16 November 2010

[40k Review] The First Heretic - Aaron Dembski-Bowden

The Black Library’s Horus Heresy series has become no less than epic. Spanning 14 books thusfar, the Games Workshop Warhammer 40k IP is being worked hard and worked diligently through the Horus Heresy, and for the most part, each book in the series has been a decent addition to the overall story. With Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s (ADB) first effort in the Horus Heresy, we are treated to a story that is arguably the most important in the series so far, the story of the roots of the Horus Heresy itself, the story of The First Heretic.

The First Heretic details the story of the Word Bearers chapter over nearly 60 years of the Great Crusade, continuing through the Isstvan V Massacre. Detailing the events largely through the eyes of 7th Company Captain Argel Tal, we are taken on a journey that details the fall of the Word Bearers legion from the initial setting off point at Monarchia, where Lorgar and his Word Bearers are forced to kneel in deference to both the Emperor and Roboute Guilliman, to the ultimate point of betrayal at Isstvan V. The story reads much like a Shakespearian tragedy; we know the ultimate fate of our players, yet we can't help to hope that, at the eleventh hour, the story will change. As such, it provides a driving narrative that moves deftly through ADB's adept prose.

The prose that drives the story is, much like the other ADB books, gripping and readable. ADB is one of the best of the Black Library authors at varying sentence structure and creating a narrative that has consistent pacing. He has a great feel for establishing an ebb and flow to the narrative structure that allows for slower, more relaxed portions of story to counterbalance the more tense ones. It all works very well, but mostly due to ADBs biggest strength: his characterization.

Rich characterization is a skill ADB always brings to the table. He has a laudable knack for being able to create characters that the reader can both relate to and cares about, and thus is able to draw his reader further into the story. The First Heretic is no different. Argel Tal is a wonderfully portrayed character. He is deeply loyal, but unlike many of his Word Bearer brethren, his loyalty doesn't turn into zealotry. It makes him stand out as character, particularly because it provides such a strong point of internal conflict. We also get a healthy dose of Kor Phaeron and Erebus, characters previously introduced in other Horus Heresy books, and who, unlike Argel Tal, are certainly not conflicted about their conviction of purpose. Suffice it to say that, in The First Heretic, the roles that both Erebus and Kor Phaeron have to play in the greater space opera that is the Horus Heresy come into even greater light. Though we do see much of the story through the eyes of the Astartes, it Is through the characterization of the Primarch Lorgar that ADB's prose really shines.

Lorgar is an incredibly polarizing figure in this novel. Unlike the primarch’s we’ve seen in other books, Lorgar is, and I’ll quote a friend here, “a bit of a douche.” He isn’t Hurculean like Ferrus Manus or Leman Russ. He isn’t magnanimous like Gulliman or Dorn. He isn’t influential like Horus or Magnus. Lorgar is the Golden Primarch and is described as, essentially, a Primarch-sized Egyptian boy-emperor. He’s whiny, he’s petulant, and worst of all, he’s far more naïve than any Primarch should be. In a particularly telling, and poignant scene, Lorgar asks his advisors what his fault as a Primarch is. He is told, “you trust too much, and too easily.” It is a weakness that makes Lorgar far more human than any previous Primarch, and perhaps could make his fall all the more bitter; however, the manner in which his naiveté leads to his downfall makes him appear simply weak. That’s not to say his is a bad, or poorly developed, character—he’s quite the contrary. Lorgar is a really well fleshed out character that is simply hard to like or sympathize with because of his faults.

This is a complicated book in many respects. On one level, The First Heretic is similar to Fulgrim and A Thousand Sons, in that it is a chronicling of the fall from grace of one of the Emperor’s chosen sons. Unlike the other primarchs, Lorgar is a far less sympathetic character than both Fulgrim and Magnus. Where both Fulgrim and Magnus fall due to their arrogance in service to the Emperor despite the best intentions, Lorgar’s fall is much less pitiable as his naiveté and blind faith serve to betray him. That faith, and the nature of faith itself, serves to set this book above as not simply a science fiction novel—as so many Black Library novels are cast aside—but as a piece of literature. We saw a glimpse of this depth in the short story “The Last Church” from Tales of Heresy, but ADB really explores this theme at great length in The Last Heretic. Now, there’s no confusing The Last Heretic for Aquinas, but I really applaud both ADB and the Black Library for tackling these very real and applicable themes.

In The First Heretic, Aaron Dembski-Bowden has crafted a very important book in the scope of the Horus Heresy, the Warhammer 40k canon and IP, and the Black Library. Echoing the epitaph on the novel’s cover, ADB explores the roots of the Heresy and we are introduced to information that is both staggering and heartbreaking. Additionally, The First Heretic marks the first time themes beyond good and evil are explored to such an extent in a Black Library novel. The Horus Heresy novels are quickly becoming the vessel for the Black Library to create ‘real’ literature, to craft stories that examine those universal themes that turn books into literature and movies into films. The First Heretic leads the charge, and Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s work is a wonderful entry to the Horus Heresy series and a superb piece of literature that should not be missed.

9.5/10 Masterful

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