Horus Heresy: The First Heretic by Aaron Dembski-Bowden. Book review

THE FIRST HERETIC by Aaron Dembski-Bowden, p/b, the Black Library, 7.99, http://www.blacklibrary.com/horus-heresy/First-Heretic-The.html

Reviewed by David Rudden

Indulge me for a moment and imagine the Black Library books as action films. There’s a lot of similarities; main characters who shrug off bullet wounds and broken ribs like they were a bad haircut, large-scale conflicts that are inevitably pared down from the thousands-in-peril level to the battered protagonist throwing himself at the bad guy, and of course more explosions than BBQ & Fireworks Night at the oil rig.

In this (increasingly laboured) analogy, quite a few of the BL books are the Die Hard 4, the Collateral Damage, the anything-by-Steven Seagal; enjoyable at the time but not memorable, not mold-breaking. Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s books, however, are the equivalent of Taken. Same basic structure, but a head above the rest due to imagination, a willingness to spend some time on depth and motivation and a flair for imaginative violence.

I was eager to see him take on a Horus Heresy novel as his style of writing really lends itself to that nod-and-wink-to-crushing-doom sense the best Heresy novels have. He really does not disappoint; I expected to react in a number of different ways to the story of Lorgar falling from his father’s grace and looking for something else to worship, but I didn’t think I’d feel pity.

The novel brought out this glorious feeling of helplessness as you watch Lorgar and his Word Bearers search for meaning, as you see them make mistake after mistake in an attempt to belong to something. One of the strengths of the Heresy series is that everything’s an introduction; this is the start, this is how things were meant to be. You experience the wide-eyed horror of an idealistic human empire finding out that the universe is far more screwed-up than they ever could have imagined and, thanks to Dembski-Bowden’s talent for horror, you feel for them. The author’s always had a talent for pared-down horror. He doesn’t give you a mountain of skulls or a river of intestines, (they show up in 40k books more than you’d think) he gives you the kind of greasy, wrong-edged ideas that stay with you for a lot longer.

The hum of a Space Marine’s armour making your gums ache.

An entire bridge complement staring at their consoles, holding back tears, vomit and insanity at the daemon coiled behind them giving directions.

Catching us with the little things rather than going for the sheer overkill that other BL writers do is what makes this book stand out. The book does not miss an opportunity to twist the knife, and of all the things I expected to feel when reading this, it wasn’t pity. You feel awful for the characters as they make one bad choice after another.

I have very few complaints with ‘The First Heretic‘. There is the problem that if you aren’t familiar with the backstory you are going to miss a lot of the in-jokes and references, but this is more a problem with the ‘Heresy’ series as a whole; they’re not meant for new BL readers, they’re for the fans to coo over when each new twist in the Horus Heresy is revealed. That said, it’s completely worth reading up on the series simply so you can enjoy The First Heretic‘. Anything else would be… well, heresy.