The Thousand Names by Django Wexler – Dual Review [Bane of Kings/Bellarius]
Bane of Kings and Bellarius review book one of Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series, The Thousand Names.
“A well-researched, well-developed book – The Thousand Names manages to impress a lot. Count me in for Book 2.” ~Bane of Kings, The Founding Fields
“An interesting title by an author who understands when and how to use magic in a seemingly realistic setting” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
BANE OF KINGS
“Captain Marcus d’Ivoire, commander of one of the Vordanai empire’s colonial garrisons, was resigned to serving out his days in a sleepy, remote outpost. But that was before a rebellion upended his life. And once the powder smoke settled, he was left in charge of a demoralized force clinging tenuously to a small fortress at the edge of the desert.
To flee from her past, Winter Ihernglass masqueraded as a man and enlisted as a ranker in the Vordanai Colonials, hoping only to avoid notice. But when chance sees her promoted to command, she must win the hearts of her men and lead them into battle against impossible odds.
The fates of both these soldiers and all the men they lead depend on the newly arrived Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich, who has been sent by the ailing king to restore order. His military genius seems to know no bounds, and under his command, Marcus and Winter can feel the tide turning. But their allegiance will be tested as they begin to suspect that the enigmatic Janus’s ambitions extend beyond the battlefield and into the realm of the supernatural—a realm with the power to ignite a meteoric rise, reshape the known world, and change the lives of everyone in its path.”
I don’t get to read and review enough military fantasy outside of the Warhammer Fantasy Universe and The Thousand Names came as a welcome treat for me, especially as it’s a subgenre that I really enjoy. The book has been receiving high praise for quite some time now, and the book seemed like right up my street, as the start of a series by newcomer Django Wexler. When this book came up on NetGalley I leapt at the chance to request it, and got stuck right in. Here’s what I thought:
To kick things off, let’s look at the main characters who (apart from Janus) share the third person narrative. At first, they might seem like traditional fantasy stereotypes – the honour-bound tough guy Captain Marcus d’Ivoire, the woman-disguising-as-a-man cliché in Winter Ihernglass, and the ambitious and enigmatic Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich. With the description I’ve just given you, take away the names and they could be anyone that you’ve seen before in any other fantasy book. However, what Django Wexler does well is that he really fleshes out the characters, making them memorable, flawed, likeable and very interesting to read about. The book has to deal with character development, world building, plot movement and pacing at the same time and it manages to get the characters spot on, handling the clichés so well that they would become clichés if they were written by someone else less talented. And it’s not just the characters that are handled well, either.
The world building on view here is fascinating, but I did have a minor issue with how Wexler handled it, but let’s get the positives out of the way first. The world of Khander is a desert-setting and something that readers don’t often see in fantasy novels nowadays, and could easily be comparable to a Middle-Eastern country a four or five centuries ago if you were looking for an example. The military theme of the book is really enhanced by strong, in-depth research allowing for an interesting background where you’re not thrown off by elements that feel out of place for the setting. And another thing, the setting actually plays a part in the book. I’ve read some books where the setting never seems to slow the characters down, and they never really take into account any of its hazards or how it affects them. This book doesn’t fall into that category, you’ll be pleased to hear – the setting plays an active role in the book as the characters have to deal with the desert terrain which becomes a problem quite often. The culture is explored in some depth here too, but (here comes a problem that I had with the book) we never really get to see the ‘other side’ if you will – aside from a few minor POV sequences that could have been fleshed out a lot better to the point where we could have even had a major character POV. However, All major POVs (think Marcus and Winter) are from the characters on one side of the war, and we never really learn a lot of the other side. Sure, this would have probably hampered the pace and meant more pages, but I’m hoping that Wexler can explore this in future novels.
The book itself moves along at a fairly solid pace, even if it does take a while to get going. I know I talked in the above paragraph about adding stuff into the book, but Wexler probably should have taken a few things out in order to trim it down a bit. If we’d have got straight into the good rather than the build-up, this book could have saved quite a number of pages. And of course, with the decision to use clichés, there are a few predictable outcomes that prevent this novel reaching amazing status. However, that doesn’t stop it from being very, very good – and despite its flaws, I enjoyed The Thousand Names a lot, and I can’t wait to see where Wexler takes the reader with future books. The Shadow Campaigns series is certainly something to watch and I’m looking forward to seeing where Wexler can take us with book two, which I will certainly be on board for.
