7 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: The Thousand Names by Django Wexler

The Thousand NamesTitle: The Thousand Names

Author: Django Wexler

Genre: Fantasy, Military Fantasy

Publisher: Roc
Publication Date: July 2013
Hardcover: 528 Pages

Enter an epic fantasy world that echoes with the thunder of muskets and the clang of steel—but where the real battle is against a subtle and sinister magic….

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.

Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Shadow Campaigns series

How did I get this book: ARC from the Publisher

Format (e- or p-): Print ARC

Why did I read this book: I’ve been in the mood for a good new epic fantasy series, and I liked the sound of The Thousand Names – especially with the heroine-in-disguise trope (for which I am a sucker). When we were approached by the publisher to participate in the blog tour, I responded with alacrity.

Review:

The grand Vordanai Empire is at war. When the remote desert colony of Khandar rebels, its Vordani-allied prince is displaced by a group of vicious priests (“Redeemers”) and a ruthless masked soldier known simply as the Steel Ghost. Instead of the quiet – if ignominious – assignment of running the Vordani outpost in Khandar, Captain Marcus d’Ivoire finds himself in command of a wartime colonial garrison comprising the dregs of the Vordanai military force. Marcus’ command is shortlived, however, as reinforcements arrive in the form of an unconventional new General, Janus bet Vhalnich, who comes across the sea with ships full of very young, very green new recruits. Instead of turning tail and returning back to Vordan as Marcus and the beleaguered remaining colonial troops expect, Janus quickly restructures the Vordanai forces and begins a suicidal march to take back control Khandar, as unlikely as victory may seem given the Khandari’s vastly superior numbers.

Caught in the middle of this impossible situation is Winter Ihernglass – runaway and voluntary enlistee in the Vordanai Colonials. Winter is a woman, masquerading as a young man in the male-only ranks after having escaped the prison of her reformatory academy years earlier. Following the arrival of Janus and Winter’s quick thinking on the battlefield in an early skirmish, Winter is rapidly promoted to Senior Sergeant and then Lieutenant – an honor, but one that makes keeping her secret and going unnoticed by her fellow soldiers nearly impossible. As the Colonials press onward to subdue the revolt – and seek out some magical power known only as “the Thousand Names” – it is Winter’s skill and willingness to risk everything that will determine the outcome of the Vordanai-Khandar war (with the help of some new friends, of course).

The debut novel from author Django Wexler, The Thousand Names is one of the new wave of “flintlock” fantasy books – that is, fantasy set around the Napoleonic Era (we’re talking muskets and bayonets in terms of wartime technology). This novel is also undeniably of the epic fantasy subset, but more intriguingly it’s actually a military fantasy novel, focused on the strategy (or lack thereof) on the battlefield, as well as formations, tactics and martial procedures. While this might sound dry, it makes for a fascinating read – author Wexler is an amateur historian, and his attention to the grind and granularity of military life in this pre-interchangable parts/automatic weapon era is impressive. As I joked to Ana in a few emails while reading this book, I was having flashbacks to the Greek/Roman military and American civil war history lectures I took in university, with the emphasis on phalanxes, troop formation, firing patterns and aggressive stratagems. If you’re interested in reading chapters in which Winter trains her troops – forming a tight Square formation while she and her corporals coordinate their orders to fire in order to withstand an attack from an overwhelming enemy force – then you’ll probably enjoy The Thousand Names. If this sounds like gibberish to you (I apologize because while I found the book fascinating, my command of military formations and vernacular is…well…pathetic), then you might not be a big fan of the Shadow Campaigns series.

But before you walk away from The Thousand Names thinking it’s just about procedure and tactics, you should also know that it is a briskly written novel that features not just one but four key female characters (none of which are raped, in a shocking twist for the subgenre). While The Thousand Names boasts three main protagonists, I’d argue that the central figure in this book is heroine-in-disguise Winter Ihernglass. After all, it is Winter’s actions as both Lieutenant and compassionate (if reluctant) leader that determine the dramatic conclusion of the book. I liked and believed in Winter as a character, although it takes a little while for her to assume control of her own life. I wish we could have seen the Winter who fled her old prison and made the active choice to enroll in the Colonials, because by the time we meet her, she’s isolated and quietly bearing the consequences of her choices (there’s a particular Sergeant and his cronies that have it out for Winter, which she stoically takes). Over the course of the book, though, Winter becomes less passive and more in control, taking risks and making new choices with increasingly dramatic repercussions, especially by book’s end. My biggest fear when I started this novel was that Winter would be portrayed as a fantasy version of Exceptional Girl, with unparalleled warrior skills. Thankfully, this is not the case and The Thousand Names is not the kind of book with surefooted lieutenants that strike down enemy forces with bravery and brawn. Rather, like Winter, this is the kind of book where it becomes clear that battles are haphazard even when they are strategic, that soldiers are people (and often have no training at all and don’t know what they are doing).

