The second in the set of Black Library books released to coincide with the new Betrayal at Calth game, The Unburdened is the companion piece to Rob Sanders’ The Honoured and sees David Annandale delving into the darkness once more to tell the Word Bearers’ side of the story. Set primarily on Calth at the very beginning of the Underworld War, it actually takes things back much further to begin with, to Monarchia and the humbling of the Word Bearers by The Emperor and his XIIIth Legion. We meet Kurtha Sedd at a turning point in his life, taking his first steps on a path that will lead him to Calth and a fateful confrontation with Captain Aethon of the Ultramarines, a man he once called friend and brother.
Straight away it’s interesting to see this begin at a different point to The Honoured, going some way even then to assuaging the fear that it might be just a straightforward retelling of the story from a different viewpoint. In fact it has a totally different tone, Annandale’s style perfectly suiting the intensity of the troubled, fervent Word Bearers as they struggle to understand their place not only on Calth but in the galaxy as a whole. He does a great job of capturing their blinkered, desperate faith and deep sense of injustice, painting Kurtha Sedd as especially tormented, wracked by self doubt and living in a constant state of religious ‘fear’ of being struck down by his wronged god. He’s so much more than a moustache-twirling villain, and it’s a fascinating experience to dig into his broken and bruised psyche.
As with The Honoured there’s perhaps not enough space in the book’s reduced length to really draw the supporting cast in the same sort of detail, but once again there’s enough contrast amongst the various other Word Bearers to flesh them out and provide a believable backdrop to Sedd and his descent into Chaos. And a descent it is, both literally and figuratively, as the Word Bearers venture deeper and deeper into the arcologies in search of first survival and then victory as a dark power is revealed to them. At times it does get a little bogged down in all the darkness and madness, but for the most part it’s a satisfying, enjoyable journey.
As can be expected from any Black Library novel there’s plenty of blood-soaked action to be had in amongst the religious revelations and sinister machinations, some of which ties in to battles depicted in The Honoured while other scenes are brand new as Sedd leads his men on a route that only intersects with Aethon at key points. In conjunction with an unexpected arc for Sedd and some fascinating glimpses of the wider Heresy story, it all combines into another solid, satisfying novel that complements The Honoured to provide a really powerful story that goes far beyond the narrative of the game.