I've been looking forward to each coming instalment in the 'Shadow Campaigns' series by Django Wexler that I've been leaping at them first ahead of any of my other regular monthly runthroughs. I missed last month, though, and I was jonesing, so I dived into this one with a vengeance.
This one can be easily summed up as Janus vs. the Sworn Church. The kingdom of Vordan is at war and, under the inspirational military leadership of Count Janus bet Vhalnich, it has defeated everyone it's come up against. However, the war is getting further afield and the battles are getting harder. This one sees the Vordanian army moving north into the land of Mursk on the way to Elysium, the home of the Sworn Church, where he plans to destroy it utterly.
Now, let's look at what that really means. Throughout history, the Vordanians have not managed to conquer Mursk even once, which doesn't bode well, but that's not the goal Vhalnich has in mind. He only wants Elysium because that's how he'll crush the Church. And that's the Church that has been throwing serious demonic weaponry at him from a distance and will surely up the ante here.
Remember the Penitent Damned in prior books? They're kind of like the boss battles in a series where the Vordanian army mostly fights other human beings and, once it makes it far enough through them, the Church brings some Penitent Damned into play as the next level. Well, that's the Church Vhalnich is gunning for and they have a lot more in a prison under Elysium than just Penitent Damned. They've spent millennia collecting an abundance of demons and locking them up in host bodies and behind bars. If they get a little desperate, they'll start using these demons as weapons.
And it's fair to mention that, while Vhalnich is a military strategist of uncanny skill, he doesn't own a monopoly on brains. There's a particularly worthy opponent in a Borelgai old timer, Dorsay, the Duke of Brookshire, who's a good man as well as a clever one with vast experience, and I don't think it counts as much of a spoiler to point out that he's a foe of a calibre that Vordan hasn't faced off against before. Winter Ihernglass, surely my favourite character in this series, gets to lose one here and it's done believably.
The overall feel of this push towards Elysium starts off rather like armies we're able to name trying to invade Russia. That doesn't usually end well and it never end well when it's during winter. Vhalnich moves the Vordanian army into Mursk during the spring as a deliberate effort to avoid that, but the Sworn Church doesn't have to just fight with a human populace, one that's fanatical enough that it'll mount mass attacks to their last man while the women and children commit suicide en masse, just to keep their souls. It has darker weapons to bring to bear and, before we know it, it's snowing in May. Really hard. And we're suddenly in the depths of winter.
I believe this series gets better with each volume. Even the ones that don't seem to be a fresh step upwards start to feel that way later. This captured me though, even with what seems like no surprises for perhaps half the page count. Django Wexler sets us up, with not only a deeper explanation of the history of the Sworn Church and some of why we're marching against them, but also alliances, however strained. Orlanko, the Last Duke, is still floating around in Borelgai company, even though they don't like him.
And, if the first half of this book is a step up from the already stellar rest of the series, the second half is a step up again from the first. Spoilers are easy here, so let's just say that the army does a lot here but certain individuals do a lot more and I'm very happy with which ones. I've been a fan of Winter Ihernglass from the very first volume and her rise within the Vordanian ranks has been believable and agreeable. This is her best book yet, even with that new loss on her shoulders.
The cover blurb highlights how both Winter and Marcus d'Ivoire will find themselves in a strange situation where they have to decide whether they will follow their general or their queen, because Raesinia accompanies the army north and a difference of opinion grows into a much bigger problem, especially after other problems are rained upon the situation. The queen is my favourite character after Winter and, while she got a heck of a lot more to do in The Shadow Throne, I think this is her best book too.
But it's more than that. The further our characters get into Mursk and the closer to the city of Elysium, the more I found myself drawn into this story. There are some fantastic surprises in the second half of the book and I won't spoil any of them, even if I'm really eager to do so. Let's suffice to say that those readers who have wanted the magical side of this series to be a little more prominent, for the demons to come out and play, aren't going to be remotely disappointed with where this goes.
And, again avoiding spoilers, I can't omit the fact that there are happy endings here and unhappy ones, but also a real woah! I've often listened to author friends talking about a need for chapters to end on cliffhangers so that readers will keep turning those pages. I cannot remember a cliffhanger bigger than the one that this entire book ends on.
It's a magnificent ending and I'm sure it's the right one for the moment, but holy crap, I want to immediately dive into book five, which is the final entry in this series, because the fit is going to absolutely hit the shan. I can't wait to find out how it all pans out so tune in next month, folks, for the final thrilling instalment of 'The Shadow Campaigns'! You won't want to miss it! ~~ Hal C F Astell
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