The first Space Marine Legends title – not to be confused with the Lords of the Space Marines series – Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s Ragnar Blackmane is a short novel tackling perhaps the most well known of all Space Wolves, the titular Ragnar. Released in Limited Edition hardback and standard ebook formats back in 2015, it takes the form of two interlinked stories set approximately 40 years apart but both taking place towards the very end of the 41st millennium. In one strand we see Ragnar as Wolf Lord, leading his Great Company in the defence of Cadia against the 13th Black Crusade, while in the other we see him as a newly promoted Wolf Guard, still headstrong and clashing variously with Dark Angels, Flesh Tearers and his own packmates.
Between the two strands we see the different sides of Ragnar, on the one hand his clear-headed drive and determination while on the other his violent (even for a Space Wolf) temper and recklessness. These two aspects, combined with an unusual amount of good fortune, form the heart of his character and drive the overall story along. Despite the two strands it is essentially a single story, the different elements well thought out and plotted, and cleverly, purposefully connecting. Overlapping supporting characters and a nice, subject-appropriate resolution serve to reinforce the connections and make sure this feels like a cohesive narrative throughout.
As expected from Dembski-Bowden the characters themselves are all well crafted and characterised, not just Ragnar himself but the supporting cast too. There’s none of the old-school over the top space Viking stylings here, instead the emphasis is on the deceptively complex bonds between packmates and the ritualised forms of honour that form the backbone of the Wolves. Alongside Ragnar we get to see the guarded, taciturn Ulrik the Slayer, who Dembski-Bowden uses sparingly to excellent effect, the wily Berek Thunderfist and the snide, dangerous Wolf Guard Nalfi Razortongue, as well as an intriguingly calm and dour Dark Angel and a pair of Flesh Tearers whose belligerent character provides an interesting comparison to the Wolves’ own.
Once again Dembski-Bowden has proved his worth as a storyteller – he’s not the most prolific, but he consistently turns out books which go beyond expectations. Here his prose is deliberately sparse, always enjoyable and occasionally genuinely beautiful, and he works within the constraints of the short word count to give us a little gem of a book. With a few indulgent nods to the classic William King series of Ragnar books, and a setting which foreshadows the more recent Space Wolf releases, hinting at forward motion for the wider 40k storyline, it’s short but very much sweet.