The Thousand Names is something unique in the fantasy genre (at least in this reader’s experience). There is a common piece of advice about writing fantasy that goes something like – look at current the niches within the genre and then see how you can create your own. There are fantasy mysteries and thrillers, mash-ups of fantasy and sci-fi, and even fantasy novels that are based around things like “the economy” or “being polite.” The advice is good, and Wexler uses it by creating a fantasy world that so closely mirrors our own that for much of the novel I questioned whether it was even fantasy. Had he not included an ending chock-full of magical derring-do, I might have accused him of writing a historical novel about British colonialism that simply changed the names of countries. He manages to avoid this by showing us some mysterious business in the prologue, hinting at it throughout the book, and then delivering with an ending well-worth the wait.
Wexler’s niche is colonial military story meets magical McGuffin, also known as flintlock fantasy because it features muskets and old-timey rifles alongside spell-slinging and otherworldly creatures. Wexler uses the former exhaustively and the latter hardly at all, but thankfully each seems as important to his world as the other. Vordan is a British-equivalent nation located across the sea in a country we never see. The Desoltai and Khandarai represent desert dwelling people and likely have equivalents to civilizations in 19th century Afghanistan and the upper African countries. The Vordanai have invaded the Khandarai lands for reasons of greed and empirical ambition, and the story of The Thousand Names revolves around a company of Colonials who are forced to fight wars they aren’t particularly interested in for reasons that they don’t fully understand.
But, orders are orders.
Marcus is the head of the company, second in command to the newly appointed Colonel Janus bet Valnich. Janus shows up after the Colonials have been pushed out of a major metropolis by a mob of holy-inspired natives. The former colonel having been killed, it is Janus’ responsibility to take back the city for King and country. We see these events transpire through both Marcus’ eyes, and from Winter Ihernglass’ point of view. Winter is the real star of The Thousand Names. Orphaned at a young age, Winter is placed into a terrible home for young women aptly called The Prison. She escapes and passes herself off as a man to join the Colonial Army. Winter then unwittingly receives promotion after promotion, due to equal measures luck and competence, and finds herself in charge of her very own cohort.
In the background of all this, we have the mysterious Thousand Names, an object of power that serves as the real driving force to all the actions of the novel. The Khandarai seek to keep it out of the hands of the Vordanai, and Janus, head of the Vordanai Colonials, seeks to keep the Names out of the hands of a mysterious Vordanai bad guy known as Count Orlanko, the Last Duke. The men under Janus’ command have no idea that any of this is going on. They fight, they die, and the life they know is one of heat and fear.
I did not expect to like The Thousand Names as much as I did. I almost invariably avoid books with guns – even the flintlock kind. I don’t like guns in a philosophical or literary sense. They are lazy. Wexler uses his to great effect, and though his magic is sparse, he manages to set artillery against sorcery in a way that feels balanced. The accuracy in Wexler’s writing also helps his gun-play along. I am no historian when it comes to musketry, but I never felt anything misplaced or out of line in his descriptive work. Django’s ability to write an action scene is almost second to none. I can’t remember the last time I felt my own pulse quicken while reading a battle, and it happened multiple times throughout The Thousand Names. Despite often abhorring the violence in fantasy reads, I found myself looking forward to each of the battles in this book.
In regards to characterization, I respect the hell out of a male author willing to not only write from a female’s perspective, but to dress her in men’s clothing and make the character completely convincing and sympathetic. And Wexler does it with multiple characters. The cheek on the man! Winter is one of the best-written characters I’ve come across in fantasy in a long time. She is annoyingly self-deprecating at times, but that simply makes her more human to me, and her bravery is the kind that feels authentic because it is never absent the teeth-chattering fear that should exist whenever someone is looking down the barrel of a gun. She is a brilliant blend of competence and humility, and while Marcus is a good character as well, he pales in comparison. He is simply too familiar to stand out amidst the diverse cast present in The Thousand Names.
I did have a few issues with The Thousand Names. There were a surprising amount of grammatical errors in my copy. I also think Wexler needed to convince us just why the common colonial soldier would concede to any of the fighting that occurs. “For King and Country” is not good enough unless one really establishes how much these soldiers love their home. I am a jaded American, and so the idea of loving one’s country is probably much more foreign to me than it would be to others. I could see absolutely no reason why any character in this book, aside from Janus, would venture out into a desert and fight an often hopeless war simply at his commander’s order. It felt ludicrous at times. Then again, so does modern warfare. Perhaps it is I who am at fault for not understanding patriotism.
My problems are niggling, however, compared to the amount of enjoyment I received while reading Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns opener. He manages to create a believable and entertaining story despite inclusion of many common pitfalls within fantasy: desert settings are almost always boring, guns never feel quite right in a world of swords and sorcery, and cross-dressing female characters simply aren’t written about in the land of Tolkien’s predecessors. Wexler nails all three. I’d give him a twenty one gun salute if I didn’t live in a quiet urban neighborhood. And I owned any guns.