Further on the character front, the other protagonists include Vordanai ranking officers Janus and Marcus. Janus is especially intriguing as a (paradoxically) easygoing General of noble birth – we aren’t sure if we can trust Janus, as he seems to have mixed motives and aspirations to great power. There’s also Marcus, whom one character describes very aptly as a man born in the wrong era, as Marcus should have been a knight errant for all his scruples and sense of morality. Both characters are interesting and have their separate quirks and distinctive qualities – yet for all that, they still feel a little superficial. I wish there was more texture to each, especially Janus, but I suppose we’ll see more of them and hopefully get to know them on a more resonant level in subsequent books. There are a few other characters that stand out, such as Bobby (one of Winter’s very young and untested corporals), and a Khandari priestess taken as a captive, named Feor. My favorite, however, is the female clerk Jen Alhundt, who travels to Khandar with the Janus and the reinforcement troops. A member of the formidable Concordat – a powerful network of spies for a powerful royal Duke in Vordan – Jen is not the bespectacled scholar she seems at face value, and plays a pivotal role in the story. I appreciated that very much.

Beyond the military aspects of the book and characters, there’s also of course the basic setup of the novel itself – plot, worldbuilding, and the efficacy of the book as a whole. For all the action in the book, the plot is actually steady, even erring to the side of slow-moving and repetitive with its many detailed skirmishes. This isn’t a bad thing, and I think Wexler does a good job of maintaining steady forward momentum (per his guest post today) – but it’s a relatively straightforward story that doesn’t really break any new ground, genre-wise.

From a worldbuilding perspective, as mentioned earlier, Wexler takes a careful look at historical patterns and has clearly modeled the world of the Shadow Campaigns based on these patterns. Vordan feels very Western European (think British or French Empires), while Khandar is analogous to Egypt with its desert environment and lifeline of irrigation/travel through its central large river. This, of course, raises the question of cultural interpretation and appropriation – the Vordani are white-skinned and technologically advanced compared to the dark-skinned mystical magician-heathens of Khandar. This type of dichotomy is troublesome, to say the least (at best, it’s uninspired and predictable). Other than a few interspersed asides throughout the book, we rarely see the Khandar point of view, although priestess Feor plays a major role in the story at large. Wexler does his best to differentiate his fantasy world from the real world histories of Western Europe and Egypt, and by the book’s end we see that magic does actually exist; the Vordanai are clearly just as hungry for that power as the Khandari and have their own traditions of magical power, so there’s a marginally more balance to the text. That said, I’m still uncomfortable with the implications of this world, and hope that future books give the Khandar a stronger voice (beyond just the prologue, interstitials, and epilogue).

These world-specific criticisms said, overall, I finished The Thousand Names both engaged and entertained. It’s an unexpected book with an eye for military detail, aptly capturing the tension – and ineptitude – of daily life in a pre-industrial footsoldier type of war. It features a surprising centrality of female characters that doesn’t feel artificial or out of place given the traditional “realistic” fantasy setting. Moreover, The Thousand Names ends wonderfully with plenty of promise for the next novel in the series. I’ll certainly be back, and definitely recommend this book for anyone in the market for a new flintlock-style military fantasy novel.

Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:

Winter

Four soldiers sat atop the ancient sandstone walls of a fortress on the sun-blasted Khandarai coast.

That they were soldiers was apparent only by the muskets that leaned against the parapet, as they had long ago discarded anything resembling a uniform. They wore trousers that, on close inspection, might once have been a deep royal blue, but the relentless sun had faded them to a pale lavender. Their jackets, piled in a heap near the ladder, were of a variety of cuts, colors, and origins, and had been repaired so often they were more patch than original fabric.

They lounged, with that unique, lazy insolence that only soldiers of long experience can affect, and watched the shore to the south, where something in the nature of a spectacle was unfolding. The bay was full of ships, broad-beamed, clumsy-looking transports with furled sails, wallowing visibly even in the mild sea. Out beyond them was a pair of frigates, narrow and sharklike by comparison, their muddy red Borelgai pennants snapping in the wind as though to taunt the Vordanai on the shore.

If it was a taunt, it was lost on the men on the walls, whose attention was elsewhere. The deep-drafted transports didn’t dare approach the shore too closely, so the water between them and the rocky beach was aswarm with small craft, a motley collection of ship’s boats and local fishing vessels. Every one was packed to the rails with soldiers in blue. They ran into the shallows far enough to let their passengers swing over the side into the surf, then turned about to make another relay. The men in blue splashed the last few yards to dry land and collapsed, lying about in clumps beside neatly stacked boxes of provisions and equipment.

You can read the full excerpt online HERE

Additional Thoughts:

Thousand Names Blog Tour Banner

Make sure to check out our stop today on The Thousand Names blog tour for Django Wexler’s thoughts on forward momentum in a story and a chance to win the book!

Rating: 7 – Very Good

Reading Next: NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

Buy the Book:

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Book Depository UK

Ebook available for kindle US, kindle UK, nook, kobo, google, iBookstore & sony

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4 Comments

  • Linda W
    July 10, 2013 at 9:59 am

    Wow. I love the idea of flintlock fantasy. This book sounds great. I can’t help thinking of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series and wonder if that was an influence on Django. I also think of Naomi Novik’s books.

  • hapax
    July 10, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    A noted sff author once observed that there are two types of military sff: in one, warfare is seen as the natural state of civilization, and peace is a temporary (if pleasant) aberration, best used for to prepare for the return of war (think Weber’s Honor Harrington series); in the other, peace is portrayed as the rest state of civilization, and hostilities “break out” as either a pathological collapse or to address an unusual problem.

    I’m not saying that one approach is “better” than the other, but they are definitely distinct in tone. Where would you say that this book falls in that spectrum?

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    July 15, 2013 at 11:29 am

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