The Wraithbone Phoenix: The Goonhammer Review

Warhammer Crime is the newest sub-imprint from the Black Library, aiming to explore a grittier, seedier and substantially more grown up version of Warhammer 40,000. First released in 2020, Warhammer Crime takes us to the dank, rotting Varangantua and strives to make it a much worse and much more interesting place than every other decaying hellhole in the 41st Millennium. With Necromunda already taking up a lot of the hive-world conceptual space, The Wraithbone Phoenix opens up Warhammer Crime to the possibilities of this new medium, taking what could have been a straight-up movie pastiche into fun and interesting places.

Once again, before we dive in it’s time to thank Games Workshop and the Harlequins of the Black Library for sending this out to review. 

The Wraithbone Phoenix is author Alec Worley‘s first full-length novel for the Black Library, after a series of shorter stories in the 40k universe. It’s also the first full length outing for Baggit and Clodde, our Ratling and Ogryn protagonists for The Wraithbone Phoenix after an outing in audiodrama Dredge Runners. While I enjoyed Alec’s short story in Warhammer Horror Maledictions and his Sisters of Battle work, I haven’t listened to Dredge Runners, so this also formed by introduction to Wraithbone Phoenix. With that disclaimer in place, I’m not sure it’s necessary if you’re not a person who enjoys audio drama, and Wraithbone Phoenix is clearly meant to be both an introduction and a standalone adventure for it’s characters.


The Wraithbone Phoenix is the big score – the impossibly big score – that will wipe out the Bounty set on Ratling scoundrel Baggit and unusually reflective Ogryn Clodde’s heads. If they can manage to get the Phoenix out of the fallen Sword-class frigate Sunstriker, and stay alive while doing so, they’re home free, but it won’t be easy. The Phoenix has attracted the attention of every criminal, dredge runner and techno-archaeologist in Varangantua and finding the Phoenix means outwitting everyone else, including another Ratling with a complicated connection to Baggit.

It’s a fairly straightforward plot with a lot to recommend about it – an interesting warhammer spin on gritty detective novel settings by way of Neuromancer, expanding backstory for abhuman auxilia, a cast of weird characters exploring all the classic 40k and crime tropes and, best of all, a solid buddy-criminal relationship at the heart of it. Baggit and Clodde, our heroes, have a funny, touching and complimentary relationship, sparked by tweaking a lot of what we “know” about Ogryns and Ratlings. Ratlings aren’t just a weird hobbit parody that ended up in 40k, but fully rounded characters (who can also be hobbit parodies if they want), and Ogryns get their space to explore both ultraviolence as Ogres and the strange emotional and psychological states their BONE ‘ed augmentation gives them. Pun names set aside, Baggit and Clodde are two excellent and complimentary sides of the same coin – one impulsive and conniving, one reflective and straightforward. Both are outcasts, and both rely on each other. It’s simultaneously a sweet and very 40k exploration of the buddy-criminal/cop trope and it works well.

Other fun bits come from the characterisation and the pulpy figures at the heart of the chase for the Phoenix. When you’re assembling a cast of villanous figures out to steal the phoenix/kill your heroes, you should probably ring Worley for advice. They range from very very 40k concepts like a mutated ex-guardsman and a shadowy sniper to some pulp classics given a 40k twist with a chirpy archaeologist and a classic noir detective. Along the way there’s mechanicus drones, cult weirdoes, disgraced navy officers and more. Each of their POV chapters delves a little deeper into the world, filling it out and making the setting richer, and each chapter is a fun little change from the Baggit/Clodde dynamic.


When I picked up The Wraithbone Phoenix, the name gave me a bit of a groan moment. When you’re talking about crime novels – particularly the kind of hard-boiled or noir-adjacent style that Warhammer Crime is going for – you can’t escape the massive Maltese Elephant in the room, and particularly with a bird-shaped macguffin, the comparison is inevitable. Maltese Falcon clearly provides both the name and some of the inspiration here, a bunch of shady characters all chasing after an impossibly valuable bird statue, with all the shenanigans that entails. There’s some good and some bad to using such an iconic and important movie (and a great book if you haven’t read it!) as a key reference point.

The good is that you’re jumping off your crime novel with a clear and almost universally understood reference point, easing the transition between two worlds that could otherwise be quite jarring. Warhammer novels are often crime-adjacent – provided that you’re taking the murder of a world, or the hunt for a new and deadly language that underlies all reality as a criminal act – and our heroes as detectives/law enforcement trying to stop the dastardly villain from succeeding in their goals. But then the big jarring contradictory mess that is Warhammer 40k hammers right into that. When something is very important, why aren’t Inquisitors after it? Don’t Deathwatch do Xenos item retrieval? Questions like that can really undermine stories that try to explore different spaces in 40k like horror or crime. The world the stories exist in is a priori horrific and criminal, so what space remains? In making the story a macguffin hunt, we’re clearly told from the cover alone that the item, for all the horror it possesses, is not actually important to the story. It’s a Maltese Falcon made by the Eldar. The item itself is not what we’re on about here. We’re talking about what people will do to get it.

