Aaron Dembski-Bowden

Don't worry. None of this blood is mine.

Reviews & Why Authors Hate Them

Another great The First Heretic review, this time from Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review, which is a site I like a whole bunch.


But – and here’s the thing – I’m starting to see why all the veterans tell me to ignore reviews, and not let them linger in my brainjunk, whether they’re good, bad, sucky or rad. People take different things from novels, the same way they look for different things, notice different things, and enjoy different things. And as a natural response to that, they perceive you (and your work) in ways that might seem surprising when you hear about them.

Previously, pretty much every review I’ve read of my work, and checking out the bunches of feedback from several huge forums, people say the best aspects of my work are pretty much always the way I write and develop characters, and how immersive that makes my stuff. (I think an honourable mention goes towards my space battles, but I digress.) One of the things that I seem to get lauded for, is that my work tends to be deeper and more nuanced than a lot of other sci-fi and/or 40k writing. True or not, it’s something I see a lot of. I don’t say I believe it, or that it’s ironclad truth. But I get a lot of it.

Then, this week, I’ve come across two opinions for the first time ever, that have made me stop and think: “…wait, what?

The first was an off-hand reference to a reviewer being pleasantly surprised by The First Heretic, because they’d previously been unsure if I could pull off a “thinker’s story”. The second is right here, permeated all through the GFB review, but exemplified by this quote: “What it isnโ€™t though is the ideal venue to let loose with the guns and attitude in the way that Dembski-Bowden likes to do best.”

Now, to me, that doesn’t sound like me at all. I don’t like to do that. In fact, I do my level best to avoid fighting in my novels, because too much of it seems shallow and childish, and because if a character throws down in any movie or novel, I get bored to Hell unless they’re doing it for a good reason. I am literally unable to watch Blade ever again. I think it’s the worst film ever made. I try to stick with a simple rule in my writing: if there’s a fight, it needs to either develop a character; highlight something about their personality or backstory to the reader; or forward the plot in some other way beyond bloodshed and casualties – preferably a subtle way, but that’s not always realistic or possible. And, by and large, practically all the feedback I’ve had has been that I do it well.

But this was the first time I’ve ever seen people say that they expected something else from me, or that they perceived my work in such a way that I can’t quite wrap my squishy skull-matter around.

Now, bullshit aside, I regard The First Heretic as the best thing I’ve written yet. It stormed around the publisher’s office, snapping up praise, and one of the BL editors said it was one of the 10 best books Black Library have ever released. While I’m slowly facing up to the fact my newness will harm any chances of keeping the Horus Heresy NYT Bestseller chain going (and pre-sales like Games Day don’t count towards that total, so…), I’m still dead certain the novel will please pretty much everyone that gets their paws on it. It’s especially killer in the sense it sets up future Word Bearer HH novels with deliciously obvious intent. I sort of, kinda, maybe, perhaps, sorta imagine it a little like Horus Rising, as the first of a ‘separate’ trilogy. But that’s just my brain rattling the bars, not an actual plan. At some point, it’ll have a sequel. Calth awaits, after all. That much is clear come the end of the novel.

Graeme’s an insightful guy, and certainly not wrong in some things he says. There were constraints because of lore and continuity, and not all of them were helpful. Sometimes, you need to take a long look at this stuff, and realise that it’s based on occasional paragraphs written 25 years ago, not by professional writers, but by gamers who basically had no idea of what the future held in terms of global recognition. And with all due respect, dancing to those tunes isn’t always easy. But then, I’d level the “slightly constrained” marker at every Horus Heresy novel so far, excepting Legion. It’s certainly nothing specific to The First Heretic, and I doubt it shows any more than, say, Horus Rising, False Gods, A Thousand Sons, or Fulgrim. Of course, drawing attention to it means people will notice it, but whatever. I have no fears regarding that book, which is an interesting first for me.

