Sunday, 8 February 2015

The First Heretic - Book review


Spoilers abound in these posts, if you haven’t read the books and will get upset by finding out what happens just stop.

This is also not a recap, if you want a recap go to Lexicanium.

What The Black Library says about the book

Amidst the galaxy-wide war of the Great Crusade, the Emperor castigates the Word Bearers for their worship. Distraught at this judgement, Lorgar and his Legion seek another path while devastating world after world, venting their fury and fervour on the battlefield. Their search for a new purpose leads them to the edge of the material universe, where they meet ancient forces far more powerful than they could have imagined. Having set out to illuminate the Imperium, the corruption of Chaos takes hold and their path to damnation begins. Unbeknownst to the Word Bearers, their quest for truth contains the very roots of heresy…

What the book is really about?

I really would advise not reading the Black Library blurbs before reading a book. Talk about giving away most of the plot, it’s like one of those 3 minute trailers for a Comedy movie that include most of the good bits.

Anyway, what’s this book about? Simply put, it’s about rejection and love turned bad.

Right off the bat, let me say that this is a fantastic book. It covers a massive amount of ground, both in terms of time and in concepts. But the strengths of the book are how the protagonist is written in a way that you understand why he is doing what he does, and how Lorgar is portrayed. I’ll cover these bits later in the review though. Let’s talk about what happens in the story first.

Few books have a better opening than First Heretic, and I don’t mean few books in the Horus Heresy. The humbling of an entire legion in the dust of Monarchia is one of the best images in the whole heresy series. It’s told extremely well, with the Word Bearers feeling a mix of anger, disgust, embarrassment and rejection. The legion is basically told, “You suck, everything you have ever done sucks, and your entire purpose for being is wrong”.

For a bunch of Priest-warriors, that’s a mighty hard pill to swallow and it essentially breaks the legion and it’s Primarch. Lorgar, who had spent his entire life creating a faith based on the Emperor gets told that he’s a fool. After this morale and spirit crushing exercise in humiliation, the Emperor sends the Word Bearers back out into the galaxy with some babysitters and tells them “Don’t do what you’ve been doing dumbasses”.

Lorgar takes his humiliation poorly, as one would expect after a lifetime of devotion gets rejected. Think of it this way; imagine the Pope ruling away in the Vatican and Jesus returns. Jesus then forces all the Catholic Bishops to kneel and tells them they have been doing everything wrong forever. Not only that, he says the bible is rubbish and that the whole church needs to go.

That’s one big jagged horrible pill to swallow, so horrible and jagged Alanis Morrisette would write a song about it. Fortunately, the Word Bearers find Alanis Morrisette in the rubble and take her home with them. Cyrene, a young girl from the bombed out planet becomes a central part of the book, acting as confessor and inspiration for the Word Bearers after this event.

With Lorgar being totally bummed out by the Emperor, the evil stooge patrol sweep in to lure him to the darkside. Erebus and Kor Phareon, in matching evil twirling moustaches say “Yep, the emperor is a dick, you should have stayed with the old faith”. It’s like they had been planning this from day one…… oh wait, they were.

The convince Lorgar to look for signs of the old faith, which leads him to Cadia and the Eye of Terror. On Cadia he finds a people who speak the language of his home world, who worship a faith similar to the old faith of his home world, and more importantly, they have been waiting and calling for him.

Lorgar watches human sacrifices, a demon summoning, the murder of a custodes, and then sends his favourite squad of troops into the warp on a daemons orders to find “the truth”.

That’s a seriously desperate and demented act right there. Argel Tal and the boys take the daemon into the warp for a “tiki-tour” (NZ Slang, but I can’t think of a better way to describe it). Here they see the fall of the elder, the creation of the Primarchs, and a possible future where humanity is devoured. They return….. much worse for wear. The whole squad possessed by demons, well, the small number who survive that is.

Argel Tal and his crew become the Gal Vorbak, or favoured sons of Lorgar and get to wear shiny crimson armour, which honestly feels like being given a souvenir t-shirt in honour of the time you had a tape worm. Being Lorgars favoured sons seems like a really bad deal. But hey, Crimson armour is cool right?

These passages are told in a great way, starting off with Argel Tal dying and then working backwards as an account. It’s a stylistic way to hook you in to the story and keep you reading, ADB uses a lot of little artifices like this in his writing, and they all contribute to his books being real “page-turners”.

Zoom ahead 47 years and the Word Bearers have spread the word of chaos throughout the Legions and the Imperium. We then deal with the final transformation of the Gal Vorbak into monsters and the betrayal at Istvaan 5.

This view of the battle is pretty cool, watching the Iron warriors, Word Bearers and co line up and massacre the Raven Guard as they fall back. It also has a great scene where Lorgar fights Corax, a Primarch battle that not only serves as great action, but also a real insight into Lorgar the Primarch.

