It's books like this which really makes me question the ambitions of certain authors. So many times, many, many times we have seen writers bring up massive, potentially game-changing scenarios only to sidestep any difficult ideas. It's as if someone at Games Workshop just really loves to think up story concepts, puts together huge spider-diagrams of story elements and narrative hooks, but lists what happens after they're set up simply as "Fuck it, get it out of the way so we can move onto the next thing." That might sound harsh (and yeah, it's giving away the quality of the book) but how many damn times do we need to see this now? The majority of the codices based upon the game have abandoned all but the most thread-bare details surrounding the army, shafting lore in favour of artistic splash-pages and the few story driven events like this just keep getting worse.
Curse of the Wulfen can be seen as taking events from the now largely non-canon Codex: Eye of Terror book and trying to give it another go. Rather than mashing together a multitude of broad and varied story elements, it focuses purely on the potential return of the 13th Company of the Legion VI to the world of mortals. Having pursued the Thousand Sons into the Eye of Terror itself, having fought in the name of a far younger Imperium and alongside the Emperor, the very idea of it carries boundless possibilities for new storylines. However, having fought within the bleeding wound in reality for so long, and with so many of their number afflicted by the curse of the Wulfen, the question is left to hang over whether or not these warriors are so pure as they seem.
Fighting across a war zone against a Chaos incursion, a task force of Space Wolves stumbles upon a band of Wulfen bearing the mark of the old legion and the lost company. Despite their feral state and bestial nature, they recognise the astartes as their kin, bowing before them as their betters. As more reports begin to echo across the galaxy of multiple chaotic incursions with bands of Wulfen emerging to combat them, the Space Wolves depart from Fenris en mass, to uncover the truth behind their re-emergence and unite their chapter once more.
Despite the negative tone of that introduction it might surprise you to learn that there are some genuinely good moments here. While they largely come down to brief snippets and small moments, the odd gem shines through which shows someone, at one time, had a few decent ideas jotted up. The most prominent of these surrounds the return of the 13th themselves, and how that relates to the chapter. Love it or hate it, there's unfortunately little to really deny that the 13th Black Crusade campaign sort of just threw them in but didn't add much more to the mix. Here it seems someone wanted to really explore the concept of what their return might mean, and how it might relate to the chapter in some way.
In one particular case, it's alluded that the 13th's return might have been either predicted or planned in some way, or that creatures so warped and altered as they had once played a role within the chapter. As the newly re-united mutants are allied with the chapter, one picks up a ornate battle-axe so massive that the chapter believed it to be a purely decorative or ceremonial weapon. Acting with some half-forgotten memory, it wields the weapon as if it were some extension of its own body. Something it either carried in a past life or was it perhaps even left there to be taken into battle upon its return? The question is left open for future installments. The same goes for a possible connection between these warriors and (the ever moronically named) Murderfang. Near feral and borderline insane, the dreadnought was recovered by the Space Wolves on some forgotten world and its origins have always been shrouded in mystery. By suggesting that the mysterious ancient might be connected to the 13th in some way, we now have far more depth and complexity to his character. They're interesting concepts to be sure and, by downplaying them at this early stage rather than ramping up the focus, it helps to build upon the mystery at work here.
The book also takes a brief moment to expand upon Bjorn the Fell-Handed's role within the chapter, and the kind of important position he holds among them. As the oldest living astartes in the galaxy, he has been the spiritual heart of the chapter, ensuring they remain loyal to Russ' memory and a direct connection to the Great Crusade itself. While it's brief, the book adds a moment which helps emphasise his importance to the Space Wolves beyond even this role as their living chronicle of the past:
"In strained tones, the Dreadnought revealed the secrets of his slumber. So ancient and powerful was Bjorn's spirit that, while he slept, he stood vigil from atop the hexagrammic ramparts of the Fang's echo in the Warp. It was from this vantage point that Bjorn had spied the Daemons gathering in the beyond, and from here that he had fought them off since before even the first Wulfen had returned."
While personally I was initially hesitant to accept this new twist, the more I thought about it, the more I honestly quite like the idea. It turns Bjorn into the chapter's version of Heimdall, eternally watching for all threats within the Warp and guarding against daemonic incursions. It focuses more upon the Norse elements of the chapter over the werewolf angle, but it's not spelled out for the reader or over-exposed in any way. Furthermore it gives him more to do than just sleep away for hundreds of years at a time, and helps answer one reason why it's so difficult for Chaos to directly assault the planet. Not to mention the great image of an astral projection of Bjorn choke-slamming any daemon foolish enough to even look at the planet in the wrong way.
