BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Primarchs Lorgar and Angron lead their Legions deep into the realm of Ultramar, wreaking unthinkable havoc. Angron’s violent condition is worsening, he is dying, but Lorgar has a plan to save his savage brother. He will stop at nothing to bring that plan to fruition.
PROS: Heavy on the action but also heavy on the characterization, Dembski-Bowden adds unexpected depth to what may have otherwise been flat characters, tragic and compelling, furthers the Horus Heresy timeline.
CONS: None that come to mind, this was worth every dime of the hardcover price.
BOTTOM LINE: With Betrayer, Aaron Dembski-Bowden achieves the unexpected – giving depth to Angron and the World Eaters and topping his best novel to date, The First Heretic.
I wasn’t so sure what all the hype over Aaron Dembski-Bowden was about until I read The First Heretic, a New York Times bestselling novel I consider to be one of the best entries in the Horus Heresy series. Dembski-Bowden took a Legion I had little to no interest in, a Legion I sneered at as vile traitors, and painted them in a sympathetic light. With The First Heretic, he made me feel for the very first Primarch to turn away from the Imperium. It was not an action packed novel as far as the series goes, but instead a gut-wrenching, heart-rending character piece that showed the darkness of the future is even less black and white then believed. With Betrayer, Dembski-Bowden trumps his greatest accomplishment.
A year has passed since Isstvan V. Calth burns. The Word Bearers and the World Eaters have besieged the 500 Worlds of Ultramar. Angron is devolving ever further into a thoughtless killing machine as the Butcher’s Nails rewrite his brain chemistry. Lorgar plots the salvation of Angron and the ruination of Guilliman in decisive stroke. The first step is the destruction of the war-world of Armatura, training grounds of future Ultramarines. Can the zealotry of the Word Bearers and the blood lust of the World Eaters overcome the discipline of Guilliman’s sons? Perhaps with a little help from the Ruinous Powers…
First I must comment on how truly awesome the cover is. Once again Neil Roberts has outdone himself, though this particular cover is even more dynamic and awe-inspiring than usual. Betrayer could be considered a sequel to The First Heretic, though the Word Bearers are not the primary focus. Lorgar gets his fair share of the lime-light and Argel Tal makes his return (praise be!) but it is Angron, Kharn, and the World Eaters that truly steal the show. And who ever could have predicted that? Before The First Heretic, I had always considered the Word Bearers uninteresting. Prior to Betrayer, I dismissed the World Eaters as uninspired. Blood for the Blood God and all that. Sure, Khorne berserkers make for wonderful bolter fodder but what are they other than slathering savages? Giving the World Eaters depth could not have been easy. Or perhaps all the material was there to be assembled and Dembski-Bowden is just the first to notice all the potential.
Regardless, the World Eaters depicted in Betrayer are deep. As the Horus Heresy series progresses I ping-pong back in forth trying to determine which of the traitor Primarchs is the most tragic. It’s not something that can legitimately be measured as my opinion sways back and forth with each subsequent release, but for now my money is on Angron. This is the Primarch that was enslaved. He had crude technology embedded in his brain, driving him to violent fits of rage as a gladiator. He was stolen from his one moment of hard earned glory. As Betrayer begins Angron is losing his mind to the Butcher’s Nails but he still retains some semblance of self. His tale is tragic. His sons’ tale is tragic. The legionnaires of the World Eaters do not respect their gene-father and yet they yearn for his approval. They wage war in the manner of their Primarch, having elected to undergo unnecessary surgery in order to bear the Nails themselves. They fight with wanton abandon, throwing discipline to the wind. Their casualties reflect it. It is their greatest weakness and their truest strength, for how can one fight an enemy with nothing to lose.
The nature and psyche of the World Eaters is juxtaposed by the inclusion of the Word Bearers. The World Eaters are carnal creatures, bound to the physical realm by the Butcher’s Nails. They are constantly in pain and they inflict that pain upon their enemies. The Word Bearers, by comparison, are obsessed with the ethereal. They are confessors of the Ruinous Powers, more priests than warriors. The duality serves to amplify the traits of each Legion. The unlikely kinship that develops between Lorgar and Angron, as well as the brotherhood between Kharn and Argel Tal also serve to further this purpose. As in The First Heretic, Lorgar is profoundly human. All of mankind’s flaws are magnified in the Primarchs. Despite this Lorgar remains majestic in his bearing, though Isstvan V has left him hardened. I am extremely pleased to see the return of Argel Tal. He is also harder than before. He bears the weight of great regret on his shoulders, having lost all of those close to him. All except for Kharn. Betrayer is as much Kharn’s story as it is Angron’s. Kharn is the Primarch’s equerry, the voice of reason. The discussions he engages in with Argel Tal are highly enlightening and express the familiarity of comrades.
The reason I hold Betrayer in such high regard, even over The First Heretic, is the action. I mentioned before that The First Heretic was a little lighter on the action than average. That’s okay. It was a character study, it didn’t need to be a slaughter fest and what action there was was enjoyable. Betrayer though, manages to be both a character study and a Titan-stomping, chainaxe-revving, hell of a good war story. There is no shortage of Legion on Legion action, from the dust shrouded war-world of Armatura to the cramped city fighting of Desh’ea. There are thrilling void engagements and even some bloody good Titan action. Oh, and best of all, the Primarchs take to the field of battle. It’s pulse-pounding stuff, sure to keep the attention of adrenaline junkies without overwhelming with repetitive imagery.
Betrayer is filled with awesome moments but there is one that is emblazoned in my mind. I won’t say too much for fear of ruining it, but it takes place after Armatura in one of the fighting pits aboard the Conqueror. It is a powerful scene, one that gave me cold chills just reading it. As much as I love the Horus Heresy series, I haven’t had that sort of emotional reaction since I read Galaxy in Flames by Ben Counter. It is a scene that perfectly demonstrates Dembski-Bowden’s writing prowess, as Betrayer is a novel that perfectly demonstrates his writing potential.