But it’s acutely uncomfortable to read a review where someone sees you in a certain way that’s nothing like how you see yourself, or how people usually talk about you. This, in part, is why authors use pseudonyms when writing in other genres – to break the stigma of what they’ve done before. And this is the first time I’ve seriously given thought to the fact I may end up doing that with my original fiction when it’s published in a few years. Will it be a necessary reset to cleanse the palette of former opinion? Even extremely positive opinion? Man, I fucking hate that thought. But people do it all the time.

I don’t post this with a plea for support or to start arguments over opinions. I post it because I like to be honest, I like to chronicle major shit that happens, and all of that, dear mortals,ย ย is what’s spinning around my head on this particular day.

The curious moments of being a new novelist.


The next post I make will either be the trailer for the novel, or 5 Reasons I Hate Star Trek. I have pictures for that one, mostly of aliens with faces like battered vaginas.

September 1, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized |


  1. I feel the same with many of your comments Aaron. Although, when it comes to wondering what people write/think about me, it’s all preemptive worrying in my case. Since my first novel won’t appear to the public until mid of next year, I’ve probably got nothing to worry about right now, except for the teaser i’ve been cleared to release. Yet i find myself on many occasions hyperventilating over what people are going to think… It can be frightening. Everything for me up to this point has been short stories, which i think i am better at than a full novelization. But we’ll see… I honestly fear the reviews, even though there are none yet. Which is funny since i routinely do reviews for many Black Library novels…


    Comment by Commissar Ploss | September 1, 2010 | Reply

  2. ……bugger.

    Comment by Xhalax | September 1, 2010 | Reply

  3. An interesting point made about pseudonyms there Aaron.
    In my opinion, I think it’s a shame that some authors change their name as a result of stigma that may be attached to previous work.
    People who adopt the attitude that authors are like Tigers and they never change their stripes, I feel, are hideously mislead, and indeed, misread.
    Is your writing, in many ways, as much a personal progression of your craft, as well as the progression of characters/storylines the book features?
    And are there some authors you’d consider have been ‘stuck in a rut’ for too long?

    Comment by Rob Ash Cypher White | September 1, 2010 | Reply

    • Shouldn’t that be leopard and spots?

      Comment by Xhalax | September 1, 2010 | Reply

      • Same difference.
        Still feline, still can’t change them.

        Comment by Rob Ash Cypher White | September 1, 2010 | Reply

    • Well, Stephan King did it – the Bachmann books. Mainly, from what I can make out, because it wasn’t teh horror he’s known for.
      No idea why all of the Dark tower was released under his own name though based on that..

      Comment by Badger | September 4, 2010 | Reply

  4. I guess finding a truly impartial review isn’t something easily found and thus whatever helpful suggestions that could be gleaned from such things even harder.

    It’s tough – I would imagine – to ignore criticisms of a work that has been a part of you for so long and is immensely personal to you or to accept praises over something you feel less than 100% happy with.

    Opinions can be shared all too easily and entrenched opinions are too vehemently held for me. A decent opinion can always be changed by vigorous debate – but I find that too rarely amongst the internet dwellers.

    Comment by Tim Kenyon | September 1, 2010 | Reply

  5. Hmmm,

    With Soul Hunter, one of the things that pleased me was that there seemed to be few fights…. In some BL books i get the sense that there’s a sudden “oh crap I haven’t had a fight in 3 chapters” moment that leads to a needless and pointless bit of bolter porn.

    If I had to point to one trait or virtue that I firmly believe you possess, it’s that you’re a detail guy.
    The two books of yours that I’ve read both had a cast iron internal consistancy. They made sense. I’m currently knackered so can’t expound more.

    I will suggest that the reviewer may have been using some kind of ‘stock phrase’ in an attempt to add dimension to his review rather than really thinking about what he was suggesting.

    Oh, and as I said before, your enemy for the bestseller list is going to be crappy cristmas books. [unless there is a filtering system i’m blissfully ignorant of.]

    Comment by Tom | September 1, 2010 | Reply

  6. The idea of what you think of yourself and how others view you is pretty much one that spans everything from the way you speak to the fact you turn into a giant green monster and attack people when angry.

