RAPID FIRE: Chris Wraight Talks The Helwinter Gate

Welcome to this instalment of my Rapid Fire series of quick author interviews, in which I’m talking to Black Library author Chris Wraight about his new Warhammer 40,000 novel The Helwinter Gate. This long-awaited conclusion to the Járnhamar trilogy is out tomorrow in swanky ‘Mega Edition’ format, complete with all sorts of additional bits and pieces and an eye-watering price tag to patch – while the standard editions should (assuming past release schedules apply) come along in about six months time. Whether you’re grabbing a Mega Edition or not, however, this sounds like another great book from Chris – so read on to find out more about it!

Without further ado, let’s get on with the interview.

Track of Words: The Helwinter Gate is the third book in your trilogy about the Space Wolves of Járnhamar Pack – for anyone unfamiliar with this series, could you give a quick overview of the first couple of novels?

Chris Wraight: Blood of Asaheim was written way back in 2012, and was one of my very first attempts at writing a 40k novel. I’d previously written Battle of the Fang, which was a huge-scale Space Marine Battles title, and I can remember wanting to try something smaller, involving a single pack of warriors rather than the entire Chapter. The story followed a collection of different characters and ranks, thrown together as a result of the increasingly ruinous rates of attrition the Chapter was suffering towards the close of the 41st Millennium. They find themselves on a Shrineworld, something they initially see as low quality ‘garrison work’, but which rapidly becomes a fight for survival against a Death Guard invasion.

In Stormcaller, the sequel, some of the threads introduced in the first book are developed as the war becomes more widespread. In particular, we’re introduced to a hidden conspiracy against the Chapter itself, as well as one of their members starting to exhibit strange gifts, which, as you’ll know, is never a welcome development in the Imperium…

ToW: Bearing that in mind, how would you describe The Helwinter Gate?

CW: The Helwinter Gate is my long-delayed attempt to complete the original story, one that I started plotting out eight years ago! We’re taken back to the events at the end of the second book, reunited with the same pack, and get to see what happens to them next. The 40k galaxy has changed a bit since the publication of the first two novels, though the core story hasn’t changed in its bare bones. Ultimately, it’s a story about what it means to be a member of a close-knit and much misunderstood Chapter at the close of the millennium, when everything is coming apart and there’s a real possibility that the species is on the way out. And it’s about being an exile and trying to get home, and about the bonds between brothers when everything else is trying to kill you.

ToW: What do we need to know about the characters in this story? Are there any new additions to the cast?

CW: I’d certainly recommend reading the first two books first (the full set of novels and short stories, together with links to their pages on the BL site, can be found on my blog. I did try to recap the earlier events in this novel, knowing that not everyone will have read the first two books (or remembered what was in them!), but this was always envisaged as a trilogy that tracks a bunch of Space Wolves from the beginning of a mission to its end, so having some level of familiarity with the earlier episodes will definitely help. The cast is actually pretty much the same as it always was – this is still fundamentally about the members of the same pack, and how they function as characters while being expendable instruments in an eternal war.

ToW: Where and when is it set?

CW: Like the first two books, it’s set in the Time of Ending, alongside major events such as the Third Battle for Armageddon and the build up to the fall of Cadia.

ToW: It’s been a while since Stormcaller – how did you find returning to this series and these characters?

CW: Both strangely affecting, and very hard! It was a daunting experience to revisit ideas and characters that I’d worked on years previously. In practical terms, just trying to conjure up what I’d wanted to do with them involved a lot of re-reading and note-taking, and some careful thought about how this could fit into the world of 40k as it now exists.

Given that I was a very different author when I started the series – I was really learning the craft back then, with all the mistakes and pitfalls that involved – I considered lots of takes on the project, including revising what I’d previously done, or maybe going for a different tone in the third book. In the end, I decided that the most honest path was to do what I had always intended, and write this instalment in the same spirit and style as the first two. So it’s probably more action-oriented than most of the books I’ve written more recently for Black Library, which I guess won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I felt it gave the trilogy the unity it deserved.

