Wednesday, 15 June 2011

‘Battle of the Fang’ – Chris Wraight (Black Library)

It was way back in January this year (and how long ago does that feel now...?) that I read Chris Wraight’s ‘Sword of Vengeance’ and said ‘Aaron Dembski-Bowden is cornering the market in excellent Warhammer 40K fiction and I think that what we’re seeing here is Chris Wraight beginning to do exactly the same thing on the fantasy side... ‘Sword of Vengeance’ is nothing less than a gripping read...’ Click Here for the full review if you like ;o)

Well, no sooner had I said that then Chris Wraight decided to take his game to another level and write something for the Warhammer 40K line as well. The previous two books of his had pretty much ensured that I’d pick up anything with his name on it but I was particularly interested to see how he coped in the 40K universe, a setting where the politicking that Wraight tackled so well takes second place to the grim dark trudge of constant warfare (especially in this particular series which very much sets its stall out as being all about the warfare). It turned out that I was in for another great read from Wraight. I had concerns about how the plot was set up but when it got going, it really got going...

For reasons best gone into in Graham McNeill’s ‘A Thousand Sons’ and Dan Abnett’s ‘Prospero Burns’ the traitorous Thousand Sons Marines and the Loyalist Space Wolves share an enmity spanning millennia and this mutual hatred is about to come to a head. Tricking the Space Wolves into a crusade that will leave their home world of Fenris virtually undefended, the Thousand Sons launch a devastating assault on Fenris that could just as easily break their own Chapter as it could the Space Wolves.
Can the remaining skeleton force of Space Wolves, and regular Fenrisian troopers, hold out until reinforcements arrive? Can they even breach a gargantuan planetary blockade to get out a request for aid? When the Primarch of the Thousand Sons himself gets involved then these questions may well be completely irrelevant...

Think of any war film or book that you’ve read. Take the amount of firepower in that book, or film, and multiply it by a hundred. Multiply it by a hundred again. While we’re here, multiply it by a hundred one more time. Congratulations, the level of ordinance that you’ve arrived at is just beginning to approach what’s on offer in ‘Battle of the Fang’, a book that literally roars with the thunder of cannon and the chatter of bolter fire. It’s a long hard slog from beginning to end but, for once, this is exactly how it’s meant to be. Chris Wraight has totally captured the feel of a battle for a planet where the difference between life and death rests on where you place that next footstep. You have to be careful where you put that footstep and this caution naturally slows things down although this doesn’t stop the ‘up close and personal’ combat from being as vicious as you would expect.

It’s a bit of a shame then that what turns out to be an excellently depicted battle is built upon foundations that felt a little flimsy, at least to me. The book tells us that the Thousand Sons have spent hundreds of years (at least) taunting the Space Wolves over their whereabouts, leaving the equivalent of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s calling card to taunt their enemies over having been led down yet another blind alley. Hundreds of years of the same thing happening to the Space Wolves over and over again... You would have thought that this trend would have led the Space Wolves to be a little more cautious but no... A couple of pyramids built on an out of the way planet is enough to send a very large chunk of the loyalist chapter on a mission of vengeance, forgetting all the other times they’ve been duped in exactly the same manner. I’m sorry but I didn’t buy this, not really. It felt a little contrived and a way to set things up rather than being a part of the actual story, especially when the story goes on to show that the Space Wolves really aren’t that stupid after all.

Once you get past this slightly rocky beginning though it all kicks off and in fine style. I’ve already mentioned how Wraight has near perfectly captured how warfare must play out on a world such as Fenris and he draws the combat out through a series of logical and well thought out events. Everything happens for a reason and that reason is made very clear; just the thing for a person like me who might not necessarily know exactly why ‘Battalion A’ must take and hold ‘Ridge B’. When the opposing armies get up close, Wraight isn’t afraid to have them throw every piece of ordinance (within easy reach) at each other and the end result is invariably the kind of pyrotechnics that any fan of military sci-fi (not just this setting) will get a real kick out of. The ending won’t be in any doubt for long term fans but there’s enough uncertainty for the rest of us to keep those pages turning nicely and enough explosive action to power the plot forwards.

All of this means nothing though if there aren’t well drawn characters to lend an air to humanity to event that essentially dehumanizes everyone taking part. Wraight does very well to provide sympathetic characters, across the board, that leave you with the prospect of not really having to root for anyone and just enjoying the action on display in the meantime.
There’s still plenty to think about though. A touch that I particularly enjoyed was the depiction of the Thousand Sons as a traitorous chapter with good cause to feel bitter about their treatment in the past; this really lent some ambiguity to the proceedings as we’re looking at the prospect of dark deeds being committed because there really is no other choice of actions.
I also enjoyed the depiction of the Space Wolves as the guardians of the Imperium’s future, trying to safeguard information before it is lost forever. I don’t know an awful lot about the setting but I know enough about the Space Wolves of the ‘present’ to really enjoy this spin on their established psyche.

‘Battle of the Fang’ suffered from a bit of a clunky start, in my opinion, but powered past this to deliver a tale of heroism and honour on both sides of the coin. Definitely one of the better contributions to the ‘Space Marine Battles’ series.

Eight and Three Quarters out of Ten


Vassakov said...

I've ordered this from Amazon and hoping to grab it in the next couple of days, but the review sounds very encouraging!

As for the contrived element of the beginning... it's not really Mr Wraights fault. This particular bit of background has been present for around 15 years now, and is a firm fan favourite on both the Wolves and Thousand Son's side so I suspect he had limited wriggle room there. Looking forward to this one a lot, especially Bjorn The Fell Handed taking Magnus down a peg or three.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with your thoughts on the set up of the story for the fact that later on you realize that its been several hundred years of psychic manipulation of the great wolf that played a key factor in their being duped. I just dont think thats to flimsy, he just makes you wait to see why they would bother withthe little pyramid planet.