For a 500-page doorstop of a novel, I thoroughly enjoyed my race through 'The Thousand Names', the first book in Django Wexler's flintlock fantasy series known as 'The Shadow Campaigns'. This second book of what would end up as a five-volume series is better still and I raced through it in even less time.
While the first book focused on certain key characters who were all part of the Vordanai army retaking the city of Ashe-Katarion, capital of Khandar, a remote outpost in the sprawling empire, this one takes them back home to Vardan City and throws them into very different intrigue. And there's a heck of a lot of intrigue because what I think Django Wexler does best is to weave a tangled web.
Vordan is coming to the end of an era. The Vermilion Throne is occupied by a king, but he's on his deathbed and isn't expected to live much longer. His daughter, Raesinia, will inherit the throne, but the distant shadow pulling strings in the first book, His Grace Duke Mallus Kengire Orlanko, Minister of Information and Master of the Concordat, has no doubt that she will be a mere puppet on his strings. He already has a firm hand on Vordan, but he plans to soon make it an iron grip.
So far, so simple. All Orlanko has to do is wait. But, unknown to him, with an eye in every house in Vordan, wheels are turning against him. For a start, the princess is far from the puppet he thinks she'll be. She's brighter, more dedicated and far sharper than she acts in the Royal Palace. Even though he has some serious leverage over her (he saved her life four years earlier with the aid of dark magic, so she's now possessed by a demon), she won't allow that to make a difference.
How dedicated, you ask? Well, she can't get out of the Royal Palace in the usual manner so she frequently climbs up onto the roof and jumps off, the demon within repairing the otherwise fatal damage she causes herself, so she can sneak off into the Dregs of Vordan City to a back room at the Blue Mask to meet with the cabal of revolutionaries she's priming to take the nation back from Duke Orlanko. That's how dedicated!
I like Princess Reisinia a lot, even though her disguise is as someone who's called Raesinia, figuring that many people were named after her. Her crew are a mixed bag, as they ought to be, and the varying attitudes that come together in search of a common goal are well drawn. But where are all the characters we want back from the first book?
Well, funny you should ask. Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich, the mastermind of the Vordanian victory in Khandar, is summoned back ahead of his army to take up a new position as Minister of Justice. He'll oversee the courts and the local police force known as the Armsmen. He quickly appoints Captain Marcus d'Ivoire as the captain of the latter, because he knows he can trust him (and so do we). Vhalnich becomes the white king facing off against the black king of Duke Orlanko in a five-hundred-page game of chess.
If the first book was highly military in nature, the action being battles and the intrigue being strategy, this ditches that entirely in favour of political manoevering and knowing moves of other pieces. In particular, there's my favourite character from 'The Thousand Names', Winter Ihernglass, whom he tasks with infiltrating the Leatherbacks, a group of young ladies who've brought ruthless stability to the docks. They're led by... well, I'm not going to tell you that, because it's a surprise but it's not a particularly surprising surprise as surprises go. We knew she'd show up sooner or later and it very much turns out to be sooner.
What's really cool about this are the levels that come with it. If you recall, Winter is a young lady serving in the Vordanian Colonials in disguise, as it happens to be an all-male army. She's risen to the rank of Lieutenant with few people knowing her secret; Vhalnich knows but d'Ivoire does not and, inevitably, he ends up interacting with her late in the novel, thinking that he's a man pretending to be a woman, thus prompting her to be a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. That's fun.
Because we're in and not out there in the back end of beyond this time, there are many other characters and Wexler proves able to juggle them all with panache. There are a host in the cabal, a bunch more in the Leatherbacks and still more in the Palace or the Cobweb or other places that come into play as the story unfolds.
One of my favourites is Danton. He's a fantastic actor, who Raesinia hires to be the cabal's voice to the public, even though he's mentally lacking and spends most of his time when not performing drinking beer. He merely has a natural talent that's perfect for their needs: he may not understand his lines but he learns them incredibly quickly and he delivers them with such power that everyone listens. And yes, we learn the reason why later and it doesn't surprise us much at all, though it does make us think.
Other favourite characters I won't name, because their very presence here is a surprise and I won't spoil the reveals. Suffice it to say that there are a few of them, far more than in the previous book where there weren't a lot outside the core trio of Vhalnich, d'Ivoire and Ihernglass. I did miss Bobby but there's only so much room even in a five-hundred-page doorstopper.
I had an absolute blast with this novel and am fascinated to see where the series goes next. Book three, 'The Price of Valor', is the heart of the series and how it unfolds will surely show us roughly where the rest of it will go. I look forward to diving headlong into that one next month. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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