    Comment by Ian | September 1, 2010 | Reply

  7. Reviews (and reviewers) are a dime a dozen. My advice on them is to read them, glean something from them if there is something worth gleaning…and purge the rest.

    I’d be aware of trends, maybe, but that’s about it. Very broad strokes about what folks are saying, but always remember it’s opinion.

    The First Heretic, I think is easily on par with Soul Hunter…and that is very strong coming from me as I loved Soul Hunter. It’s certainly in the top 5 of all Horus heresy novels and Top 10 of all 40k novels for me.

    I love to be surprised by novels and their authors. I wasn’t sure how you’d fare with TLH, but I left myself open to be charmed by your work (again) and to my delight you hit another home run.

    Like we spoke of earlier, “thinker” novels tend towards being sometimes boring and over-ponderous. Laggy. Graham McNeill, I think, does these well. You’re now challenging that throne.

    Don’t get hung up on reviews man, that way lies madness. Overall: people dig your work and want you to write more.
    Nuff said.

    Comment by Jeff Preston | September 1, 2010 | Reply

  8. As someone who possesses a face like a battered vagina, I for one can’t wait for your next post.

    Comment by Fordy | September 1, 2010 | Reply

    • Oh god…I can’t un-see that.

      Comment by Jeff Preston | September 1, 2010 | Reply

  9. Several points, made in quick succession.

    Pseudonyms are okay for people with long surnames. I’d be two years younger if I’d never had to sign my name on time sheets, cheques, receipts, etc. When you’re faced with a queue of books to sign, I imagine this is worse for your wrists than all the… well, the proverbial. Also, it never did Jack Yeovil any harm.

    All art is subjective and opinion is only ever going to be that; opinion. It comes as more and less informed, but it’s still just someone’s opinion. The only one that really matters is your editors. Sure, if you don’t like something, you’ll be disappointed in yourself; but if the boss still signs the check, you still eat.

    A lot happens in all your books so far without much “warhammer-ing.” And that’s the point, isn’t it? To see what Talos does when he’s not rolling to hit / wound / save? That’s why Black Library is able to sell books to people who aren’t especially interested in the game. That’s why Waterstones and Smiths and that little bookshop in Nantwich carry your novels, not just GW.

    Isn’t it another THREE MONTHS until this comes out? If it isn’t, someone at Black Library needs to sort their distribution with Amazon as I’ve got a 1st November release. And that’s after pre-ordering it before you’d finished Helsreach.

    Finally, just finished The Core. Where did Talos get his own ship from? I’m assuming it was Maelstrom since it came with an Astral Claw apothecary. Is that in Victories of the Space Marines?

    Comment by G | September 1, 2010 | Reply

  10. “to let loose with the guns and attitude in the way that Dembski-Bowden likes to do best.โ€
    In all honesty i dont recognize this. At all. Maybe he got it from Cadian Blood but that can only be because it was so f’&ยค!!! awesome. The action in Cadian Blood…. was….awesome. + It really made me want to read more about the charecters in future novels (hint hint!).
    I cant imagine if he got it from any of the other books…
    Im not trying to suck up i just really really like your books!

    Comment by Andreas Fabricius | September 1, 2010 | Reply

  11. I have no idea why you think TLH is going to break the NYT bestseller.
    I bet you a painted squad of your choice if it doesn’t.

    FYI I agree you do write space battle very well,any chance of a flat out Navy book?

    Comment by Bigwill | September 1, 2010 | Reply

  12. I finished Soul Hunter a few days ago and just wanted to say tank you for such a brilliant book. I’m now looking forward to Soul Hunter II: WNS almost as much as TFH

    Comment by Ben R | September 1, 2010 | Reply

  13. You hate Star Trek?

    I’m sorry Aaron, we can’t be friends any more.

