I confess that I was a comic book nerd as a lad. (Comic books weren’t as mainstream then as they’ve since become; hence “nerd.”) Once, two friends of mine who didn’t read comics flipped through an issue of Jim Lee’s WildC.A.T.S that I had stowed in my locker. Laughing, they pointed out to me that, of 28 total pages, there were only three pages on which there was no fighting whatsoever. I remember that I was embarrassed, not only because I had been caught reading something with so little story, but also because I hadn’t noticed that the book had no story to speak of. Jim Lee’s artwork blinded me to the comic’s vacuity.
All of which is extravagant context for my review of Andy Remic’s recent book, The Iron Wolves (The Rage of Kings, Book 1). I must reluctantly report to potential readers that The Iron Wolves reads as if Remic strung together a series of grotesque fight scenes with a bare-bones plot.
The Iron Wolves’ premise is simple: Orlana the Changer (aka the Horse Lady), sorceress and (apparently) embodiment of supernatural evil, raises an army to attack our heroes’ homeland, Vagandrak. General Dalgoran, apparently the only official of sound mind in the kingdom, reunites the Iron Wolves, heroes of a previous war, in an effort to stop Orlana. The five Iron Wolves (Kiki, Dek, Narnok, Trista, and Zastarte) are morally deficient delinquents for whom the coming war presents an opportunity to reverse their fortunes and save their souls through redemptive, patriotic violence. Think Joe Abercrombie writing a reboot of The Dirty Dozen.
There is gore aplenty here for those who seek it. You might consider using decapitations as the foundation for a drinking game; in Remic’s universe, heads exist to be split from the bodies to which they’re mistakenly attached. Faces are sloughed off of heads on several occasions, the victims’ brains spilling forth. None of which bothers me, per se. I’m desensitized to random violence (thanks, television!). The perversity of some of the war crimes exacted here, though, disgusted me.
Consider a scene in which Orlana impales several women on spears so that the blades project from their mouths. It’s torture: she begins while they’re still alive. For good measure, she uses the spears as spits and roasts them, feeding the flesh to their husband. Worse, one of the “heroes” kidnaps and tortures young noblemen and -women, possibly because they “deserve” it for their abuse of the lower classes. Or because it’s just fun to torture people. I don’t expect my heroes to be perfect, but this is fantasy. Please permit me the luxury of not having to root for a sociopath just because he’s not (literally) a demon.
The Iron Wolves has two major problems. The characters are simplistic. They’re all mercenaries, and readers will find it difficult to sympathize or identify with any of them, even Kiki, their leader, who, at least, has motivations beyond self-interest.
Remic’s world, and as a consequence, the book, is disjointed. Remic spends the first third of the book establishing the story, which seems reasonable, but some of the Iron Wolves are introduced to readers even later. The initial chapters jump from one character to the next without segue or elaboration. The intent was, I think, to dump readers directly into the action. The effect is jarring, as the reader wonders what’s important and what isn’t, if he’s following everything properly, why this is happening now, and so on.
Furthermore, Remic engages only in minimal worldbuilding. Not every author should imitate Tolkien, of course, but Vagandrak is painted in strokes so broad as to be nearly invisible. There is a stony country (Vagandrak), bordered by a poison sea and steppes, and in which there is a forest full of suicides. And everything is really big. You now know everything there is to know about the setting of the book.
I spend a lot of time here going over the book’s weaknesses because it’s all so unfortunate. Remic shows talent as a writer. His prose is muscular and he shows evidence that he does know how to tell a story. Remic uses the last quarter of The Iron Wolves to elaborate on his heroes’ history and provide some background the rules that govern magic in his world. The Iron Wolves are bound together in a special way that I found intriguing, and one character has an important destiny that demonstrates that Remic has, in fact, developed his world. He just doesn’t share it with the reader.
What you need to know: Not for the squeamish, The Iron Wolves is a fantasy big on action and short on character development and worldbuilding. Possibly ideal for readers who think Joe Abercrombie is a pansy.