Aaron Dembski-Bowden

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Aaron Dembski-Bowden is not Graham McNeill.

ADB is a writer for the Black Library. He also has a blog. He is known to be fairly responsive to fan inquiries on the Internets. He has actually given his thanks to /tg/ in print as "the elegan/tg/entlemen", in the Night Lords omnibus acknowledgements page.

He's considered a controversial figure in the black library for style of moralising 40ks villains, his stances on representation, his seeming determination to flesh out beings that would otherwise be beyond the comprehension of regular humans, and his own personal creative commentaries.

Outside the Black Library, Aaron has also worked on Hunter: The Vigil, wrote a short story for League of Legends From the Ashes and penned the short pieces of fiction, Dude, Where's my Land Speeder? and "What it's like". He's well-liked by Daemonhunter lore masters, due to his effort in at least making the new Grey Knights lore more palatable (given the rage-inducing material he had to work with). Where there were once just Mary Sues after the Glory Days of 3rd Ed., now there is at least a semblance of deeper character to the 5th Ed. Grey Knights, outside the idiocy written by a certain Spiritual Liege. He even ties them back into threads left from Ravenor, so that the influence of Saint Abnett can cleanse them. In fact, he's pretty good at making all factions awesome but imperfect. See, for example, his portrayal of Angron: while Angron is indeed a dreaded unstoppable killing machine, he's also a pitiful character who blames others for his problems. ABD also wrote the greatest speech in the entirety of GW published works for Angron in Betrayer making him at once a figure of pity, a sad portrayal of a man whose lost his will to continue and a righteous badass on the search for revenge.

He has also committed himself to rehabilitating the reputation of Abaddon the Despoiler, with all the controversy that implies. He's certainly not above ripping into old Failbaddon either, as evidenced in the Night Lords trilogy where Talos has nothing but open contempt for him, point blank outlining all the reasons the Despoiler and his Legion suck, to his face. This is particularly noteworthy when contrasted with Talos' genuine respect for Huron Blackheart's power, authority, and achievements, even while planning on backstabbing the Corsairs.

He also wrote arguably the best speech in the 40k setting in Grimaldus's rallying cries to the people of Helsreach. Go check it out, seriously, it’ll give you goosebumps.

Criticisms[edit]

Lest you think we're going soft, though, we should point out that he has received some pretty harsh criticism, particularly for his portrayal of the Emperor as a raging torrent of incompetence and jackassery the likes of which Earth had not seen since Mussolini made his last public appearance upside down at a petrol station. Then AGAIN, this view isn't exactly unheard of; while it's been acknowledged that Emps might've been a bit of a dick in some aspects, and the idea of the Emperor as a completely flawless human being can read like something clung to heavily by Imperial propaganda, some of these portrayals Big-E are from the point of view of Traitor Legions, who already have a... less-than-positive view of the guy, and this is where the joke that "the D in ADB stands for 'Daddy Issues'" springs from.

Some have even accused him of turning the Horus Heresy books into a public therapy session for his daddy issues, which, to be fair, is comparable to C.S. Goto using his books as a public therapy session for his depression and not having the chops to be a Hollywood screenwriter. He also has a major issue with making the characters he likes look perfect while shitting on other groups: see his Grey Knights book especially, which just becomes a Space Wolves wank, and The First Heretic, which is often considered utterly fantastic outside of the two pages his beloved Night Lords show up and snark all over Lorgar and the Word Bearers. Oh, and let's not forget a chapter serf of the Mentors being armed with a shotgun with an underbarrel grenade launcher rocking three Vortex Grenades. You know, the kind of of weapon Cato Sicarius himself was issued only one of during the second battle of Damnos where the honour of the Ultramarines chapter was supposedly at stake?

More and more, he seems to be getting his way at Black Library, especially in the Horus Heresy series, and some well-loved fluff is being rewritten after a very long time going unchanged. Many point at Master of Mankind, the book specifically about Big E, which no one at BL was smart enough to realize they shouldn't assign to the guy constantly criticized for how he writes that character. There is also the matter of the Blood Ravens, whom in older lore were heavily implied to be missing loyalist offshoots of the Thousand Sons. ADB apparently tried to jettison this theory by having the "missing" Thousand Sons from the Horus Heresy reappear in one of his novels. A later index would retcon them to be Ravens afflicted by flesh-change, but the 'damage' was already done: Some neckbeards just don't like it when you fuck around with the bread and butter, and who are we to blame them? As indicated in the sections below, his approach to writing more female and non-white characters into the setting has also caught some inevitable flak.

