Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s Betrayer – a review of sorts
And now, as they say on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, for something completely different…
Today I’d like to talk about Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s novel Betrayer, which I finally managed to read this last weekend. Seeing how I am a really big fan of the World Eaters, you could certainly say that I took my sweet time for getting around to reading the book, right? Well, there’s a reason for that — several reasons in fact. Allow me to elaborate:
For starters, I have to admit that I am not perfectly sure how to feel about the whole Horus Heresy business. And by that I don’t mean the actual (fictional) event, but the business part: It’s easy to see how the HH franchise has turned into a huge business opportunity for GW and its subsidiaries Black Library and Forgeworld: On the modelling and gaming side of the hobby, FW’s release of Horus Heresy themed models and rules has been a dream come true for countless hobbyists. And the accompanying series of tie-in fiction seems to have opened up the 40k (or rather, 30k) universe to a readership beyond the diehard fans, at least if the sales based awards heaped upon the series are to be believed.
Now everyone’s allowed to have their profit, of course, but you may agree with me when I say that the prospects of huge amounts of money to be made are never the best thing to boost narrative integrity: There are countless instances in literature, film and videogames where the monetary success of a franchise served to replace any semblance of telling a great story with what us mere mortals refer to milking the cow (well, I refer to it as that, anyway). Therefore, I am reasonably sure that I am not going to burst your bubble when I state that a series of tie-in fiction might not be the perfect place to look for literary greatness. But even then, there’s actually decent storytelling and there is money grabbing. I also harbour the subtle fear that there might come a day when every single hour of every single day of the Horus Heresy is firmly documented within its own novel — just like each and every creature in the Mos Eisley cantina now has a rather detailed CV available in the Star Wars Expanded Universe (go ahead, do some research — I dare you!)
And, in all fairness, my first foray into the literary side of the Heresy (the short story collection “Tales of Heresy”) didn’t leave me exactly optimistic, since I found some of the stories to be pretty horrible, some merely tolerable (among them a Dan Abnett story, which was really a disappointment for me) and only two truly good: Graham McNeill’s haunting “The Last Church” and Matthew Farrer’s seminal “After Desh’ea” — the first story to ever make the World Eaters’ Primarch Angron actually read as an interesting character.
So it was with some trepidation that I approached the first real BL book to flesh out my favourite legion: I have gone on record stating that the prospect of new material for “my” legion always fills me with equal amounts of anticipation and dread: While I love to get more input on the World Eaters, the rather hamhanded current background for them leaves me wishing as often as not that GW would just leave them alone. So when I learned that Aaron Dembski-Bowden would be writing the novel, I wasn’t exactly sure how to feel about it: On the one hand, I would have perferred Mathew Farrer, the one guy so far who seemed to have understood the legion’s narrative potential, to get another shot at writing these guys. On the other hand, ADB’s credentials and the quotes he posted on his (higly recommended) blog made me cautiously optimistic. But I was still feeling a little scared — does that make sense? In all fairness, I also didn’t want to read the digital version, since I am a printed on paper kind of guy. Anyway, hence the delay.
Betrayer tells a surprisingly momentous tale (interesting for a series that often seems content to over-embroider minor plot points to the point of ridiculousness) that ends with what may truly be called a bang. Without spoiling the plot for you, let’s just say that the end of the model does have enormous ramifications for the future of the XIIth Astartes Legion. Before that, though, the World Eaters get lots and lots of opportunities of rampaging across Imperial worlds, among them the Ultramarines’ war world of Armatura and Nuceria, the Primarch Angron’s own homeworld.
For a book dealing with a legion that is mostly about frenzy and senseless butchery, the plot is also uncannily character and dialogue driven. It’s all for the best, though, because in my opinion, ADB is just very good at writing Space Marine characters: He manages to combine their supernatural powers and majesty with a believable amount of humanity and of course just the right blend of gravitas and theatrics. The interactions between the different Primarchs are just as good, with the fabled demigods truly feeling like a race apart but remaining relatable nevertheless. The Word Bearers’ primarch Lorgar stands out as a inscrutable character, sincere and utterly manipulative at the same time, impossible as that may seem.
The book’s greatest feat, however, is how it treats Angron. You should think that a guy who is “always angry all the time” and whose name is, for crying out loud, ANGRON would not exactly turn out to be a narrative goldmine, but Matthew Farrer already disproved that notion in “After Desh’ea”. I had hoped that ABD would take the look and feel of that story and run with it, and indeed he did: His Angron is a tragic, damned figure, scarred in body and soul and utterly beyond redemption. So far, nothing new.
But ABD’s characterisation truly excels at making Angron believable and, dare I say it, sympathetic in his background and his pain, while also making it clear that the Primarch is monstrous. It’s a very delicate balance to maintain, but it works: You cannot help feeling sorry for the broken Primarch, but you could also never really like him. He has the best possible reasons to be this way, but he is also irredeemable.
A similar high point, then, is the relationship between the Primarch and his gene-sons: There has been a discussion over at Throne of Skulls whether or not the World Eaters hate their Primarch, and I would argue that the truth of the matter, at least according to Betrayer, is far more ingenious and believable than that: It’s clear that the World Eaters are very aware that the Butcher’s Nails implants that they let themselves be outfitted with in order to feel true kinship with their Primarch have irrevocably damaged the legion: Kharn and several other characters show feelings of resentment and melancholia at the realisation that their legion can never be as inspirational or cultured as most of the other legions due to the bite of the nails. And who would be to blame for that other than Angron, right?
