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.