Avoiding the common problem which has plagued the Space Wolves for years now, Curse of the Wulfen picks a more serious tone and sticks with it. There's none of the usual "I punched an Inquisitor and replaced my heart with a time bomb!" antics on display here which could have easily destroyed any sense of drama within the tale. Instead, it's more akin to what we have seen from Chris Wraight or Dan Abnett's works in overall tone and presentation, and it seems to side with the counter-argument approach of recent works. While the Wolves are still quite clearly competent, their loose cannon nature and loyal pack mentality is what comes back to bite them quite, earning them more enemies than allies. Whatever else is said here, there's no denying that someone on the writing staff was paying attention to their greatest problem of late, and the story does try to balance out the werewolf bits with a healthy dose of space viking.
With Chaos being a major factor in this story, it's only fitting that the book finally depicts a full blown Chaotic assault upon the Space Wolves' home. This is quite cleverly alluded to early on but, if you skim through it a little too quickly, it's a brief hint you're bound to miss. Better yet, the attacks aren't focused upon Fenris itself but the system as a whole, giving a better impression of their protectorate worlds and a battle on a grander scale. While it might not be on par with the Invasion of Ultramar, there is a sense that this is a truly monumental event, and the sort of conflict which helps to really emphasise the threat humanity faces during the End Times.
The final twist the Curse of the Wulfen builds up to does leave the future heavily in question and promises a brand new twist which a tabletop campaign has not fully tried to explore before. It's certainly extremely different from what you would normally expect, but at the same time there's a few niggling problems which hinders it severely. Guess what we're going to be looking at next.
Let's be frank here - This book only works if you ignore more or less any Space Wolf story produced in the last decade. Really, the more you read from the story, the more story elements you'll see from past Black Library releases. While not nearly as prone to outright stealing story events as Sentinels of Terra, it doesn't take long to think "Wait, someone has written something exactly like this before..."
So, the 13th Company returns and Chaos hatches a plot which (quite blatantly) is intended to turn all of the Space Wolves into Wulfen via a system-wide incantation. Fine, things have been shifted a little and a few roles altered, but this bears a heavy resemblance to Wolf's Honour.
Driven by the Space Wolves' actions, an Imperial war fleet eventually arrives on Fenris to pass judgement upon the chapter and perhaps even execute them. As I recall, Aaron Dembski-Bowden wrote something rather similar not too long ago.
Almost all of the Space Wolves are drawn away, dragged to the far reaches of the galaxy thanks to a Chaos ploy, leaving only a single company to guard Fenris against attackers. Even if the Fang itself isn't attacked, this is starting to sound a lot like Battle for the Fang.
After the Star Wars article, I truly wanted to try and ignore any possible comparisons where ideas might have been lifted from elsewhere, but this sort of thing is very hard to turn a blind eye to. It's one thing to take inspiration from novels featuring these chapters to be sure, but another entirely to see massive chunks of overarching plots cut away and stitched together in order to found a new story-line. Hell, if you want to take things further, the ending even has shades of Prospero Burns thrown into the mix, especially given how the book pushes the Chaotic manipulation angle. This might even be fine if the book at least addressed one or two of these, bore some small mention of these past events to show how history might be repeating itself or the chapter is weathering further attacks from an angle which was once thought impossible. Something could have been added to tie together the stories somehow, but instead past novels are just outright ignored, the writers pretend they never happened, and Curse of the Wulfen steams on ahead repeating far too many damn ideas for comfort.
Still, let's be fair and just do as the authors want us to, and focus upon the book over anything they might be repeating from Black Library novels. Instead, let's focus upon the the much bigger narrative problem: The whole thing is a gigantic idiot powered plot. Really, the entire event, everything from the arrival of the Wulfen to Chaos overrunning Imperial territories is only accomplished because the Space Wolves act like morons. This is driven in part because the plot requires half the Imperium to find out about their activities and drum up some new reason for a battle barge to nuke Fenris, and in part because the writers apparently can't be bothered to confront weighty themes.
Think of just about any Imperial Armour book you've read (and yes, these reviews are going to keep comparing these books to those, because it's obviously what they're trying to replace) and think of how they confront weighty themes. They tend to go quite in-depth. take their time and fully establish or explore an idea before pressing ahead with anything. A massive chunk of Siege of Vraks was spent establishing just how/why Chaos insurgents could manage to take control of a massive stockpile of weapons. A truly massive portion of the first Badab War book was spent purely upon establishing who the Astral Claws were, who their Chapter Master was, and the political pressures which seemed to lead to the conflict. Even after that, each and every event had weight and meaning to it as pages were spent examining and detailing each major action in turn, and no book failed to do this. Even those who hated the obvious Tau Empire bias present in the Taros Campaign couldn't deny the book was well structured and the authors took great care and time to focus upon each new twist in the story.