    Comment by Alasdhair | September 1, 2010 | Reply

  14. You hate Star Trek?
    I gotta buy you a shot.

    Comment by BigWill | September 1, 2010 | Reply

  15. Yeah that was a weird review. When I think of your books I don’t think of massive amounts of butt kicking. As mentioned above, people like to know what Talos is doing when he’s not smashing face. I want to know why he thinks Uzas is such a drooling toolbox. Maybe I’d even like to know what Talos had for breakfast before storming the walls of the Emperor’s Palace! Good stuff like that. But, as the old saying goes; opinions are like assholes, everyone’s got em.

    Comment by Lord Tharand | September 2, 2010 | Reply

  16. What Jeff said about not getting hung up about reviews. Despite how it may have looked in places, I really enjoyed ‘The First Heretic’ ๐Ÿ™‚

    I guess I came at it from the perspective of ‘Cadian Blood’ (full of full on warfare), ‘Soulhunter’ (more about the characters but still kicking serious arse when required) and ‘Helsreach’ (same deal as ‘Soulhunter’ really). At least that’s what I saw in them anyway! Your short story in ‘Fear the Alien’ was at the back of my mind as well. What I probably should have done more of was look at it in terms of the ‘Horus Heresy’ series itself. I’ll stand by what I said but it would have been a different review (if that makes any sense at all!)

    And fair play to everyone who pointed out that the spikyness is a Night Lords thing. I know a little bit about the 40K setting but I could never tell you the governing character traits of each legion! I know now though ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Keep em’ coming Aaron! Please? My job is deathly dull and I need something decent to read on the train… Looking forward to cracking open your story in the Sabbat Crusade collection!



    Comment by Graeme | September 2, 2010 | Reply

  17. You can only come up with 5 reasons for hating Star Trek?


    Comment by Christian | September 2, 2010 | Reply

  18. The Star Trek post would certainly be an interesting one as I highly dislike Star Trek. XD

    Comment by Forkmaster | September 2, 2010 | Reply

  19. I can see where Graeme is coming from, if you just look at the books in the BL context then you aren’t combat heavy at all (a good thing!) but outside the 40K universe then yeah there’s a fair bit. Anyway I wouldn’t worry the reviews are all positive and personally I love your stuff.

    Comment by Simon | September 2, 2010 | Reply

  20. I suspect the five reasons you hate Star Trek might be the five reasons why I love Star Trek…..except for the whole lady- parts face thing.

    Comment by Xhalax | September 2, 2010 | Reply

  21. Dude, I love your work but the level of candour on your part is getting out of hand. It’s beneath you to openly complain about a book “review” on a trumped-up blog. I don’t think this Graeme guy is exactly an intellectual and you giving him this kind of platform is just silly. Keep a little bit of mystique about yourself. It’s great that you open up to your fans so much but I think you need to be a little more guarded with what you put out there. Don’t pander to every Tom, Dick and Harry. I seriously doubt book critics even read the whole way through half the time anyway. Just remember that it’s all too easy to completely pull back the veil in this day and age of tweets and blog posts, but for your appeal to endure you might need to keep a little mystery about yourself. Don’t confuse the number of website hits or fawning forum comments you get for the true barometer of success, which I guess would ultimately be sales.

    Concentrate on the big picture and give the internet a little break.

    I am a HUGE fan and I hope you will take some of this on board.



    Comment by PK | September 2, 2010 | Reply

    • I mused for a minute on whether to approve this comment. I mean, I’d have replied anyway, but I was mumbling over whether approving it still counted towards being too open.

      That’s actually great advice (about the candour, especially), and I’ll bear it in mind. In truth, it’s been buzzing around my head for ages – I’m not always comfortable with how honest I try to be, but I do my best to stick at it anyway.

      But Graeme rocks on toast, dude. I don’t think he was at fault here, I just think it highlighted a cool and unusual thing about being an author. The way people see your work, and the use of pen names. It’s terrifyingly intriguing.

      I didn’t mean to imply I was losing any sleep over it, or anything. S’all good.

      Comment by aarondembskibowden | September 2, 2010 | Reply

    • I’ll second that comment. That’s a good point, and worth considering. The Internet is just ‘that’, it’s nothing special and definately not somewhere to gauge your level of appeal etc. Although I would hate for you to completely stop engaging with us fanfolk.
      Wise words indeed.

