Space Wolves: Ragnar's Claw (William King)
Ragnar's Claw, the second in a series of novels covering Space Wolf Ragnar Blackmane and his quest to become an elite warrior, is a competent novel that does manage to move the character along quite nicely, despite setting him up with a flimsy supporting cast and linear to the point of being dull story. Though these flaws prevent it from being a great book, Ragnar's Claw manages to succeed in providing a wide variety of action and an ever growing main character. If you liked the first book, there is little reason that you won't have a decent time with the second book in this series.
This book ditches the seemingly obvious set up that the first book in the series, Space Wolf, had set up. The battle to defeat the Chaos incursion on Ragnar's homeworld Fenris is over by the time this book begins, with this plot line only being alluded to briefly in the opening. Instead, we are treated to Ragnar and company's first trip off planet. Of course, they aren't leaving Fenris for a vacation, instead their assignment sees them tracking a powerful artifact across the universe with the help of two inquisitors named Sternberg and Isaan. The pieces of the artifact take them to a wide variety of settings, pitting them against a slew of evil creatures.
Unfortunately, there isn't much more to the plot besides this single minded desire to track the artifact down. There is a little sub-plot about the way the Space Wolves are looked upon by the human crew members of the ship they are using, and a hint of romantic tension between Isaan and Ragnar, but otherwise this book hits all the familiar notes. We get to see the Wolves fight Orks on a forested world, infiltrate a space hulk, and travel to a plague infested world to end the threat once and for all. The book is almost entirely action, with little in the way of intricacy or subtlety, but this actually turns out for the better as there isn't anyone in this book to like except for Ragnar, and even he is on the shallow side. Basically, the story you are getting here is a mostly inconsequential, entirely predictable Warhammer 40k action novel that hits the expected notes and doesn't stray too far from the norm. Not inherently bad, but not a masterpiece either.
Character development and personality is entirely the realm of Ragnar in this book. He has a few comrades, with the inquisitors and his commanding officer to back him up, but next to no effort is put into any of these characters. The inquisitors, in addition to a random priest that pops up for seemingly no reason, at least benefit from having uncertain motivations, everyone else is a boring mix of tired comic relief and mindless cannon fodder. Interestingly, even Ragnar's former rival Strybjorn falls prey to this, barely even factoring into the story and doing little more than Ragnar's other squad mates. Opposing this less than exciting cast is a mix of genestealers, Orks, demons, and Chaos possessed humans. The large variety of antagonists is offset by the fact that they are underwritten pretty badly. The Orks are easily stopped and function as even more bad comedy in a book plagued by it, the demon gets some of the worst lines in the entire book, and the genestealers make a strong appearance but are in the book for an extremely limited time.
Ragnar manages to save the book in terms of characterization, displaying actual development and meaningful personality traits. Throughout this book, he learns more about being a leader and being a warrior, discovering how to take charge and using his ingenuity to get the team out of more than a couple of tight spots. He is also learning more about the Imperium as a whole, and his role in such an enormous universe. Together with the first book in the series, Ragnar's ascension has been plotted quite well thus far with very little in the way of mistakes.
Ragnar's Claw represents a significant step forward for author William King too. The over the top and cheesy connections drawn between the Space Wolves and real world vikings that tainted the first book is comparatively muted here. Sure, they are big guys with long hair who love their alcohol, and the connection is still an obvious one, but it isn't thrown into the narrative again and again for no reason.
Another enjoyable element, this one carried over and improved upon for this book, concerns Ragnar's use of smell to find out things. This is handled very well for the most part and helps to explain the emotional state of the other characters, but it does seem to get a bit overpowered at times. Without really explaining it, Ragnar's ability to sniff out other people's emotions via their scent sometimes transforms into the ability to partially read their minds.
The rest of the book didn't leave much of an impression on me in terms of writing. There was a fun race/chase scene that nicely highlighted some of Ragnar's abilities, and overall the action is described with the expected level of competence, though some sequences are a bit confusing. As for the dialogue, it is extremely lacking and is basically just the same dumb joke repeated over and over again in order to show the amazing camaraderie that the Space Wolves share. Ragnar's development occurs interally in this book, with his peers doing nothing to help him grow into his leadership role. There isn't much world building here, with only the space hulk standing out as a geniunely enjoyable setting: the other places we are taken to in this book are nothing more than generic archetypes inserted in place of meaningful locales. I like the writing in spite of these few setbacks though, and hope to see more improvements for the next book, Grey Hunter.
Ragnar's Claw is a light, fun book that manages to advance the character in meaningful ways while providing an action packed, simplistic adventure that will entertain anyone enthralled with the first book. It doesn't quite live up to its predecessor, but it gets enough right to be termed a steady if unspectacular follow up to the surprisingly strong opener.