ToW: Was the plan always to write a third book in this series? Bearing in mind the time between Stormcaller and The Helwinter Gate, how does the finished novel compare to your original idea(s)?

CW: Yes, that was always the intention. The only reason it never happened was that I got involved with the Heresy series, and was then offered other 40k projects that had definite slots in the publishing schedule, and both of those things gradually squeezed out everything else. I kept talking about doing a third book with BL, but there was always something else that for one reason or another had a higher priority. By the time we managed to get a slot for it, the key challenge was to ensure that the ideas that might have made sense years ago still worked in the changed 40k we know now. I’d say the finished novel is pretty much as I imagined it from the start, with relatively few changes, at least in the key themes and events that it deals with.

ToW: You’ve written lots of 40k stories, about all sorts of Space Marine chapters – what appeals to you specifically about Space Wolves as characters to write about?

CW: My engagement with the Space Wolves has changed a lot over the years, which I think demonstrates just how rich their background is. I remember being really struck by some of the concepts in Dan Abnett’s Prospero Burns, particularly as a departure from the very first treatment of them in Bill King’s Space Wolf trilogy, and wanting to dig deep into their ‘beast-within-man’ nature – the sense that they’re really wild creatures, only barely wearing human shapes. That’s a fantastic idea to set within an Imperium that venerates conformity above anything else.

And then I read other wonderful stuff from writers like Gav Thorpe, Aaron Dembski-Bowden and John French, and all the other aspects of their nature started to appeal – their heroism, their loyalty, their arrogance and their perceived hypocrisy. They’re so nuanced and rich, capable of so many different treatments that run with different angles.

One of the things I’ve become more interested in recently is their close relationship with the idea of fate – something that both frees them up and ties them down. On the one hand, their own life means very little to them – their thread will be cut when fate sets the time for it. On the other, the prestige of a life well-lived, of being someone worthy of a saga or a raised tankard, is an obsession, something that keeps driving them to ever more extravagant (maybe foolish) extremes. As with many things in 40k, the surface qualities that first attract us hide a deeper, more mournful and complicated, set of ideas underneath.

ToW: What do you hope Space Wolves fans will get out of this by the time they’ve finished it?

CW: It’s not just written for Space Wolves fans. In fact, I’d be over the moon if readers who didn’t like the Space Wolves found something to enjoy in this. They’re a divisive Chapter – some love them, some hate them – and that’s just how it is in-universe as well. I’d be really pleased if both fans and detractors found something interesting for them here, and could appreciate the Wolves’ perspective on things like Chaos, the Warp, the Imperium and their own culture as being both distinctive and valuable.

ToW: This is initially going to be released as a ‘Mega Edition’ complete with an extra little book called Hrani’s Saga – could you tell us a bit about what this extra book is?

CW: I’ve always loved the idea of the sagas, particularly the notion that these epic performances are the way the Chapter keeps the deeds of the past alive, to inspire and warn aspirants and veterans alike. They’re almost like the Fenrisian version of the Codex, just more malleable and figurative. It also gives the lie to the notion that they’re an uncultured bunch – their poetry, their artwork, etc. is of the highest order.

The conceit behind Hrani’s Saga is that it’s a translation of an original oral version that falls into the possession of Imperial scholars, who do their best to decode its meaning. The style is very consciously based on the real-world Icelandic sagas, following the career of a warrior of the Chapter in a particular campaign. It’s only very tangentially linked to the novel, but I loved doing it, and I really hope people enjoy it.

***

As always, big thanks must go to Chris for taking the time to write such excellent answers, and give us all the lowdown on this book! If you’d like to check out more interviews with Chris, or reviews of his work, just click this link.

See also: my review of the first book in this series – Blood of Asaheim

Click here if you fancy taking a look at some other Rapid Fire interviews. If you have any questions, comments or other thoughts please do let me know in the comments below, or find me on Twitter.

If you enjoyed this interview, and can manage it, please consider leaving a tip on my Ko-fi page.

RAPID FIRE: Chris Wraight Talks The Helwinter Gate