Character Analysis: Arrian Zorzi
[Spoilers regarding the Fabius Bile series, and Horus Heresy arcs concerning the World Eaters and Emperor’s Children Legions will follow.]
From a literary perspective, the World Eaters have come a very, very long way. Always popular, but they have become popular and complex subjects of novels as well as one of the most recognisable factions with the most often repeated war cry. Betrayer is the seminal example of this, but it has also evolved greatly. Khornate Berserkers began as rather useful close combat miniatures painted red. The battle cry is famous, and there’s all the Warhammer charm in these brass and bronze axe wielders. Providing them with pathos, character arcs, and very entertaining stories dissecting the nature of rage, pain, dehumanisation and loss of rationality has been done very well over the past few decades, as After Desh’ea began, running into Slaves to Darkness, now Slave of Nuceria and the Siege of Terra series being more recent novels that proceed into later chronological stories like Chosen of Khorne.
Amongst this however is a very atypical World Eater, within an atypical cast. The Fabius Bile Trilogy of novels written by Josh Reynolds is amongst the most evocative literature in the Black Library catalogue, its decadence and dark creativity more imaginative than almost all the literature I have read. While there is analysis present of these novels, their themes and the protagonist; I believe worthy of particular focus is my personal favourite character of the saga. A self-aware maniac, one of the very few deniers of the World Eaters creed of self-destruction and generational abuse, and a respectably loyal warrior.
Arrian Zorzi demonstrates, much like another foil Narvo Quinn the virtue of humility and the strength that comes in 40K from realising enslavement. Whether willing or not, Astartes especially are tied to gods, and their brothers. This is the essential nature of every Astartes relationship. The Horus Heresy is defined by the nature of this shifting, and Slaves to Darkness states this concept perfectly: ‘That is the thing about war, don’t you find? You never know when you will have to fight […] or whom’. From a villainous, merciless and bleak universe, most of the catastrophes can be tied to self-deception and allowing oneself to be fooled. Those with power or ability to influence growth for the faction enter into a realisation, a ritualistic way of living that elevates them through belief. The faith and moral code differs as wildly as anything in fiction. It can be the literal God of Excess, Chaos Absolute, alien deities and for The Consortium no Gods or masters at all, but a cult-like fixation with mad science wrapped around Bile’s cult of personality and force of will.
What makes Arrian strong is awareness of his monstrosity and proceeding to serve for what could be termed altruistic reasons, albeit in an incredibly twisted way. Within an army of millions, he turned away from a central tenant of losing control and slaughter for its own sake. By sedating, chaining and forcing himself chemically and physically to follow his own path, his position is elevated and even more cemented due to the assumptions others have of his kind. Ironically his sense of discipline becomes a sharper weapon, as the constantly underestimated but not conniving brute is less dispensable than canny but erratic peers.
Arrian is refreshing and noteworthy in two ways, one he is part of the disgusting vibrance of the series, and he is an outlier without being a contradiction. A World Eater using brute force, chains and blades to define whom he is is absolutely what the characters are about, though keeping thematically to Bile and his warband, ironically the use of drugs and manipulation of pleasure and pain centres fits thematically with the champions and forces of Slaanesh and the vast majority of Bile’s army. The nature of a hound, of being stably insane really is the appeal, and I think why Chaos is more appealing and easier to enjoy than loyalists generally in the wider context of Warhammer fiction. Because every character is mad, inhuman, even the humans. With Chaos it is obvious and vibrant, and the tragedy and pathos comes from where one goes after a fall. Can one be free? No, not truly. But they can be stronger and exert their will.