He also said in one interview he had wanted to add female Custodians and kill off Lorgar "like a dog", and the only reason he didn't was because of direct intervention from his superiors. In another one, ADB admitted he adds aforementioned female/minorities characters in his works just to trigger the haters. Yeah.

Insofar as one can actually speak for a large, completely anonymous community, /tg/ appears to have mostly turned against old Aaron as of late, and even in a best-case scenario opinions will still be mixed. That said, "as of late" are the keywords; some of the hate is just as likely to be aggravated newer posters as it is some of the older guard changing their mind, or some mixture thereof; ADB still has his fans, of course, but mentioning him is much more likely to generate skub. Well lets face it he writes Big E like he were a Chaos God of Shakespearean rage.

Common Themes[edit]

Through his novels you can notice a handful of common themes, listed below:

  • He likes Chaotic Neutral(ish) characters.
    • He is hence great at writing Robert E. Howard-styled characters (how is it that he hasn't written any Conan pastiche?).
  • He enjoys writing in first-point-of-view, although he can work in third-point-of-view.
  • He mostly portrays Space Marines in his novels, although he has a few works with non-SM as well.
  • If there is a ship at one of his stories, expect him to make the ship be controlled by a young woman. He says he tries to balance the testosterone with female mortal characters, which naturally draws the usual accusations of diversity quotas, waifu-shilling and the like.
  • He tends to write events through the protagonist's perception, and thus has to spend lots of time telling people not to take the opinions of said protagonist (for example, anything said by or about the Emperor in MoM) at face value.
    • Considering the average neckbeard's tendency to erect anything written as holy unalterable canon, it is a necessary reminder. Unfortunately ADB seems to have forgotten this himself, as he treats his own writing as holy, unalterably canon that nothing else can ever contradict or oppose.
  • He seems to have spearheaded breaking the classic image of the Emperor, turning him from a grimdark, space-fascist Sigmar into an emotionless Lex Luthor - this is still the approximation of "good" in 30k and 40k, mind.
  • He considers the 40k franchise fated to be ultimately won by Chaos. Despite all the anti-Chaos stuff in 40k. (It would be funny seeing him getting charged to write some stuff about Age of Sigmar.) Seriously though, with the Eldar, the Tyranids, Orks, but especially the Necrons, and all that anti-psyker and anti-Warp tech everyone else has, the non-chaos gods of the warp, and the infighting of Ruinous Powers themselves, even with the Great Rift cutting the galaxy in two Chaos needs a boost to have a real chance. To say nothing of the C'tan.
  • He is quickly approaching Dan Abnett's record of number of beloved characters murdered. Seriously. Reading his books, especially the Horus Heresy ones, is like watching him rip your heart out and chew on it while he coos: "Was it good for you too?"

ADB on the Emperor in Master of Mankind[edit]

TL;DR: Everyone who has the chance to be in the Emperor's presence perceives something different, based on their own experiences and expectations. Nothing He ever says should be taken at face value, since it is 'warped' by the narrator's interpretation.

In response to criticisms on his portrayal of the Emperor, ADB posted this detailed answer:

That's true, and I definitely wanted to bring out a better understanding of his vision and what he was up against, but that's also lore I'd wager anyone with a deep knowledge of the setting already had a handle on to some degree, whether explicitly or not. What I wanted to avoid was too much "new" stuff. You have to put in something new, and thankfully what little newness I do introduce in my work is seemingly well-regarded, but I've always said our job (as I see it) is to illustrate the setting and show what it's like to live there, not to set it in stone. As much as the fandom adores "advancing the storyline", it's not something that interests me, by and large. I try my best to show things from the perspectives of characters on the ground level, bring a few perceptions of the setting through the lens of my own imagination and the insight I'm lucky enough to get endlessly talking about the setting with its creators and inheritors, and then get out. Most of my books are, to some extent, not definitive. They're about Some Guy, not the entire faction.

Grimaldus in Helsreach has no bond to the wider war on Armageddon and hates that he's been left behind by the Black Templars, but he's (hopefully) a good example of what it feels like to be a Black Templar, and to think like one, and - crucially - what it feels like to be a human around them. Talos and the other characters of First Claw spend a trilogy unable to decide what the Night Lords Legion really was, and each of them remembers their glory days differently. I didn't want to speak for the whole Legion. Hyperion in The Emperor's Gift is a largely generic Grey Knight present in dire circumstances. HH-wise, I didn't want to show all of the Word Bearers and base a book around the expectations of Kor Phaeron, Lorgar, and Erebus, so I focused on the Serrated Sun in the middle of the changes taking place across the galaxy. Savage Weapons is largely about Corswain, not about Curze and the Lion. The Master of Mankind is about Ra, Zephon, Jaya, and Land in the heart of the Emperor's plans for the species, not about the Emperor himself. As much as I wrote about Angron and Lorgar, they get significantly less in-their-heads screen time than most other primarchs in most other books.

