Horus Heresy: Betrayer by Aaron Dembski-Bowden – Review [Lord of the Night]

No matter how many Ultramarines they have, it's not enough.

Lord of the Night reviews the breathtaking Horus Heresy novel Betrayer by Aaron Dembski-Bowden.

“An absolutely amazing from start to finish novel. Aaron Dembski-Bowden once again reminds us why he has become one of Black Library’s most popular authors in such a short time.” – The Founding Fields

I kick myself that it’s taken me so long to read Betrayer but after finishing it I can say it was worth every second I had to wait to get my hands on it. Betrayer is without a doubt the best Horus Heresy novel yet, and topping masterpieces like A Thousand Sons, Know No Fear and Fear to Tread is not easy, but it achieves that and more in the course of it’s story.

The Shadow Crusade has begun. The 500 Worlds of Ultramar are burning as the fleets of the Word Bearers and the World Eaters ravage them at will, safe as Guilliman and his Ultramarines are burning at Calth. But the World Eaters are facing their own problem, their Primarch Angron the Gladiator King whose rages and madness is only becoming worse under the influence of the Butcher’s Nails buzzing in his skull. Only one man seems determined to do anything to save him from this untimely demise, his brother Lorgar Aurelian. But as tensions between the World Eaters and Word Bearers begin to grow fraught and the new kind of war the Legions are waging makes no sense to anyone but the Word Bearers, it may be that the Shadow Crusade will see the demise of three Legions, not just one.

In his afterword ADB mentions about long-character arcs and damn he is right. Betrayer’s story connects with all of his past HH work from The First Heretic to Aurelian to the audio-drama Butcher’s Nails and it really pays off as he is able to give us a story with roots, ones that grow even deeper during the story. Some stories do come to a finish in the book, and one in a way that I was absolutely stunned by, but ADB also sets up future plots for the series, and his afterword promises us that one characters story is not over yet, and also gives a great novel’s story at the same time. Betrayer has a strong story from start to finish, one that really delves in deep to the mindset of the World Eaters and their Primarch and reveals some never-before-seen events of the Great Crusade and finally, finally reveals the name of Angron’s homeworld. It’s been a long time coming. The XIIth Legion haven’t gotten a lot of credit or attention during the HH series thus far, but this novel shows them in a better light than any series material before-hand and actually changed my opinion of them on quite a few things, and definitely makes them a Legion that is interesting for many more reasons than the fact they are berserkers.

ADB is an expert at creating strong characters with, as he notes in his afterword, understandable motives. That is one of the things makes his characters great, you don’t have to agree with their motives, or like them or even respect them, but you can understand why they are doing it. And in a novel about psychopathic murderers and sadistic fanatics, that is a very important thing to be able to do. The World Eaters characters are the best of the group in this reviewer’s opinion, as their attitudes towards the Heresy, Legion, Primarch and other things, are quite often not what we would have guessed, particularly one one of those aspects that surprised me greatly. His human characters are just as strong, and in this novel that is a very impressive thing as his Legionary characters are excellent, and one of them, Lotara Sarrin, surprised me by being one of my favourites in the novel even above some Legionary characters. ADB does a great job of making these characters who we know are going to become monsters in the future be understandable and, for me at least, likeable to boot. One thing I have noted in the comments about the characters is that some did not care for the World Eaters sense of human, finding it too similar to ADB’s Night Lords. On that I disagree, where the Night Lords are cruel and sadistic and have humour about topics like skinning pits, fear and other such topics, the World Eaters have a more soldiery type of humour, joking about how screwed they are in their current battle, about their commanders and brothers and about their grim lot in life as a Legion.

No matter how many Ultramarines they have, it's not enough.

No matter how many Ultramarines they have, it’s not enough.

