Ragnar Blackmane by Aaron Dembski-Bowden (Book Review)

One of the great mysteries of William King’s Space Wolves series was how the young Blood Claw Ragnar Blackmane, the protagonist of the series, became an elite of the Wolf Guard without ever attaining the rank of Grey Hunter, a seasoned warrior, in Wolf Lord Berek Thunderfist’s Great Company. This was especially teased in the novel Grey Hunter when in the prologue one of Ragnar’s warriors calls him out on it and the young Wolf Lord dissembles. While Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s Ragnar Blackmane doesn’t answer that burning question (when will it happen!!??) what it does give us is a very thoughtful and introspective look at Ragnar when he was still new to the Wolf Guard and still making a name for himself in his Lord’s company. While not the finest of Aaron’s work nor his most subtle, it does come close and is a damn fine read.

There are three differing narratives in the novel. The primary contextual narrative is of the Thirteenth Black Crusade, the thirteenth great attempt by the forces of Chaos to break out from the Eye of Terror and lay waste to the Imperium, starting from great Cadia itself. Ragnar’s Great Company has deployed to the planet in support of the Imperial forces and as the Wolf Lord prepares his men to hold one of the city-forts, he remembers some of the turning points of his life that have brought him to that point. The first of these is a traditional honour duel against the Space Wolves’ secretive rivals the Dark Angels, and the second is a journey to the homeworld of the savage and animalistic Flesh Tearers. Aaron weaves them all together in a cohesive story that tells some of Ragnar’s defining moments, but while the stories themselves are well-told, there is little in the way of pay-off, especially for the Flesh Tearers’ part of the narrative.

In the primary narrative, we see a thoughtful and introspective Ragnar who has grown in his command over an entire Great Company. With the legendary hero Ulrik the Slayer at his side in the Cadian campaign, Ragnar is rather maudlin here, and I loved that approach. This hearkens back to William’s excellent prologues and shows just how entertaining this look at Ragnar can be. I certainly approve of this. He is said to be the youngest warrior ever to ascend to command of a Great Company, and I felt that throughout this narrative Aaron did a great job of showing how it wasn’t just his martial skills that got him there, but something more. He really focuses on Ragnar’s journey here and I loved it. The narrative, when it ends, is also rather spectacular and something that he built up from the first of the secondary narratives. Not often that a scene like this gets written, and I applaud Aaron for it.

The honour duel against the Dark Angels, in contrast, shows Ragnar at his most hotheaded and impulsive. When the Dark Angels scores a wound, Ragnar lashes out in unthinking anger and ends up killing him, which just causes multiple problems for the Space Wolves and for Ragnar himself alike. This was also something that I liked. Aaron gets to focus on the rough-and-tumble rivalry between the two First Founding Chapters here, and I was rather surprised that he was so willing to portray Ragnar in such a negative light compared to the main narrative where that is most definitely not the case.

The conversations that result among Ragnar’s fellow warriors were also fairly interesting. In most Chapters, you wouldn’t find such disagreements between senior officers, but the Space Wolves are far from the typical. They respect only strength and wisdom. While I am not too happy with how the narrative is resolved at the time that this conflict ends, we do get a great resolution later on in the novel which made it all worth it. We get some intriguing insights into both the Dark Angels and the Space Wolves which make up for any of the minor negatives.

The other secondary narrative results in part from the first one, as it is all a continuous tale and this time the focus is on Ragnar as he is sent to the Flesh Tearers’ homeworld of Cretacia as a bearer of ill-news. What follows shows Ragnar at his most skilled and diplomatic even. He is still a hotheaded fool, but this narrative shows how there is also something more to him. Even back in William King’s novels, there was also the running thread that many senior warriors within Berek Thunderfist’s considered him to hold great promise for the future. That’s certainly on display here. Ragnar has to negotiate through the complex maze of the enmity between the Flesh Tearers and the Space Wolves and I enjoyed all of it.

What’s really important here is that after a rather long time we get some much-needed insight into the Flesh Tearers themselves. Unlike the Space Wolves and the Dark Angels, the Flesh Tearers are of the Second Founding after the Heresy, a successor Chapter of the noble Blood Angels. However, theirs is a history of strife and adversity for their homeworld is an extreme death-world, much like the Wolves’ own Fenris, but unlike their greater cousins, the Flesh Tearers lack numbers. And both Chapters consider each other to be debased animals, for various reasons. Learning the history of the conflict between them is certainly a peak emotional moment, as is the final resolution of the narrative.

So what we have in Ragnar Blackmane is not the legend of the warrior, but more the man behind the myth. These are the experiences that have shaped Ragnar and made him who he is in the present time. This is the kind of thing that Aaron excels at, given his incredible work with the Night Lords series and in the Horus Heresy series as well. As such, Ragnar Blackmane is very close to the level of books like The First Heretic and Soul Hunter. But is also lacks some of the subtlety that can be found in those books, or like in Blood Reaver and Void Stalker. I was all ready for there to be something of greater import in the narrative but couldn’t find it. Not to say that this is a bad book, far from it. Just that it falls a little short of the mark.

All in all, Ragnar Blackmane is still very well worth a read. From someone who is a big fan of Ragnar and the Space Wolves, I’d say that this is also a must-read. Enjoy!

Rating: 8.5/10

More Aaron Dembski-Bowden:

  • Grey Knights: The Emperor’s Gift (Review)
  • Night Lords #1: Soul Hunter (Review)
  • Night Lords #1.5: Throne of Lies (Review)
  • Horus Heresy: Butcher’s Nails (Review)
  • Horus Heresy: Shadows of Treachery – Prince of Crows (Review)
  • Horus Heresy: Mark of Calth – The Underworld War (Review)
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Posted on June 14, 2017, in Book Reviews, Review Central and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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