To surrender in friendship and peace, and very importantly reinforce the notion that he was always an Eater of Worlds and always forgiven underlines fantastically the all but dead nobility of his legion, and their humanity. Their struggle is against others, against their wound and their addiction to rage. And they see this as brotherhood. Without it they killed the rebels, they allowed the last librarians (magic users trying to help them) to be eaten. But within damnation, sharing such pain, they are valued in the main. The tragedy and antagonist of the World Eaters comes down to the reoccurring motif of an abusive master. Khorne, first and foremost. The emperor who made them and created Angron’s resentment. Angron is the most straightforward abusive father of any primarch, readily decimating, berating and even directly consuming them with no regard for spreading his myopic world view and forcing implantation of his own barbarous cybernetics. And the Horus Heresy is tragic because it adds one more leader to this list, the champion and most famous brother Kharn. Kharn falls. Kharn the Betrayer, a character who becomes famous and in-game is known for attacking allied units if he cannot hit opponents.
Arrian, in contrast is the exception that proves the rule. It’s fascinating to read about a World Eater that dominates the Butcher’s Nails, rather than be dominated. When rationality, discipline and then cohesion or any notion of brotherhood is shattered, it is defiance in a fitting, but factionally different way for one of so many legionaries to flat out refuse submission and take a small revenge of sorts as well as a worthwhile sense of belonging by abandoning his abusive brothers for a coterie of people who share the brotherhood of a shared profession. It’s a twisted and dark joke as well as the opportunity for Reynolds to add originality to the setting; a psychotic rage-implanted warrior doctor finds a place for intellectual stimulation, and scientific curiosity saves him and makes him valued by other exiles and madmen when those sharing his blood would quite happily kill him with little provocation despite affecting some notion of ‘brotherhood’ devoid of compassion and situationally loyal.
Companionship, both in the modern and the classical sense of being a champion companion is baked even into the name; Arrian being a historical reference to Arrian of Nicomedia, the author of The Anabasis of Alexander.
Arrian’s penchant for keeping the skulls of his brothers in arms is an echo of the same practice performed by his father in the novel Betrayer. A fascinating spiritual successor, as the World Eaters and the galaxy has slipped more into the immaterial, and the Legions into madness; these skulls speak back. For Angron, the ritual was an island of euphoria, assuaging his guilt by giving him the illusion of fighting beside his comrades once more. Arrian’s discussions are not positive, the biting commentary and chiding far from aggrandising, and most concerning and up for debate is the question whether the voices are a symptom of insanity, or whether the ghosts are in fact real.
The cast of characters seem to share a dichotomy, between those most notable, famous and empowered as they lead and yet have the least sanity due to their service as Khorne’s representatives, and those who do not rule and affect the galaxy prominently by instead pouring mental energy and belief into institutions and warriors welcoming war with a different motive and goal. This seems to be where interesting exiles and prominent non-Berserker champions arise, such as Delavarus and Lheorvine Ukris, who I think both join the Black Legion and show their merit when the toxicity of their leaders is removed. The same phenomenon is visible with Arrian, and I think Reynolds knew the irony of this every well, given Fabius and Abbadon abhorred each other, and each played a pivotal role in beginning this millennia long legends by forcing critical battles that subjected them to the introspection that forged their worldview and the factions they created (the Battle of Harmony being the catalyst for everything Abbadon and Bile do for the following 10,000 years).
A parallel with other World Eaters is the desire to follow a surrogate ‘father’, or at least a mentor who provides culture and lifestyle. While Fabius Bile’s relationships with his ‘New Men’ are discussed often, the tragedy and core theme throughout the trilogy being his pathological need to mentor, improve, command and control them and the effects caused from that, another such bond could be considered as existing between Fabius and Arrian. A peer, a servant, a blade for ease of use. World Eaters typically serve as either of these things, their shackles part of their nature and a willingness to harm and self-harm enveloping them until they become archetypal, even parodies of bloodthirsty berserkers.
