Reading novels set in the 40k universe, you usually know what you are going to get: bolters, lasguns, big guys in armour shooting and getting shot by aliens, all limned in characteristic grimdark. It’s a winning formula. But sometimes it’s good to read something a little outside the usual tramlines, and Alec Worley’s The Wraithbone Phoenix delivers a story outside those tramlines that might just be the most purely enjoyable Warhammer 40k novel I have ever read.
That’s not to say it’s lacking in bolters, action, intrigue and a suitably grimdark setting (the hive city, Varangantua – thought: was the city inspired by Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel? 40k is full of veiled, and not so veiled, references to this world settings). Indeed, in its outline, The Wraithbone Phoenix is a classic 40k quest story, with different kill teams converging on the same prize and, well, killing each other. But what sets it so marvellously apart are its protagonists, the ratling (essentially, the 40k version of Hobbits) Baggit, and the ogryn (yep, a 40k ogre) Clodde. The odd couple is a trope of storytelling precisely because it works so well and Worley employs it like a master, setting and contrasting the personalities and physiques of Baggit and Clodde in juxtaposition to the horrible world that they are attempting to navigate their way through. I loved both characters but must proclaim a particular weakness for Clodde. Ogryns are usually big and stupid, like their folkloric predecessors, but Clodde, having been hit on the head, has become an ogryn philosopher – although no one, including himself, has noticed! It’s a marvellous touch, and helps set Clodde and Baggit in contrast to the violence and nihilism all around them in Varagantua and the wider 40k universe.
So, despite the body count, the double crosses, the general grimness of the dystopian setting, The Wraithbone Phoenix achieves the almost miraculous feat of being a genuinely joyous 40k novel. For fans of the universe, take this as a warning or an invitation, depending on your inclinations, and dive in or withdraw and find something more nihilistic instead.