Those used to reading high fantasy titles or books that stick well within their genre will be surprised by The Thousand Names. Beyond the occasional mention of sorcerers among the enemy’s ranks, a claim unsubstantiated for the first several hundred pages, it feels more like an alternate universe book. A Napoleonic campaign in a world without the same names, continents and different structures but recognisable elements such as a European empire, dark country and black powder weapons.
The story follows a number of characters from both sides as conflict ravages the country. Both those serving the small contingent of the Vordani Empire sent to supress the rebels, and the rebelling religious force itself known as the Redeemers who have risen to rule Khandar. Both sides are struggling continuously with their own problems, with the religious fanaticism of the Redeemers risking shattering the small coalition formed by local forces and the distance of the colonials from the Empire. The troops being sent consisting of very green forces lacking in sergeants, experience and often common sense among certain leaders. As the two clash throughout the land however, it becomes clear that something more is afoot than just a colonist uprising. Politics from the Vordani’s home have begun to work behind the scenes and the enigmatic but brilliant Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich has far more planned than just supressing his foes. The sort of ambition which extends beyond the natural realm and into that of the supernatural…
Many readers of Bernard Cornwell’s books will feel very at home here. Besides the obvious Napoleonic elements, corruption within the ranks and visual displays of battle, many characters and the pacing feels very similar. The book spends the first hundred or so pages gaining momentum, setting the scene and introducing many elements before we even really move onto the campaign itself. Once it does though, it maintains a constant pace throughout until the final page.
The viewpoint characters themselves vary in terms of importance to events, but remain well rounded if not overly complex. They might seem stock at first, but Wexler makes the point of giving them well established histories to work off of before truly moving on into the book. Having actual backstories and detailed histories to use for driving the story is something an unfortunate number of authors seem to keep forgetting. While there are obvious exceptions it makes them individually stand out, tends to keep them in the reader’s mind even when they leave the book and return to it days or weeks later. Winter’s history is repeatedly brought up time and time again to explain why she is in the military disguised as a man, and d’Ivoire’s history among the colonial guard is brought up to make them feel memorable. You can call it a basic thing but after Vulkan Lives, Angel of Fire and Honour to the Dead (we’ll get to that soon), it’s refreshing to see someone truly making use of this basic writing tool and using it well.
Beyond the viewpoint characters many of those involved have individual eccentricities and feel less genuine as a result. The cavalry leader, religiously obsessed artillery master and Winter’s original sergeant feel as if they’re from a very different book. While they’re by no means exaggerated to the point of being completely cartoonish caricatures, quite often the story only seem to work in spite of them rather than because of their presence.
Getting away from the characters, there’s the battlefields and warfare. Despite being labelled a fantasy novel, the treatment of flintlock weapons and the tactics used by both sides feels very genuine. A lot of thought has clearly been put into the battle sequences and the tactics involved with volley firing and the formations of units being a frequent element. There is a definite sense of chaos on the battlefield and the weight of attacks, especially during the initial engagements with the Voldani military against massed cavalry charges. While they do lack some of the more emotive flourishes seen within the works of other authors on the battlefield, the descriptions, pace and details work well in conveying the borderline anarchy of two forces engaging one another. That the discipline of the Voldani is a fragile thing and how it relies upon a handful of people to be truly maintained.
The sense of realism surrounding the army itself, both on and off of the battlefield, lends well to when the book does fully move towards including magical elements. While rarely seen in force if at all, the effect of magic on the characters is powerful. Flipping their sense of power and even what’s real, it feels completely at odds with what came before. However, this is how magic should be treated in such books. All too often it’s regarded as a common thing or fits in all too well with the setting, whereas here it’s jarring, out of place and completely alien to both the characters and environments. It’s one of the few occasions where such a sudden shift truly works and makes magic feel as outlandish as it truly needs to be.
If there are weaknesses to this book, besides the sudden turn in the final chapters, it’s the political intrigue. While some of it has a place within the book, others such as the Voldani king’s fate feels out of place. At odds with events and very removed from what is going on. It’s an addition which leaves little closure to the book’s events and feels more like a frustrating “TO BE CONTINUED” hook, an addition to books which always feel worse than an actual finale.
Despite some shortcomings in a number of areas, The Thousand Names is a good story on the whole and is definitely worth the time of anyone interested in flintlock fantasy. It might be long but there’s more than enough here to hold a person’s interest and the clever world building is a very nice bonus to an already great novel. Definitely seek this one out if you’re a fan of military fiction with a fantasy element on the side.