Van Horstmann by Ben Counter – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the latest Warhammer Heroes novel.
“Ben Counter returns to top form for Black Library in his first full-length Warhammer Fantasy fiction and writes a novel that is as much about the incredible diversity of magic in the Old World, as it is about one man’s revenge. If you read one Warhammer novel this year, Van Horstmann should be that one.” ~The Founding Fields
I’ve been a fan of Ben Counter’s work ever since I read his first Grey Knights novel, titled, Grey Knights. It was a time when I still exploring the larger diversity in Warhammer 40,000 novels beyond those of just Dan Abnett (Gaunt’s Ghosts), Graham McNeill (Ultramarines), and William King (Space Wolves), so the timing was excellent. Ben’s Grey Knights books are still among my all-time favourites after all these years, and I’m waiting for when Black Library announces a new book in the series. Ben has written quite widely in the Warhammer 40,000 setting, such as the 6-book Soul Drinkers series which finished last year, two Horus Heresy novels (one of which, Galaxy in Flames, is one of the best in that series), and a ton of short fiction. He appeared to have taken a bit of a break for a few years, but he returned last year with an Imperial Fists novella, Endeavour of Will, for the Architect of Fate novella anthology. And only a few months prior, he had had a Warhammer Fantasy short story published, Seventh Sun in Age of Legend.
The signs were all there that Ben Counter was back into the groove of writing some great Warhammer stories for either setting, and that he would keep building on top of each piece of fiction. And that is exactly what he has done for Van Horstmann, the latest stand-alone novel for the Warhammer Heroes setting, and also his first full-length piece of Warhammer Fantasy fiction. My expectations from the novel were quite high, given the incredible cover from Cheoljoo Lee, and the fact that Ben has resurrected a character from one of the earliest editions of the Warhammer Fantasy Battles tabletop game. That is a win-win situation for me.
As it turns out, Ben Counter has delivered on the promise of the novel, and while there are a few minor flaws in it, Van Horstmann for me is still one of the best novels to have come out of Black Library in recent memory. I would even say that it stands along just fine next to Nick Kyme’s The Great Betrayal, C. L. Werner’s Dead Winter, Sarah Cawkwell’s Valkia the Bloody, and Josh Reynolds’ Gotrek & Felix: Road of Skulls, all of which have been fantastic.
Van Horstmann is a story about revenge, identity, magic, and sacrifice. All four are inextricably linked and Ben gives each of them equal weight as the narrative progresses. Through Egrimm van Horstmann, one of the most promising initiates for the College of Light in memory, we see a very different side of the setting than any other novels. Thing is, most Warhammer novels focus on individual heroes in a somewhat sword-and-sorcery/heroic fantasy style, or go for the epic fantasy angle with armies of Elves and Dwarves and disparate Human kingdoms fighting against each other. In my experience and from what I can recall at the moment, outside of C. L. Werner’s Thanquol & Boneripper novels, the magicians, sorcerers, and mages that also inhabit the setting often get the short shrift. Even if we do see them take center stage, we never get an insight into the workings of their orders. Some of the Dwarf novels, especially those by Gav Thorpe and Nick Kyme, go into this a fair bit, but not to any great extent since such characters are never the prime focus of the narrative, relegated mostly to the sidelines.
That is where Van Horstmann slots in perfectly. Through the titular character, we get a lot of insight into how the College of Light works, what its beliefs are, its rituals, its ceremonies, the powers of the Wizards of Light, and so on. We also get to see some great cameos from Wizards of the other factions – the Bright, Gold, Jade, Celestial, Grey, Amber, and the Amethyst Orders. The Gold Wizards especially are a very important component of the narrative, and a part of Van Horstmann’s plans for revenge against those who have wronged him. The play of different magics throughout the novel, especially when they all work together for a common goal in the prologue, is what I loved. There is so much diversity in the cultures of all the orders that it can get a little overwhelming at times, but Ben softens that up by not hitting the reader over the head with the differences.