      Comment by Danny | September 2, 2010 | Reply

  22. Pah! Because I don’t want any spoilers I won’t be reading reviews until after I’ve read First Heretic myself. But what I did read of that guys article, I think he was unfair and critical for no justified reason. It’s not like he slated the book, quite the contrary but I think he’s jumped to some assumptions about you.. And we all know what happens when you ASSUME something, it makes an ASS out of U and ME!!

    I didn’t know that Games Day sales don’t count however, so I’m going to feel like a cunt now when I buy my copy, as I think it definately will have earned the BESTSELLER coverage/accolade yadda yadda…

    Please, don’t reveal any more about the book!! The “Calth awaits…” statement is a bit of a slip, and I will try to forget that markerpoint by the time I buy the book. I will, however, wait with eager anticipation for the Star Trek article-if it’s anything like the 80’s cartoon song post it’ll be hilarious, ruthless and will be the ADB that we know and love.

    Don’t let the shit eat you anymore, forget it and move on. I think the pen-name would be a good thing for your own fiction, because undoubtedly you’ll get a lot of 40K readers who will always compare your 40K fiction with your own fiction, and if this review has managed to grate your nerves as such, then reading “…whinge whinge whinge Oh, it’s not as good as Helsreach” or “…should stick to writing 40K where most of the rules are laid out already…” know what I mean? Because those comments WILL appear, guaranteed. It’s just the way some people are, catagorical and unable to move beyond their comfort-norm…

    Anyway, I’ve said enough now. Only four weeks to go and I will have FIRST HERETIC in my hands!!! This will be the longest 4 weeks of my life…

    Take care.

    Comment by Danny | September 2, 2010 | Reply

  23. I first saw Blade in our lounge aboard my warship while off the coast of Afghanistan. Some of my shipmates got way too pumped up when they heard the low rumble of his Dodge Charger. If that’s not a good reason for violence, I don’t know what is.

    Oh wait, I think you meant a reason for the character to fight, not the viewer.

    Comment by Jimmy | September 3, 2010 | Reply

  24. Mmm, much action : no, that’s not how I know your books. I have read cadian blood and soul hunter, and I ‘am reading helsreach.

    No, there wasn’t that much action, but that doesn’t matter. False gods got very few fights, but I barely noticed since the story was THAT exciting. On the other hand, Athony Reynold’s word bearers stories are FULL OF ACTION, but his action is full of tension …. some of the best 40 k action scenes ever ! Then I LOVE action.

    But indeed, it’s all up to the story. Sometimes action is right, nice and must be there, sometimes it isn’t necessary ! I expect Blood reaver to have more action in it, since the siege of a fortress is the central story in it ( or is it not ? ). I think, this novels and story needs some more action than Soul hunter !

    I like the fact that you read your fans opinions, and the decisions and off course your own. But as james swallow also said, sometimes it’s good to hear what fans liked and what they didn’t like !

    So here 2 points which I liked less in your novels :

    1. Sometimes you tell beforehand what will happen, who will die or such a thing. In cadian blood and in soul hunter this happened. Then we can read HOW it happened, but the tension is less since we already know the person doesn’t make it : he dies.
    I think, it’s better not to show beforehand what happens, but just tell it when we see the fight itself !

    2. Sometimes we expect a big fight, between two heroes or champions. Like Malcharion vs Raguel the sufferer. Then I really look forward to this fight,and wonder who shall win. A lot of tension then there ….
    But when we don’t actually get to read about the fight, I think it’s disappointing. Fights aren’t always needed, but sometimes I really want to see the fight itself, because of the tension and the unknown outcome.

    These are just my opinions …

    I’m really looking forward to the first heretic, and the trailer. The extract was KILLER ! Perhaps it would be nice to have an additional black library tv interview with you, about the first heretic !

    Cheers, Bastiaan Vergoossen.

