It's not easy to make a three-metre tall demigod with gold skin and psychic powers pitiful. Too little, and it would just come off as self-pitying; too much, and it's less pitiful and more stupid and pathetic. In The First Heretic Aaron Dembski-Bowden was given this daunting challenge with Lorgar of the Word Bearers, a very different kind of primarch from those we've seen to date, on either side of the Heresy. It would have been all too easy for him to fall short of the mark, by skewing too far to either extreme. Pleasantly, however, Mr. Dembski-Bowden appears to have been up to the task.
Like Prospero Burns, I went into The First Heretic with a certain hesitation, and for the same reason in both cases; I just didn't like the legions in question. And like Prospero Burns, I ultimately came away from The First Heretic with, if not affection, at least an appreciation for the legion in question.
The First Heretic is the story of two men, though I use the term loosely in applying it to such beings, Lorgar and a Word Bearers captain named Argel Tal. As the primarch of the chapter that seemed from the hints provided in other books to have set the whole Heresy in motion, it's no surprise that Lorgar is central to this story. The book is ultimately about him, about building a believable situation in which the Emperor's most fervent acolyte could turn into his most implacable detractor. To that end, Dembski-Bowden introduces what may well be the perfect flaw in the character of Lorgar, given what little was known about him. It isn't that Lorgar believes the Emperor is a god specifically, but rather he believes that there are, that there must be, gods in existence, and as the wisest, strongest, most powerful being in the physical plane, the Emperor must be a god by default. It's a very subtle distinction operating in a vacuum, but in practice, and the two hundred or so years of the Great Crusade leaves a lot of time for practice, it can make itself very well known, indeed.
This is the crux of Lorgar's pitiable nature. One could respect him if he were the 31st millennium equivalent of a Christian crusader, filled with holy fire, or a Muslim willing to bring the certainty of the law of Allah by the sword; there's an internal consistency to such people that, even if you despise everything they stand for, you can respect them for standing for it so completely. Conviction is admirable in fiction, even the wrong convictions, so long as it's held honestly. But there's nothing so admirable about poor Lorgar. The Word Bearers' primarch doesn't worship the Emperor because he is moved by the rightness of his cause, the perfection of his ideals or the wisdom of his laws, but simply because he is a god; in Lorgar's mind, anything that is divine is a priori worthy of worship, no matter the content of its character. There appears to be no real difference in his eyes between the Emperor and the Ruinous Powers; they may be utterly antithetical and anathema to each other in every respect, but their both gods, so one's as good as another, and the one that will pay attention is better. Rather than burning with a righteous fire, Lorgar's willingness to worship a god, any god, just so long as it reassures him it is a god makes him look desperate, and more than a little sad. It's a blatant cry for attention and acclamation, but despite the power and wisdom of Lorgar, gifted orator, keen philosopher, 'father' of a hundred-thousand of the greatest warriors the galaxy has ever seen, it rings true. The primarchs are absolutely riddled with daddy issues, after all, and the Emperor is quite frankly the worst father in history. The fact that none of the other primarchs seem to have the slightest respect for Lorgar, save perhaps Magnus who seems to view him as a well-meaning but slow-witted tagalong little brother, probably doesn't help, either.
But the daddy issues between the Emperor and Lorgar aren't the only ones at play; there's also Argel Tal, and his issues with his own 'father', his primarch. Argel Tal is the latest in the long line of 'Space Marine everyman' we've seen in the Horus Heresy, a solid character who we can respect and admire thrust into difficult situations, and ultimately forced to choose between loyalty to his legion and loyalty to the Imperium. But the Word Bearers' geneseed seems to carry a stronger element of respect for, even obedience to, authority than the other legions', leaving Argel Tal to wonder if he is truly making his decisions, or if they're the inevitable result of his compromised genetics. It adds an interesting undercurrent to the relationship between captain and primarch, one we haven't really seen replicated in any of the other Heresy-eras legions. Argel Tal has to struggle with the idea that he may well be following Lorgar, not because Lorgar is right, but because Argel Tal is incapable of thinking Lorgar could be wrong.
Which doesn't mean Argel Tal doesn't realize what's happening to him. Even if the Emperor is unworthy and the Ruinous Powers deserve the worship of the Word Bearers, Argel Tal is one of the few characters in the Heresy series to really think about the cost of their actions. And not just in the tally of dead brothers, either. As one of the first to witness the corrupting power of Chaos worship up close, he gets to see just how much the Ruinous Powers will inflict upon their worshippers. Even if the price is ultimately one worth paying in his eyes, Argel Tal isn't blind to the fact that it's there, and that in the short term, at least, it seems terrible indeed.
Thanks to all this, Argel Tal is actually one of the better Space Marine characters we've seen in the Horus Heresy novels. It's easy to be an Ultramarine or a Raven Guard, bravely standing up to aliens, traitors and daemons, and not that much harder to be a loyalist in the Traitor Legions, standing by sworn oaths of loyalty even in the face of fraternal treachery. But in Argel Tal, Aaron Dembski-Bowden gives us a traitorous patriot, a man who honestly believes he's doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons. It gives him a certain classically tragic weight to his character, though that's probably not a description the Word Bearers' captain would be all that happy with.