It's harder to do that with the Heresy, but - again - I do my best to present individual experiences and mindsets in characters like Khârn, Argel Tal, and Ra, rather than definitive looks at the entire Chapter/Legion/faction and setting its events in stone. I try to present a feel for how it is to live inside that culture and be part of the experiences they go through; it's about immersion into the Chapter or Legion, presenting them as believable and real, not definitively saying "All of Chapter X are like Y." So: I'm reluctant to talk about TMoM and the Emperor's perception in that book in any real detail, partly because the book is still new and there's a lot individual readers would do better discovering for themselves without my thoughts in public, and partly because everything I'd say is ultimately in the book. Anything I say will be taken out of context or weaponised one way or another somewhere, and used in a way that makes me sigh, cringe, or a dramatic melange of both that shall hereafter be called the sigh-cringe. (Plus, most of all, I have faith in readers. They don't need me defining anything, even if it might be interesting for a few peeps.)

So, I'll just say this. The Master of Mankind is entirely from the perspectives of people that meet the Emperor in pretty specific circumstances. There are, obviously, other circumstances to come. Nothing in it is definitive, even less so than my usual work. Any definitive statement you can make about how the Emperor sees something or does something is almost always contradicted in the book itself. That's not an escape clause or an excuse. It's the point. Writing him definitively would've been the easiest and most disappointing thing in the world. (And on that note, remember, everyone views 40K differently. What Person X is absolutely certain is the truth of the Emperor and the best way to present him would be laughed off by Persons A, B, and C. The flip side to that is that not every perspective is founded in fact or understanding. The earliest "I've not read this yet, but..." criticisms and misunderstandings of TMoM in, ah, certain reddit/chan-style locations was regarded by GW IP folks as, I quote: "These angry people seem to be beholden to a version of 40K that has never existed...") But in all seriousness, I don't want to delve too deeply into explaining the ways the Emperor's contradictions matter or don't matter. They're there, and they're definitely formative - totally agree - if not exactly definitive. With the Emperor, a lot of interaction is about getting out what you put in. You get what you give. Your perceptions and expectations are reflected back on you because that's how the human brain perceives everything (a fact that cannot be overstated; the science behind it is fascinating and all-important), especially when you're talking about someone who exists on that plane of power. At one point the Emperor makes mention of the notion that he's not even speaking, that being near to him allows the conveyance of meaning through psychic osmosis, and communication telepathically. He's not even talking. It's raw understanding filtering through a mind, or just the way the mortal mind comprehends the aura of what the Emperor intends, or, or, or... That's what I mean. TMoM is littered with that stuff. Does he only address the primarchs by number instead of name? Some characters will swear he does that, and doesn't that just perfectly match their perspectives of the primarchs as either emotionally-compromised "too-human" things that think they're sons (Ra), or genetic masterworks that have become galaxy-damning screw-ups that have literally let the galaxy burn and brought the Imperium to its knees, leading people to be exiled from their homeworlds (Land). Do you think Sanguinius will agree? Or care that's what mortals think? The Emperor's portrayal on that isn't even consistent between Ra and Diocletian, two of his Custodians - and on PAGE ONE, the only time he interacts with a primarch himself, and the one and only thing he says to Magnus the Red is...? "Magnus."

Like... that's a pretty strong indication that the interactions which follow are playing by different rules. Ra sees the Warlord of Humanity, just a man, but a great mean, weary and defiant, burdened by responsibility. Daemons see their annihilation, and go insane in his presence. One of the Knights, as they're marching through the Throne Room, is caught in religious rapture, unable to do anything but stare at the glorious halo of the Emperor of Mankind on the Golden Throne. One of the Sisters of Silence, in the same room, literally just sees a man in a chair. Another character, not Imperial, asks a Custodian if the Emperor even breathes. She believes he's a weapon left out of its box from the Dark Age of Technology. (With thanks to Alan Bligh for that one, he adores that theory.) So I don't think it's exactly a spoiler to say that if and when I get to write a character like Sanguinius in the Emperor's presence, or Malcador, they'd have entirely different experiences than Ra and Land. I'd loved to have had that in TMoM, but as much as it would've given wider context, these aren't rulebooks and essays; it would've been self-indulgent for the sake of 'hoping people get it', and cheapened the story being told, which was ultimately in a very narrow and confined set of circumstances. Breaking out of that narrative would be offering a sense of scope and freedom I was specifically trying to avoid in a claustrophobic siege story. Because theme and atmosphere is a thing.

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