The final act is the execution of Cyrene by the Custodes assigned to the fleet, and their final battle with the Gal Vorbak. This final battle features the single best line of dialogue in the entire Horus heresy series, a line that literally made me cackle. (It’s the final line of the Chapter)

So in the end, this book is about misplaced love turned bad. It’s about that creepy obsessed kid that hero worships someone, and then goes mental when spurned…….. holy shit, it’s got the same plot as “the Incredibles”.

That’s a great story though, because you are talking about characters and motivations and not events. The Horus Heresy needs to be about epic, larger than life characters making humans and flawed decisions. It’s about hubris and nemesis, and should play out with the dramatis of a Greek tragedy. The First heretic does a far better job of showing a fall in a believable and human way than any of the books to date, a lot better than Horus’s fall and a wee bit better than Magnus’s.

In short, great book, great story and real characters. As the first entry in the Horus Heresy by ADB, this is a real exemplar to the other writers of how to do it.  

The Hero-Protagonist – Argel Tal

“Hero” protagonist doesn't really apply to Argel Tal as he’s not really a hero by any real definition. He’s a monster, through and through, but he’s a believable monster with real motivations and believable behaviour, which is why you can keep reading about him, and even identify with him.

A worse writer would have made Argel Tal into a caricature, a martinet priest who was inflexible and blind, so that’s how he fell. ADB leaves Argel Tal questioning his decisions, being indecisive, doubting the changes going on, but still pushing on with them. By doing this he explores the Word Bearers gene seed flaw of loyalty and devotion.

Argel Tal knows they are on the road to damnation, and really does not want to push on. But his loyalty to Lorgar makes him do it, and that devotion causes him to rationalize becoming possessed, slaughtering people in ritual sacrifices and wholesale murder of people loyal to the Emperor.

Let me just say that I’m so very very glad this book wasn't about Erebus. I don’t think I could handle 300+ pages of that guy. Introducing the Argel Tal character allowed ADB to humanize the inhuman acts of the Word Bearers, it really was a masterful choice.  

Why are their humans in my book about super-powered Space Marines?

Well, there are a few human characters in this book. A plethora of religious types on the Word Bearer home world, the crew of the damned ship the Gal Vorbek take into the warp, the people of Cadia and even a smart ass remembrancer who steals a few scenes in the latter 3rd of the book. They are all reasonably well written, but the main human character in this story is Cyrene.

Cyrene is a young woman found in the ruins of Monarchia, who witnessed the Ultramarines annihilate her city: an act that rendered her blind. She is one of a handful of survivors from that event, and being the only woman in the group, being blinded by it, and having a unique mix of vulnerability and determination, she becomes a symbol for the Word Bearers.

She becomes the “Blessed Lady” of the Word Bearers, a sort of “Virgin Mary” figure that acts as confessor and spiritual advisor for the Legion. She embraces the teachings of Erebus via Xaphen and helps to subtlety turn the heart of the Legion to chaos.

What makes her a compelling character is that mix of vulnerability and determination combined with the juxtaposition of having a frail little human woman advising hulking man-mountain Astartes on personal matters. Her death is also the final threshold for Argel Tal to totally give in to his inner monster and go totally ape-shit bonkers. But she is more than a “Woman in a refrigerator” trope character; she has agency and her own motivations.

MVP – Sythran

This book has a load of excellent characters, so picking out a MVP was always going to be difficult. I picked this, because an MVP doesn’t need to be judged by their volume of lines, or their contribution to the story. They just have to be a character that I like.

In this case, it’s Sythran, the Custodes who took a vow of silence for 50 years. For 50 years he’s been with the Word Bearers, and for 50 years he had been listening to Xaphen needle the other Custodes at every turn. The final scene in the book is the three remaining Custodes vs the Gal Vorbek in a final battle.

Sythran is the last man standing, massively outnumbered and in a hopeless position. So what does he do?

He throws his Spear at Xaphen and kills him out right, breaking his silence for 50 years of listening to Xaphens bullshit by saying “I always hated you, Xaphen”.

Class act!

Worst Character – The Gal Vorbak

Here is something I did find a little bit of a let-down. Argel Tal is a very engaging and interesting character, and Xaphen is a complete tool, but a well-written tool. But the rest of the Gal Vorbak are a bit bland to be honest. I don’t get what Dagotal’s character is asides from he rides a jet bike, and Torgal and Malnor are equally a bit bland.

I’m splitting hairs to be honest, but these guys were a little flat, a bit more interaction or conflict with Xpahen and Argel tal would have been good here. 

Get to know your Legion – The Word Bearers

These poor guys were doomed from the start really. Being the only religious legion in a secular world always meant they were going to run into trouble.

But the irony is that the Word Bearers are the template for all future Space Marines. They are warrior-priests, who build monuments of faith the God Emperor; they decorate their armour in oaths and relics and they pray, show penitence and have a thing for Martyrdom.

If an Space Marine from the 40k universe went back in time to the pre-heresy period, the Word Bearers would be closer to him that his own chapter, in thought and deed. I guess that is all part of the irony and tragedy of their fall.

