Book Review: The Thousand Names, by Django Wexler
The Thousand Names, by Django Wexler is a whirlwind flintlock fantasy novel that starts Wexler’s Shadow Campaign series. The best part (in my extremely biased opinion)? One of the main protagonists is a queer lady!
Captain Marcus d’Ivoire, commander of one of the Vordanai empire’s colonial garrisons, was serving out his days in a sleepy, remote outpost—until a rebellion left him in charge of a demoralized force clinging 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 lead her men into battle against impossible odds.
Their fate depends on Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich. Under his command, Marcus and Winter feel the tide turning and their allegiance being tested. For Janus’s ambitions extend beyond the battlefield and into the realm of the supernatural—a realm with the power to reshape the known world and change the lives of everyone in its path.
The Thousand Names takes place in a small country named Khandar in Wexler’s expertly crafted yet complex world. The reader is slowly introduced to the rest of the world and political turmoil through the narrative. I enjoyed that the building of the world felt organic and the reader kept learning about the world up until the end of the book. Quite often, the first book in a fantasy series falls prey to being an “info-dump” for the first half of the book as the author tries to set the scene for their epic, multi-book adventure. I’ve read several fantasy books that were a chore to read the first 150 or so pages and then became an absolute delight to read because that was when the story really kicked in. Thankfully, I never felt that the dull moments of The Thousand Names had anything to do with the world building.
The book, for the most part, handles the pacing decently by using alternating perspectives for the various chapters, sometimes even switching perspectives once or twice within a single chapter. Marcus and Winter are the main perspectives in the book and who the reader experiences the story through. Wexler heightens the mystery of the setting by having non-main characters from the opposing side of the war be the perspective that the reader sees in the prologue, the first chapter of each part, and the epilogue (Jaffa and General Khtoba). The alternating between the two perspectives and the sprinkling of the mysterious third and fourth perspectives in strategic points in the book created good and consistent tension throughout that kept the pages turning.
Despite the tension being mostly on point throughout the book, there were definitely boring scenes and chapters in the 608 page book. The alternating perspectives kept me reading because I was more invested in Winter’s character, personal stakes, and plot than I was with Marcus’ (more on Winter in a minute). The boring parts of the book for me were predominantly during Marcus’ perspective because he had a lot of slower moments (military meetings, paperwork, coordinating very green troops, more paperwork, and dealing with an aloof, eccentric colonel) and he just came off as a boring, stick in the mud kind of person more often than not. There were allusions to things in Marcus’ backstory that I wanted to know more about but didn’t get during this book and a romance plotline for him that was an utterly predictable “seduce and betray” plotline. But all of the frustrations, predictability, and forcing myself to read through military formations and the umpteenth scene about Marcus and his paperwork were made bearable because Wexler had trained the reader by that point that Winter’s perspective was coming up soon. And, when there was a lull in what was happening with Winter’s plotline, Marcus’ perspective was always engaging.
So why was I more invested in Winter’s storyline? For starters, Winter is the reason I’m doing this review for the Queerblr! Winter is a queer woman who, as the back of the book describes, passes as a man in the military to escape her past. The circumstances that lead her to knowingly commit a war crime by pretending to be a man in the Vordanai army are slowly revealed through dreams that haunt Winter throughout the book. We learn that she is queer slowly throughout several dreams that all have the same woman, Jane, re-enacting events that led to her running away to join the army. She never outright says that she’s a lesbian or gay or anything like that that I remember, but we learn about Jane and Winter’s relationship through her dreams and ruminations when she’s awake.
Winter also has so much more at stake in this story than any of the other Vordanai soldiers. Sure, they all are putting their lives on the line for their country, but Winter is doing it while worrying about being found out by her own people. There is so much additional tension built around Winter passing as a man whether it is how she goes to the bathroom discreetly when she is surrounded by men, ensuring that she is up and dressed before anyone else rises for the day, never sleeping without her binding and ample clothing on despite the desert heat, and having to tend to her own wounds so that the cutters (i.e., medics) don’t see her breasts. This additional tension and risk for Winter made her all the more enjoyable to read.
The people in Winter’s inner circle were much more interesting and relatable than the individuals that surrounded Marcus which created a level of emotional tension when reading Winter’s perspective. Winter cares deeply about her people that she suddenly becomes in charge of, which makes leading them all the more difficult as she doesn’t want any of them to get hurt, but they are at war. She comes up with creative solutions to keep her regiment safe and becomes a very effective leader because of it. Two people of her inner circle that immediately jump to mind are Bobby and Feor: Bobby is young, baby faced ranker who is more inexperienced than Winter and Feor is a woman from Khandar that Winter saves and then smuggles into their camp under the guise of a refugee. Both of these characters have significant ties to the plot so I won’t say too much about them but what I will say is that these two individuals end up finding out Winter’s secret, share secrets of their own, and are crucial to their success and triumph at the end of the book.
Bobby and Feor are just two of the small group of people that Winter surrounds herself with, making a small family within the military that she will do anything to protect. The relationships she builds are wholly authentic, and because Winter cares so deeply about her innermost circle, I as a reader became emotionally invested in them too. And even though Winter clearly has had a relationship in the past, none of the new relationships she makes go into a romantic narrative (despite how much I ship her with Feor) even though Wexler had ample opportunity to go that route in several of the scenes. I really appreciate that he didn’t because I don’t think it would have benefited Winter’s character arc at this point in the series.
Despite not being the biggest fan one of the main characters, I still very much enjoyed this book. I enjoyed that it was a different take on the fantasy genre than I’ve seen, that it was a well-crafted world that was authentically explained to the reader, that it was a great introduction to the five-part series, and that it showcased a queer lady as a main protagonist. Even though some minor plot points are predictable, the main plot keeps you on your toes and keeps you guessing. Characters like their eccentric colonel, Janus, give you just enough to continue to be curious while mysteries of Khandar unravel over time. And if you read the series for Winter (like I did), I want to assure you that Winter remains a main character throughout the series; her queerness and relationships continue to add tension and emotional weight to the story.
4 out of 5 Rainbows
Recommended Reader: Readers who are looking for a book with a queer character that isn’t a romance novel!
Readers who like the fantasy genre and are looking for something a little different.
Readers who are looking for a book that last them a good chunk of time! (Depending on your reading level and speed of course; the paperback version of the book I have is 608 pages and has relatively small font.)
And readers who are patient enough to read through (or enjoy reading) dry military jargon-filled descriptions.