Curse of the Wulfen by David Annandale (Book Review)

When I first got into Warhammer 40,000 fiction my first stop was Grey Hunter by William King. Odd to start with a third novel in a series for a setting you don’t understand but that’s where I was some fifteen years ago. I was no stranger to this however because when I started on the Animorphs novels by K. A. Applegate, the third novel The Encounter was where I started. And just as then, I fell in love with what I was reading. For me, Grey Hunter started an obssessive love with the Space Wolves and Ragnar in particular that persists to this day. Always happy to read something about them, and in that respect Curse of the Wulfen definitely stands as one of the best that Black Library has to offer. Part of the War Zone Fenris campaign, this novel by David Annandale explores how the Space Wolves Chapter must adapt once its mythical Thirteenth Company returns to the material realm, lost for some ten thousand years. It is a fantastic start to the campaign lore, and I definitely recommend it.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the novel is its prelude, which sees three heroes of the Chapter come together before a particular tomb deep in their mountainous fortress-monastery. The two Wolf-Lords Krom Dragongaze and Harald Deathwolf, plus the Wolf-Priest Ulrik the Slayer. The Space Wolves are a Chapter heavy on mysticism and omens, and this one-page start to the novel is pretty chilling for what it portends for these warriors and their brothers. And from there, Curse of the Wulfen is a tale of uncertainty and heroism, legends and doubts. Lost to the warp at the dawn of the Horus Heresy when the Space Wolves burned Prospero, the homeworld of the Thousand Sons, the Thirteenth return in scattered packs and the Chapter’s companies are each tasked to head out and gather them all wherever they may be.

As someone who has long been enamoured of the myths of the Thirteenth Company and the wulfen curse of the Chapter, this novel was a blessing. William King’s novels dealt with the concept tangentially though Lee Lightner’s Wolf’s Honour gave us significant details that were very intriguing. However, the Horus Heresy series seems to have run a little roughshod on all of that. Except for a short story in the anthology Tales of Heresy, we do not see Lord Bulveye and his Thirteenth ever again and Dan Abnett’s Prospero Burns takes the Wolves in a very different direction. All the same, there is enough here that you can see how David Annandale takes all the disparate threads and weaves them together into an evolved concept. There is no Bulveye here, but the essence of who and what the wulfen are still remains and it is really fascinating to read.

Wolf-Lord Harald Deathwolf is our primary protagonist in the novel and he made an excellent case for the ambivalent nature of the Thirteenth and their return again and again as the narrative progressed. Initially hailed as heroes and a favourable omen of the return of their Primarch Leman Russ, the optimism of Harald eventually gives way to dread and fear once the wulfen turn out to be something darker than they appeared. I won’t go into the details here, for that’s part of the experience of reading the novel, but suffice to say that David explores the duality of the wulfen really well. They are both a gift and a curse, hearkening back to William King and Lee Lightner’s novels, and I loved that aspect of them. It made for a more enjoyable story than what I’d imagined.

Additionally, the story wasn’t limited to just Harald Deathwolf and those of his Great Company, the Deathwolves. We got to see a really incredible cross-section of the Chapter. Great Wolf Logan Grimnar. Young King Ragnar Blackmane. The ten-thousand year-old Dreadnought Bjorn the Fell-Handed. Various other senior officers of the Chapter from all ranks. That’s what really sold me on the novel. For a lore-fanatic such as myself, this novel is a gold-mine where the Space Wolves are concerned.

Something that bothered me reading through however was that David glossed over the losses that the Space Wolves took in their search for the lost Thirteenth in an effort to reconstitute the Great Company. Again and again Harald’s Deathwolves are thrust into the grinder, fighting against innumerable daemons, and again and again they come out with the skin of their teeth, seemingly taking great losses that ultimately don’t leave that much of a mark on the Great Company. David’s action sequences were superb and varied all through, but I do wish that this aspect had been given a little more consideration.

The same holds true for the casualties that the Space Wolves and the wulfen inflict, for it seemed that the odds were always a million to one and yet the Space Wolves triumphed again and again. To take that as a positive, it did heighten the sense that there’s some great doom building up for the Space Wolves, but at the same time it also cheapened their victories a little. And for me, the Space Wolves are among the most heroic of Chapters and this taint of an easy victory didn’t sit well with me.

This is just all a part of the realism that the author intends to impart to a war novel like this, especially in something like the Warhammer 40,000 setting. More thought could have been given to this, but overall, this was not a deal-breaker for me.

Yet, there’s so much to recommend here. I’m a big fan of when writers explore a Chapter’s culture and impart some unique elements to it. For the Space Wolves, this has always come as a pseudo-Viking/Norse theme and I really love that. Thankfully David doesn’t shy away from that and he also doesn’t treat this as something ironic to be subtly mocked as some writers have done in the past. This embracing of their cultural aspect is well-done, even though at times David delves too deeply into the Codex: Space Wolves elements such as the Thunderwolf Cavalry and what not. As I said, this is all a part of their identity and it deserves to be focused on. The balance that David maintains is good.

As I said above, reading through you get a deep sense of some momentous doom building up. Harald’s exuberance and joy at rediscovering the Thirteenth quickly gives way to a deep fear about the portents and that drives the narrative like nothing else. The pace of the novel is fast and there are plenty of highs and lows along the way that keep the reader entertained. And it isn’t as if the Space Wolves are the only primary actors here. Borassus, where the Thirteenth appeared for a second time, also comes under the purview of the Dark Angels in a roundabout way and that sets up some interesting clashes down the line. The Dark Angels, while a fellow First Founding Chapter alongside the Space Wolves, also have a long history of rivalry and enmity with the Space Wolves owing to their Primarchs’ relationship with each other. David doesn’t go into many details, but what he sets up doesn’t bode well for the future either. And I found that very exciting.

Not to mention the fact that the Grey Knights, the acclaimed and secretive and mythical daemon-hunters of the Inquisition are also involved. It makes sense for them to do so, and it added another layer of awesome to the novel. I love the concept of the Grey Knights and Ben Counter’s trilogy of works on them stands as some of the best that Black Library has to offer. And that the Grey Knights here are led by none other than Brother-Captain Stern, who has been a named character for a long time in the gamebook lore, it bodes well for how tense and exciting things will become both in this novel and Robbie MacNiven’s Legacy of Russ.

Finally, the ending of the novel. Everything that David set up before culminated in an explosive finale that left me in shock. I indirectly knew of what the War Zone Fenris story was before I started on the novel, but the scope of it that became apparent in this finale was something that had been beyond me. So far, the story had been really stellar, but the epilogue just took things up several notches. Curse of the Wulfen is merely the first half of the story, with Robbie MacNiven’s Legacy of Russ to follow, but damn, David Annandale did an admirable job of giving the introduction and meat of the story here. Highly recommended, especially if you are a Space Wolves fan.

Rating: 8.5/10

More David Annandale:

  • The Beast Arises #4: The Last Wall (Review)
  • The Beast Arises #7: The Hunt For Vulkan (Review)
  • The Beast Arises #9: Watchers In Death (Review)
  • Overfiend #1: Shadow Captain (Review)
  • Overfiend #2: Forge Master (Review)
  • The Death of Antagonis (Review)

More Space Wolves:

  • Blood of Asaheim by Chris Wraight (Review)
  • Space Marine Battles: The Battle of the Fang by Chris Wraight (Review)
  • Grey Knights: The Emperor’s Gift by Aaron Dembski-Bowden (Review)

Posted on June 8, 2017, in Book Reviews, Review Central and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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