    Comment by Bastiaan Vergoossen | September 3, 2010 | Reply

    • Those are 2 things I’ve given a lot of thought to, over the last couple of years. I mostly stopped doing either of them after Helsreach, which obviously feels recent in novel terms, but I wrote it a year ago, so it’s old news to me.

      1. There are a few of these “who dies” things in books by a few authors that I like, and for a while, it was something I tried to do myself. I eventually gave up, because it felt a little bit forced. Like playing with someone else’s toys, and pretending they were your own.

      2. Sometimes, cutaways are just cool. Like, with Raguel and Malcharion; that’s the best part of the novel for a lot of people. Now, occasionally, I agree – it lessens a scene. But in the case of fights that would really look a little bit dumb, or are more legendary with less description and more tactically-inspired awe, then (I think) cutaways work pretty well.

      Thanks for the faith on The First Heretic. The people that’ve read it so far have loved it hugely, and it’s had 3 great reviews so far. (In fact, Graeme’s was the *worst* review, and he still said it was very good – the other two were even nicer).

      Comment by aarondembskibowden | September 3, 2010 | Reply

  25. Well despite my unworthy opinion I am looking forward to The First Heretic. On the same note another UK author, James Lovegrove, recently wrote a post about authors and responding to reviews on his blog.

    Comment by Nick Sharps | September 3, 2010 | Reply

  26. @ADB

    Obviously YOU are the first heretic.

    Daring to be honest on a blog. Disgusting.

    I expect the next post to be filled with lies of the 5 things that make you love star trek.

    The Emperor is watching.

    Comment by yogi | September 3, 2010 | Reply

  27. Thanks for responding and explaining these things.

    By the way : it’s always nice for us mere astartes to communicate with a primarch …. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Partly I agree : perhaps it was better not showing the fight, and then just have first claw say how brilliant it was to see malcharion in action again.

    Comment by Bastiaan Vergoossen | September 5, 2010 | Reply

  28. Sounds delightful, if I’m honest. The book, that is. The unsettling nature of what is surely ‘finding out what people are saying about you’ or, in short, gossiping about you must be very difficult.

    Well, it is very difficult. Lots of people know others whose opinions they don’t care for because they feel they themselves know that those opinions are baseless/worthless/flawed/whatever. I’m sure a notable comedian (or their mother) had the trick of collecting reviews but not reading them until about six months down the line.

    At least that way you can look back on your younger self and happily judge whilst feeling somewhat disconnected!

    As an aside, I’d second calls for a dedicated space-battles-based book. I demand more Gothic War (or similarly enjoyable) novels (about things to do with spaceships)!

    Comment by xisor | September 5, 2010 | Reply

  29. I regularly visit Graemes blog reading his BL reviews and it actually was he that drew my attention on your work in the first place.
    But when I read his ‘heretic’ review I was shocked. My first thought was “So ADB is all about fighting? Okay, guess I got his books completely wrong. Maybe I wait for the German translation next time and in the meantime practice reading with ‘Twilight'” But when my self-confidence returned from its day off my second thought was ‘Uh uh, I am pretty sure that Aaron is not going to like this characterisation of himself. Especially when expressed by someone he regards.’ As it turns out I was dead on in this assumption.

    A quick sidenote: You of course know better of this stuff but as far as I know the great primarch-based revelation of ‘Legion’ was already established for years albeit secretly. Because of this I don’t think of it as being that less constrained than the other books.

    Comment by Captain Bandera | September 6, 2010 | Reply

  30. I remember when the first Lord of the Rings movie came out and received, to many people’s surprise, widespread acclaim. I read one review that was completely out of sync with the rest, slamming everything about the movie from the acting to the special effects of the ‘Dragon’ (Everyone remembers the groundbreaking CGI fire for the balrog, right?). The thing was so full of factual errors it completely invalidated any credibility it might have had so when I see a review like the one mentioned here it makes me wonder if the reviewer has even seen any of Aaron’s other books or if he’s just using catchphrases based on the assumption that any BL book is violence porn, just like any fantasy movie has a dragon any it.

    Comment by Webba | September 20, 2010 | Reply

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