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!
Today, it is my pleasure to review "Betrayer", by Aaron Dembski-Bowden. The book is now available for sale, but I couldn't resist pre-ordering it on the e-book format. Suffice to say, I wasn't disappointed. Those who dwell on these forums who have come to expect a certain threshold of, shall we say, excellence, from the author in question... will not be disappointed.
In terms of continuity, "Betrayer" follows directly on the heels of "The Butcher's Nails". In a broader sense, though, it continues the larger storyline explored in "The First Heretic", "Aurelian", and "Know No Fear". This should be of interest to people who have compared the variety of books written about the Horus Heresy to the relatively straightforward timeline of the older articles. I know some folks have grumbled about how long his series will go on for. Personally, though, I think this story arc has shown exactly why a longer, more in-depth series is the only way to do the Heresy right. Isstvan III to Isstvan V to Calth to Terra would have been a gross injustice.
"Betrayer" sees Lorgar, Angron, and their favored sons - Argel Tal and Kharn - in Ultramar, waging their war through the Five Hundred Worlds of Ultramar. This is not merely a campaign to bring Guilliman's realm to its knees, powerless to aid Terra. It is a conflict that is meant to transcend the physical realm. The bloodshed the two Legions will unleash is meant to resonate through the Warp, to achieve designs known only to Aurelian...
During this war, our protagonists (do we dare call them heroes at this point?) take the fight across Armatura, the great War-World of Ultramar, and a second planet - one of great significance to the XII Legion. We see a great deal of the World Eaters during this book, and for connoisseurs of Warhammer 40k, "Betrayer" is a treasure-trove. How do the infamous Butcher's Nails function? What do they do to Angron's Legionnaires? What is the price for the aggression they impart to those who wear them?
Kharn, and a number of secondary World Eaters characters serve as our eyes within their Legion, its customs, and its morals. Lhorke, a Contemptor Dreadnought, gives us a valuable perspective: that of a warrior who has seen the War Hounds become World Eaters, and the changes that came with that. And, as the novel progresses, we gain increasing insight into the mindset of Angron himself.
By contrast, the Word Bearers are not as explored. We certainly get a great deal of "access" to Lorgar, his plans, and his ambitions. Argel Tal is given as much focus as Kharn, and he serves as a valuable counterbalance to Lorgar. Of the Legion at large, though? Well, not so much. I suspect this is because the author knows that, if you're reading "Betrayer", chances are you also read "The First Heretic" and "Know No Fear". As such, giving equal time to a Legion already explored might smack of redundancy.
The theme of this novel, I think, comes down to loyalty. Dembski-Bowden shows us what this means to the various characters, and what they are willing to do in the name of this virtue. It is the very tragedy of the Warhammer 40k universe that in the name of said virtue such unvirtuous deeds will be committed.
Loyalty drives this novel. It is the basis behind Lorgar's efforts to form a bond with a brother who at first wanted nothing to do with him. Through Kharn's friendship with Argel Tal, it is the glue that keeps two vastly different Legions together. The World Eaters take on the curse of the Butcher's Nails out of a desperate need to forge such a bond with a Primarch who is worlds apart from them. The absence of this virtue is nicely explored in the way the World Eaters treat their dwindling number of Librarians. They share a powerful dynamic: the psyker warriors who know they can never gain acceptance from their brothers, but who nonetheless stoically stand by them no matter what. There is another angle to this absence of loyalty that is not revealed until the end of the novel, but it is absolutely central to the climax.
How is this novel executed? Superbly.
The pace is unrelenting - in a good way. Whether on the battlefields of Armatura or in showing us the preparations of the cast before their final invasion, the author moves the story without lag. There is no point in "Betrayer" where you feel the need to skip pages. In fact, by the end of the book, my reaction was that I wished for one more chapter.
The action is superb. I often complain about how the depictions of warfare in the Heresy Novels don't really do the setting justice. What the author did here approaches brilliance. Rather than try to tell you how battles would be fought in the far future... he shows you how they would feel. The visceral brutality and vicious prowess of the warriors is shown, but so is their exhaustion, their fortitude, their will to fight on... and the pervasive effect of the Butcher's Nails. You never doubt that the World Eaters were in battle. Their enemies are done justice. There's never a fight just for the sake of having a fight. You feel the toll.
