(SPOILERS for The Horus Heresy: Primarchs: Leman Russ: The Great Wolf by Chris Wraight)
I picked up Chris Wraight's Primarch's novella The Great Wolf on a whim. I don't follow the Horus Heresy series as closely as I used to, just checking in when a particularly attractive pairing of author and legion comes up. Usually, Chris Wraight writing Space Wolves would be a easy sell: I like Chris Wraight, I like how he writes Space Wolves. The only sticking point was the subject of the novella.
Its the duel with Lion El'Jonson.
Now, I get it. Its a hugely iconic moment in 40k history, its a big personal moment for both primarchs and there really isn't a place to slot it into the regular Heresy novels quite aside from the fact it isn't something that could really fill out a full-length novel. The Leman Russ novella was a natural home for it, especially as I'd bet the Lion novella will be about his relationship with Luther.
Still... Chris Wraight, Space Wolves, give it a try, I though. It started off great with the Thirteenth Company of all people being one of the main focuses of the story. Hell, Wraight even remembered the existence of Bulveye, now that's what I call fan service! Indeed, it took a while for the Dark Angels to turn up and I basically convinced myself that, okay, this was going well and was interesting and I could take the hit if the Lion bit wasn't as fun.
Well, I was wrong. The Lion bit is great because unlike most other authors, Chris Wraight has something more to say about the Lion than to wiggle his fingers and go “ooooh, untrustworthy and mysterious”. One of the first scene Russ and the Lion share has them basically comparing their ways of war. Russ, as long established, takes his wars very personally. He's the Emperor's appointed executioner, after all:
“Ever world we burn is for vengeance. They are condemned, he is condemned, and we are the sanction.”
The Lion, meanwhile, has a far more impersonal take on the whole affair:
“For me, the order was simple – go out, harvest worlds for Terra. I carry no hatred for those who resist. I barely see them. They are numbers, objects, obstacles to overcome. In the end the Great Crusade is all, and it stands or falls by our actions.”
As prosaic as it sounds, this is probably the deepest insight we've ever been granted into Jonson's mind. Most of the Legions gain their character from the personality of their primarch but Jonson has always been a mystery so Wraight works backwards: he takes the mindset of the Unforgiven and applies it to the Lion. He takes the cold singlemindedness with which the Dark Angels and their successor hunt the Fallen and asks what that would mean for a Jonson who has nothing to hide yet. Actually, the fact that Jonson has nothing to hide at this point, is a central theme of the novella and his conflict with Russ (hint: it has something to do with the Thirteenth Company).
Its certainly a more interesting approach than just having the Dark Angels always being untrustworthy dicks since day one which has tended to be how other authors treat them. And I'm not ust beating down on the “lower tier” Heresy writers here: Dan Abnett is just as bad for it in Unremembered Empire with Jonson forgetting to mention to anyone that he has bloody Night Haunter on his battlebarge because that's not the sort of thing that's going to come back and bite him on his knightly arse.
So, yes, for the first time ever I find myself interested in the Lion and it makes me want to dust off my Angels of Redemption. I've always liked the colours and the mechanics but now I have an insight into their psychology: the mission is everything without consideration of personal glory. Now, this gets a lot less heroic in the “present day” where that purity of purpose gets twisted into an endless quest of vengeance against the Fallen that has them regularly abandoning, selling out or massacring allies left and right but that psychology still holds true to a large extent.
Wraight's angle on the Lion also has the virtue of, just for once, not painting the Dark Angels as being entirely in the wrong. As much fun as I have tweaking our resident Dark Angels player's nose with the phrase “heretics in skirts”, a problem that comes up an awful lot is this:
“How does anyone trust these guys?”
So having a novella that shows them on a good day when there's no reason to (intentionally) betray anyone is a breath of fresh air. It genuinely is the first time I've seen them portrayed with the efficiency for war that gives them value as a fighting force and not just a bunch of shifty guys who swoop in, mysteriously abduct a mysterious person for mysterious reason and then massacre a hundred thousand Guardsmen for having seen too much. Or, to put it another way, as an army that works outside of their one USP storyline.