We learn that the Word Bearers are a massive legion, second only to the Ultramarines in sheer number of marines under their banner. We also find out that before Monarchia they were the slowest legion to get a compliance done, because they would “convert” the world, building what they thought were perfect imperial worlds.

They also introduced the idea of Chaplains to the Space Marine Legions….. you know Chaplains, those staunch defenders of the Imperial Faith. Poor Word Bearers, born a thousand years too early.

The flaw of the Legion is two-fold, they have intense loyalty and devotion, especially to their Primarch. No we all know that it’s only one-step from intense loyalty into fanaticism, and that’s the eventual trajectory for the Word Bearers once they have their faith broken and their honour shattered.

The second part of their flaw is that their faith is in Lorgar.

Get to know your Primarch – Lorgar

At times in the book I really felt for Lorgar, he doesn’t actually seem like a bad guy as such, certainly not a moustache twirling type bad guy. Deep down, he’s just a guy who wants to build societies, to reflect on mysteries and debate the deeper meanings of the universe with other intellectuals. He just isn’t cut out for being a warrior-god like his brothers, and it eats away at him.

Lorgar could have been portrayed as the worst kind of single-minded dip-shit from our world, like a Taliban Iman, Fred-Phelps or the Amazing Atheist. But ADB decided to do a different take on him and portrayed him as a man with massive doubts and insecurities about his role in the natural order. Lorgar needed answers and certainty in his life, while he worshipped the Emperor he was content, as he believed he was on a righteous course.

When his faith is shattered, he becomes directionless and indecisive. And like many other Primarchs, he seems to have a terrible ability to judge the hearts of those closest to him. Kor Phaeron and Erebus do a number on him.

Lorgar’s best scene is his hopeless duel with Corax. Even though he has fallen from grace, he still throws himself into a hopeless fight against a warrior Primarch to save his Legionnaires from being slaughtered wholesale. He knows he will be beaten, but the sight of his sons being killed at whim drives him to a desperate act of self-sacrifice.

It’s a nice paradox of a scene, and shows that if Lorgar had been parented better, he could have been the Emperor’s staunchest son. In a time of peace, Lorgar may have excelled as a world builder and leader of men like Gulliman. Where some Primarchs would have been lost in a future without war, Lorgar would have thrived. It all adds to the tragedy value of his fall, which makes for good epic storytelling.

Because in the end, this is a story about love spurned and faith misplaced.

Why the Emperor is a giant douche

It really is a toss-up as to what child the Emperor parented worst, Lorgar or Magnus.

Monarchia was simply a brutal way to get a lesson across to a child. When the Emperor met Lorgar, he saw that he was raised on a religious world and had built a faith around him. He then let him continue on this path for a long long time before annihilating a planet to prove a point.

It’s the extended periods of neglect, followed by a harsh “rubbing you nose in it” incident that makes this so egregious. Lorgar clearly needed to be deprogrammed when he was initially met, but the Emperor does have a singular ability to ignore his own progeny and assume they will just do as they are told.

Also, the innocent people of Monarchia get punished for Lorgar’s mistake. It’s the equivalent of shooting a kids puppy in front of them as punishment for poor school work.

What a douche.

Mustache twirling evil-bastard award – Team Evil

Kor Phaeron and Erebus manipulate Lorgar into all of the terrible decisions he makes. They exploit his vulnerabilities and frailties and guide him to the exact places he needs to be to make terrible decisions.

The fact that these two are still worshipping the “Old Faith” and that they have been seeding “old faith” cults as they went through the Galaxy means they have been planning this for a long-long time.

But the really telling part is how patronizing and condescending they are about their own Primarch at times. Lorgar’s greatest flaw is that he trusted a pair of complete assholes.

Quirky reveals and other coolness

There are a load of interesting little reveals in this book, here are some highlights.

One, is the discovery of Cadia, a world that will become incredibly important to the Warhammer 40k universe as it sits in a channel to the Eye of terror.

Another is the reveal that Argel Tal is the one who smashes the Gellar field protecting the Primarchs in the past. This scene is shown from another angle in False Gods, and having the circle close on this story was cool.

A few tidbits are provided about the lost legions, and their fates. While no names or details are given, it is strongly hinted that many of the surviving Astartes from the fallen legions were absorbed by the Ultramarines.

The writing – technical review and evaluation

Aaron Demski-Bowden can write, and he can write well. This isn't a good Horus Heresy Book, it’s simply a good book. Engaging characters, epic story, complex motivations and interesting revelations combine with very solid writing to create a great read.

I really like Dan Abnett’s books, he does detail and world building better than anyone else on the crew, but for sheer “page-turner” value, I think ADB is the best writer on the crew.

This book gets a “Read it, even if you’re not into 40k at all” rating.

 *disclaimer, borrowed art is borrowed. 


  1. Fantastic review! However, let me point out that the awesome Custodes who took a vow of silence, and was later responsible for one of the funniest and coolest 'last words' ever, was actually Sythran, not Kalhin.

    1. Oops, I'll change that. Great scene though.

  2. My favorite part was Konrad Curze telling Lorgar how it is.
    Realest moment in the book.


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