The characters? What can I say. The author said something very poignant - that he didn't seek to humanize the cast... but rather to make them relatable to the reader. This is so key. Making Kharn, much less Angron, "human" would be a folly of the worst sort. The closest Kharn gets to being "human" is if one were to compare him to Achilles in the Iliad. He is a paragon on the battlefield, a ruthless, fearless warrior who in his own way knows already that he is doomed. Angron himself never makes excuses for what he is or what he does, and his proclamations near the end of the novel are resounding. You will never accept that he is justified in what he has done - nor should you! - but when he denounces his foe on that final battle, he never strikes you as a hypocrite.
That is the author's monumental victory. These characters will arrive on Terra scarred, twisted, bitter, and irrevocably changed and compromised. Villains though they may be, and servants to dark powers, the motives that set them on their course will nonetheless have been true. Lorgar and Argel Tal will forever choose to champion the truth that defines their universe, even if that truth is evil - because, in their eyes, truth can never be wrong... and everything else is relative. Angron will never seek to justify his atrocities, but he will also never suffer the hypocrisy of an Imperium that only offers a choice between willing enslavement and brutal, violent subjugation.
That, incidentally, will also make the final conflict between the Traitor Legions and their erstwhile brothers so tragic. Those loyal to the Emperor will behold warriors made monstrous by the Warp and will never be able to resolve why this battle ever needed to happen. Thanks to novels like "Betrayer", though, we finally know.
EDIT: I can only think of two items - where the novel is concerned - that struck me negatively. I include these out of a sense of objectivity. I need to stress that neither of these somehow compromised the overall work.
1. The campaign for Armatura is excellently written. Without taking away from it, though, there is a second campaign that is - where the characters and their arcs are concerned - far more defining. I wish there had been an even split between the two, in terms of time spent on them. Then again, I suspect the author needed the extra focus on Armatura to show us just what the World Eaters were about.
2. The pace of the plot, unrelenting as it was, is such that the climax of the novel arrives perhaps a bit too late. That's right, I needed to brush up on my incredibly amateur grasp of literary terms and concepts to come up with something to complain about beyond, "I wish there had been even more bodies flying and heartfelt proclamations in the final couple of chapters!"
I have no doubt that people who want to go way deeper, that is to the source material the novel is based on, might find other causes for complaint. Meaning, at the end of the day, Lorgar's schemes and the death toll and suffering they require require a healthy amount of suspension of disbelief to be viable. And no matter how tyrannical and hypocritical the Imperium is, one will never truly think, "Well, Angron is certainly justified!" But again, that's the source material. That's what the author has to work with. Dembski-Bowden and the other authors of the Heresy series will ultimately have to work with certain basic concepts. One of those is that Lorgar was an idealist who decided a deal with infernal powers was the best bet for Humanity. Another is that Angron was a berserker genocide machine. Such is the dystopia of 40k.
Again, though, when you're scratching your head to that degree to find if there was anything wrong with the book... The author's doing a lot of things right.
Highlight of the novel:
We witnessed a powerful story arc with the first five novels of the Horus Heresy series. Through the pens of four authors and the eyes and ears of Garviel Loken, Torik Torgaddon, Saul Tarvitz, and Nathaniel Garro, we saw the beginnings of the Heresy, through the catastrophe of Isstvan V. By contrast, three novels sat between "The First Heretic" and "Know No Fear". Another two came between the battle of Calth and "Betrayer". "Aurelian" and "The Butcher's Nails" bookended "Know No Fear", though. Despite the absence of an easy continuity/cohesiveness (the way the first five books followed each other directly), we now have two powerful arcs: Calth, to match Isstvan. In a curious way, I rather wish "Prospero Burns" and "Deliverance Lost" had come out before "Heretic"; that "Know No Fear" had been released after "Betrayer"; that "The Outcast Dead" and "Nemesis" had likewise been timed as part of their own "arc".
But I digress!
I recommend this novel to anyone, without reservations. "Betrayer" isn't just a great story; it's probably the most powerful argument I've seen so far that the Horus Heresy series should not be - must not be - simply about the events that we've seen in the articles and fluff pieces that defined the backstory of Warhammer 40k.