Horstmann himself is an interesting character. I had expected the novel to show his origin story, but that is not the case here. Ben has written him at a stage where he has already fallen to Chaos, so it is not a novel about the “how”, but the “why”, and the consequences that result. Horstmann is relentless in the pursuit of his goals, utterly dedicated and focused, never looking away from his objectives. The character’s confidence can be just a bit too much, because you are left wondering if he does have any flaws, but then again, the brilliance of the narrative is in showing, precisely, Van Horstmann’s intellect. He can anticipate events, manipulating and bringing them to conclusions that no one else has even considered. Ultimately, that’s why I loved the character. He makes a great change from heroes or even anti-heroes who are always second-guessing themselves, who keep wondering what the consequences of their actions might be, who have doubts. Van Horstmann has expelled all his doubts and he has brought himself to the point where he will not suffer himself to suffer any distractions.
Aside from a certain weakness of his psyche and his past that still haunts him, and is one of the reasons (or would that be causes in the context of the narrative?) that he makes a pact with the Prince of Lies, with Tzeentch himself.
And that brings me to the other aspect of the novel that is explored by Ben Counter: Chaos. I firmly believe that Ben Counter is a writer who truly understands the ephemeral, mind-screwing, different nature of Chaos in Warhammer. He doesn’t write the standard codex daemons, and is always looking to show some really trippy portrayal of them, whether as entities, or as a power. This was one of the highlights of his Grey Knights novel, Hammer of Daemons, and it was one of the highlights of Endeavour of Will as well. The same applies to Van Horstmann. Even when he is showing off a codex daemon, he does it… differently. To repeat, he just gets Chaos. This is apparent in how he portrays Baudros, the two-headed Chaos Dragon shown on the cover. This is apparent in how Van Horstmann utilises a wide variety of daemons throughout the novel, which in itself was a great thing.
Van Horstmann isn’t the only character in the novel of course. We have the Emperor Wilhelm III, the Witch Hunter Lord Argenos, and several members of both the Colleges of Light and Gold, including their most senior wizards. In all of them, Ben Counter has a really rich cast of characters, each with their own motivations and beliefs, each of whom stands at a slightly different place on the spectrum of morality, each of whom has a different idea on how best to serve the Empire, and the God-King Sigmar, the first ruler of the Empire.
I mentioned earlier that the novel is about four things: revenge, identity, magic, and sacrifice. I’ve talked about the magic at length and have mostly glossed over the other three. To correct that, I would like to point out, as before, that they are all linked. In the wake of a traumatic event in his past, Van Horstmann is looking for revenge. For that revenge, he reinvents his identity and sacrifices his entire life.
The revenge is a deeply personal affair and until about halfway through the novel (a little bit further actually), it was a frustrating thing of sorts because Ben Counter does not really reveal anything about it. We get small glimpses of what might have happened, but nothing to latch on to. The reveal, when it happens, is a big reveal, although I will also admit that I had begun to guess what it was, and who had been involved. It is a credit to his writing that he can put it that late into the narrative, and still have the reader enjoy it, as I did. It was really fun to guess.
With the identity, Van Horstmann dedicates the rest of his life to becoming the greatest Wizard the Old World has ever seen. Only once he reaches that pinnacle of power can he put his plans of revenge into full effect. He appropriates knowledge and history to suit his needs, and to get ahead of the competition. His cold, detached way of looking at things and making split decisions to advance his revenge, all mean that he must present a different side of his personality to everyone around him. Once again, this is where his intellect comes in. Often it appears that Ben Counter has missed out on some details that would help explain things, but he reveals everything in small doses further on. And then, you can’t help but be impressed at how far ahead Van Horstmann has planned things.
And as for the sacrifice, I’ve already covered it in the previous paragraphs. To get his revenge, he sacrifices his present and his future, even gambling for his very soul in the process. This theme also has a double meaning in that one of the tenets of the Order of the Light is that magic involves sacrifice. This duality is fully explored by Ben Counter in the novel, as he sets the two things against each other and plays them off to make for a character is nuanced and complex.
When I consider the novel in totality, and reflect on my past experience with Ben Counter’s work, I have to say that this is truly among his top-tier stuff. He writes a novel that is pretty much properly paced, does a great job of exploring the part of the setting that he is writing about, that gives us a great character to read about, that has some great set piece magical battles, and ultimately, a novel that is fun to read from start to finish. He ends the novel on a great high, and I fully expect there to be some kind of a sequel in the future. At least, I would very much like there to be a sequel of some sorts to this.