Linking Wraithbone to Falcon, as it were, tells us what we’re going to get nice and clearly – protagonists who have shady backstories, a dame-wot-dun-you-wrong, menacing villains and, most importantly, the big score that will get the heroes out of whatever mess they’re facing. Worley uses some of the plot points of Falcon and other, similar, books as hooks to drive the narrative onwards. We have our establishing shots – that Baggit and Clodde really need the big score, and that they have the skills to do it – our complications in the form of the competing interests for the Phoenix, the funnel that brings everyone together into conflict and the explosive shootout finale with accompanying reveal.

I thought this was a very clever touch. Adding a crime and a detective to Scifi – or standard fiction – doesn’t make a novel a crime novel. In sticking to the classic hard-boiled structure though, Worley keeps Wraithbone firmly in crime territory. You could sell a book based on a Ratling and Ogryn looking for a xenos artefact as any standard 40k novel, but this isn’t that book, it’s very definitely a crime novel with all the genre conventions that entails, including Sam Spade getting shot at the 2/3rds mark.

There’s a downside though to inviting such comparisons. Warhammer 40k still needs the shooty-bit and it’s difficult to write non-military-scifi in a setting that demands a certain amount of near-comedic ultraviolence. Violence is the stuff of the hardboiled novel – look at the Big Kill, which has a massive variety of ways Mike Hammer makes people vomit through beating the shit out of them – but in a world where you can be flayed alive by evil elves and struggle to be in the top half of nasty deaths, grounded violence often doesn’t get a look-in. Worley does manage to have fun with this (possibly the wrong word here), keeping the explosions, sniping, mutation and gruesome death largely within the bounds of the crime genre, but there are points when the book gets out of crime territory and into action movie. Crime/Action movies (and books!) are their own, pretty great, thing, but Warhammer action is often so incredibly bombastic that it distracts from the crime caper – a showdown in a burning building is a staple for a good reason, a showdown in an exploding mile-long spaceship kind of becomes about the spaceship.

There’s also a complexity issue when you’re inviting that noir and hardboiled comparison, because those novels are often very complex. When Bogart’s investigating you don’t know exactly where the story is going to go, there’ll be all sorts of twists and turns and doublecrosses. The heroes won’t always win every scene, they’ll be put through the wringer and their victory is unlikely. I kept looking for these in the Wraithbone Phoenix, expecting the twist or the betrayal and while they’re there, it’s all telegraphed far in advance, leaving you wanting a little more than it gives. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when you go in expecting the dame-wot-dun-you-wrong to betray you and it doesn’t happen it feels like less of a subversion of genre convention and more of a slightly pat ending. It ends up being the novel’s failing really, in that it is just slightly too straightforward. It’s a fun caper, but when you want it to be a twisty crime novel it plays it straight down the line.


This isn’t just a crime novel but a 40k one – obviously – and the novel does a lot with the setting to expand and explore what the internet tends to call “Domestic” or “Civilian” 40k away from the front lines of battle. Worley really lets his little corner of the universe breathe, and we learn a lot about abhuman auxiliaries, how spaceships operate, and the little details of brokers, fixers and dive bars in Varangantua. A lot of what he does could – and should – become whatever passes for “standard” lore in the 40k universe, particularly on Ratlings as we’ll go into in a minute, and the details of shipboard life and architecture are particularly great. There’s a lot of interesting little nods and references to wider 40k as well, proving both that these small almost self contained universes can exist within the overarching plot meta and that no matter how throwaway the reference in White Dwarf, eventually someone will include it in a book and make me feel unjustifiably clever for getting it.

Where I really like this as a 40k book is in its treatment of Ratlings – poor Clodde while an interesting character doesn’t shed as much light on Ogryns. Ratlings are at the heart of the book, not just as two of the main characters but as motivation, exploring the shitty lives of abhumans in an Imperium obsessed with genetic and racial/species purity. There’s a lot of discrimination here, generational trauma, coping strategies and straight-up violent bigotry that casts Ratlings as one of the Imperium’s many despised minorities. We are reminded, time and time again, that the Imperium – not just its representatives, but its ethics, morality and values – is a hollow shell of militarism stretched over fascist bones. Ratlings are treated much as many minorities are today; systematically discriminated against, used when useful and discarded, subjugated, ghettoised when not. I don’t know how confident I am that this is handled well – I am not someone who suffers racial abuse or lives as an oppressed minority – but it is certainly interesting to see in a 40k novel. We are told, over and over, that no-one is the good guys in 40k, but so rarely shown so clearly as we are here, and very rarely shown in a way that is so integral to the plot and characterisation. The treatment of Ratlings is integral to the motivations of the characters, the hunt for the macguffin and the overall reveal. For 40k, this is an exploration of race and equality that is as nuanced and important as we’ve had so far, and all for the good.


Overall Wraithbone Phoenix is a fun, pulpy crime caper that manages to balance a series of homages, set pieces and a wild cast of underhive style criminal elements with the standard conventions of a novel set in 40k. Baggit and Clodde are pretty great characters and I’m looking forward to seeing what they get up to in further adventures. Going in with minimal-to-no expectations of it, I was very pleasantly surprised to find something that straddled the line between pulp crime and 40k with a deft touch. It kept me reading, and once the chase begins it becomes quite compelling. There’s some fantastic little bits of setting, theme and – of course – action that mix up crime and scifi in satisfying ways. While it might not always pull off everything it attempts, if this is what Warhammer Crime ends up being as an ongoing imprint, I’ll definitely pick up more of them.