Oh, this one could have gone so wrong and the first thing I need to say here is that it absolutely doesn't!
This is book five of five in Django Wexler's series, 'The Shadow Campaigns'. Each of these volumes has run five-hundred pages or so and expanded the scope of the series each time. The first book was a gorgeously detailed painting but the second began by zooming out to highlight that it was just a gorgeously detailed part of what is really a much larger gorgeously detailed painting. The biggest success of the series is that each successive volume has done the same thing. Book four, 'The Guns of Empire', ended with a cliffhanger that must own the crown for cliffhanger world champion, leading us into 'Infernal Battalion', which will show us the whole thing and wrap up all the many details that Wexler has put into play thus far. Oh yes, this could have gone so utterly wrong but it doesn't. It's a fantastic ending to a fantastic series that I have devoured, regardless of its page count.
Important note: if you haven't also devoured the first four books, please stop reading now. Buy them, read them and then come back to the Nameless Zine to see if you agree with what I have to say. It's impossible for any review of an individual volume in this series to not contain serious spoilers for previous books. Trust me. Don't do this to yourself. You deserve to experience this without spoilers, especially of that killer cliffhanger.
There are four parts here and the first is very much a setup with a soupcon of recap. Long story short, we're in the land of Vordan and we've followed Janus bet Vhalnich, the nation's one military genius, in his attempt to defeat the Sworn Church forever, along with all the demons that they have captured and use as weapons. He's succeeded magnificently until now, but only up to a point. He may have destroyed the Church but not before they let loose the Beast, a demon which has spent the past millennium locked up under Elysium, a demon that spreads its control like a virus, from one to another to another, taking over bodies and instantly putting them to work turning the tide against Janus.
Oh, and that cliffhanger? It takes him over too. Now Vordan is faced with an assault from an army comprised of an exponentially increasing number of bodies controlled by the Beast, with Janus's genius under its thumb. Yeah, I don't see this having a simple solution. A lot of people are certainly going to die and Vordan, which has been in the ascendant throughout this entire series, is now in serious danger of being overwhelmed, not by a traditional enemy but by a demon and its Infernal Battalion.
Of course, all hope is not lost. If we've learned anything thus far, it's that Janus, while he may well be a unique military genius, is not the only character with talents and will and, in some instances, demons of their own to engage with Janus, especially now that they know him so well. They're all over the place, as this book begins, hence the need for setup. Each has his or her own story to navigate and those strands will gradually come to a particular place at a particular time, because of course they will. At this point, we can't imagine that Wexler would cheat us with a realistic ending rather than the one we want. We just have to keep turning pages to see how he gets us there and keep hoping that our favourite characters aren't going to die on the way.
Kinda sorta not really a spoiler: not everyone makes it out of this one alive. For who doesn't, you need to find out yourself. I ain't tellin'.
My favourite character throughout this series has been Winter Ihernglass, a young lady who pretended to be a young gentleman in order to sign up with the Vordanian army, something that tasked "him" at one point with pretending to be a young lady in order to better serve. She's risen through the ranks quickly but believably, to sergeant in the first book and to general by this one. But she's stuck in Mursk, having escaped Elysium but not having any easy way to return to the army, especially with the Beast keeping constant watch in order to locate and destroy her as a major priority. When you can watch through the eyes of everyone in your army, it means that it's only a matter of time and that makes Winter's journey south a tense one indeed.
My next favourite character, since her introduction in the second book, has been Raesinia, Queen of Vordan. I have adored her spirit and dedication, but I also really dig that, just like Winter, she has a demon inside her, a demon that can knit her back together again however damaged she might be, down to being shot through the head at close range. It doesn't make her immortal but it's a damn cool party trick, one that she cannot use in front of anyone she doesn't absolutely trust or her people would burn her at the stake. She visits Borelgai in an attempt to figure out how to deal with the massive debt her country owes to the bankers there. If I adored Winter's troublesome trek, I think I might actually adore Raesinia's machinations even more.
It doesn't help that she's had to ship Marcus d'Ivoire, Janus's former general and now her lover, back into the field, especially given that she can't put him in charge. Even though he knows things crucial to the success of the army against the Beast, he can't actually tell some of these secrets and so he's sent to assist rather than lead, in a high-up position but not the one at the top, and, while we just know that this is not remotely in the best interests of Vordan, circumstances decree it and he's stuck watching a lot of men (and increasingly a lot of women too) die needlessly and, even worse, rise to join the other side.
However, he can do some things at long last that we've been waiting for, like make a visit to Janus's home in Mierenhal to learn more about him, more about what he knows and about why he has such a busy bee in his bonnet about the Sworn Church. These are good scenes and it's fair to say that we probably learn more about Janus, now that he's subsumed by the Beast than when he was his own man. He always was mysterious, but his story must out and that helps Marcus to no small degree.
Talking of Janus, he's still here, just in disembodied form, strong enough as a force of will to resist the Beast that now controls his body and, in his way, continue to work for Vordan even as he's forced to fight Vordan. If there's a better character to effectively conduct a battle of wits with a millennia-old demon without a body to use to back up anything, it's Janus bet Vhalnich. While his importance is abdicated to the other characters at this point, he's still playing his part and it's a crucial one.
So there's the setup. I'm not going any further because you really should just buy this entire series and blitz through it. I've met Django Wexler, but a while back when I hadn't read any of his books. I don't believe he'd even finished this series at that point, as not all of my volumes are signed. I certainly wish I'd started them a lot sooner, so I could have actually talked with him about them or been able to attend a panel where he would have talked about things I shouldn't have known back then. This is an ambitious series, one that I believe went far beyond what he thought it would become when he started writing it, but he's been up to the challenge at every point and he didn't drop any balls in bringing everything together.
Put simply, it's a magnificent achievement and, if there's a better flintlock fantasy out there, I'd dearly love to know what it is. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For more titles by Django Wexler click here