The Thousand Names is atypical for a fantasy book – the genre tends to focus on a Europe analogue set in a vaguely Medieval era.
Django Wexler’s book is based around neither of those things. For one thing, it’s set significantly later, with a level of technology that roughly equates to the real world’s Napoleonic era. Instead of armoured knights and flights of arrows, you get bayonet charges under artillery fire. It’s flintlock fantasy.
It also isn’t Western. While countries that mirror European ones make an appearance, the setting itself is decidedly Eastern. If you want a real-world war to compare it to, it’s probably the First Anglo-Afghan War. The rolling hills of more usual fantasy are replaced with desert, the thick and quiet woods are replaced with more desert; there’s a lot of desert.
There has been revolution in Khandar. Overthrowing the ineffective and decadent prince, the priests of the Redemption have taken hold of the country. The social order is overthrown, the army has joined the revolutionaries, and a new, burning religious fervor has overtaken the populace.
The Vordanoi Colonial regiment is tasked with recovering the prince’s throne for him, advancing towards a much larger army. But it isn’t just musket fire that the Colonial’s have to contend with – there are rumours of strange magics in the wasteland, rumours that the new Colonel is determined to investigate.
You can read a sample chapter or two here.
The Thousand Names is told from multiple perspectives, as is the fashion now. The narration hovers just behind each characters shoulder, focusing on a small group of characters who have impact on and relevance to the plot. Pleasingly, these voices are distinct, and provide different perspectives on the ongoing conflict. The military protagonists are of different ranks, and the group of characters range in age, gender, and allegiances.
The female character is particularly good – not simply because central female characters with agency are still relatively rare in fantasy, but I also found her to be the most sympathetic character – she’s the character whose human side is most explored, who deals with conflicts other than the immediate requirements of their situation.
Religion is often a fraught subject in fantasy, particularly when the religious are also presented as backwards, cruel, and unreasonable. It’s a tricker line to walk for Wexler here, because the plot requires the Redeemed to be petty, mindless savages, and their most obvious comparison design-wise is to Islam. Wexler does a good job of showing that the problem isn’t with religion overall, or even simply that religion – it’s with particular people within power structures. It’s a more respectful portrayal than it could have been. There are intelligent, well-adjusted religious people, and awful, bigoted non-religious ones. Wexler presents a mix, rather than simply taking the easy route and blaming one group. It’s a commendable feat, one that manages to avoid the worst issues that such a plot arc could have brought up.
Stylistically, the closest parallel I can make is to Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels – not just in the setting and the society, but also in the overall focus of the book. It’s a book about a war, a long campaign over difficult ground. The soldiers grumble, the soldiers deal with the little problems that build up over the campaign, not just the ones that link directly to the overall plot.
For a lot of the book, it doesn’t feel like fantasy; while magic is mentioned ,and occasionally makes an appearance, the whole way through, it’s very easy to forget that you are reading fantasy, and not simply historical fiction. The fantastical bits of the plot are pushed to one side by the minutiae of the situation. Even the characters themselves seem to only half believe in the magic that they come across.
When magic does appear, it’s rather sudden. In fact, that was the main weakness of the book for me. For 90% of its length, The Thousand Names is a book about a war, a book that isn’t focused on some grand quest, just ordinary people trying to save lives. The remaining 10% is suddenly, almost without warning, about fighting zombies and bound demons. It’s a large shift in tone, from the general seen through specific characters eyes to the extremely specific.
That the main characters remain the same through both parts doesn’t really help the dislocation. Instead, it highlights it. Characters who a few moments before were worried about their uniforms are suddenly wielding cosmic power. It’s unexpected, despite the scant hints dropped earlier in the text. There’s not enough setup to justify the tone shift, and even if there were, it’s still transforming into a very different book.
I’ve a couple of other minor quibbles, but nothing major. There are points when the book seems rushed, as though much more time couldn’t have been given to different characters or scenes.
There’s also not that much combat, which is slightly odd for a book set in a war. The actual engagements are rather glossed over, with not much description of the actual fighting. Again, the closest series is Cornwell’s Sharpe, but Cornwell spends a lot of time on his battles – musket balls pluck sleeves, every painful inch of ground gained is detailed. In contrast, The Thousand Names slides over such scenes, describing the central tactics, but not so much the experience of being under fire.
In all honesty, I think the biggest issue with The Thousand Names is that it’s trying to make it obvious which genre it belongs too. The first part of the book is great – complex, original, telling a larger story through characters, not just plot. But the end of the book is jumping up and down, shouting to be clearly sorted as fantasy. That’s when it all goes downhill a little, when the tone shifts to a standard “chosen hero” arc.
The book is good, it doesn’t need to slavishly follow convention to be accepted. If it didn’t jump to a much higher level of magic with so little warning or buildup, it would be a stronger book.
Despite the tone hiccup, I did really like this book. Characters are effectively established, the plot hangs together, the little details Wexler drops in really add life to the novel. I’m looking forward to reading the second one.