Monday, 1 September 2014

Blood of Asaheim by Chris Wraight (Warhammer 40,000 Novel Review)


Approaching any book by Chris Wraight is a difficult subject at the best of times. While he has rightly been praised time and time again for his work on the masterpiece known as Battle of the Fang, his other novels have been often mixed. They're not badly written but they seem to keep falling into a rut, with certain problems holding them back.

He's certainly written great works for Fantasy and The Sigillite was one of Black Library's best audio dramas to date, but the rest of his space marine work is extremely mixed. The quality of prose never dropped but for every step forwards they seemed to take a step back. Scars was overambitious and tried to do everything at once but lacked enough real focus to achieve its full potential and Wrath of Iron seemed to suffer from a serious love/hate issue when it came to the Iron Hands. Now we have Blood of Asaheim, which unfortunately only takes this problem to the next level.

Having been separated from his chapter for the better part of a century in service to the Deathwatch, Ingvar of the Space Wolves is returned to his pack at a desperate hour. With constant battles raging against the forces of the Ruinous Powers, the mighty chapter is stretched thin. Many of their number are being sent out under-strength against their arch foes and few have the time to fully recuperate their losses. Tasked with assisting Imperial defenders hold a Shrine World against the advancing Death Guard, Ingvar's squad is dispatched alone to accomplish this task. Even as they face an enemy from beyond the Warp however, nerves begin to fray among the Grey Hunters as Ingvar's distanced nature causes a rift among his brothers...

Now, the actual core idea behind Blood of Asaheim is a fantastic one and it came at exactly the right time. A big problem with the Space Wolves is that all too often seem outright invincible or getting away with flipping off major Imperial organisations far too often. Along with the Imperial Inquisition on multiple occasions, the likes of the Ecclesiarchy and Mechanicus have been on the receiving end of this, and it's getting a little ridiculous. As such, this novel was set to better explore their own personal weaknesses in terms of ideology, methods of warfare and diplomacy without taking the spotlight away from them.

You can see the core ideas here. With Ingvar being taken away from his squad for so long, the Grey Hunter unit Jarnhamar is uneasy about him. Viewing him almost as an outsider, the squad is often on edge and has serious problems operating along with Ingvar, especially his once sworn brother Gunnlaugr. It capitalises upon the old idea that packs would never accept new blood and uses it to present the chapter as insular and has difficulty adjusting to the ideas of the bigger galaxy around it. As such, the Wolves here are presented as extremely set in their ways and surprisingly inflexible, more akin to the stereotype often associated with their opposite, the Ultramarines.

This is presented as a serious flaw, as is their inability to really comprehend the long term impact of their actions. While the Space Wolves here are still presented as fighting for the common man, they are willing to face down just about anyone in order to do so, but lack the true understanding of just how certain forces might strike back against them. It's an underlying subplot and both elements are studied in turn, gradually shifting from one to the next.

The chief problem is that while these were all fantastic concepts and goals for the book to focus upon, the novel fails to really execute them well. It fails to find proper balance, and in trying to examine where they fail, it starts to present the chapter as ineffectual and extremely backwards. 

This is clearly depicted very early on through Ingvar's suggestions and flashbacks to his days in the Deathwatch. During an early orbital engagement, the Space Wolves are presented as being so utterly driven, so utterly obsessed with direct kills that they treat Ingvar's suggestions of hit and fade attacks to be ridiculous. His alternative suggestions are then treated as if he is undermining the group even when it could have saved the ship. This is supposed to make their social mechanics appear more akin to those of wolves, but they just make them look like fools and things only get far worse from there.

Ingvar himself is often treated as the most competent one, but almost all of that seems to stem from his service in the Deathwatch. No, not because he spent a hundred years with extensive training and hunting down the worst xenos known to the Imperium, but because he learnt from other chapters. 

One specific section goes in depth into how he has learnt something from every other marine in his unit, which would be fine but we never see the opposite, with them learning from him. Space Wolf tactics, skills and doctrines are never brought up as something worthwhile, and it even exaggerates certain elements to introduce new flaws. Rather than respecting the Codex Astartes but not valuing it as a way of war applicable to them, Ingvar practically sneers at the very suggestion of using its tactics and seems to consider it worthless. It's only be overcoming this and effectively abandoning the ways of his chapter that he seems to become more skilled. Even by the end, when the squad is apparently being congratulated for their decades of service, Ingvar is singled out as the one who had to improve himself the most thanks to his origins.

Even this might have worked were Jarnhamar a collection of interesting individuals, but they ultimately fall flat. You have the distrusting one, the old jaded one, the young blood and the outsider, none of who have any real depth beyond trying to accomplish the book's themes. Some novels can get away with dry characters if they have interesting subject matter, and straight forwards novels can be classics if they have a colourful ensemble of protagonists. Having both at once only spells doom for the tale, and things never pick up despite having the potential for something truly fantastic.

