Review: Leman Russ: The Great Wolf by Chris Wraight

Posted by DarkChaplain at 5/14/2017
At the the height of the Great Crusade, Leman Russ and his Dark Angel brother, Lion El'Jonson, come into conflict as they pacify the world of Dulan.

Many are the sagas of Leman Russ, Lord of Winter and War, most fearsome of the Emperor’s primarch sons. At the height of the Great Crusade, his Space Wolves fight to bring the rebel world of Dulan to compliance. Enraged by the defiance of the tyrant Durath, Russ has pledged to strike him down personally – but his brother Lion El’Jonson of the Dark Angels advises more caution. With the might of two Legions arrayed against Durath, tensions nevertheless run high, and the rivalry between the Wolf and the Lion threatens to engulf them all.

This one's a few months overdue and following Magnus out of order. It took me a while to get through it, and another while to figure out my feelings on it - and how to put them best. Hopefully I managed to find a good way to do just that here.

The Story:
"At the the height of the Great Crusade, Leman Russ and his Dark Angel brother, Lion El'Jonson, come into conflict as they pacify the world of Dulan.

Many are the sagas of Leman Russ, Lord of Winter and War, most fearsome of the Emperor’s primarch sons. At the height of the Great Crusade, his Space Wolves fight to bring the rebel world of Dulan to compliance. Enraged by the defiance of the tyrant Durath, Russ has pledged to strike him down personally – but his brother Lion El’Jonson of the Dark Angels advises more caution. With the might of two Legions arrayed against Durath, tensions nevertheless run high, and the rivalry between the Wolf and the Lion threatens to engulf them all."

The Review:
Leman Russ: The Great Wolf left me conflicted. I struggled to get invested in this Primarchs novel for quite some time before I decided to just sit down and get it done. Despite having some brilliant moments that left me in awe, the almost overwhelming amount of action, especially early on, left me struggling to enjoy the book.

A big part of my problems with this one isn't just down to content, or specifically a big focus on battles. The structure of it all is what made it feel as exhausting to me as it did. Leman Russ comes along split into a mere six chapters. The first and last of these form the meta narrative, putting the rest of the book into the context of Russ telling the story of his feud with the Lion of Caliban. They are, however, not labeled as prologue and epilogue like you might expect.
The remaining four chapters in between focus on the war for Dulan, the Wolf King and the Lion's many disagreements and ends in, as lore would have it, them punching the living hell out of one another. This iconic and highly anticipated moment in 40k history was handled exceptionally well, in my opinion, whereas the early parts and what may constitute as the main plotline felt underwhelming to me.
I digress, however. While reading the book, I found many, many scene changes that could have easily warranted a chapter break. I've always been in favor of having a good amount of chapters. As long as you're not as ludicrous with it as the Star Wars: Rogue One Junior Novelization which has over 60 chapters for a mere 192 pages, I'd say a few redundant chapter breaks are preferable to having endlessly long ones. Leman Russ, to my dismay, has plenty of those.

I honestly don't know what went wrong here. A lot of times the book lent itself to thematic breaks left and right, splitting battles from more profound and introspective moments, but instead it all runs together into one mess that I found tough to keep excited over. If you're anything like me in this regard, you might struggle.

But aside from these structural issues, I found the novel too loaded with battle scenes and all they entail. The first Dulan-plotline chapter kicks off with a massive boarding action, for example. Yes, it did a good job showcasing the Wolves' way of war, their howling and single-mindedness, but it dragged on a bit too much for my liking. It isn't that Wraight didn't make an effort to make me appreciate the Jarl of the 13th Great Company. I quite liked Jorin Bloodhowl of Dekk-Tra. His role within the Legion is fairly unique, due to being one of Russ's old guard on Fenris. It is just that I never really felt much for the Dulanians. They were the stand-in antagonists. The only thing they actually had going for them for the biggest part of the novel was their advanced and odd technological level. But if that's the only thing I can associate with them for the majority of the story, then I cannot claim to find that very interesting or engaging.
It seemed like the perfect opportunity to showcase an advanced civilization that rejects the Imperium's rule, yet the only part that came close to that was the Lion's final meeting with the "Tyrant" of Dulan. That was about where I got curious about this civilization. Sadly, that's also where it became irrelevant to the rest of the book.

