The Heresy continues, as another brother falls
The Shadow Crusade has begun. While the Ultramarines reel from Kor Phaeron’s surprise attack on Calth, Lorgar and the rest of the Word Bearers strike deep into the realm of Ultramar. Their unlikely allies, Angron and the World Eaters, continue to ravage each new system they come across – upon the garrison planet of Armatura, this relentless savagery may finally prove to be their undoing. Worlds will burn, Legions will clash and a primarch will fall.
Betrayer, the 24th novel in Black Library’s New York Times-bestselling Horus Heresy series, advances the cause of the traitor Legions. One more brother will fall utterly into the grip of Chaos, twisted and manipulated by another. Dembski-Bowden, probably my favourite author working on BL fiction, has written a nuanced novel – one that is thought-provoking, tragic and utterly compelling. Betrayer is another excellent addition to the series.
The novel opens with a great meeting between Lorgar Aurelian (Word Bearers’ Primarch) and Magnus’s psychic projection (he does that, since he fled to the Eye with his Thousand Sons, and has assumed a more psychic aspect). It’s a well-written meeting of brothers, which gives us a hint of what is to come in the novel and also sets the scene nicely for readers who may need a bit of a refresher course. One of the brothers, Lorgar, so confident in his mission; the other hesitant to thrown in his lot with his rebellious, traitor siblings. It’s a great examination of what it might mean to be siblings in this situation – they flatter, bicker, cajole, snipe, and attempt to manipulate each other, and even almost come to blows.
Lorgar informs Magnus that Angron, the Primarch of the World Eaters, is dying, and that he is going to save him. Betrayer is, ultimately, all about Angron and his Legion. (You’ll forgive me, therefore, for indulging my interest and fascination in the Primarchs and focusing most of my attention on him.)
We finally get a good accounting (though still somewhat vague) of his pre-Imperial time, and the torture and travails he had to go through on his home planet. It’s a fascinating account of Angron’s upbringing, and how his experiences – so different from his brothers – shaped him and ultimately his Legion. Dembski-Bowden offers a believable reason for Angron’s insistence on the implantation of cranial Nails into his Legionnaires: they are pale imitations of his own Butcher’s Nails, but their impact on his warriors is much the same: they strip away reason and re-wire their pleasure centers in such a way that only the adrenaline rush of combat and bloodshed can give them any happiness.
Much of what we read in the first few chapters highlights Angron’s steady decline, from a handful of different perspectives: an outsider of the Legion, Captain Khârn of the XII, the World Eaters’ fleet commander, and also his brother Lorgar. It comes across like a sympathetic account of a super-human psychopath’s decline. Upon arriving at Armatura, for example, Lorgar says:
“The year’s journey from Isstvan was more eventful than I’d anticipated. Angron and his Legion delayed us, pausing to murder world after world on their wrathful whims. Our brother’s mutilated psyche makes planning anything something of a chore, but at last, here we are. The beginning of the end.”
The novel is filled with descriptions of Angron’s decline – whether is his fleeting attention span to his belligerent and dismissive approach to everyone and everything. His physical decline, however, is starkly portrayed on a number of occasions, everything from multiple nosebleeds to an incessant muscle-twitch over his eye.
“He could be swift, but only when the Nails hissed hot. Outside of battle, he was a ruined thing, a shadow of what could – and should – have been.”
Later on in the novel, Lorgar continues his analysis of Angron’s predicament and situation:
“His Legion loathes him and emulates him in equal measure. He is getting worse, and they all see it. The implants drilled into his skull will be the death of him, that much is clear... They cannot be removed. They cannot be countered.”
Or can they…? That is what forms Lorgar’s motivation in Betrayer, and it’s a conclusion that the author brings us to with aplomb and plenty of style. I was hooked throughout.
The scenes on Nuceria, the planet on which Angron’s incubation pod landed, are particularly affecting and informative. It was very welcome, to learn more about Angron’s past and the multiple betrayals he’s experienced and witnessed over the course of his violent life. Just as Graham McNeill was able to show the tragedy of Magnus and the Thousand Sons’s story, here Dembski-Bowden does justice to that other most-wronged and betrayed Primarch. Angron is so very different from the others, and through the lens of his past and present, we recognize the tragedy of his ultimate fate, as exemplified by something Lorgar tells Khârn very near the end, and something that, to share, would spoil the denouement.
I particularly like the way Dembski-Bowden portrays the angst and unspoken shame Khârn and his fellow World Eaters feel towards their Primarch. After Argel Tal asks him how he can stand it that Angron is so “broken”, and fails to instill the awe that all other Primarchs clearly do – in more than their own Legions and in humans, Khârn responds:
“It’s our shame to bear before the other Legions, brother. Angron was broken long before he ever reached us. Why do you think we let him beat the Nails into our heads? We hoped that by breaking ourselves on the same anvil, we’d finally feel unity with our father.”
“It didn’t work?”
“No,” he muttered, as much to himself as to the distant Word Bearer. “It didn’t.”
