BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In the colonial possession of Khandar, the beleaguered and marginalized Vordanai garrison finds itself unexpectedly turned into an offensive fighting force by a new commanding officer with a hidden agenda. However, he is far from alone in having one…
PROS: Excellent battle sequences and military slice of life; appealing and interesting take on magic.
CONS: Some significant point-of-view and characterization problems; a central mystery is somewhat imperfectly drawn up.
BOTTOM LINE: An interesting addition to the burgeoning subgenre of Flintlock Fantasy.
The Thousand Names by Django Wexler fits into a subgenre of fantasy that has been called in several quarters “Flintlock Fantasy”. It’s Muskets and Magic! Recently, The Lays of Anuskaya by Bradley Beaulieu, Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan and the Spiritwalker Trilogy by Kate Elliott have mixed gunpowder weapons with magic systems, to various effects and degrees. And now, The Thousand Names.
In it, a Vordanai colonial garrison, along with the former ruler of Khandar, have been pushed to the edge of the desert coast after the rise of a local religious rebellion. The Vordanai are expecting that the transports arriving from across the Demon Sea are there to evacuate them and call to an end to their colonial presence entirely. Instead, Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich has very different orders–take a set of raw recruits with him, mix in the demoralized Colonial garrison and come up with a fighting force capable of defeating both the masses of Redeemers and their more capable Auxiliary brethren. Just why the Colonel is determined to try and face very long odds with a underpowered force is a very good question. But he does have a plan.
As Flintlock Fantasy goes, The Thousand Names takes a very military point of view. For example, while Promise of Blood had its plot revolve around a military-led revolution against a corrupt King and did have more than its fair share of combat sequences, the combat sequences in The Thousand Names are the point. The focus of the novel is on the military life, and military encounters.
And such detail on the military life! The author clearly has done a lot of research and study of Napoleonic-era warfare. From camp conditions to battle tactics, to the lines of grand strategy, the authenticity of the military fantasy is here in full flower. We get set piece conflicts of all sorts, drills, the perils of trying to form a fighting force from raw units, and believeable campaigns, even given the genius of the commander. This is far and away the best and strongest selling point of the book.
There are two major viewpoint characters. The first is Captain Marcus D’Ivoire, the senior Captain of the Colonial garrison, who quickly winds up in the orbit of the dashing Colonel and his plans. Through the Captain’s point of view, we get the 30,000 foot level view of the Colonel’s strategy and tactics, and how the Captain is forced to think on his feet to implement them or adapt when situations change. His connections to the other officers also provide a framework of letting us see how the command structure of a Napoleonic-era force works (and doesn’t work).
Corporal (although not for long) Ihrenglass is our other major viewpoint character. Unlike Promise of Blood, where openly female powder mages are an accepted part of life, female soldiers here are a rarity, and Ihrenglass is hiding as a man for reasons that go far beyond just keeping her sex hidden. Her complete story is slowly unspooled as the novel progresses. She provides a tactical-level view of the military conflicts and how they affect individual soldiers.
Both characters show the effect of unexpected and often unwanted leadership. Captain D’Ivoire’s de facto second-in-command in the army and Ihrenglass’ rapid and unwanted promotions are two case studies in how power and leadership fall on those who are not seeking them, and how they each deal with that great responsibility. The template for the novel, clearly, is the story of Napoleon in Egypt. The brilliant Colonel Vhalnich is most definitely a Napoleon analogue, and although there is no analogue to Britain (and thus no naval battles), the Colonel’s strange fascination with Khandar mirrors Napoleon’s fascination with Egypt. In our world, Napoleon’s ambitions and interest led to a revival of interest in ancient Egypt (leading to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone). In the world of The Thousand Names, the Colonel definitely has ambitions and interests far beyond putting a near-puppet Prince back in power.
There isn’t a lot of magic in the novel, less than I expected going in. When we do see magic, it is of considerable power and effect. The magic is important and crucial to the plot and motivations of multiple characters and thus the novel doesn’t work without its presence. However, for large stretches of the novel, it firmly feels like late-18th/early-19th century military historical fiction that happens to be in an imaginary land with imaginary characters. The magic we see is interesting, especially given its ultimate limitations.
The novel doesn’t work on some levels, however. There are a few brief points of view from the other side of the conflict from the Vordanai, but these do more harm to the narrative than good, but I don’t see how the information could be conveyed in better ways. Given how short these points of view are, and the relative lack of characterization as a result, they really do feel like undigested expository lumps. The other thing is that the central mysteries and questions, one exposed mainly by those points of view, feel a little underbaked as mysteries. There isn’t enough meat on the bones to make a central question of a certain secondary character’s motives more than academic, since there aren’t enough false leads and red herrings. Readers often want a puzzle to work on as the consequences slowly play themselves out, and in the absence of real ambiguity, that storyline feels a little flat, or worse, predictable. Furthermore, while I think keeping the Colonel from being a viewpoint character is a good thing, it does become a slight issue in the denouement as things are revealed and the power plays and actions of various characters are revealed. Without the Colonel’s perspective, some of his actions and motivations feel a bit opaque.
The Thousand Names is definitely for the more martial and militarily interested fantasy reader. There isn’t enough here for readers who don’t quiver at the thought of musket squares, military camp life and set-piece battles of all kinds. However, the martial material is strong and well done, and any readers of military fantasy should take a look at The Thousand Names.