Betrayer by Aaron Dembski-Bowden – Book Review [Bellarius]


Bellarius analyses the latest installment of the Hous Heresy, Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s Betrayer.

“A fantastic read, containing enough visceral combat and new developments to keep even the most jaded reader interested. Unless you’re here for the World Eaters.”  – The Founding Fields

This is a difficult novel to look into because there is oh-so-much it does completely right, and yet manages to get a critical part utterly wrong. To explore both aspects this is going to be considerably longer than a normal review and I apologise for this. That out of the way, on with the show.

Following on from Butcher’s Nails and the events of Know No Fear, Betrayer is a novel exploring the war in Ultramar. Focusing the roles played by both Lorgar and Angron in crippling worlds who might come to the Imperium’s defence and the aftermath of their failure at Calth. However this defeat is not the greatest concern of the Word Bearers primarch. Angron is visibly becoming less stable by the day as the mental implants continue to drag his tortured into a perpetual blood frenzy. Worse still is that they are not only driving him insane, they are beginning to kill him. Determined to keep him alive, Lorgar focuses his efforts on saving his barbarous brother through corruption.

In many ways the novel is very similar to Graham McNeill’s preceeding title in this series Angel Exterminatus. You have two very different legions working towards the same goal, one legion being shown its downfall to Chaos entirely, a primarch ascending to a greater power and with it linking directly into a multitude of other novels.

However Aaron Dembski-Bowden goes about covering events of prior Heresy installments in a very different way. In this, much of what is seen makes you want to go back to re-read titles and look at them again with the revelations now known. Right in the first few pages there are scenes which seem to address a number of criticisms and fan objections to Battle for the Abyss and the actions of Magnus the Red. Nothing so extensive that it smothers the opening of a very good tale. Instead feeling like it’s addressing older flaws on short notice while managing to make them feel at least somewhat meaningful. These scenes never last more than a few pages at a time but on almost every occasion they offer new insights into events, characters and even the primarchs themselves. Best of all none of them ever feel like they’re betraying said characters, simply expanding upon what was previously told.

Atop of these revelations, the book carries directly on from what we were shown from First Heretic. The scenes featuring Lorgar, Argel Tal and other feel like they were direct extensions from their previous novel and have fantastic continuity with what came prior to this. There are certainly some eyebrow raising moments such as the decision to resurrect yet another character from the dead but it doesn’t feel like a decision beyond those attempting the act. It’s only the choice of having the act take place which feels wrong, not the fact the characters themselves are performing it. Furthermore the author manages to reconcile Erebus between both what we saw in First Heretic and the treacherous viper he is from the others. I don’t want to ruin it but how he is presented here and treated by his primarch is closest to the brief scenes of him from Anthony Reynolds’ Word Bearers trilogy.

As for the battles, they’re competently written. While never feeling beyond anything we’ve seen in the past they’re certainly no worse than what we’ve encountered in ground engagements. Where the book seems to truly shine however is when it takes time to emphasise upon space warfare and duels between specific characters. Every time guns start firing in the void and one warrior singles out the other, you know some outstanding battles are about to take place.

Still, for all this praise I’m sure many of you are wondering about the opening statement.

Each of the Horus Heresy novels had the tenancy to do two things: Progress the story towards the endgame at Terra in some way and flesh out the legions. In Prospero Burns we learned of the Space Wolves’ outlook on life, in Legion we learned of the Alpha Legion’s role and methods, A Thousand Sons shone light on that legion’s culture, so on and so forth. Betrayer though? We learn nothing we didn’t already know of the World Eaters. Plenty about figures within the legion and a little more about Angron but not the legion itself. In what could be their one chance to shine in the Heresy they end up being constantly overshadowed.

It would be wrong to say they’re not integral to the plot but nor are they the focus of it or the ones in control. No that constantly goes to the Word Bearers and Lorgar, the acts and fates of who Betrayer constantly veers towards exploring over that of Kharn and his ilk. While seeing Argal Tal’s story furthered is a more than welcome addition, their presence really makes it clear that this is their story. The World Eaters are just there as an objective or have their veterans show just how big a joke the legion has become.

The World Eaters have consistently been written as berserkers to be unchained and let loose, but they’ve always been presented as an effective force. One with a high attrition rate, but that was usually put down to their deployment against foes dangerous enough to be completely annihilated. In this they seem to be written as dangers to themselves, especially in the invasion of Armatura, undisciplined and only achieving victory due to more controlled elements outside of the legion. Fine they’re attacking a fortress world, supposedly one amongst the best in the galaxy despite the lack of Dorn or Perturabo’s involvement, but they seem to be massacred in easily avoidable situations. Entire elite detachments abandon their posts and hundreds are cut down in situations you’d expect even semi-lobotomised killers to be smart enough to avoid. It feels especially wrong when they thoroughly outmatch their enemy a hundred times over both in numbers and firepower.