So, with that clear, how long does Curse of the Wulfen on the Space Wolves debating over their course of action? One page. Well, two if you're willing to be generous and take the massive art-piece padding it out into account, and half of a one if you just want to focus upon the words. If you remove the art, the obvious, blatant pushes to bulk out the book and the brief introduction, you're given perhaps two or three pages to establish the return of the Wulfen and the chapter's entire reaction to them. While some great debate, some distrust and a few vague hints of concern are listed, the reader is just told this information. There's no push to really convey this point, no moment where the reader really gets a sense of any true concern from the Space Wolves, or even if this is some Chaos plot. No, instead all we get is pretty much this:
"'Sup, we're the Wulfen."
"Ulrik, are they good?"
"Well Grimnar, they're ugly as sin but they've got our old armour on them. Could be a sign Russ is coming and we should look busy."
"Right you are, you lot, you're in our chapter now! Grab some axes and get ready to crack skulls!"
Say what you will about the Soul Drinkers, but at least it's very strongly suggested they were being mentally bent towards becoming traitors. It took a single, truly massive, event and internal corruption to turn them into accepting mutations as a possible necessity within the chapter. Even then, there was still mass dissent and a necessary culling of many who opposed this new view, right after months of slow, subtle inward mutation among Sarpedon and his original loyalists. When a story widely criticised for being too accepting of mutations and ignoring corruption is beating you, hands down, in terms of detail and gradual story development, you might want to think things over.
The lack of any time spent discussing this new predicament is especially frustrating, as it makes the whole story utterly predictable. You just know from how quickly they skim over events that this is going to backfire horribly on the Wolves, and their sheer inability to even think about what this action could truly mean for more than three seconds only reinforces that point. Insular and ritualistic as they are, these are supposed to be astartes who live with Chaos on their doorstep every day, plotting, scheming and preparing to annihilate them at a moment's weakness. The Space Wolves are supposed to possess enough innate cunning an experience to combat them, but these guys could be fooled into stumbling into a ravine if you told them their primarch was at the bottom.
While they're certainly also known to be rather unsubtle when it comes to their approaches to war, the Space Wolves would probably want to keep their actions here secret. After all, these are marines who are so horribly mutated and disfigured even they were hesitant to take them back in. Hell, even after that, the book notes more than once that they risked Grey Hunters filling them with bolts more than once thanks to angry outbreaks. So, this required secrecy and serious consideration as to how the Imperium would see them while they were hunted these creatures. None of which ever happens here. Nope, instead they just recall every Great Company they can, leave one to guard the Fang (ignoring their oldest mistake in the lore), and race around like a stampede of Warp capable bull elephants. Over and over again, they run headlong into Imperial war zones, kill everything in sight and then leg it before they can be discovered like the most surreal smash-and-grab the galaxy has ever seen. As you can imagine, this backfires on them. Badly.
Two of the major war zones just happen to involve two chapters with the single most zealous hatred of mutants and traitors this side of a Black Templar crusade. So, naturally you'd think that they would go the extra mile to at least avoid confrontations or direct contact with them. Well, you'd be wrong again. They practically blunder headlong into the Dark Angels, announcing their presence in orbit before forcing their way onto the planet below. After acting as suspicious as posthumanly possible, they make no attempt to cover their tracks, then leg it partway through a pitch battle with Chaos, leaving the Dark Angels (the Ravenwing no less) to take heavy casualties in their own retreat. To make matters worse, these marines with an exceptionally long grudge against the Wolves just happen to record Wulfen mauling their Scouts while excavating ruins. So, hiding their own heresy (a number of corrupted,daemonic blades they were hiding on the planet) they promptly go about gaining support to fully investigate the chapter and/or kill them all.
So, that's one First Founding chapter royally pissed off with many of their number dead and thinking the Wolves are guilty of harboring traitors as well as cowardice. Who else could they possibly piss off? The Grey bloody Knights of course! Yeah, leaving a trail of corrupt and daemon infested worlds in their wake thanks to legging it before purging the planet, the hammer of the Ordo Malleus gets involved. Hunting them down across multiple worlds, they eventually catch up with Grimnar's lot on the world of Absolom. Still stuck fighting yet more daemons, now with a group who they not only risked annihilation in a brief war but who tend to have an itchy trigger finger when it comes to Exterminatus bombardments, you'd think they'd now tread carefully. No, instead they just keep on going, and don't even attempt to hide their feral, mutated Wulfen from the Grey Knights.
