Saturday, 31 March 2018

The Shadow Campaigns

For a few years now, I'd been seeing a series of books by the impressively named Django Wexler, sitting on the shelves at my local bookstore. Due to an already insanely long reading list, and not quite enough money to justify purchasing it, I held off on purchasing a copy of his books for a while, but I finally picked up the first three installments of the Shadow Campaigns series.

Let me say I have not been disappointed!

It is essentially, in my humble opinion, flintlock fantasy done right. Django Wexler's research and depth of description is impressive. The way he fleshes out his characters and builds them up is excellent. The locations, the tactics, and the magic is fascinating and exciting. Napoleonic Era warfare intermingled with some impressive magic and intrigue that spans a continent. To say it is thrilling is an understatement!

The Shadow Campaigns starts out with the novel The Thousand Names which I must admit is what attracted me to the series in the first place. I saw this title and was immediately intrigued and picked it up to leaf through the first few chapters. I was sucked in by Wexler's attention to detail, interesting descriptions, and subtle world building.

Our story opens at old dilapidated Fort Valor, where the Vordan Colonials have retreated after a religious uprising by a band of fanatics known as the "Redeemers" who have chased out the old Prince of Khandar and established a theocratic state, and intend to chase the foreigners out once and for all.
Our principal characters are long time soldier Captain Marcus d'Ivoire, and ranker Winter Ihernglass. Marcus has taken over control of the Vordan Colonials after the death of the previous colonel in a minor skirmish, and is very much looking forward to being relieved of his burden by the incoming new commander. Winter on the other hand, is a normal, if thoughtful and self taught, ranker who hides a secret. She's a woman in a man's world!

Things are shaken up by the arrival of the new colonel of the Colonials, Colonel, Count Janus bet Vhalnich, who immediately decides he must change the present state of the troops who have been fleeing from the Redeemers across the desert.

This first section of the story flows nicely, with all the action of an 18th century colonial campaign. Wexler knows his stuff. And I say that glowingly as he works in a detailed knowledge of the life of an 18th century soldier, the mechanics of his weapon, and field maneuvers in clever ways that feel less like info dumps and more like natural extensions of characters thinking on the state of their resources, training, and situation. I know people say David Weber is the king of infodumps, but Django Wexler makes it feel natural.

The action scenes are also astounding, vivid detail, graphic violence, and all of the chaos and terror you'd expect from the day of flintlocks and bayonets. Wexler again shows off his impressive knowledge in devising clever battles and uses of the tactics and technology of the time period in ways that left me up late at night turning the pages. From small scale skirmishing to epic battles with the enemy combatants with good weapons and equipment, the action scenes are engaging.

The characters too have charm. Winter is fun as she is the only woman (barring some exceptions) in the Colonials, giving her a unique point of view with some secrets to keep, and some rough work in keeping them as the story progresses. Her various secrets pile up, and her substantial abilities on and off the battlefield are a great contribution to the story, leading to some amusing surprises for her enemies.

Marcus is a man torn by his loyalties, which is very fun as an exploration of his character. Dutiful, dedicated, and driven, he is a man of concrete loyalties and many talents. I love his little character quirks, such as his surprising love for coffee, the battered saber he always carries around, and his comprehension of always being thrown an impossible task and his miraculous survival of them!

Of course, I cannot go farther without referencing the iconic Janus. Janus is enigmatic, eccentric, mysterious, and full of military genius. He is a gem in every scene he is in and he simply inspires awe and loyalty. His own machinations are what drive the series, just as much as the mysterious Priests of the Black who he opposes.

The Thousand Names ends in an epic confrontation deep in the desert that will leave you turning the pages while up late at night, which was how I finished it. Satisfying doesn't begin to describe it.

The next installment in the series is The Shadow Throne which takes us from the sprawling deserts and rivers of Khandar, to the busy thoroughfares of Vordan City in the Kingdom of Vordan, giving us a new type of story. We are introduced to the heir apparent, Princess Raesinia, who is increasingly falling under the sway of the infamous Last Duke who runs the Concordat, Vordan's secret police. He has been conspiring to place her on the throne for years now and control her, with his dark allies, the Priests of the Black.

Into this our leads Marcus and Winter are thrown, with Raesinia herself becoming a viewpoint character with her own struggles.

This book is markedly different from the last volume, chronicling a homegrown revolution to help Raesinia come free of Orlanko's machinations. Drawing from the French Revolution, it has various intricacies and subplots all coming together to pull off a coup (or counter-coup depending on how you look at it) with a bang.

As I desire to avoid spoilers in this raw review I will breeze past those events and simply outline how the characters grow here.

