks, I would have no hesitation in recommending this book to 40k fans, and it is without doubt in the must-read category for any Space Wolf aficionado.