The Iron Wolves is the latest addition to the "grimdark" wave of fantasy that is taking over the shelves these days. These novels are bloodier, grittier and supposedly more "realistic" than the epic fantasy of the past with characters that are either morally ambivalent or just plain sadistic. While that sounds either exciting or disturbing based upon your viewpoint, these tropes of grimdark are not necessarily good or bad by themselves; the ability of the writer to take these elements and weave them into a coherent, gripping tale is still what matters the most, as it always has with any novel. That is why for every excellent examples of stunning grimdark fantasy penned by authors such as Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence there is a grimdark book that has splashed blood across the pages yet been abject failures. As for The Iron Wolves, it is not a masterpiece of the genre but is far from its worst representative.
The story itself focuses on the surviving members of the Iron Wolves. Twenty years or so ago, the Kingdom of Vagandrak was invaded by Morkagoth, an evil sorcerer, and his army of monstrous mud-orcs. The only thing that saved the land was the Iron Wolves, who held back the man-eating hordes at the Pass of Splintered Bones and somehow banished Morkagoth from the world. The surviving Wolves became heroes. Their names revered by all the people. Epic tales of their heroic stand sung around the land. And off into the glorious sunset our heroes rode with their duly earned rewards of gold, titles of nobility, and a life of well-earned peace, far away from the world of violence that they had been forced to endure.
But things are never quite that simple in the real world. A man and woman’s life does not end when the story says "And they lived happily ever after." No, the brutal truth is that one chapter of life might have closed but another is just beginning. And that was true of the Iron Wolves after the applause from their victory subsided. They were now heroes: adored, honored, and richer than before Morkagoth defeat, but they were still the same messed up people inside. In fact, they were even worse than before; their deficiencies magnified by the scars from the brutal conflict they had barely survived. And while the average person in Vagandrak might believe them heroes, the Wolves knew themselves unworthy of the adoration. For this new persona of nobility and riches was just a lie. Inside, each of the Wolves was broken, cursed even, and soon, their vicious natures returned, leading one to seek solace in drugs while another sought bloody joy in the fighting pit and yet another turned to killing innocents.
Now, however, these fallen heroes are man’s only salvation from a horrendous evil. For something even worse than banished Morkagoth has arisen. A sadistic creature who has reawakened the mud-orcs and is determined to annihilate the race of men, as it seeks to obtain some unknown goal. To make matters worse, the throne of Vagandrak is now occupied by a madman. A mighty warrior who was once widely loved but who has succumbed to insanity, bowing down to his most decadent vices and refusing to acknowledge any danger to his realm while callously murdering anyone who dares to speaks out against his unwise practices. Thus, one old warrior, General Dalgoran, determines to reunite his legendary Iron Wolves, to rid them of their vices, and lead them once more in valiant defense of the realm against the vile mud-orcs and their master.
And so the epic tale begins!
Without question, the story that Andy Remic weaves from this intriguing beginning is a well written and gore packed grimdark fantasy. It’s full of action, keeps the fighting coming nearly every page, and does not skimp on the blood. The characters are unique, flawed, and some are beyond disgusting and best described as sadistic. Not only that but Mr. Remic has seen fit to let these men, women and monsters play out their bloodstained games in an interesting world, populated by intriguing peoples, and filled with wonderful tidbits of lore that hint at even greater mysteries awaiting revelations. Unfortunately, in my opinion, Mr. Remic took some of the standard tropes of grimdark a bit too far in this novel. Allow me to explain.
All stories have to have a good guy and bad guy. It is just a requirement. Every reader needs someone to empathize with and cheer for throughout the story. Otherwise, there is no reason to sit down and read page after page of a novel where you hate everyone. Whether the "hero" is someone like the honorable Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings or the psychopathic Jorg Ancrath in The Broken Throne doesn’t matter. There just needs to be someone whom the reader wants to see overcome obstacles and triumph. In this novel, Mr. Remic’s "good guys" are the Iron Wolves: a group of warriors who are drug addicts, pit fighters, serial torturers, and serial killers. Naturally, each of the Wolves has their justifications for their inhumane behavior, but unfortunately, no matter all Mr. Remic’s storytelling skill, none of the reasons put forward by the Wolves is good enough to remove the taint from their worthless hides. I mean, even Jorg in Prince of Thorns had his mother and brother tortured and killed before his eyes to explain his psychotic break, but in The Iron Wolves, the "good guys" throw out shallow excuses for their sadistic nature with things like "I kill those in love because love never lasts – except in death" or "I torture and kill rich people’s children because they live off the poor" or other less than compelling explanations. Honestly, there is not a decent person in this whole bunch except General Dalgoran, who spends a great deal of time agreeing with my assessment of his Wolves and telling them what absolutely worthless specimens of humanity they all are.
To attempt to correct this problem with the story having such unlikable protagonist, Mr. Remic took the only option open to him; he created the most sadistic, monstrous villain that he could concoct: Orlana the Changer. This strange, inhuman villainess is naturally a sexually alluring female, sadistic in both her outlook on life and her appetites. To call her cold, cruel, and cunning is not to adequately describe her, for she is quite frankly evil embodied in human form. One minute, she will be coldly "splicing" men and animals together, birthing out of their immeasurable agony monsters consumed with a blood lust for human flesh, and the next she will be satiating her sexual appetite on a man slave, literally eating him alive as she spread her taint within him. But every active villainess needs sustenance, and so Orlana will take time away from her annihilation of humanity to casually impale a woman from anus to mouth before roasting her over a slow fire and forcing her latest man slave to partake of the cooked flesh of his former wife. Once done with lunch, Orlana will then feel fit enough to continue feeding whole populations to the "mud-pits" to produce more vile mud-orcs who also crave human flesh for sustenance. Honestly, Orlana the Changers evil is so ghastly, so horrid that compared to her a reader has to prefer the drug dealing, pit fighting, child torturing, and serial killing of the Iron Wolves, right?
Perhaps some of you will feel exactly that way. I, for one, found Orlana the Changer’s evil so over-the-top, so otherworldly and so unrealistic that it did not really matter to me. Sure, it disturbed me, made me skim a bit to skip over the next wife kabob, but overall, I quickly became numb to the next horror she unleashed upon humanity. However, the very realistic and sadistic nature of the books "grimdark heroes" were difficult for me to swallow, and I felt morally dirty for even routing for them, like I was somehow accepting their crimes against their fellow men, women, and children.
With all that being said, I cannot deny that The Iron Wolves was a real page turner. Mr. Remic is a wonderful writer, and here he has delivered a grimdark lovers fantasy: no-holds-barred violence, sex, and death in page after page of blood-soaked action. There is so much of the later that many a time I reached for a towel to wipe the blood splatter from my own face. So if you are overdue for a grimdark gore-fest, then pick this one up. Just make sure you have a strong stomach and are not eating shish kabobs when you read this one.
I received this book from Netgalley and the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. I’d like to thank Netgalley and Angry Robot Books for allowing me to receive this review copy and inform everyone that the review you have read is my opinion alone.