It's a telling statement to suggest that this book, the third in Django Wexler's 'Shadow Campaigns' of flintlock fantasy, set in a world where the latest military technology is Napeolonic, has to be the most topical novel I've reviewed all month. This demonstrates how not to mount a coup either, even if it has a much higher chance of success.
After the tumultuous events of the previous book, 'The Shadow Throne', Vordan is now at war but it would be unfair to suggest that this novel returns us entirely to the field, where we spent the whole of the first book. In many ways, this is a hybrid of the first two. Much of it is told from the soldier's perspective, long marches punctuated by frantic battles with some strategising inbetween. Much of it, however, is also spent back home in Vordan City, figuring out what Maesink, the civilian leader of the Deputies General, is getting up to and how it's going to mess with Queen Raesinia's plans for a forward-looking nation. Both sides work really well and complement each other. These may be large books, but they're easy to read, deep to explore and hard to put down.
The cast of characters was massive coming into this third volume and it continues to expand, but it doesn't cut down any of our time with the principals, even if, once again, it gives them quite a ride.
Count Janus bet Vhalnich is now running the Vordanian army, which affords him the opportunity to shake things up. You know the sort of thing: kick out a bunch of the old guard, create a completely new structure and piss off a whole swathe of very important people. You know that's going to come back to bite him in the ass at some point, and indeed it does; but, you also know that he's going to have a plan for every occasion. He's still the brightest man in any room in this series and he proved in the very first volume that he can win out against greater numbers. This time out, however, he is up against massive odds, because large and powerful neighbouring nations are ready and eager to step into the fray.
Marcus d'Ivoire, his usual right hand man doesn't join him in the field this time out. Instead, we're treated to the character I bet is most readers' favourite, Winter Ihernglass, promoted up to colonel and given a full regiment to command. She has her own troubles, not least her lover Jane being the leader she needs in the Girls Own but a frankly terrible soldier, always willing to question or ignore orders and do her own thing. Difficult decisions are quite clearly in Winter's future. What's more, it falls to her to save a few days, because Janus trusts her the way he doesn't trust many of the officers in his army. Oh, and the Penitent Damned know who she is now and they want her dead. And they're the scary people with demons inside them that give them notable powers.
And, with Winter in Marcus's traditional spot, that puts Marcus in Winter's. Last time out, Winter's role was undercover in Vordan, working with Jane's Leatherbacks to harrass the enemy as Janus put his schemes together to kick them out of the city. This time, he tasks Marcus with keeping the queen safe, but Raesinia isn't just going to let him guard her in a building. Instead, she adopts her former undercover role again and works for him as a courier, while continuing to free her capital city from the evils who want to control it for their own purposes. She can't do that officially, because she has no powers until the constitution is finalised, which isn't likely to be any time soon, and because she knows that her former co-conspirator Maesink, has tried to assassinate her once already.
In other words, there's a heck of a lot going on and it actually seems surprising to me now that the author manages to wrap this variety of plot strands up within what suddenly seems like a short five hundred pages. Part of how Wexler accomplishes that may be by tying some of them together with cunning.
For instance, Janus is all over this particular book like a rash, excelling in the pivotal role of master manipulator, moving everyone else around like they're pieces on a chessboard that only he can see. One vague order to Winter is enough for her to puzzle her way through what he's trying to have her do, because she's an inveterate worker of believable miracles. I like how she often struggles with the smaller things but delivers the big ones, which is how she continues to grow as a character. Another example is how he ties Raesinia and Marcus together so intrinsically that their subplot is the same one and he doesn't have to add another hundred pages to cater to the other.
A third reason is one that we've seen throughout the series, namely that, while we follow a number of characters through their own subplots, they're all working on the same side. Frankly, I saw that as a problem in the first book, 'The Thousand Names', because I wanted to learn about the Vordanians' enemies: the religious extremists of the Divine Hand of the Redemption and the desert armies led by the mysterious Steel Ghost. Wexler addressed that a little in the second book, by giving us some scenes from the perspective of Duke Orlanko, the real power behind the throne in Vordan City, but not completely; we learned twenty times more about his opponents than we ever did about him. In this one, we're back to the original approach and it seems right this time.
Now, that's not to suggest that I don't want to know more about the Priests of the Black and their demon-possessed shadow warriors, the Penitent Damned. Given that the fifth and final book in the series is entitled 'The Infernal Battalion', I'm guessing we're going to get there eventually. Wexler is certainly bringing them in more and more with each book. The supernatural element took quite a while to manifest itself in the first volume, though it contributed greatly to the finalé. It played a bigger part in the second volume, with a couple of key characters on the dark side. This time out, a lot more of them show up and they have a lot more opportunity to do their dastardly deeds. I have no doubt that their involvement will increase with each book that passes.
This is the midpoint, because book five marks the end of the series, and I can't say that I know where it's all going. I can see some things, I think, but I'm looking forward to finding out next month just what Django Wexler has in store for us and his principal cast both. This is fast becoming one of my favourite fantasy series of all time and I can't wait to read what happens next. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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