Friday Reads: The Thousand Names, by Django Wexler
A few weeks ago, I had a guest
In the desert colony of Khandar, a dark and mysterious magic, hidden for centuries, is about to emerge from darkness.
Marcus d’Ivoire, senior captain of the Vordanai Colonials, is resigned to serving out his days in a sleepy, remote outpost, when a rebellion leaves him in charge of a demoralised force in a broken down fortress.
Winter Ihernglass, fleeing her past and masquerading as a man, just wants to go unnoticed. Finding herself promoted to a command, she must rise to the challenge and fight impossible odds to survive.
Their fates rest in the hands of an enigmatic new Colonel, sent to restore order while following his own mysterious agenda into the realm of the supernatural.
I think The Thousand Names can best be summed up as “Sharpe does Napoleon’s Egyptian campaigns with a dash of Indiana Jones”. It’s a pretty low-fantasy story, at least for the first three-quarters of the book, focusing mainly on the day-to-day life of soldiers in a desert campaign. The tech level of the setting is roughly equivalent to late 18th/early 19th century Europe, with armaments including muskets, bayonets and a variety of cannon.
The star character has to be Winter Ihernglass, a young woman doing the historically well-attested thing of disguising herself as a man in order to join the army. As someone who has written a character very much like this, I enjoyed seeing Wexler’s take on the theme. Winter is hardy, resourceful and determined, but we never forget how vulnerable she is (though thankfully without any rape!); a truly strong female character who feels utterly realistic.
By contrast Captain Marcus d’Ivoire feels a little bland, but that may be because he has a lot less at stake. Sure, he’s under constant threat of death in battle, but so is everyone else. It isn’t until close to the end of the book, when he begins to suspect there are skeletons in his own family closet, that there’s a reason to think he might have an interesting personal arc ahead of him.
The book itself is something of a slow burn, and the second quarter consists almost entirely of a detailed account of a battle between the colonials and the rebels. Although I’ve studied a little military history, I’ve never gone into the minutiae of battle manoeuvres so I found these scenes hard work, trying to visualise all the details of the terrain and the troop deployments. Hence although these chapters are well-written, I confess I was relieved when the scale switched back to the individual characters’ level.
One thing that did slightly bother me was the worldbuilding. Despite its Afghan-sounding name Khandar is pretty much your standard North African/Near Eastern stereotype, with its self-centred puppet prince and his colonial allies ousted by a coalition of his own army and a bunch of religious fanatics, not to mention horse-riding desert raiders led by a mysterious masked character (The Desert Song, anyone? Or am I the only one old enough to remember that musical?). None of these elements is bad in itself, but together they feel a bit too much of a coincidence. Wexler tries to get away from identifying them racially as Arabs by giving them greyish skin, but it’s such a minor difference (and being visual, too easy to ignore in a book) that it feels like a token effort. Perhaps if we’d seen more of the Khandarai than their magic, there would have been enough cultural differences to throw the stereotypes into the shade, but the reader can only go by what’s on the page.
Flaws aside, this was a great book; it’s always a good sign when I find myself really looking forward to my next reading session. Like Brian McClellan, Wexler has released a prequel short story (“The Penitent Damned”), which I will definitely be checking out whilst I wait for the sequel, The Shadow Throne.