Space Wolves: Space Wolf (William King)
Space Wolf is the first novel to feature the titular Space Wolves, a legion of Space Marines heavily inspired by Vikings and Nordic culture. Told through the eyes of Ragnar Thunderfist, a fallen warrior resuscitated for purposes of recruitment into the Space Wolves, the novel does a fantastic job of showcasing the brutal conditions of life on the world of Fenris, and the customs of the Wolves, while providing an action packed spectacle with some surprisingly strong character moments.
The plot begins with life in Ragnar's clan as they are assigned to accompany a Space Marine on his travels. The Thunderfists, being primitive like much of Fenris' population, have no explanation for the marvels that the Marine is capable of, and the man quickly fills Ragnar with a sense of awe. This early segment comes to a crescendo in a brutal fight scene in which the Grimskull tribe takes their revenge for previous crimes, slaughtering all of Ragnar's family and leaving him to die. This early section does a great job of characterizing the native people of Fenris, and the final fight scene helps to show Ragnar as a fighter with tons of potential, but some unchecked demons.
The second part of the book, and most lengthy, concerns the training and trials of a potential Space Marine recruit. Saved from death by the mysterious outsider, Ragnar awakes to find himself in a strange land. He has been saved so that he may undergo the trials of the Space Wolves, something only the mightiest of warriors earn. Unfortunately, Ragnar finds himself placed in a squad with fellow recruits that includes none other than Strybjorn, a man he fought and defeated in the final battle of his old life. Ragnar's rage at Strybjorn for the annihilation of his tribe plays a huge role in this middle portion, as does the group's continued fights against the brutal cold of Fenris, strange creatures, and sometimes one another.
The third part is where the plot loses me a bit. After Ragnar's successful graduation to full blown Space Wolf, an event which should have marked the end of the book, we get an additional piece featuring the Wolves in their fight against a nascent Chaos uprising on Fenris. The battle is excellent, with plenty of awesome moments and intense firefights in the caves beneath a mountain, but this part doesn't seem to fit at all. There is no real conclusion, just an epic one on one showdown between Ragnar and a leading Chaos guy, in which they basically fight to a standstill, and then the book abruptly ends as Ragnar is about to go back into battle. This part feels more like it should have been included at the beginning of the next book, because as entertaining as it was, the trials and all of the background info seemed to be the focal point of this novel, with this sub plot thrown in as an afterthought.
Ragnar is a fairly simple character, but his relationship with rival Strybjorn and intense dedication to his comrades help define his personality. Ragnar struggles with his hatred for Strybjorn throughout the book, nearly killing him several times, despite the fact that his leaders continually tell him that his hatred could destroy him. It threatens to consume him several times, and it is quite compelling to see him grapple with his certainly understandable hatred in order to better serve his Emperor. Additionally, Ragnar goes from a great sadness and sense of duty to his lost clan to an overpowering sense of loyalty and love for the Emperor and the Space Wolves. It is an interesting transformation that shows just how the mind altering tactics of the Astartes works.
Every other character in this novel is devoid of personality, and it is rather hard to keep track of names as more are introduced. There is the mysterious recruiter, hard nosed sergeant, and creepy Chaos guy, in addition to a large handful of faceless brothers in arms. No one in Ragnar's claw comes to life, and the other characters are just names and cannon fodder. The Chaos Marine we encounter at the end, Madox, is an intriguing character, we just don't learn much about him in this novel. A worthy antagonist in terms of skill, there is quite a bit of back story that is hinted at for this character, which should lead to a satisfying foe for Ragnar in future novels.
The author's writing isn't anything special, but there is a concerted effort to develop the world of Fenris and the Space Wolves culture. New comers to 40k will also enjoy some of the tidbits in relation to the greater picture, and the role of the Chaos Marines is nicely defined. Fenris and the native clans are clear tributes to Nordic culture, something that is overly stressed and annoying early on, but becomes a bit more subtle when Ragnar and friends become true Space Marines. I enjoyed the voice that the author used, using vocabulary that would make sense for a mostly uneducated pseudo-Viking, and describing the sci-fi elements in basic, nonspecific terms until Ragnar learns more about them. It adds to the mystery and characterizes the protagonist very adeptly. There isn't much else to say about the writing style, it is of a fairly typical, action oriented and straightforward style that gets quite a bit of use in the 40k books.
Space Wolf is a good opening novel with little in the way of flaws. Despite a very hollow supporting cast and an out of place final segment, the book is a great action packed novel that helps fill in some important information on the Space Wolves and the Warhammer 40k universe in general. A perfect book for newcomers to the universe, anyone interested in the setting could certainly do worse than learning about the Imperium of Man alongside Ragnar and friends.