BOOK REVIEW: Betrayer by Aaron Dembski-Bowden

REVIEW SUMMARY: A tragic, action-packed story, easily Dembski-Bowden’s best work to date.

RATING:

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.

MY REVIEW
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.

27 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: Betrayer by Aaron Dembski-Bowden”

  1. You’ve got to stop reviewing books Nick. I frankly cannot afford to quit my job and devote myself to full time reading to get through the books I already have piled up, and now you’ve gotten me interested in a section of the bookstore shelves that I had no previous interest (other than liking some of the cover art) before.

    1. Hahaha I read that first sentence and went to get my boxing gloves! Luckily I read the rest :) if you need any Horus Heresy/ Warhammer 40k suggestions it would be my pleasure to provide them.

      1. I believe, and this is no exaggeration, that I’ve went to the bookstore at least three times in the last two weeks and picked up the Eisenhorn omnibus and then told myself “you don’t have time to read this now!!!”. I also firmly believe that if the copy that was at my local BN wasn’t a big dinged up that I would have it at home right now regardless of my efforts to be less of a book hoarder.

          1. If they have a copy of the first Gaunt’s Ghosts Omnibus I also dare you to read the first chapter and put it down.

          2. Indeed. While I didn’t picked up the omnibus, I did get the first three ebooks from Black Library and I’ve well hooked.

  2. Elegantly written, well expressed and nicely weighted. A thoroughly decent review.

    Admittedly, I am an enormous fan of ADB, so I can’t say that I am surprised he has turned out another doozy. It’s a shame that I will have to wait until the MMPB release to read it, but my OCD demands that all my HH collection matches.

    I though TFH was good, though I didn’t ‘enjoy’ it per se – I found it a very uncomfortable book to read, which I guess was exactly the feeling that Aaron was going for given the story being told. What you have said about this reassures me that I’m in for a treat when I get round to it.

    1. Gaunt’s Ghosts definitely. I’ve never been a fan of Cain – I find them a little too repetitive but I can see why people enjoy them so much.

  3. I’ve somehow missed the Warhammer 40K universe and have just started reading the books. The first couple of all of Fred’s recommendations are already on my Kindle and I’m enjoying the hell out of the stories. Actually John DeNardo’s earlier recommendations of Eisenhorn is what got me to look at the books. Yeah.. I thing I’m going to spend a bit of money.

  4. I haven’t made it to the Horus Heresy books, but I love seeing reviews like this to know that there is still alot of good stuff in store for me to get to.

    Thanks to Nick helping me get started, so far in the last few months I have made it through the Omnibus editions of:
    Eisenhorn
    Ravenor
    Ultramarines 1
    Space Wolf 1
    Gaunts Ghosts 1
    and just started Grey Knights a few days ago.

    I like some more than others, but I have thoroughly enjoyed reading through all of them.

    1. Just bought The Soul Drinkers, Gaunts Ghosts 2 (The Saint), and first Horus Heresy book. It is an addiction!

      1. Gaunt’s Ghosts: The Saint is epic. Probably better than the first omnibus even – well except for the 3rd book of the first omnibus because that is a crazy crazy book.

        And I really hope you enjoy the Grey Knights omnibus :D check back in to let me know how it goes.

        1. I’m about 75 pages into Grey Knights and I am loving it! It is pretty intense and the characters are fascinating.

          1. Grey Knights probably has the best action.
            Dark Mechanicum made me fall in love with the the Adeptus Mechanicus.

            annnd Hammer of Daemons somehow makes Alaric even more badass than I thought possible.

  5. I actually thought that the first of Ben’s GK booms was the strongest. The second was also pretty cool, but I didn’t like the third as much. It was a very different pace of book I found, though partly I can accept that it was down to how cr**py the life of the poor lead character, to whom I had become quite attached, had become.

    Soul Drinkers I found a bit hit and miss – first two excellent, third a bit ropey, fourth pretty good, fifth not great at all and I haven’t yet read Phalanx, though from the first two chapters in H&B issue one it was much better.

    1. Hammer of Daemons was definitely a different sort of book than the other two. Especially with the pacing. But I liked how Alaric turned out in the end, despite how crappy things got. My buddy and I have have a recurring joke that developed from Alaric and Uriel Ventris – the better you do your job in the Imperium the more likely you are to get demoted.

      I also feel much the same as you do about the Soul Drinkers. The first was my my favorite by far – I loved the idea of a truly free Chapter (plus awesome mutations!) and I still haven’t read Phalanx because I couldn’t finish Hellforged.

      1. Yeah, HoD certainly tuned out ok for the lead character, but by that point I felt he had lost the essence of the kind of character he was if that makes sense? (Trying to avoid spoilers for anyone who may not have read it!) I dunno, its a preference thing I guess, I know that Ben can do gribbly daemon stuff very well – see the first two Soul Drinkers books, and indeed the first GK book, but this one just didn’t quite click for me.

        Hellforged was certainly a slog – it took me quite a while to get through, but the cliffhanger at the end certianly left me wanting to know how the story ended. That I havent yet read Phalanx is more a result of laziness/being busy than it is an indictment of the story – I do want to see how it ends, I’m just not THAT fussed :)

        1. It is difficult talking about HoD without giving anything away haha. But I can see what you’re saying. Alaric loses something of himself but I was excited by the prospect of what he gained. I would kill for another Grey Knights trilogy by Counter.

          I also want to see how the Soul Drinkers end but Hellforged just stands in the way. I’m more than a bit disappointed at the direction things took. I feel like there was a lot more to be done and it sort of just went down hill rather quickly. Then again, without the massive logistics support of the Imperium at your back it does seem a realistic course.

  6. well looks like I may have to give bowden another chance with his HH works after being sorely underwhelmed by The First Heretic (sorry guys I just didn’t get the same experience you all did) I may have to pick this up payday.

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