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The King of Vordan is dying, and his daughter, Raesinia, is destined to become the first Queen in centuries – and a ripe target for the ambitious men who seek to control her.
But politics knows no loyalties, especially for Duke Orlanko, spy-master and the most feared man in Vordan. He will bow his knee to no Queen, unless she is firmly under his influence.
Freshly returned from their recent victories abroad, Colonel Janus, Marcus d’Ivoire and Winter Ihernglass must defeat the Duke, using muskets, magic and every weapon at their disposal.
I enthused, rather vocally, about The Thousand Names last week, and quoted Liz Bourke’s fantastic description of Wexler’s followup to it. I’ve now read that second novel, and The Shadow Throne proved to be very much up to the standards Bourke set!
This review will contain SPOILERS for The Thousand Names, however…
At the end of The Thousand Names, Wexler left Marcus and Winter planning to travel back to Vordan, before the King died, after successfully prosecuting a pacification campaign against a religiously-driven anticolonial uprising. The Shadow Throne picks up approximately where the first novel left off; it starts in the palace with our new viewpoint character, Raesinia, and reveals a lot of its secrets very fast: her demonic healing factor (which is very much on a par with Wolverine), her involvement in a plot apparently against the throne with a number of people who don’t know her true identity, her cover within the palace as a brainless girl. That all this is revealed means we really do learn almost all about Raesinia, making her a character as round, complete and whole as any of our prior viewpoint characters; she’s a fascinating additional character to the cast, giving an extra perspective on all our protagonists and especially on the strange genius of Vahlnich, and finally the perspective of his social superior to whom he owes allegiance.
She isn’t the only character newly introduced to The Shadow Throne, of course. The only way to meaningfully write this novel required a huge cast, and Wexler handles that excellently; there are elements that don’t work so smoothly, such as the evilly manipulative Orlanko who seems like he comes straight out of a George R. R. Martin novel, but the characters really have an emotional depth and core to them, even the aforementioned evil Duke. They are affected by and part of events, emotionally moved by things that happen around them, flawed and thoughtless and caring and intelligent by turns, and every decision made by the characters is revealing, of the layering of decisions about the characters that Wexler must have made.
The plot is a beautiful, labyrinthine, complex, revolutionary, political, interweaved one. The Shadow Throne draws heavily on the French Revolution down to the rise of Napoleon, admittedly in a much compressed time; but it’s a French Revolution with a revolutionary princess, a certain amount of magic, and Wexler’s typical humour. We see the factionalism of the revolutionaries, the strangeness of the storming of a prison and what decisions, in various levels of society, that led up to it, the intrigues of an imperial court and more are beautifully presented by Wexler. The way they interact and come together as the plot continues is fantastic, and The Shadow Throne uses its various protagonists brilliantly to present very different views of the same events, showing how history is about the observer.
The Shadow Throne is also, of course, a queer book. For a start, Winter finds Jane, the love of her dreams, early in the book, and their reunion, although inevitably protracted, is also inevitable. Wexler shows us a homosexual relationship that is beautiful, heartwarming, imperfect and deeply human; it’s treated not as a strange abberation but as a romance that can hold a book together the way straight relationships so often are. This book also goes a lot further than The Thousand Names in challenging gender roles; whereas Winter was an exception in that book, here we see a lot more active women in a lot more fields, demonstrating essentially the lack of strict gender binary in life fantastically.
The second book of the Shadow Campaign is even more engaging and impressive than the first; The Shadow Throne is a stunning followup to an amazing novel, and I look forward to seeing where the series goes next.