Out next week States-side in hardback, Blood of Asaheim is the first part of a new Space Wolf saga penned by talented Black Library stalwart, Chris Wraight. First part of how many? Well, Mr Wraight tells me that he isn’t sure yet but at least a trilogy. I do hope so, as Blood of Asaheim is the best Space Wolf story I’ve read since Abnett’s masterful Prospero Burns. If you read my review of that book you’ll know that’s high praise, indeed. Abnett’s seminal Horus Heresy novel effectively reinvented the Space Wolves; gone were the barely restrained savages of old and in their place were the profoundly intelligent, iron willed and cunning Vlka Fenryka. How to bridge the gap between Abnett’s reinvention and the Space Wolves of the 40K universe?
It seems this duty fell to Chris Wraight, and his first Space Wolf novel, Battle of the Fang, set a thousand years after the Heresy, explored (as a sub-plot) the consequences of their genetic degeneration in the absence of their primarch. Blood of Asaheim brings this undercurrent into the ‘present’ 40K universe in the context of a very moving and action packed tale that I honestly couldn’t put down. For me to enjoy a book there has to be some gen-u-ine emotion; action – even great action – is never going to be enough. I was really surprised at the depth of emotion in this story. Combined with a fantastic cast and the aforementioned action, this book was a truly great read.
And with the big picture painted, on to the story.
After over five decades in the service of the Deathwatch, Ingvar Orm Everrson, AKA Gyrfalkon, returns to Fenris and to Jarnhamar, the pack he left half a century before. With little time to reintegrate into the pack, now under the leadership of his former pack-mate Gunnlaugur, he and the rest of his pack are thrust into a mission that will stretch them all to breaking point.
Though it initially looks like garrison work and hardly suited to the Wolves of Fenris, the mission – working with the Adeptus Sororitas to guard an important shrine world - soon proves to be a desperate defence against an insidious enemy which grossly outnumbers them and knows neither fear nor pain. But even within the walls of the shrine city, all is not as it seems….
Wraight’s writing in this novel is amongst his best, particularly within a 40K setting. I had always thought his Warhammer Fantasy writing to be his better work, but this is at least on a par with the best of it. There’s an expansiveness to his descriptive prose, an unhurried determination to paint every detail of the picture, that really worked well for me and gave a real sense of a Skjald relating an important saga where the devil is in those details. Gyrfalkon (Everrson) is a fascinating character; I mentioned earlier how Wraight seems to be bridging the gap between the Heresy era Space Wolves and the well known 40K types, and it’s through this character that he explores the theme of the great changes wrought by the passage of time. Throughout the book it is made ever clearer that Everrson’s time with the Deathwatch has changed him, irretrievably so. Many of the beliefs to which the Wolves cling no longer hold him, and watching him struggle with his strange insider/outsider viewpoint was compelling and at key moments, deeply moving.
Though Everrson stands out as the main protagonist, for me the book explores the perspectives of each member of the pack. There’s a strong Seven Samurai vibe, with each member bringing a warrior archetype to life in ways that plays them off one another really well, and their interactions, whether in battle or in the quieter moments of reflection, never failed to grab my attention. A particularly electric relationship is between Everrson and the new Vaerangi (unit leader) Gunnlaugur. Both were once considered as replacements for their previous Vaerangi, and the two alpha males within a pack created a powerful tension that overlaid some already tense scenes as well as providing some explosive interactions between them. This tension is also created by Everrson’s time away from the pack and the change they all sense in him, though it’s this change that gives him a more open lens through which we really see each member of Jarnhamar, stripped of their bravado and examined for their true merits. That each of the pack brings something unique to the mix – the sword master, the heart, the headstrong youth, the hoary old veteran – created such a rich character pool from which to tell a story.
The supporting cast of Sisters brings a much needed human perspective to the tale, and their relationship with the Wolves is managed through a former Sister Famulous (Diplomats), Uwe Bajola. Her relationship with Gyrfalkon is another great part of the story; the two of them, human and post-human, share an important quality: both have spent time beyond the walls of their insular cultures and have a broader perspective than those they fight with. This relationship develops through the story to a conclusion that I’ll not ruin for you.
The mounting tension as the story races to an uncertain conclusion is handled masterfully by Wraight, and the action scenes are powerful and fast paced without the suspension-of-disbelief-breaking moments that I struggled with in Battle of the Fang. There is also an air of mystery running through the whole story that is only partially revealed by the end. The opening scene of the book shows us the last moments of the previous leader of Jarnhamar and the group of inscrutable assailants that cut his thread, and it isn’t until very near the end that this is brought back into focus; it was this that made me realise Blood of Asaheim wasn’t a standalone novel but the beginning of a new saga. I can’t wait for part two!
As always with these reviews, I am left with a feeling of so much left unsaid; so many twists and turns, inspiring victories and heartbreaking losses.
Rather than trying to say more, I’ll leave it at this – very highly recommended.