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The Thousand Names by Django Wexler

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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 Ihrenglass, 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.
~~~~~
On the one hand, mysterious desert peoples colonised by Western-styled nation, with a fanatical and murderous fundamentalist religion; on the other hand, cross-dressing lesbian and an interrogation of colonialism. The Thousand Names has a blurb at once compelling at repelling, but Wexler’s brick of a novel proves that one half of that outweighs the other…

The Thousand Names is, on first blush, a sort of Sharpe-meets-Tolkein novel; Wexler’s style and content are both drawn from those areas, his musket-volleys straight out of the Napoleonic Wars while his magical maguffins are a sort of darker One Ring. But underlying that veneer is a darker one, with notes from Abercrombie and Monette; characters are wounded and killed, and Wexler isn’t presenting war as a clean activity – rape, murder, and death are a real part of the world of The Thousand Campaigns, although it isn’t treated as acceptable. This is also a war with no “right” side; there is an overt and a covert war, different sides and different alliances in each, and the full extent of the interlocking wars is only revealed as the novel goes on, with some really well done, as well as some obvious-to-the-reader, twists along the way.

The characters, though, are what really sells The Thousand Names as being more than Bernard Cornwell meets Sarah Monette; they all start out with every appearance of being archetypes, from the worldweary (and just plain weary) Captain d’Ivoire, through Colonel Janus Vahlnich, the eccentric commander who is brilliant but bad with his troops, to Winter, the woman who joined the army to escape abuse at home. Each of these characters, and all the rest of the cast which is as broad as one might expect in a military novel, grows, shows more of their original facets and also developes as a character as the novel progresses; Wexler brilliantly manages to balance the characters’ viewpoints in such a way as to make The Thousand Names incredibly deceptive, including the brilliant approach to the two nationalities in play: Vordanai and Khandarai.

The two nationalities have, as one would expect from two countries in a colonial relationship (well, client-kingdom, technically), a mutual loathing-cum-respect. Each has racist insults for the other (“grayskins”, “corpses”); each has stereotypes about the other, including cliches about the taste of steel; each has built up myths and stories about the other. The Thousand Names also challenges all of those things – each nationality having representatives who both demonstrate and challenge those stereotypes and prejudgements. Wexler’s cast is fantastic in doing this, in challenging racisms on all sides; it works impressively well, despite some flaws as the Khandarai and Desoltai are portrayed as culturally rather stereotypical.

All the social justice elements are worked in subtly and well; Winter’s lesbianism and her gender aren’t key issues of her character any more than Marcus’ heterosexuality or maleness, and the approach Wexler takes when they do come up is fantastically sympathetic and interesting, incredibly good at getting into the heads of his characters whomsoever they are, at understanding their different viewpoints and at imagining himself into their thought processes and hearts. The Thousand Names manages this trick incredibly well, giving its implicit message the strength of empathy and truth, whilst also avoiding turning it into message fiction.

The Thousand Names is a debut novel, and has some of the flaws that involves (including postponed reveals and overcomplexity of plots), but overall Wexler has written a fantastic, powerful, beautiful novel well worth the reading and drawing one into the world of the Shadow Campaigns. Next up, The Shadow Throne, or what Liz Bourke has called “FANTASY FRENCH REVOLUTION WITH LESBIANS”!

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