However, for all this it's actually not the Space Wolves who suffer the worst, it's the Sisters of Battle. While not quite reaching Bloodtide levels of insulting writing, the Sororitas are given the shaft here to the point of grim hilarity, and half their sub-plots seem to only serve to really screw them over at every turn. 

Along with having their faith easily broken (the one thing which gives them any kind of significance over astartes), the book goes out of its way to present them as ineffectual incompetent halfwits. A refugee camp is almost lost thanks to a complete lack of any kind of quarantining measure, one Sororitas kills several of her sisters to preserve a secret only to reveal it barely a chapter later, and they drop like flies. While not quite so bad early on, it becomes downright ridiculous towards the end of the book. Despite being in an entrenched position, armed with heavy weapons and supported by other troops, a squad of power armoured nuns of death are overrun after only taking down a few dozen plague zombies. By comparison, the Space Wolves munch their way through these things in seconds.

If there is one thing to praise, the prose is typically high quality. Whatever the failings of his plot, Wraight can usually be counted upon to construct a great world and that shines through here. The unfortunate thing is that, with nothing positive to back it up, his excellent fight scenes and lengthy descriptions are nowhere near enough to save the novel.

While it had good intentions, there's nothing of real value to be found in Blood of Asaheim. It seems decent upon first reading, but it rapidly becomes worse upon second looks and more flaws become apparent the more you read through it. A better story which examines the Space Wolves' habits in facing other Imperial organisations would be The Emepror's Gift, even if that is only its latter half. This though? It's really not worth the time of any but the most ardent of fans.

3 comments:

  1. To be fair to Chris Wraight and the Space Wolves, aside from contempt for the Codex Astartes, that is how the Space Wolves operate now thanks to the new codex, here's an excerpt from it: "Leman Russ cared little for formal military organisation and tactics, ever relying on the strength and courage of his warriors to win the day. He had no intention of breaking apart his mighty Legion further in accordance with his brother’s wishes. Though Guilliman ostensibly agreed to the Space Wolves retaining their twelve remaining Great Companies, each one still comprised many hundreds of Space Wolves, for the Wolf-King would have them fight in the manner of the native tribes of Fenris – as an army of battle-hungry warriors, not a small contingent of disciplined and well-ordered troops. Thus did the Space Wolves largely ignore the Codex Astartes, instead holding to the teachings of Russ, which still
    define their fighting methods to this day."

    That's just one of the reasons I don't like the new codex, though it does make an awesome (if slightly overpowered) Iron Hands codex if you change the Helfrost rule to Graviton or something like that.

    The Sisters of battle thing is shameful though, it looks like they're just used in the role of making the Space Marines look even better, which is kind of common when authors think guardsmen are too weak to do the comparison.

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    1. Oh I do get where he is coming from, but it's like he tried to take it all to the next level. It's the same problem I personally had with Wrath of Iron were he seemed to be obsessed with exploring a chapter's weaknesses and failings to the point where it was just downright insulting to them. In that book we had the Iron Hands' contempt for weakness and obsession with troops following their commanders taken to an insane level, purely so they could end up in conflict with the Imperial Guard later on. All it would have taken is one single conversation to actually sort that out, but Wraight went out of his way to ensure that could not happen.

      Here we have the same problem, where certain qualities have been exaggerated to an obscene degree. The codex might say they care little for traditional tactics, but here it goes so far as to have them scoff at just about anything besides rushing the enemy head on. Even a brief assault intended to slow down the enemy advance boils down to an open melee with a metric ton of Chaos troops, and every time they actually behave like Space Wolves it immediately bites them in the rear.

      It's like Wraight was determined to try and make everything core to the chapter worthless in his attempt to downsize some of their more insane acts. Going to this extreme just ends up doing as much damage, perhaps more, as some of the stuff seen in the last two codices.

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  2. While I entirely agree about the whole "Even by the end, when the squad is apparently being congratulated for their decades of service, Ingvar is singled out as the one who had to improve himself the most thanks to his origins." bit, I actually found the whole Fulcrum, secret assassination bit somewhat more bothersome. Because it was essentially there as a throwaway line, almost to justify Ingvar being off on his own for most of the story. While Stormcaller may go into it in greater detail, in this books is felt like a waste. The idea is one that has the potential to be superb story of Imperial infighting (or an awful story of Imperial incompetence of the "how have they lasted 10,000 years" variety), but here it's not even a C plot, it's just a scene, then the book's back to fighting Nurgle and the INgvar/Gunnlaugr umbrage. This is an idea deserving of it's own novel, not hidden in another.

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