The First Heretic – Aaron Dembski-Bowden

Title: The First Heretic
Author: Aaron Dembski Bowden
Published byBlack Library
Publication date: 26th Oct 2010
Genre: Science Fiction/War
Pages: 502
Format: Paperback
Source: Personal Collection

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As the Great Crusade crushes the Imperium’s foes across the galaxy, the Word Bearers are castigated for their worship of the Emperor as a living god. Distraught at this judgement, Lorgar and his sons seek a new path, devastating world after world, venting their fury and fervour on countless battlefields. But at the very edge of the material universe, they encounter ancient forces far more powerful than anything they could ever imagine – having set out to illuminate the Imperium, the corrupting forces of Chaos instead take hold of the XVIIth Legion, forging for them a new and much darker destiny.


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Continuing the Horus Heresy series and buddy read with Dave from WordaholicAnonymous – going into this one Dave asked me to ‘read a bit slower.’ I tried. I really did! But, at the half way mark, I couldn’t put the book down. I’m sorry!

The First Heretic has, quite honestly, restored my faith in the Horus Heresy series! Such a long running series is bound to have its highs and lows, and the 14th instalments, I am happy to report is one of the former.

Through the eyes of Captain Argel Tal we’re introduced to the uniqueness of the Word Bearers Legion and their Primarch Lorgar. The First Heretic gives exacting details of how the Word Bearers Legion goes from being the Emperors most loyal Legion and how they fall from his graces into the open arms of Chaos.

The Word Bearers make the honest mistake of worshipping the Emperor as a God, spreading word of his divinity to the worlds which they bring to Imperial Compliance; only to be told off and humiliated rather spectacularly with the destruction of Monarchia, Capital city of the planet Khur, which the Word Bearers had instated as a shrine to the Emperor of Mankind. The Ultramarines destroy the ‘Perfect City’ in order to teach the Word Bearers a lesson about worshipping false-gods and dedicating themselves to religious purposes. The scene in which Lorgar is brought back to the desecrated Monarchia is humbling, humiliating, devastating and, somewhat humorous, all at once.

The First Heretic is a book of ‘three halves,’ the first being the build up towards the breaking down of the Word Bearers Legion; and a solid start for the books weighty narrative. We’re given the essence of the Legion and a clear understanding of what makes them function. We’re introduced to characters with as much charisma and personality to them as characters that feature early on in the Horus Heresy. The complicated relationship between Captain Argel Tal and First Chaplain Erebus adds a complexity of mystery to the otherwise conventional Space Marine brotherhood that the Word Bearers share; of course there is the usual grievances between individuals and their banter is well-crafted and enjoyable as ever. The second half, gives a bit of a downward lull in pace as Lorgar, understandably, licks his wounds and feels adrift without his religion to cling to. The storys ‘third half,’ completes the circle back with renewed vigour and once again picks up in the pacing department and turns it into a book that ‘cannot be put down.’

A part of this is due to the use of broken narrative; something that Aaron Dembski-Bowden has used expertly. The First Heretic, isn’t a simple book in terms of timeline. Firstly, we’re taken way back before Horus has become the Warmaster and, eventually, re-shown the events that transpire alongside Horus’ fall. There is a massive fifty-year coverage in The First Heretic and events that have already been covered elsewhere are given new mileage from the Word Bearers perspective; while this is all interesting in its own way, I am starting to wonder when the books will take the next step in the overall timeline. Having fresh insight into the same events can only remain captivating for so long. There is an element of broken narrative within subsections of The First Heretic also; adding to the overall feel of chaos within the book. Leaving the reader with gaping questions, only to be walked back through the answers in real-time a bit further down the line. I took particular enjoyment in these aspects for their novelty over a linear plot.

Alongside the Astartes characters are a handful of Custodes, there to keep a watchful eye on the Word Bearers and keep them from repeating the same mistakes of religious worship. These characters are the only balancing perspective to the outright heresy in which the Word Bearers inevitably commit; this made for an interesting juxtaposition. In previous Horus Heresy books there has been more of a balance between loyalist and heretic, whereas the lack of positive loyalist perspective in The First Heretic helps to paint the Word Bearers in a much more sympathetic light; their fall from the Emperors Grace. This is aided by the inner thoughts of the Word Bearers, with the exception of Argel Tal, on the Custodes not being all that favourable!

There is a human element to The First Heretic brought about, not only by Lorgars desire to not be a fearsome warmonger, but by The Blessed Lady; a lone survivor of the Monarchia disaster. The role in which she plays spans the length of the novel and adds another element to a book that could otherwise become a bit of a dirge. She adds yet another layer of sympathy to the Word Bearers legion and its overall fate.

What I found riveting about The First Heretic is the themes of religion, hypocrisy and corruption. These are plot elements that I have found the most enjoyable at the heart of all the Warhammer reads I have encountered and this book has it in bucket loads! The questionings of morality and devotion that come to the surface within are superbly presented; and questions about the Space Marine Primarchs, their origins and fates surrounding these topics, are touched upon without delving too weightily into them.

All this drama wouldn’t be complete without a good, old-fashioned battle, which the reader is treated to in the form of returning to the dreaded Istvaan V. While combat isn’t the primary focus of The First Heretic – echoing the desires of the Word Bearers Primarch – what combat there is, is well crafted and expertly presented, but unlike other Horus Heresy novels, it’s not the primary focus of the book, often foregoing detailed combat scenes in lieu of deeper meanings; the aforementioned topics.

My only issue with The First Heretic was the amount of typos that managed to escape the editing phase. Normally, I’m uneffected by such things and don’t often mention grammatical or typographical errors in my reviews, but when a characters name changes from Xi-Nu 73 to Xi-Nu 37 in the same paragraph I feel my gripe is justified. However, these didn’t have too much of an impact of my enjoyment of the book as a whole.

My other issue is that I didn’t fully understand why Lorgar chose the path he did initially; there are reasons given after his choice is made for him to remain on his path to Chaos, but what made him pick this path is sadly left lacking. The running theme seems to be ‘Primarch enters a cave and comes out in league with Chaos.’ I understand what transpires within this particular cave is written in the accompanying story; Aurelian – which I might pick up as a quick read to have my questions answered – this is bit of an insult to the readers of The First Heretic who are left in the dark in regards to wanting to know the reasons behind such dramatic and drastic choices that are at the heart of the novel.

After the diabolical representation of the Word Bearers in Battle for the Abyss, I have a renewed interest in the Legion and the role it will continue to play in The Horus Heresy.


Another solid entry in the Horus Heresy series. A fantastic and sympathetic view of the Word Bearers Legion and the role they play in the overall story. Some very strong characters supporting a broken narrative plot, with mixed pacing that hooks the reader in all the right places. One of the strongest entries in the Horus Heresy series so far, but can we please start seeing some timeline progress soon?

8 responses to “The First Heretic – Aaron Dembski-Bowden”

  1. Another great review- what is your opinion, now that you are 14 books in, of the flowchart that Black Library have put out on the Horus Heresy series?




    • Thank you.
      I am enjoying the series so far, but it’s very hit and miss with it’s content. A lot of backwards/forwards without much progression of the actual Horus Heresy at times, too.
      There’s always going to be bias towards books featuring favoured chapters as well.

      As for the flowchart, well, that just looks like a nightmare and I’ll continue to read in publish order!!


    • It was a good one. Hopefully there’ll be some good ones like this further down the line too.
      Oof. Looking forward to seeing what you have to say about PBs, hopefully you’ll get through the review without flipping your lid!

      Liked by 1 person

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