What Andy Remic has pulled together here is absolutely genius. If you've read the cover blurb then you have some idea of what to expect but, like me, you probably wondered if he really could pull it off. Well, I am here to tell you to wonder no longer - pull it off he does . . . and then some!
Let's start with the heroes . . . such as they are. Thirty years ago, the Iron Wolves became the stuff of legends, holding back the hordes of monstrous mud-orcs at the Pass of Splintered Bones, and banishing Morkagoth, the evil sorcerer, from their world. That victory did not come without a price, however, and the curse they carry has left them broken and battered . . . tortured and twisted beyond measure - murderous brothers, a whoremaster, a drunken gambler, a drug addict with a cancer in her heart, a serial killer, and a torturer. They've become ugly heroes, scarred both inside and out, but they are the world's only help.
“I need it,” she said, and raised her eyes to Dalgoran’s. The pity in his gaze nearly floored her. She considered that pity. From the greatest man she had ever known. From somebody she considered not just her general, but also her friend. Not just her friend, but her father. She shouldn’t have responded how she did. Instead, she felt her anger building.
If that sounds like a little much for your tastes, then all I can do is urge you to have patience. Remic puts a lot of effort into developing these characters, and there is no denying how darkly fascinating they become, or how carefully they elicit our sympathy. Seriously, you might expect to be cold and jaded by the time you meet up with Trista, the last of the Wolves to make a return, but there's such sorrow there, and such beautifully tortured motives behind her serial murder of newlyweds, that you can't help but feel for her. While much of the allure of these heroes is in just how far they've fallen, it's their camaraderie, their banter, and the core of heroism within each of them that really draws the reader in.
As for the villainess, Orlana the Changer, let me give you a glimpse into her summoning:
It was death. It was birth. It was fire. It was rape. It was exquisite murder. It was cheerful suicide. It was acid in her veins. Poison in her heart. Sulphur in her soul. A sincere abortion. A child’s coffin. An army of necrotic lovers. A giggling genocide. All of those things, and yet none.
As weirdly bizarre and perverse as that sounds, it's only an introduction. This is a stunningly beautiful sorceress, the kind who really evokes memories of Howard and Leiber. She's cold, cruel, and cunning, with absolutely no regard for anything but her own motivations. Not content to have the hordes of resurrected mud-orcs at her command (monstrous creatures she summons from the pits with the sacrifice of tens of thousands of men, women, and children), she is also the mistress of the splice - even more monstrous creatures formed by the imperfect, deliberately tortured splicing together of men and beasts.
Their smell came first; it was rotten eggs, it was bad milk, it was sour cheese, it was open gangrene, it was the maggot-filled corpse of a strangled cat. Putrefaction washed over the group and they gagged, and then the mud-orcs sprinted from the darkness and they were big, and moved with agility and aggression and no fear…
They scrambled up the soil and leaves, and stood, mouths open, eyes wide, staring out at a massive glade of hanging corpses. There were perhaps seventy or eighty bodies, each hung by their own hand on short tattered ropes, wearing a disarray of clothing, dresses and shirts and trews, some in boots, some barefoot, all crusted with mud and dirt, as if they’d been hanging for years. Poppies grew all around the glade, adding bright red clusters to a very sombre place.
The story moves along at an almost frantic pace, introducing the Iron Wolves, reuniting them, and seeing them into battle by the end. Along the way we see Orlana overwhelm, overpower, and overcome every obstacle in her path, with the seduction of one man possibly her darkest act. We watch as a insane king refuses to protect his realm, gleefully murdering anybody who dares speak out against him, all the while indulging himself in the most decadent vices.
Yoon returned to the wide bed, sword dripping a trail of blood across fine rugs, to where the three oiled ladies had halted their drug-infused ecstasy. Yoon waved the blade. “Continue. And you.” He pointed with the bloody weapon at a shocked, oiled, painted lady. “Open your legs. Open them wide. I need some entertainment.”
Most importantly, perhaps, we bear witness to the kind of brutal, poetic violence that only epic fantasy seems to manage so well. Remic weaves the dance of blades better than most, delivering on some very well-choreographed confrontations, both intimate and on a grand scale. There's a lot of blood and filth in his tale, and more than a few deaths along the way that come as something of a surprise. By the time it all comes to an end, we realize that only a fraction of the tale has been told, and that motivations and end-games have yet to be revealed . . . but we're also left wondering what might possibly be next, with an ominous cliffhanger that works precisely because there are no guarantees in his world.
All-in-all, one of the most enjoyable reads I've had all year. If you don't mind your epic fantasy with a little pulp and a little profanity, and can appreciate the redemption of deeply flawed heroes, then I strongly urge you to give it a read. It is dark and grim, muddy and bloody, but it's also permeated by a very dark sort of humour that pulls it all together, making the read a raucous one. My only complaint about The Iron Wolves is that the sequel, The White Towers, is more than seven months away . . .
Paperback, 464 pages
Expected publication: December 31st 2013 by Angry Robot