I'd make a joke at this point, but honestly, nothing quite beats the actual conversation between Grimnar and Brother-Captain Stern:
"'I speak with the Emperor's voice, Grimnar. And I accuse your Chapter of harbouring mutants. I further believe that your warriors have invested a number of incursion war zones, then departed from them at great cost to the Imperium.
So, you do not deny these things. I confess, Great Wolf, I had heard much of the Space Wolves but I did not believe you to be cowards who ran from wars unfinished.'
'Careful, Daemon Hunter. You go too far.
You had accusations to make, Brother-Captain?'
The Grey Knight frowned at the bestial Wulfen, panting and snarling with the battle's exertion. They were clustered around the armoured form of Murderfang, the huge Dreadnought quiet for once as it shared some kind of unspoken communion with the feral warriors.
'These creatures,' began Stern, his Grey Knights moving to stand behind him, 'They are mutants, yes?'
'They are kin,' replied Grimnar, his voice cold as a Fenrisian winter. 'There is no taint in them. It's... complicated.'"
For those wondering, nope, he doesn't try to negotiate, expand or even present an argument beyond that simple line. Even when Stern is being surprisingly reasonable, stating that the Grey Knights simply want to be sure they are free of corruption, Grimnar bars them entirely. The two are effectively on the verge of all out war before Stern more or less backs down. If Grimnar wanted to give the Inquisition a better excuse to murder every Space Wolf in the galaxy, all he'd need to do is finish this conversation with "and the Emperor can kiss my hairy arse!" Really, he's gone full heretic at this point. Even excusing him thanks to the machinations of Chaos would only carry him so far, and at the very least the Wolves would probably be forced to forsake Fenris and go on a several hundred year crusade in penance for their crimes here. The sheer blunt, unwieldy nature of the writing here is just being beaten over the reader's head at this point, with no subtlety nor room to think anything beyond "THE SPACE WOLVES ARE GETTING FOOLED!"
Now, you might be thinking that a lot of this seems very underdeveloped, even more so thank usual. Well, there is a
Almost the entire book focuses upon mindless violence, sheer annihilation and massive rampages which just become an inexorable tide of continual fights. There's sadly not too much done to really change things up past a few moments of quiet or subtler tactics, but beyond that there's not nearly enough done to differentiate each fight. It usually just comes down to Great Company X is using a lot of Fast Attack choices or Great Company X is fighting Nurgle at the moment. It's easy to skim over the book at these points as it never stops long enough to have some truly character driven sections or even more introspective moments, as there just wasn't room given how they structured the story. It's like this almost the entire way through, and whereas Kauyon and Mont'ka at least showed continual escalation with the arrival of new forces into the mix. While Curse of the Wulfen tries to do the same, it only accomplishes adding more marines into the mix. Without any space to really focus upon their unique abilities or ideologies, it's just one mass of multi-coloured infantry units appearing over and over again.
So, want to know how this all ends, then? Well, Grimnar is given a rather rude awakening by Stern, and learns that his actions might not have led to the consequences he truly wanted. Unbeknownst to the chapter, Fenris has been sending out continual distress calls for months on end as the entire damn system is invaded en mass by daemonic forces, with each of its worlds slowly being overrun. Suffice to say, each Company legs it back to their homeworld as fast as they can manage and finds everything in near ruins. However, before they do, they notice something odd. The more Wulfen they gather together in one spot, the more hostile they become, towards one another as much as all outside threats. Even the younger astartes are soon joining them in savage outbursts, with only their Grey Hunters and Long Fangs keeping themselves in check. Do they stop to consider what this might mean, or even consider what might be happening, even after realising that this whole thing might be a Thousand Sons plot to destroy them? Well, you've seen how this mob of brain donors have handled things thus far, what do you think.
The book basically devolves into a series of somewhat varied fights, with the only real highlights being a raid by some (Wolf) Scouts resulting in an attacking warband being crippled. As the rest really are just mosh pit fight with a few new curtains or backgrounds, save some admittedly inventive descriptions on one "greenhouse world", what should be a grand finale just lacks any meaning. The book really blew its load far too early with several Greater Daemon fights, and after all those there's really not much you can truly do to top them. At least without going nuts and pulling some burning Calgar-on-Avatar action anyway. The only thing of real note is the finale when, as mentioned earlier, the mass of loyalist vessels arrive to possibly annihilate the Space Wolves thanks to their suspicions.
