The Thousand Names is the debut novel of Django Wexler. The first book of the Shadow Campaigns series was released back in July along with a prequel short story called The Penitent Damned that you can read at io9 or on Goodreads. The follow-up, The Shadow Throne, should be out next summer.
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.The Thousand Names was a relatively well publicized and awaited debut (blogosphere-wise at least) and it certainly lived up to the appreciable hype it generated. Simply by reading the synopsis, you can gather that the book can be categorized as a military Fantasy novel but it's also "Flintlock Fantasy". The latter being mostly a choice of setting influencing the type of battle described in the book and fueling the technical aspect of the narrative while the first is at the core of the story Wexler wants to tell. For a while, I thought that the numerous battle sequences would crush the tale for me and the slow paced first two-thirds of it presented much redundancy inherent to the skirmishes but they seemed necessary to advance the plot and present the protagonists. With the desert environment as scenery and the colonial conditions, I think that the author succeeded in creating an authentic backdrop.
That heavy focus on the battles could be trying for some readers. I admit that I'm not a huge fan of reading about fights after fights in a march but at least, in Wexler's case, the scenes were detailed more thoroughly than what I'm use to witness and I had almost no problem imagining them. The best part of that is the feeling of cleverness eventually emanating from the ordeals of the Vordanai forces. They are led by the newly debarked Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich and in the later parts of the book, I was convinced that the guy was a genius and it created prospects for The Shadow Throne that defined the book as more than a long prologue for a lengthy Epic series.
However, the points of view don't include Janus himself. We are spectators to his deeds through the eyes of Captain Marcus d'Ivoire and Winter Ihernglass, alternating with brief appearances from important characters in the alliance of forces in Khandar. Here lies another quality of the author's writing, namely his skills at choosing the right balance between the two protagonists, sometimes overlapping the time intervals of their chapters. Wexler clearly knows how to keep the reader's attention when the tension gets stronger but the long march from Fort Valor to Ashe-Katarion and farther tends to handicap this skill a bit.
So far, I haven't talked much about the quality of characters themselves and I think it's because it takes some time to really connect with them and it's not what caught my awareness first. For a while, the Captain and Winter don't have much choice aside from following orders, marching, dealing with shameless soldiers and trying to make the best out of a campaign that looks like a walk directly toward suicide. Winter's storyline is the one that piqued my interest the most with the whole woman in hiding backdrop. Her shadowy past is slowly revealed, resulting in greater care for her fate. It's weird though that she seems to be such a magnet for almost all the other women in camp...
As for Marcus, well he's the one closer to the astute Colonel. Surrounded by an efficient and loyal Lieutenant, respected by the other Captains, living by the rules dictated by military conventions, he looks like a man who can easily draw empathy. In his case, as with much of the other members of the cast, the denouement of the story brings new perspective to his life and I realized that this empathy was stronger than I thought (kudos to the author, he caught me unaware for both!). He's been betrayed more than once on his journey and always put his principles first, pushing it to the brink of being thrown to the court martial. He's the dependable and steadfast pillar that will hold your side together. And even if magic, demons and supernatural artifacts are improbable concepts for him, he accepts to be proven wrong.
Gradually, magic and unnatural prowess make their way into the fray. Its always there lurking and its never explained plainly so by the end of the book, there's still much mystery around it all but the bounds have been identified (even if the well acquainted users of magic are almost almighty). The idiom "Show, don't tell." applies nicely to this aspect of Wexler's writing. I'm a hundred percent convinced that there's a great Epic Fantasy storyline where the characters will shine lurking just behind the curtain (in fact it was shown sporadically). However, the road to get there, although a neatly constructed one, which leads to an interesting conclusion, was slightly too languid for me.
Moreover, I think that the Khandar forces and their leaders may have been neglected a bit. As I said, I was fascinated by the Colonel, but in return, some stroke of ingenuity may have worked mostly because of their incompetence. The 'leader of the faith' being the exception.
In conclusion, I think that Wexler's series will probably be something to watch for and I'll be picking up his next novel as soon as it's out. I think that this first presentation of the Vordanai heroes and the world they live in has been prolonged too much during the march (a faster convergence toward the central plot would have been better in my opinion) and I'm simply hopping that he can now keep the narrative and the story as compelling as the last part of the book was, with or without the military focus.
A last note: I really think that if you're well into military fantasy and skillfully rendered battles (with muskets and canons), that slow going start will feel like a breeze.
Technically, the Penguin USA (second cover) and the Del Rey UK/Roc (first one) covers both look great (I prefer the UK cover). The hardcover edition of the book stands at 529 pages and a simple but nice map of Khandar is included (also available at the maps index).
The Thousand Names review rating :
Overall (not an average)
Django Wexler's page