Winter perhaps has some of the best progression in this novel, going from leading a company of regulars to engaging in street gang fighting, and then back into a volunteer infantry company! She grows, learns to trust and learns to love again in a truly touching progression for her character. As a minor spoiler for her arc, she, in this installment and the next, leads a regiment of women into the lines. This is handled well and refreshingly realistically. There is prejudice, fears of rape, and open mockery and derision by men on her own side, with well meaning men like Marcus being appalled at the mere thought of women facing the danger of a battlefield. They shoulder on despite the odds, and I sincerely can't wait to see how they turn out!

Marcus has some powerful ups and downs, being appointed to command the equivalent of Vordan City's police force, and having to deal with serious intrigues in government and from agents of the Priests of the Black, being sent from one impossible mission to another. A sad habit that continues into the next installment, The Price of Valor.

This story brings us to the full fury of a roughly Napoleonic battlefield. Again Wexler's knowledge and skill at writing shines through as he delivers some excellent battle scenes and exciting strategy and tactics for the action. I was enthralled from the small skirmishes to the epic battles between armies.

That isn't all on offer though, as we once again deal with the tumultuous politics in Vordan City. Coupled with the encroachment of the agents serving the Priests of the Black, as both Marcus and Raesina race to try and protect the nation from enemies without and enemies within. Winter serves on the frontlines while the action behind the scenes threatens the very conduct of the war.

The fifth installment in the series (The Infernal Battalion) just came out this year, so I am actually two books behind, but intend to polish off the series before the end of 2018.

Wexler is an excellent, and I should say progressive, writer. Now perhaps I am making too much commentary on this, but a casually lesbian main character and her exploits are rather refreshing in a genre usually full of so much machismo. That Winter more often ends up rescuing Marcus than the reverse is amusing, especially as Marcus's very protective attitude towards women makes it unintentionally hilarious. Wexler's female characters are as strong as his male leads, making for fun, well rounded characters. Marcus is a man often thrown in over his head, but whose unflinching sense of duty and loyalty mean he'll go through hell and back to accomplish his goals. That he's often put in unwinnable situations, yet still manages to come out on top, mostly, speaks to his resourcefulness and resolve.

All the main characters are well established, but the side characters are colorful and memorable too! There`s the enigmatic gun captain whose deeply religious known as "Preacher", the dashing cavalry commander with the simple nickname "Give 'em hell" and the well mannered but undoubtedly efficient Fitz van Warus, without whom nothing might ever get done.

Establishing a sense of intrigue and depth in his creation of this world has been top notch from the start. He uses casual conversations between characters to create excellent and unforced exposition into the world, and to gently lead you into the more esoteric notions of magic and demons. Then the way he uses those aspects remains mysterious and interesting, making our interactions with the "forces of darkness" who are really just religious extremists going the wrong way, tense and exciting. It's a wonderful mash up.

Like I have said though, Wexler is great with his prose and his action. The world feels real, and lived in. That he can write battlefields so well is great for a lover of military history and fiction like myself, and his ability to make military issues a good plot point (the drama of a forced march for instance in the third novel) and lead to solid character development is delightful. The characters deal with the issues of death, camaraderie and whether or not they are cut out for the military life. Some are, some aren't. The contrast is usually well done, especially as we get into Vordan and the more political aspects of the work shine through.

Wexler's understanding of what makes good political drama seems like it can come right from the pages of history (indeed you can see where's he's done his research) which leads to some solid intrigue. There's plots, counter plots, and coup attempts galore! It all makes sense in the atmosphere he establishes. Then some characters thrive in these conditions, even when given seemingly impossible tasks.

His prose is strong and we get impressive action scenes which are real page turners. I don't think I'll ever forget the first major battle we see in which the Vordani take on the Redeemers, and the outcome of a superior mob against disciplined troops armed with cannon and cavalry is impressive. If you've read about the colonial era you probably have an idea of the bloody conclusion.

Are there a few gaffes? Maybe. Some scenes are a little less well set up than others on occasion (a scene at the end of the second volume where we see the church plotting felt like it came out of nowhere to me) and some side characters maybe need more fleshing out. A few times a word or phrase might pull me out of the story for a time. For instance, characters use the term "medieval" which feels oddly modern to me, even though the terminology dates from the 19th century. These though, are minor nitpicks in my opinion.

In summary I have enjoyed the series. It has great action, great characters, and an author who has an in depth understanding of what he's writing about. I would recommend it to anyone who likes the idea of flintlock fantasy, strong female characters or military fiction. Even if you don't have the first idea of what that time period was like, you'll still enjoy this piece for the memorable scenes it gives you! I really recommend it!

Keep on writing please Mr. Wexler!

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