Still, all of this is sidestepping the big issue isn't it? So far we've talked about every damn thing here save for how the book truly handles the Wulfen themselves behave and are written. Well, it's not good. You might note that I stopped calling them the 13th Company for quite a while and just started writing "Wulfen" in its place. That's because, from what we can see in the book, all of the 13th Company are Wulfen. There's no returning heroes, no returning veterans and nothing which doesn't look like the hairy lovechild of a Sasquatch and Wolverine. It's a disappointment to be sure as it means there's no interaction between heroes of past ages to be had, no moments where we see the Space Wolves of different eras speaking of how things had changed. All those hopes you might have had about the old Wolves meeting up with the new ones? Yeah, you won't find it here.
All this said though, now we get into the real crux of the problem, the massive one which towers over all else here. I have said more than once that canon in Warhammer 40,000 is malleable. People can accept changes or alterations in the name of a good story and save for certain pillars which hold up the canon and maintain certain facts, the rest can be shifted around within reason. So, fans might snark at the idea of a bolter ejecting spent shells or even an Imperial Church revering the primarchs as gods in their own right, but the galaxy is big and broad enough to fit that in. However, when someone writes that the Emperor was actually a squig, the Thousand Sons weren't psykers, eldar were just carefully disguised orks and there's no such thing as a lasgun, people are going to cry foul.
You can probably guess where this is going. Brace yourselves, this is going to get stupid.
According to this book, the Wulfen we all knew up until now never existed. There were never any packs of feral wolfmen clad in power armour, transformed into monstrosities thanks to the Cup of Wulfen or the Canis Helix's innate instabilities. No, instead, while one brief moment does allude to the curse, the Wulfen are treated as something the chapter has never run into before. In fact, not only has the chapter never run into them before, heard of them or even been suggested to have knowledge of just how massively warped their bodies can become, but the book retcons the very origin of the word. Yeah, no longer is it associated with the curse of the chapter, but the 13th Company itself. This is established just a few pages in when one Wolf Lord recognises them bearing "the Mark of the Wulfenkind" which was the famed sigil of the lost Company.
... I'm honestly not sure if you could have created a more raging cluster-fuck of continuity problems if you tried. Well, short of claiming Leman Russ was actually the chicken king to help excuse the new Wulfen legs, anyway.
This is bad. I mean, really bad. As in the kind of bad I was churning out almost ten years ago when I was taking my first clumsy stabs at writing my own lore. This is the kind of bad I see from people who go on the Bolter & Chainsword, seeking help and advice for how to better craft future stories and are trying things out for the first time. This isn't what I would expect from a paid, globally published writer with direct oversight from Games Workshop developers and is charging £45.00 to buy his book. It's certainly not quite as insulting or Mont'ka nor did it cause me to spit quite so much blood much as Clan Raukaan, but that's only because the bar would be sinking into the ground if it were set any lower. This is an astonishingly bad start to this new saga and one of the worst turns for the Space Wolves we've seen in years.
If you care about the Space Wolves, if you value you intelligence and don't want to be insulted every other page, avoid the living hell out of this book. I have seen fans fart out better fan codices free of charge with better writing than this, so why do you go look at their stuff instead. Lord knows they respect the lore far better than anything found here.
Still, we're not quite done yet. There's just one last bit of stupidity we have to confront.
It's all over the place. We've covered this sort of thing more than a few times now, and it results in the same mix of recycled old art, re-coloured works and new artistic styles clashing with the old ones. It's always going to be a mixed bunch, and there's little else to really say besides that some stand out well, and a few others range from bad to downright ridiculous. Admittedly a lot of that is down to the Wulfen themselves rather than the actual artists, save for one oddly dulled and softened style which just fails to capture the brutal appearance these guys are supposed to have.
The only serious criticism to be made here stems largely from story coherency and obvious communication problems, one so bad it actually overshadows the Iron Hands' issue. You know the one, where the artist repeatedly depicted the initiation bionic on the wrong hand. Wanna know what it is? Multiple pictures of the Wulfen first showing up, garbed only in the remnants of old power armour, ruined from mistreatment and lack of maintenance, aren't dressed as such. Oh no, instead apparently someone only told the artists to work off of the models, so they're all clad in he specialist armour and wielding the weapons they get some way into the book.
Oh, and if you think that's bad, apparently it's been so long since someone's seen a Strike Cruiser that someone had them draw heavy bolter turrets in place of the broadside batteries. The sad thing is that it's honestly one of the best looking pieces of the whole book, marred by what should have been an easily avoided communication error or solved via quick Google search.
It's bad and you should avoid it. If the constant mention of "wolf" "fang" and "wulf" every other sentence doesn't start to make you cringe after a while, everything else will. Save your money for something better unless the second part of this story sees some serious improvements later on.
So, without further ado, onto the rules.