[Black Library Review] Betrayer – Aaron Dembski Bowden
Aaron Dembski-Bowden arrived on the Horus Heresy scene as an unexpected breath of fresh air in 2010 with The First Heretic, a book that was successful to the surprise of absolutely no one that read his Black Library debut Soul Hunter. In Soul Hunter Dembski-Bowden displayed is ability to make Warhammer villains extremely likeable and relatable, or at least as relatable as a group of genetically engineered 8-foot tall masochists could be. Talos and his brethren in the 10th are well rounded, intriguing characters that drive Soul Hunters enjoyable narrative and get you cheering for the bad guys with abandon. That’s why, while The First Heretic was a great book, I was left a bit wanting at his characterization of Lorgar, Primarch of the Word Bearers. In The First Heretic, Lorgar is weak, he’s a coward, and most of all the disdain his brothers have for him transfers to the reader. I didn’t like him at all. But it appears that Mr. Dembski-Bowden is a master of the slow play; the Lorgar presented in Dembski-Bowden’s latest Heresy offering, Betrayer, is quite a different beast that helps to drive the plot of a quality novel.
Betrayer takes place directly following Abnett’s No Know Fear as the Word Bearers move from Calth to burn and purge more worlds in Guilliman’s mighty empire. In Betrayer, the focus falls directly on Ultramar’s primary forge world as Lorgar is joined by Angron and his World Eaters to further inflict damage to the Ultramarines kingdom. It’s a fairly straightforward narrative: the entire story takes place during the siege of the forge world. However, like many of Dembski-Bowden’s previous efforts, the star isn’t the story itself, but rather the character’s he crafts and enhances.
The primary focus of the narrative is on Kharn, known presently as Kharn the Betrayer. Kharn is, simply put, a really superb character. Deeply affected by the flaws of his primach and of his legion, Kharn is hardly the sadistic madmen we know him to be in the 40k universe. He’s anything but, really. He’s brutal and thoughtful, sympathetic and merciless. It’s a really neat dichotomy to see, as Kharn is constantly fighting the Butcher’s Nails implanted by his sire. And above all else, he’s loyal. Kharn is accompanied through a great portion of the novel by Argel Tal, and their friendship is incredibly warm and, quite frankly, endearing. Though lasting only a novel, the relationship’s depth rivals the relationship of the Mournival in the first three Heresy novels. The book’s title Betrayer is a rather brilliant play on both Kharn’s present nom de plumb and his fastidious loyalty that contradicts it.
While Kharn may be the primary protagonist in Betrayer, we’re given the opportunity to learn a lot about both Lorgar and Angron as well. As I said before, this isn’t your First Heretic Lorgar. This Lorgar is evolved. Gone is the directionless and weak Lorgar from Dembski-Bowden’s earlier novel. He’s replaced by a villain with presence and power, with just the appropriate level of duplicity lurking below the surface. Combined with the knowledge of where he came from, the Lorgar given to us in Betrayer is a fully fleshed out horror whose meticulous cruelty provides a great foil for the unbridled rage Dembski-Bowden gives us in Angron.
And while Lorgar becomes a much fuller character in Betrayer, it’s Angron that we learn a lot more about. Previously, he’d been relatively shallow character, a fleshy mass of scar tissue and fury. He’s still that, don’t get me wrong, but we’re given the opportunity to see the origins of his hate. It makes him as sympathetic a character as I think he can be while maintaining the notion that he exists to wantonly maim and murder. There’s more than the physical pain his Butcher’s Nails inflict on Angron, and it’s nice to see that added depth.
Though the story of Betrayer offers few major surprises (though there are some, which I won’t spoil!), it’s a competently written addition to the Horus Heresy that brings some really great characterization to the series. I really look forward to learning more about Kharn in the hopes that we learn where his present-day moniker Betrayer comes from; it’s certainly not here. Seeing Lorgar fleshed out and evolving into the evil presence we now know him to be is really interesting and gives his treatment in previous books more credence. And finally getting to the source of some of Angron’s rage is wholly welcomed. There are some great story threads within the novel that make the narrative more than just a cookie cutter affair (the World Eater’s treatment of their librarians and the legion history as the War Hounds come to mind) but they’re not what make the book so good. Like much of Dembski-Bowden’s prior work, it’s his mastery of the characters he creates, and his ability to extend that growth through multiple books, that allows Betrayer to shine.