The action is just brilliant. Not only the physical fight scenes but the narrative during these fights that comments on the World Eaters berserker and frenzy style of battle, making many good points that explain why a Legion that has virtually no tactics is able to win so many fights. One line stands about above all others for that in this reviewer’s opinion, “Discipline wins wars. Fury wins fights. Win enough fights and you’ll carry the war,” for me that line very neatly sums up the World Eater attitude towards the parts of war that aren’t about beating people to death. But one aspect of the book and the series as a whole is, as ADB notes in the afterword, that Legions will lose fights, and an important thing t do is to not make any Legion look like punks. Because of that it’s important that the World Eaters and the Word Bearers and the Ultramarines be shown at their best, not favoured in any way that isn’t necessary. And ADB does that in a very good way by showing the Ultramarines at the top of their game and showing the downsides to a Legion with virtually no tactics going against the Legion famous for theirs. It’s a bloody book and the battle scenes are powerfully violent, and the lack of cohesion in the World Eaters makes the scenes much more chaotic which of course helps give the battles their own flavour. And some very unique moments in the book only help make it stand out further, one moment of which is immortalized in the final image of the hardback edition and is without a doubt one of the most badass moments in the entire Heresy.

The pacing of the book is not only set at a brutal fighting speed that matches the World Eaters as protagonists but can be a calm and thoughtful one for the scenes that demand it, I was glued to each page whether it was a fight, a conversation or just simply one character thinking about the Legions, the Heresy or the Warp. That I think is one of the book’s real strengths, it is engrossing no matter what is actually happening on the page, it simply sucks you in and refuses to let go until it’s over and even after it’s over you’ll be thinking about the events, conversations, etc. The book flows nicely and has a strong narrative that while not only telling the story also makes some very poignant points about the entirety of the Heresy setting. The one flashback scene is not only amazing for what it contains but I particularly liked how the narrative went from present to past without dropping a beat, and the two lines that it left the present narrative and entered the flashback narrative on were very entertaining. And of course the imagery of the book is brutal, beautiful and horrific by turns, ADB really knows how to make a good setting and he doesn’t skimp on the final battle having a superb backdrop, which only makes it funner to imagine and try to hold images of the events in the final 100 or so pages in our heads. I would go as far to say that some of the moments in this book NEED to be made into artwork for a future HH art book collection.

Now for my favourite quote. Not easy to say the least. This novel is absolutely filled with amazing one-liners, thoughtful questions about many things, pretty badass speeches and engrossing conversations. So i’ll go with the one that made me laugh for just how much of an understatement it was, the entrance the character that said it made and how great it was for just being so simple,

“And yet here I am.”

The ending is fantastic to say the least. ADB took the story in some VERY unexpected directions near the end and it makes for an amazing epilogue that ends the story on a very dark note and promises the readers much more in the future. ADB ends the stories of a few characters, takes some characters in a direction we never saw coming, and takes the World Eaters a step or two closer to the crazed blood-maddened berserkers that we all know and love to chant Blood for the Blood God along with. Though, for me, it was the second part of the epilogue that was the best, that scene was chilling in just how strong every aspect of it was, from the location to the characters to the action to the few words that were spoken during it. But the very last scene had an absolutely brilliant atmosphere to it, the utter silence that you just know is there apart from what noises the characters make, and the words between the characters that are chilling for what they promise for the World Eaters Legion’s future, and the future of those two characters in particular.

For an amazing story that contained many moments that just floored me, characters that were much more than I expected from the World Eaters Legion and their servants, and action scenes that were visceral and just felt brutal in both the physical parts and the overall narrative, I give Betrayer a score of 10/10. This is a Heresy book that simply cannot be missed, even if you aren’t a fan of the World Eaters or the Word Bearers you should read this novel and you’ll likely be a fan of them by the end, and if you are a fan this is the novel that you’ve been waiting for, the novel that finally shines the light on the World Eaters and shows them as a much deeper Legion than you would have thought them. ADB only gets better as he continues to write for the Horus Heresy series and his next offering, which he has told us is titled The Master of Mankind, cannot come soon enough for he has also confirmed just what it will be about. The War in the Webway, an event that every Heresy fan has been waiting for and I for one am absolutely thrilled that my favourite author is writing it. I can’t wait to see his take on the loyalists, as so far he’s only written about the Traitor Legions.

That’s it for this review, it has been a joy writing it. My next review will be for newcomer David Annandale’s Space Marines Battles novel Death of Antagonis. Until next time,


Lord of the Night

Lord of the Night is one of TFF’s original reviewers. He’s done quite a few for TFF and that number keeps expanding. You’ll enjoy his diverse mix of book reviews. Always a treat.