Book Review: The Thousand Names by Django Wexler
Apparently, I love “flintlock fantasy”. The phrase, which according to Wikipedia has been around since the 1990s to describe a sub-genre of fantasy “set in a Regency or Napoleonic-era period”, admittedly only entered my lexicon just this year. But all this time, I knew deep in my gut that there simply had to be a term out there for this incredible and distinctly unique brand of fantasy with the musket-era setting that I so adore; I just never knew the name for it until now.
There’s just something so attractive to me about fantasy inspired by this period, mostly because of the fascinating historical ideas and imagery that immediately come to mind, themes like revolution and war, battles waged with gunpowder weaponry, discovering new worlds and colonialism, etc. That’s what first drew me to Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names. Just the first sentence in the blurb was enough to make me add this to my must-read list, and the positive reviews it received only made me bump it up to the top.
The book is mostly told through the perspectives of two soldiers, assigned to a sleepy desert colonial fort out in the fringes of the Vordanai empire. However, a recent uprising and subsequent takeover of the city of Ashe-Katarion by a local sect called the Redeemers has resulted in the outpost not being so sleepy anymore. Now the king of Vordan has sent reinforcements, and Captain Marcus d’Ivoire finds himself welcoming a whole new garrison of inexperienced recruits to join his Old Colonial troops. Then there’s Winter Ihernglass, a low ranking soldier who unexpectedly earns a promotion and comes into command — except getting more attention is the last thing Winter wants, given the fact she is actually a woman who masqueraded as a man in order to enlist and flee her past.
With the Colonials on the march to take back the city, both Marcus’ and Winter’s lives are in the hands of the newly arrived Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich, a military genius whose demeanor and tactics are unlike anything anyone has ever seen before. But despite the confidence and aptitude Janus exudes, it soon becomes clear there is a lot more to the mysterious commander. Marcus begins to suspect that his colonel’s objectives — and ambitions — may extend beyond simply defeating the Redeemers, encroaching into the realm of magic and the supernatural.
My experience with this book pretty much played out like a fast-paced and passionate relationship. The Thousand Names practically came out of nowhere for me; I’d probably only heard about it around a month before its release, leaving me not much time to anticipate it. Nevertheless, I went into this with higher-than-high expectations, and ultimately I have to say even those were met and exceeded. I fell in love with this book really quickly, probably within the first few chapters, especially after the two main characters were established. This might make me sound silly, but I won’t deny after turning the last page I actually couldn’t help but feel slightly lost and a bit melancholy, finding myself caught in a sort of “oh crap, I’m finished, what the heck do I do with myself now?” kind of fugue. I was just that addicted to this book.
Obviously, I loved the setting and the world-building. The writing had a way of putting you right there with the colonial garrison, so it wasn’t hard to sympathize with the characters and the foreignness of their situation or the awkwardness of being strangers in a strange land. I was also fascinated with the idea of this ragtag colonial army that’s made up of one-part green recruits and one-part jaded-and-couldn’t-care-less old veterans, and all the rules of warfare go out the window. The Redeemer forces may vastly outnumber the Vordanai, but the fact that the former is made up of mostly militia and over-confident Auxiliary troops gave their clashes plenty of suspense, and the detailed battle scenes in the desert are worthy of any military fantasy.
But the highlight of this book had to be the characters. I absolutely adored Winter; she was probably my favorite character, but Marcus wasn’t far behind either. What’s great about these two characters is that they feel deep and real, and are immediately the kind of people you want to like and to see succeed. Beyond that, everyone in this book also has secrets and mysteries, and so you just want to keep reading to find out more.
This even applies to the supporting cast. Most of them are pretty well fleshed out too, and I think the fact that Colonel Janus is my second favorite character in this book despite him not being a point-of-view character is a testament to that. The author also focuses briefly here and there on Jaffa, a character inside the city of Ashe-Katarion, giving insights into what’s happening on the side of the Redeemers. I felt this was important, as it gives us a look at the opposition, or else it’s easy just to think of them as a faceless enemy army.
All told, this book was hard to put down. For its length, I finished it in really good time, and it was one of those rare gems where I knew it would go straight onto my shelf of favorites even before I had reached the quarter-way point. Easily one of the best books I’ve read this year so far.