There is method to the decision to portray them in this light. Unlike other authors who come to mind, Dembski-Bowden isn’t writing this to beef up another legion to make them look more impressive. A very intricate plot revolves around internal decay involving Angron, his relation to the legion and the changes of the butcher’s nails. An extremely well handled an interesting one.

Dembski-Bowden has shown he is willing to display as many flaws as strengths within legions and resist treating them as being powerful beyond reckoning. Even emphasising those flaws when he sees it needed to enhance character or improve a tale. Were this a standalone tale I’d be praising this decision, but when following on from novels showing every other legion as an effective force it becomes a huge black mark against what should have been a much better book. The problem is this feels wrong in their one big chance to be the focus of a story, especially when next to the Word Bearers. Taking what should have been a display of a legion’s individuality and strengths as with all preceding novels, then limiting their presence and exploring how massive a failure they are.

That being said it needs to be stressed this is still an excellent novel with many strengths. If you’re after more Word Bearers action, insight into Angron or are interested in seeing older novels shown in a new light, look this one up. If you’re here to see worlds being eaten, re-read previous instalments like The Outcast Dead.

Verdict: 8/10


Long time reader of novels, occasional writer of science fiction and critic of many things; Bellarius has seen some of the best and worst the genre has to offer.
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  • Watto

    So, just because the book didn’t show the WE in a favorable light compared to how the other legions were depicted in previous HH novels, it gets a critical part wrong? ADB has consistently said, on numerous blogs, that hes not there to write one legion as totally dominating another. This novel, at least for the WH, is about the devolution of a once-proud legion, and.ADB shows that well. As for the scenes on Armatura, what do you expect when you pit blood-mad berserkers against a Legion known for their tactical and strategic prowess?

    • Bellarius

      Quite frankly yes, it does. The book has the World Eaters undermining themselves as they fall to Chaos, fine, but it introduces no element to make up for their lack of discipline or balance their weaknesses. The butcher’s nails and their ferocity are only brought up as weaknesses and we’re repeatedly shown how much they allow their enemies to have a tactical advantage over them in every respect. We’re never shown any advantage to them in this novel unlike preceding ones in which the enhanced ferocity and endurance they granted was shown as having some advantage to them.

      When the Emperor’s Children fell to Chaos and similarly lost their tactical efficiency and hierarchy, they were shown as an effective fighting force through Chaos enhancements and biological upgrades. When the Thousand Sons fell, they were clearly made out to be a powerful force hamstrung by Magnus and the god of change. In this though? The World Eaters seem to have more common with orks than they do other space marines, relying upon sheer numbers to charge at the enemy and enough of them to be left alive once they get in close. That simply feels wrong, and even if the author isn’t favouring a single force over others he’s presenting one specific one as being weak after multiple novels have consistently displayed other legions to be strong in their own way. This would be like Know No Fear emphasising upon the Ultramarines’ organisational capabilities then only using them to show the legion as bureaucratic and constantly tied up in red tape.

      As for Armatura, considering the fact there were only an extremely small number of Ultramarines on the planet I would not expect them to cause such widespread casualties as they did. Not when they were facing almost two whole legions with more orbital firepower than god. Go down fighting and cause casualties certainly. Not for the World Eaters’ now inherent incompetence stemming from bloodlust to buff up their kills. With them repeatedly charging into explosives rigged buildings, abandon vital posts, isolate themselves and charge into the sights of artillery tanks.

      • Darkdoug

        I think those weaknesses are there to offset the overwhelming advantages of their ferocity and hardiness in hand-to-hand combat. It wasn’t the whole XII landing on Armatura, as the fleets of both crusading hosts were scattering throughout Ultramar. Magnus assessed the odds as hopelessly against Lorgar & Angron, until Lorgar revealed his Abyss class ships. I got the impression it was just the two flagships and a handful of escorts attacking Armatura. But even overwhelming numbers shouldn’t count for much when attacking a legion’s homeworld, especially a legion as numerous and preparation-oriented as the XIII. The World Eaters actually came off fairly well in their fights, with their ferocity and unpredictability overwhelming the discipline and preparations of the Ultramarines at times. I think it also gave support to both sides in a dispute about whether the Word Bearers were advancing too slowly, or the World Eaters rushing ahead too fast. We know the latter are not known for their patience, but the former are also infamous for their dilatory combat tempo, and fussing around with their rituals.

