The five books that comprise the bulk of Django Wexler's flintlock fantasy series called The Shadow Campaigns have sat on my shelf for a while, and it's about time I dived into them. 'The Thousand Names' is the first and it's as much of a doorstop of a book as its sequels. However, it turns out to be a quick read for something that runs over six hundred pages.
As you might expect for something this thick, the cast of characters is very much on the expansive side, but Wexler keeps an admirable focus on a few key characters, three of whom are drawn particularly deeply. Others move in and out of the story as they interact with our lead trio and it isn't hard at all to keep up, even without a page or three at the beginning to detail who everyone is.
Flintlock fantasy means that we're in a fantasy world, where magic exists and the supernatural makes itself known at points, but the technology is a long way behind ours. It's not sword and sorcery; it's muskets and magic.
This fantasy world isn't ours at a different time, though it does resemble it. The army of the kingdom of Vordan is highly reminiscent of the French army at the time of Napoleon, and they're fighting in the land of Khandar, which is clearly based on the Middle East, especially Egypt. The landscape is desert and the towns are few and far between.
The McGuffin of the first half of the book is the city of Ashe-Katarion, the capital of Khandar, which has, until recently, been a Vordanai colony. We join after a rebellion, led by the Divine Hand of the Redemption, which is exactly the religious cult you think it is, has kicked the Vordanai Colonials out of Ashe-Katarion and down the coast road to Fort Valor, where they're waiting for reinforcements to arrive so they can go home.
We discover, pretty early, that that isn't going to happen. Reinforcements do indeed arrive, but with orders to rally the troops and take back the city. That isn't popular with the men and neither is the subsequent drive to get their lazy asses back into shape so that such a mission might actually work. The first half of the book, at least, concerns itself with that attempt, after which it evolves into a logical second half which I won't spoil.
What I will say is that there's a lot of good here and a little bad. The bad is easier to get out of the way, so I'll start there.
This book has such a key focus on the Vordanai army that we learn next to nothing about the enemy at all. I'd have thought that the Redemption are worthy of exploration, but Wexler skips over that, simply putting them in place and setting the Vordanai at them. There's also a local leader in the desert, known as the Steel Ghost, whose nomadic fighters fought with the cultists to expel the Vordanai. He and they do get a little more attention, especially as we move into the second half of the book, but, again, not as much as I'd have liked. Wexler remains steadfastly happy in focusing most of his attention on the Vordanai army.
Of course, that means that, with over six hundred pages to play with, he's able to really flesh out the Vordanai side of the equation. He succeeds at that in part because of the page count but mostly because he focuses on three key Vordanai officers at different ranks with different perspectives on the whole affair.
At the top of that scale is Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich, a very sharp cookie who's presumably based on Napoleon himself, even though he comes over as a quintessentially British officer: upper class, well-educated and with a very stiff upper lip. It's impossible to faze him. Initially, he seems to be the fool in charge, but his thinking turns out to be spot on the money and the men who disagree with him early on eventually follow without hesitation. Well, those who don't mutiny, that is, but that's another story.
Serving as bet Vhalnich's liaison with the men at large is Captain Marcus d'Ivoire, the commander of the garrison kicked out of Ashe-Katarion and not too happy about being tasked with retaking it. He's a good man too, a little less imaginative perhaps and not someone who could win this on his own, but he's capable and principled and well-liked.
Further down the chain, initially much further, is Winter Ihernglass, known to many of her fellow men as Saint. I say "her" because she's female, even if nobody else is aware of it, because her disguise has held thus far. She's an escapee from the Royal Benevolent Home for Wayward Youth, usually known as Mrs. Wilmore's Prison for Young Ladies, and she's hiding out in a male disguise in the Vordonai Colonials. She's also capable, if unpolished, and it's not too surprising to see her rise through the ranks, if not too far at this early point in proceedings.
I liked all these characters; Winter the most. It's fair to say that her part is something of a cliché nowadays, but she's drawn very well indeed, without the infallibility that many such characters have. She's believably flawed, so it isn't just her secret that causes her trouble, but her successes are very important ones and we're behind her all the way. There's more, but I can't get into that without leaping headlong into spoilers.
It's worth mentioning that these are very different characters who meet a trio of different needs. Winter is someone to follow, because she leads by example and inspires loyalty, except among those with personal grudges. Listen to her on the fly and do exactly what she says, because she's likely to be right and it'll keep you alive. Marcus is a good man to have as a friend, as well as someone to drink with if you get to be important enough. Count Janus is someone to admire from a distance, a thinker, a strategist, a man to put at the top of the chain, where you'll receive his instructions through the chain of command and probably never meet.
One thing you'll have noticed is that I haven't mentioned the supernatural in that vague synopsis and that's because it takes quite a while for it to be manifested. We realise quickly that there's ancient magic in Khandar but it isn't everywhere. It's secreted away and we only bump into its fringes in the first half of the novel, which is a little annoying because the thousand names of the title are part of that world. We don't even hear about them for three hundred and fifty pages. It does become much more overt as the second half finds its legs but it's never an everyday thing, even if some of the characters know more than they're letting on. I won't spoil any of that.
I wanted more than I got here, but I enjoyed what I was given. I hope that Wexler hasn't misled me and the Vordanai are the right side to follow. He didn't really give me much option, given how skimpily he drew the enemy; but, some notable bad apples aside, it isn't difficult to get behind them. I look forward to learning more about the kingdom of Vordan in the sequels so I can come to understand why the occupying colonial forces are actually the good guys in this story.
Beyond wanting to know more about Vordan, I also want to know far more about the world outside this army on the move. I want to know about the city of Ashe-Katarion, the land of Khandar, the world of magic that we're given glimpses of. I'm sure that some of this will show up in future books. After all, at over six hundred pages per volume, Wexler has plenty of room to explore these things.
There are literally thousands of pages for me still to read and I'm looking forward to them. I haven't devoured a book this big in such a short time in forever, but this is truly immersive stuff. If this turns out to be your genre, you're not going to want to put this one down. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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