Khandar, a colony of the Vordanai Empire, has rebelled. The empire’s colonial army has been kicked out of the capital city Ashe-Katarion by a coalition of the religious fanatics known as the Redeemers and Voltarai desert tribes led by the mysterious, ever-masked Steel Ghost. After the armed uprising, the Vordanai Colonials have to flee the city to the run-down Fort Valor to wait for reinforcements from the motherland.
Captain Marcus d’Ivoire, the commander of the dispirited Colonials, is mainly happy that soon he’ll soon be able to hand over responsibility for the entire sorry mess to his new superior, Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich Mieran. Meanwhile, Winter Ihernglass is promoted to Sergeant, which makes the young ranker’s enormous secret even harder to hide: after a horrible youth in an orphanage, she has been masquerading as a man to start a new life in the Vordanai colonials.
So begins Django Wexler’s debut novel The Thousand Names, the large and satisfying chunk of epic fantasy that kicks off a new series called The Shadow Campaigns. There’s been some serious buzz building for this book, and that buzz should only grow once people get their hands on it. The novel’s not perfect, but it’s sure to hit the spot for fans of military-themed epic fantasy.
First, though, there’s the Prologue to contend with. Why do so many fantasy novels insist on starting with a confusing prologue? To be fair, this is not a “here’s some mythical-sounding stuff that happened way before the events depicted in the rest of the novel but will eventually connect to the main narrative” prologue. Rather, it’s a prologue that shows the Other Side of the Conflict first, one of just a few sections that’s told from the perspective of the locals who just kicked out the Colonials. Unfortunately, you don’t really know anything about the conflict yet while reading that prologue, so it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I also worried, at some point, that Wexler was going to deliver on the title’s promise of a “thousand names” by the end of the prologue. It’s just not a great way to start the novel because it’s needlessly confusing.
Not to worry though, because after that rough start, The Thousand Names quickly finds its legs. We meet the main characters—Winter, Marcus, and Janus—in a series of smoothly narrated scenes that, at the same time, offer a clearer picture of the overall situation: after armed rebellion, the Colonials and their local puppet ruler Prince Exopter have been forced to retreat. Retaking the city as things stand would be impossible, given the rebels’ overwhelming numerical advantage. Even with the arriving reinforcements and the military genius of Colonel Janus, it’ll be a stretch.
Yet, that’s exactly what Janus intends to do. The result is a military fantasy full of spectacular battles set in a forbidding desert environment. The old Colonial army is a grizzled, run-down force. The new reinforcements are newbies with shiny uniforms but no experience. They must work together against a fierce local resistance that’s religiously motivated and more complex than you’d originally expect. Like in any proper epic fantasy, the seemingly earth-shattering events in Khandar prove to be just one piece in a much larger puzzle, something the Prologue obtusely but unsuccessfully hinted at.
There’s been a ton of discussion about women in fantasy armies lately—Kameron Hurley, Felicity Savage, Rachel Aaron just to link to a few. To be clear, The Thousand Names is a flintlock fantasy; it’s not set in the traditional medieval-ish setting these articles mostly refer to. Still, it’s hard to avoid looking at Winter Ihernglass in the context of this discussion: Winter is a young woman who pretends to be a young man in order to escape from her old life and enter the military. Aside from Winter and one other character, the Khandarai military is all male. (The other female character is a political observer/intelligence agent sent along with the reinforcements by the Empire.)
There have been stories about female characters pretending to be male for centuries. (The idea of a woman pretending to be a man in order to enter the military is less familiar, but it isn’t new either; Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett comes to mind.) Whether you take issue with the underlying reasoning or not, it’s easy to see why this plot device is as old as Shakespeare and beyond: the uncomfortable situations characters find themselves in create a huge amount of tension that almost every reader can understand. It’s also an easy way to set up a big revelation that the reader can feel good about later on: by seeing everything from the secretly female character’s perspective, we’re the only ones who know the truth. (I have to be vague here to avoid spoilers, but Django Wexler does put a surprising twist on this later on, although this stretched my suspension of disbelief to the point of discomfort.)
My main problem with Winter wasn’t the gender-acting (as hard to believe as it sometimes is) but her almost complete lack of initiative throughout the early part of the novel. Her big act of independence—the escape, the disguise, the new profession—happened long before the story started. When we meet her, she’s a textbook example of a character without agency. She’s completely steered by the narrative. In the opening scene, she’s getting bullied by the other soldiers. She barely reacts. She gets promoted against her will, and only offers faint protest, despite the problems it will create for her. After her promotion, she takes the backlash and jealousy with a shrug.
Obviously, she has no choice in all of this. Being of low rank in the military, she has to follow orders. If she draws too much attention to herself, she’ll be found out. She has to fly under the radar. Still, I was so thoroughly annoyed by her meekness that, by the time she begins to take charge of her own fate (or, to be fair, take charge again, after her escape in the past), it had colored my enjoyment of the novel. I initially wasn’t that wild about The Thousand Names, especially after the troublesome prologue I mentioned earlier.
I’m glad I stuck with it, though, because there really is a lot to love about this debut. Janus, the Colonel who arrives to take charge of the colonial army, is the most interesting of the other main characters. He’s eccentric, brilliant, and surprisingly funny. He’s so unconventional and reasonable that Marcus, the resigned (and not very funny) commander of the colonial forces, barely knows what to do with him. Watching these two work out a way to communicate within the military structure is absolutely fascinating.
While Winter, Janus, and Marcus are the main characters, others at various levels in the command structure move in and out of the spotlight. The commander of the artillery (known as “the Preacher”) is devout to such a degree that he has his cannon engraved with religious verses. The cavalry commander is so comically aggressive (his nickname is “Give-Em-Hell”) that it borders on the suicidal. Both of these characters offer welcome—and very effective—flashes of humor; I laughed out loud during Give-Em-Hell’s first scene. There’s also Winter’s competent and detail-oriented Corporal, and a bullying Sergeant, and a Captain who is sliding into alcoholism, and the Colonel’s servant… The Thousand Names features a large and diverse cast of military personnel. Some of them lack depth compared to the main characters, but together they paint an incredibly lively picture of military fantasy.
What’s maybe most important to get an accurate idea of what this novel is like: all of these characters live under near-constant pressure. Django Wexler describes the atmosphere in the Vordanai army perfectly. They’re stuck in the harsh environment of the Khandar desert, marching against overwhelming enemy forces and near-impossible odds. There’s a constant sense of danger and fatalism.
However, it’s not just about the atmosphere. There are battle scenes. There are, actually, many battle scenes, often described in such detail that it probably wouldn’t be hard to diagram them. Depending on how interested you are in tactics and strategy, that level of detail may become tiresome, but I felt that Wexler hit the right balance and made it work most of the time. Still, the story occasionally lost some tension during yet another battle.
As mentioned before, there’s a lot more going on than just the struggle for dominance in this one colony. By the time you’re done, you’ll know much more about the structure and history of this world. The Thousand Names turns out to be a very different story from what you initially expect. It’s one of those books that shows a series of skirmishes in what turns out to be a larger war.
After a rough start, Django Wexler does what needs to be done in the opening volume of a fantasy epic: he introduces the characters and sets the scene, then successfully peels back the layers and raises the stakes. If you enjoy military fantasy and/or flintlock fantasy, The Thousand Names is definitely worth a look.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on July 3rd, 2013.