I know I’m late to the party, but I finally decided to start reading the “Horus Heresy,” a huge series of novels set in the universe of Warhammer 40,000 (though it is set much earlier than the year 40,000). I thought it would be awesome to blog the series as I go. With more than 50 novels and many, many short stories, there will be a lot of posts in this series (I doubt I’ll get to all the short stories). I’m reading the series in publication order unless otherwise noted. There will be SPOILERS from the books discussed as well as previous books in the series. Please DO NOT SPOIL later books in the series.
The First Heretic by Aaron Dembski-Bowden
History is a hugely important part of the Horus Heresy books, and in The First Heretic, we get some stunning insights into the background of the Word Bearers Legion. To start off, I have to say this is certainly among the best of the Horus Heresy books I’ve read so far. It doesn’t overly rely upon action to carry its story, nor does it devolve into a series of scenes with people just standing around talking to each other. It’s excellent.
The scene in which the Emperor comes and visits the Word Bearers/Ultramarines is absolutely awesome. I think it honestly raises real-world questions about deity and theology, which makes it even more interesting to me. The book constantly asks questions of what it means to be “a god” or even the “god.” While its obviously not a theological treatise, there are several scenes that poignantly ask these questions alongside questions about humanity’s need for faith and belief. As is always the case, trying to read too much into this discussion set in the Grimdark future would be a mistake, but it’s still fascinating to reflect on how these characters in the far future are still dealing with questions about faith and deity.
Dembski-Bowden also gives us Cyrene, one of the more interesting non-Marine characters in the series so far. Initially, I thought she might be a one-off character from the prologue to give us a sense of how the destruction of her city impacted a civilian. However, Dembsk-Bowden developed her into a kind of martyr-saint figure who was celebrated with adulation by the people who followed the Word Bearers. Ultimately, her death at the hands of Aquillon was tragic, and one of the more heart-rending scenes in the series for me. What made the use of her as a character particularly powerful is that it helped put some perspective into the book for the broader conflict.
For example, the overarching plot of the Word Bearers trying to find their way having been denounced by the Emperor is a much more sympathetic quest when set alongside the more human aspect of how that denunciation and retribution impacted “normal” people. As a reader, I genuinely felt the Word Bearers were generally in the right throughout the book, no matter what one thinks of their underlying beliefs. The brutal, shocking act of the destruction of the crown jewel world of the Word Bearers work surely could be anticipated as setting up a major crisis of doubt for the whole Legion. As such, it is hardly unexpected that the Word Bearers end up on the side of the Heretics.
Of course, this doesn’t mean the horrible acts they took to get there were themselves good or justified–it means only that they were understabndable. And that says quite a bit about the writing of this novel. It’s very good. It makes you sympathize with the “bad guys.” It also makes one question whether there really are any “good guys” in this grimdark future.
The First Heretic is a fantastic read, and one that will surely pay long-term dividends for the rest of the series.
(All Amazon Links are Affiliates)
Horus Heresy and Warhammer/40K Hub– Links to all of my Warhammer-related reviews and writings, including those on the Horus Heresy, 40K, and Warhammer Fantasy (pending) can be found here.
J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!
Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!