The capacity and habits of Arrian alone make for provocative images, and displays of his unique nature. Botany, a further derivative of the sciences is highlighted in Manflayer as his gift, he strove to grow flora in a way Bile reflects brings ‘beauty’ everywhere they went, meaning much from both a perfectionist fanatic and an egotist very rarely impressed or appreciative of other’s creativity. Arrian cares for things in a way that I would like to stress is not antithetical to the World Eaters. His plants are harsh, tenacious, amusingly as bloodthirsty as his brothers. He needs to care, and indulges in an abrasive survival of the fittest mentality. However, it is funnelled into a different form of life to people, among a different form of brotherhood. His methodology is the difference, and it makes his personality in time differ radically because of its benefits to lucidity. Growing life, tending to the sentient, animal and floral experiments and serving the Consortium grant him the means to self-medicate, be feared and respected, and kill fewer of his fellows mostly due to avoidance of the circumstances and triggers that lead them to kill innocents or their brothers. Arrian is methodical, monstrous, but by merit of control and intellectual rigour both less terrifying and more dangerous (like his companion Fabius, who beneath the veneer of scientific genius and earnest efforts to create a superior species of humanity is too intrinsically arrogant, sadistic, and saturated with sin to create without corrupting or devastating his biome or species).
Some of my favourite scenes in 40K are the culmination of quiet interactions Arrian has with military rivals in Clonelord, first a loyalist Capitan and then the Prefector Flavius Alkenex. Three scenes are carefully placed, where each speaker converses aware that they are a mortal enemy of the other’s faction, yet come to social understandings regardless of the inevitable violence that follows immediately after. An Astarte is a conditioned machine, a berserker of inhuman savagery. So to hold on to any psyche at all, despite the hellish situation of patrolling or entering the Eye is a feat. It is fascinating to hear that neither protector nor usurper of the Vesalius was at Skalathrax, the quintessential battle between their armies. And there is a brilliant, in a sense heartwarming moment where unlike his fallen fellows the loyalist of an offshoot Chapter immediately understands Arrian’s habit and asks whether they speak back to him with more acceptance and respect than any of his renegade allies. These books are among other things about holding the shards of sanity together, and it is perhaps the most precarious for the man who relies upon release of control to be optimally effective in combat, and the precious few moments of breaking his chains are cathartic, even gut punching as we feel empathy for Arrian, not for those we will haplessly destroy like his famous brother and father.
Reynolds performs a cultural full circle with the World Eater in two of the three novels to great effect, Arrian unleashing himself with a warrior’s fervour in a ferocity that feels admirable for what he is, and by the standards of his own devotion in the face of a psychopathic galaxy.
‘You haven’t brought enough warriors high rider’. Excellent. If nothing else Warhammer; read Clonelord.
A warrior within a group of doctors, a cool head filled with dried blood, one of the best things about Arrian Zorzi is that his achievements are acknowledged and his life and death have meaning, something so often tragically denied and as much a thing the reader roots for as the villainous Third to not simply die in a miasma of inert purposelessness. Where other warlords and schemers vie for authority and position, in knowing what he is by beating and binding that meaning into himself, Arrian retains his assigned roles of Apothecary and warrior all his life, and demonstrates that the villain protagonist unwilling to bend to unhelpful insanity dies with a semblance of honour more famous peers and demigods gave up.
Dembski-Bowden, A. The Talon of Horus. Black Library, Nottingham. 2014
Dembski-Bowden, A. Black Legion. Black Library, Nottingham. 2017.
Reynolds, J. Fabius Bile: Primogenitor. Black Library, Nottingham. 2016.
Reynolds, J. Fabius Bile: Clonelord. Black Library, Nottingham. 2017.
Reynolds, J. Fabius Bile: Manflayer. Black Library, Nottingham. 2020.
I would suggest supporting Josh Reynolds in general. The man who can write an entire novel in a month, who almost singlehandedly ensured Age of Sigmar survived and penned the Fabius Bile series deserves a lot of support, and after leaving Black Library, I wish him the best with his continued literary success.
All Black Library and Warhammer material is the intellectual property of Games Workshop. I do not own the rights or have any association to the property and literature, and only make this article and recommendation as an individual consumer.