Yet at the same time, it’s obvious that the World Eaters take fierce pride in their brotherhood and martial honour. They have eagerly cobbled together their own warrior culture from the snippets of lore brought back by Angron and those traditions from their legionaries’ myriad homeworlds, and while they clearly acknowledge that it’s not a shining example of human endeavour, it’s the only kind of culture they have, so they cling to it fiercely. And this culture does of course encompasses Angron and his past at Nuceria.
Then there’s the fact that they do, in fact, feel pity for Angron — a notion that would probably send the Primarch flying into a rage, ironically enough. They share his feeling that he never had a chance to begin with, and what little glory was his to claim was taken away during the battle of Desh’ea.
And finally, even though Angron’s condition is perpetually deteriorating, there are moments of brotherhood and kinship between him an his sons: The book describes how he shares in his sons’ rituals and battles, how he drinks and laughs with them like few other Primarchs do, even though there is a gulf of conflicting emotions between them.
So what we have here is this hugely complex (and beautifully written) mix of resentment, love, hatred, disappointment and what have you. I think this is as true to life as fiction dealing with transhuman supersoldiers can possibly be, precisely because it echoes real life: You might feel resentment or embarrassment or even hatred for one of your close relatives, but they will always remain your family, and there’s no escaping that fact.
Below this main storyline, I also loved how ADB managed to partly flesh out the fleet and Titan legions — actually my least favourite parts of the whole background so far: By creating interesting and noble characters (like the Conqueror’s flag-captain Serrin or the Legio Audax personnel) and by injecting both organisations with a healthy dose of WWI air warfare chivalry (with officers complimenting their opponents on shrewd maneuvres and elegant tactics), he succeeds at actually giving the non-Astartes characters a voice of their own, without their parts of the novel ever feeling boring or unnecessary.
And for all those who are understandably sceptical of GW’s focus on Space Marines, feeling they are all just reskins of the same basic design template, it should be interesting to see how the author manages to give a different feel to the Legiones Astartes: From the fierce brotherhood (and battlefield frenzy) of the World Eaters to the priestly nobility (and insane zeal) of the Word Bearers, you get the impression that the Legiones Astartes are very different from each other indeed, if only written well. Even the Ultramarines, serving mainly to be beaten up very badly, get a few moments in the spotlight, and we are afforded glimpses at their warrior culture that make them look more interesting than they have any right to be (their battlefield commanders issuing orders in High Gothic is a great little touch).
In fact, ADB’s writing of characters always seems to be at its best where it deals with duality: Lorgar’s inscrutable motives, Angron’s position between a tragic hero and a monster, the legions’ duality or even the surprising depth of minor characters.
And, beyond all that, the book is of course a goldmine for little bitz and pieces of lore, from the World Eaters’ battle traditions and gladiatorial bouts to their affected bastard language of Nagrakali: These guys may fall to frenzy and bloodlust when on the battlefield, but for what may the first time ever, you can actually imagine them off the battlefield as well — no mean feat!
So, are there any negatives?
For one, this is, after all, only one book in a series. This means that most of the plot will only make sense to you if you do at least have an idea of the overarching narrative: If you’ve never heard about the Word Bearers’ machinations, about what happened on Calth or about the Thousand Sons’ being torn apart by the Space Wolves, you’ll be left scratching your head more than once. And even if you have a relatively good grasp of the bigger events, some references and allusions might still go over your head. That’s not really the author’s fault, though — if anything, I feel dread at the prospect of now having to read other HH novels written by less talented people…
Nevertheless, if you are simply looking for a great SciFi novel to pass the time, this might not be it: Too much stuff will be lost on you, and there are probably enough self-contained storylines of similar quality that are easier to get into. And it goes without saying that the book will prove utterly impenetrable to those without any knowledge of the attached GW universe.
If, however, you have a general idea of the overarching HH storyline – not necessarily from reading other HH novels, but from a mix of reading the different (Chaos) Space Marine codizes over the years and doing a bit of scrounging around for background at places like the Lexicanum or the Warhammer 40k Wiki – you’re good to go: That was my preparation going into this novel, and I belive it was enough.
For every World Eaters player, Betrayer is, of course, a must buy, for the amount of background lore alone. But there’s a great story beyond all that, and the book is truly great as tie-in fiction, and still very good on its own terms: I, for one, will probably pick up more of ABD’s novels (I am told his Night Lords stuff is the shitz) and look forward to his Black Legion series — or maybe some more World Eaters stuff?
But what does it all mean for Khorne’s Eternal Hunt? I’ll be honest with you: I did of course fear that parts (or most) of my own fluff would be ivalidated by this novel. But not only does ABD himself address the fact that several versions of events exist in the background (in a surprisingly clever throwaway scene), but he also succeeds at creating a canvas for your own fluff rather than enforcing his own view of things (as some authors have been known to do…). So while small readjustments to my own background may be in order, I relish the chance to make the 4th assault company even more interesting and colourful. In fact, there might be a separate post in that somewhere 😉
What about you, though: Have you read the book? How do you feel about it? And was this review helpful to you? Please feel free to share whatever thoughts you might have in the comments section!
And, as always, thanks for looking and stay tuned for more!
P.S. Oh yeah, before I forget; In case you didn’t gather as much from my rambling above, this book is also totally worth it.