        It was like the flashbacks to the confrontation with Russ & the VI legion, where the winner or loser of that fight depends on your point of view and your priority. Lorgar makes a good case for Russ embarassing Angron, but there is a simple merit to Angron’s point of view as well.

        You might say that a lot of the XII’s success is seen to come from their support forces, like the indomitable captain of the Conqueror or the Titan legion embedded with them…but they are favored by Angron and the rest of the Legion, which speaks to good judgment on his part. Angron is not an idiot or retarded, he just has different priorities, which is his tragedy. And he’s paired off with Lorgar, who was a pathetic weakling until he found his own purpose and place in the universe. The point of the story is getting Angron there.

        If this book makes Angron and World Eaters out to be ineffective losers, then why is there so much effort being exerted by the Legion most directly plugged into Chaos, to preserve them for the fight to come? Angron’s biggest moment of ineptitude is when he is buried alive and resolutely digs in the wrong direction, but that also illustrates his power, his indomitability and and relentless nature that make him worth saving for the cause. Erebus is doing the same thing to Kharne in his manipulation of Argel Tal.

        If you’re one of those people who hates how awesomely superior the Ultramarines are shown, well, this book is about Angron kicking the daylights out of them on their home turf. The Word Bearers, as Lorgar points out to Erebus, got their butts handed to them at Calth, in spite of the advantage of surprise, but they seem to be running at will through the Five Hundred Worlds, now that Angron has joined them.

        You might call Angron’s & the World Eaters’ performance in this book ineffective and ruined by their own choices, if you are looking at the events as a technical military exercise. But Angron and his legion were not even remotely trying to run a perfectly executed campaign to impress Guiliman. They were fighting for its own sake, because that’s the priority imposed on them by the Butcher’s Nails.

        You can’t even say it’s a bad priority, because they are not mortal humans, who fight to win an objective and go home. They have no objectives, other than those imposed on them by others, by people Angron would scorn as “high-riders. The World Eaters win the war for good…and then what? Given that they can’t live as anything other than warriors, what should they be fighting for? What objectives should they been seeking to take? Just because a particular style of fighting might make Horus happy or Lorgar’s life easier, does not strike me as a very compelling motivation.

        Angron’s view is that he is the only one not blinded by nonsense and ephemeral delusions, and he has a point. Even setting aside the “no peace among the stars” theme, for Angron, of a certainty, there cannot be peace. There is nothing to win, just a moment of satisfaction until the next fight. He says he doesn’t care if Horus wins and gains the throne, but why should he? What does he get out of it? What does he get out of the successful unification of humanity and the promulgation of the Imperial Truth? Maybe Guiliman and Fulgrim could look forward to bureaucratic posts in the Imperium Triumphant, but what is Angron to do? And specifically, how does he appease the Nails? The things Lorgar & company scorn as tactical weaknesses diversions are actually the whole reason Angron & the World Eaters are fighting. It’s like Grimaldus criticizing the Salamanders for protecting people in Helsreach instead of taking the choices to inflict maximum damage on the foe. The Salamanders fight to protect innocent people and the World Eaters fight to soothe the Nails. When the choice is between those goals, or conforming to the cold abstract battle plans of an indifferent warlord with his own agenda, they are going to do the former

  • Tel

    I haven’t read this yet, so I’m posting this based on Aaron’s previous works. He’s never been afraid of making a Legion look bad. The Night Lords were a band of misfits and murderers, and every time you think Talos and his merry band of cutthroats are becoming honourable, they commit some major misdeed. The Echo and Damnation, and the Covenant of Blood before it were running on a skeleton crew and hardly at maximum capacity. Sevatar is a treacherous, conniving murdering bastard with a wry sense of humour who’s admittedly a lot of fun to read in Prince of Crows. As fond as I am of Zso Sahaal, he’s about as straight up honourable as you’re going to get from a Traitor Marine. Sevatar however, is a snake.

    Even in The First Heretic, you can see how the Word Bearers are a self-pitying bunch. Save for Argel Tal, most of the other Word Bearers, and Lorgar himself aren’t exactly characters you like. You can see just how depraved they’ve become in a way that’s not even honourable, unlike Horus and the Luna Wolves.

    I think Aaron Dembski-Bowden likes writing about Legions and primarchs with major identity crises, hence the Night Lords, World Eaters and Word Bearers.