Khârn, the Captain of the Eighth Company of World Eaters, and effectively the Legion’s number two (in terms of respect, if I read that correctly), is an interesting character. Through his eyes we see the steady decline of not only Angron, but that of his own Legion. A decline he is not immune to, either:
“His honour guards intercepted the World Eaters still seeking to reach their captain, cleaving them apart with blows from their halberds. Petty envy burned within Kharn that moment. Their unity of movement, their disciplined teamwork – when the World Eaters charged, they fell into barely bound packs, relying on ferocity and individual strength over any tactical cohesion. This was like looking at what might have been – and what once was – without the Nails.”
A second focus of the novel falls on Khârn and Argel Tal, the first of Lorgar’s Word Bearers to accept a daemon possession. His warped body has evolved since last I read of him (in The First Heretic), and continues to do so over the course of this novel. He’s come a long way, physically, but mentally he is still relatable. The World Eaters as a whole, and Khârn in particular, remain uncomfortable with the Word Bearers’ fanatical religiosity, not yet content to consider the Chaos powers, or “pantheon” in Lorgar’s words, as gods:
As the two commander passed, every Word Bearer went to one knee. They lowered their heads and chanted prayers drawn from the Word of Lorgar.
Khârn couldn’t help but cringe. His skin crawled to hear such strange rhymes and benedictions vox-whispered by so many throats.
“I’ll never understand your Legion,” he told Argel Tal.
Khârn’s own unease, and weariness with Lorgar’s Legion “claiming sadism as a holy virtue”, is mirrored by a particularly blunt and unusually observant Angron at one point:
As Angron turned to regard the Word Bearers in their orderly ranks, a nasty smile split his lips. He sensed their ardency, their efforts at propriety, and it amused him.
“You’re smiling,” Khârn said, more a weary accusation than a question.
“It entertains me no end to see them masking the sickness inside their souls with such zeal.”
Khârn frequently discusses the Word Bearers’ fanaticism with Argel Tal, perhaps his closest friend (even including other World Eaters). Through these exchanges, we also learn of the nuances and concerns within certain believers: “I take no pleasure in offering agony in worship to gods that cannot be ignored and yet do not deserve to exist.” It was nice to once again be reminded that the Heresy did not start with the flick of a switch, and that of those who turned Traitor, not all of them did it as enthusiastically or happily as others.
I really admire the way Dembski-Bowden can generate sympathy for these characters, make them more relatable to us, giving them more layers than “Traitor”, “Killer”, “Soldier”. I also liked how different Khârn is from his portrayal in the game books, Warhammer 40,000 background, and also Anthony Reynolds’s excellent Chosen of Khorne. Related, I suppose, is the portrayal of the World Eaters as a whole: so different from the other Legions, they are more relaxed at the same time as being wound up close to snapping point. Legion and unit discipline is of secondary concern to warfare. Captains and human servants, Astartes and the Primarch... There is an informality with which each deals with the other. It’s refreshing, and portrayed in a very convincing way.
Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s gift for making all his characters – whether World Eater berserker, Word Bearer zealot, or human ship captain – absolutely relatable is, in my opinion, peerless in Black Library’s roster of authors. Betrayer is filled with moments when the characters are more than just characters, and feel like fully-realized people. Whether it is a bro-like fist-bump between Argel Tal and Kharn (for me the absolute stars of the novel), or the dialogue between Magnus and Lorgar at the start of the novel (one of which is, of course, so far removed from what we should consider “relatable”), his characters are nuanced, complex and believable. All of the authors working on Heresy novels, in fact, have done an exemplary job of making the Heresy and its key actors believable. The shift in allegiances, in behavior and – in the case of a few characters – physical aspect and appearance is gradual. One thing, though, is that there are clearly events from Aurelian, a limited-edition novella Dembski-Bowden wrote, that inform events in this novel. Given the very limited release of that book, Lorgar seems to have developed rather startlingly since The First Heretic.
Alongside these more character-focused elements, Betrayer also deals with the aftermath of the Word Bearers’ attack on Calth and the continuing campaign against the worlds of Ultramar, the 500 planets under the aegis of the Ultramarines Legion. Given the events of Know No Fear, things between the Legions have become… fraught.
If I have one niggle to point out, it would be that there were definitely sections or chapters of Betrayer that did not feel as tight as his previous novels. Some passages felt a little padded or over-written, and there were also a couple of instances of specific description being re-used as if entirely new, not long after they were first used.
Nevertheless, Betrayer is a very fine addition to the Horus Heresy series. We learn more about one of the more tragic Primarchs, his past and ultimate fate. This is a story of brotherhood, warfare, belief and, yes, a lot of betrayal. Aaron Dembski-Bowden is still one of my favourite authors, of all fiction, and I cannot wait to see what he comes up with next. (And please let there be more Heresy fiction in his future.)
Very highly recommended, Betrayer is of course a must for fans of the series.
The Horus Heresy: Horus Rising, False Gods, Galaxy in Flames, Flight of the Eisenstein, Fulgrim, Descent of Angels, Legion,Battle for the Abyss, Mechanicum, Tales of Heresy, Fallen Angels, A Thousand Sons, Nemesis, The First Heretic, Prospero Burns, Age of Darkness, The Outcast Dead, Deliverance Lost, Know No Fear, The Primarchs, Fear to Tread, Shadows of Treachery, Angel Exterminatus, Betrayer, Mark of Calth