I guess it is to be expected somewhat to have the war on Dulan be more of a backdrop for the Wolf vs Lion story of old. We didn't really know much about the conflict before and all the interesting bits were about how Russ and Jonson started their Legion feud for good. But for that, I feel that this happened a bit too late in the book. The buildup was decent, if action-heavy, but the blows landed only in the final stages of the book. As a climax it worked wonders and made me appreciate Wraight's skill at handling Primarchs once again. But between this rivalry plotline, the Dulan war and the third plotline involving the curse of the 13th Great Company, I felt like it didn't take center stage enough.
All three plotlines needed more to them to really shine. They were serviceable, but in the end I felt that the book needed more room to properly build them up. They play into one another just well enough to not make the book feel shizophrenic, but not well enough to properly satisfy me.

Having a big timeskip after the conclusion of the big brawl, rushing through the Heresy-to-come up until the aftermath of the Imperial Palace, was awkward in my opinion as well. It is clear that Wraight wasn't going to spoil Heresy-series events, and that the book needed to work stand-alone and not hold anything mandatory for the flagship series. The encounter between the two brothers also needed to be in the book. But after being relatively slow and bogged down with battles for 80% of the book, having one of the 4 chapters available to the core-part of the novel rush through decades into the future of the HH series, felt awkward. It seems more like a pacing issue to me than anything down to Wraight's skills as an author. In fact, this chapter was one of the most engaging parts of the book for me. It just didn't fit as neatly as I've come to expect from Wraight after all I've read from him.

But this is all so very negative, isn't it? I honestly don't like being this way. My disappointment has a lot to do with the high expectations I had for this novel, based on Wraight's own work with the Space Wolves both in and out of the Horus Heresy series. And truthfully, he did a bang-up job showcasing the Great Crusade-era Legion, with quite a few bits of foreshadowing and easter eggs. The Wolves felt dangerous in many scenes, and the Lion too felt authentic to his core character archetype. He is proud, deeply arrogant, but also insanely competent. Despite all of that, Wraight made it clear that the Lord of Angels wasn't quite as cold-hearted as he often appears. It was great to see Lion El'Jonson this way. The scenes putting the lense on him were some of the best in the book.
Russ, too, did get some neat additions to his character and the fears he held for his Legion. This is a Wolf King that wants his Legion to be seen as more than simple-minded barbarians, quite in contrast to his appearance in Prospero Burns, where he seemed mostly comfortable with the idea of being underestimated by all. It is interesting to see how many aspects of Leman are the same as in chronologically later depictions, while subtle changes were made to accomodate his pre-Heresy Great Crusade incarnation.

Yes, Leman Russ: The Great Wolf is well worth reading. It may be my least-favorite Primarchs novel out of the first three and took me a good while to slog through, but it is still a competent novel that does a lot of good things for the Vlka Fenryka. I'd say the final chapters where everything comes to a head alone make this book worthwhile, despite the pacing and structural issues. It is, however, one of the books that I wish hadn't gotten the short novel treatment but instead been a full-length novel. I believe that, had that been the case, Wraight could have fully lived up to expectations and made all three plotlines compelling in their own right. Either way, it is a great read for fans of the Wolves, but also the Dark Angels and people like me who wanted to see more Great Crusade depictions of the Legions than we got so far.

Leman Russ: The Great Wolf on Goodreads

About the Author

I'm known as DarkChaplain across the internet, and call myself a passionate gamer and book enthusiast. I have been blogging mostly about games for a couple of years, but finally found my way to reviewing a different medium: Books. Honestly, I prefer that job so far.
Follow Me on Twitter @TheDarkChaplain


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