The Thousand Names by Django Wexler. ★★★★
The Thousand Names is a very good military, “flintlock fantasy” novel that I enjoyed more than I expected. My past attempts with military fantasy were not very successful, so it was with some trepidation I approached The Thousand Names. However, I needn’t have been worried, for The Thousand Names turned out to be a book that I had a hard time putting down.
The colonial garrison of the Vordanai empire is a dumping ground for the dregs of the army. They’re sent to an outpost in the desert where they support the rule of a local prince. They have relatively few duties until a religious rebellion overthrows the prince and pushes the troops to a small fort. Most of the troops believe that the sensible thing to do would be to get on boats and head back to Vordanai, but the newly arrived Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich has other ideas.
The Thousand Names is told through the perspective of two different characters: Captain Marcus d’Ivoire, the leader of the garrison prior to the Colonel’s arrival, and Winter Ihernglass, a woman who disguised herself to join the army and escape an unfortunate past. Both of these characters are well written, likable, and sympathetic, and I connected with both of them almost immediately.
Notably, The Thousand Names does well by it’s female characters, of which there are multiple of importance. These women felt like real people and not stereotypes and they actively engaged in the plot. Winter is a fantastic female lead – smart, a tactical thinker, clear headed, and capable. She actually reminded me of Polly Perks from Monstrous Regiment in some ways. Oh, and it’s also noteworthy that she’s constantly interacting with other female characters and that she’s either lesbian or bisexual. Both are rare for the epic fantasy genre.
“You got rid of him?”
“For the moment,” Winter said. “Nothing confuses an officer like violently agreeing with him.”
Being military fantasy, battles and military life in general play a large role in The Thousand Names. I might have had trouble with this, but Wexler’s excellent writing kept me going through all the various attacks and ambushes. In general, the book’s very well written, and even has the occasional touches of humor.
The worldbuilding was serviceable but not anything noteworthy. The technology was early 1800s with muskets and cannons, so this was at least something different than the oh so common medieval setting. However, there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly new going on with the culture of the Vordanai and not enough of the native culture is seen to be able to make any judgement of it.
Going in, I was sort of worried about how The Thousand Names would treat imperialism, given that it’s clearly based on or at least inspired by the European colonialism of the Middle East and North Africa. The Thousand Names seems to be largely ignoring it, which doesn’t work for me. If you’re using a problematic part of history, you need to acknowledge that it’s problematic. At least it’s not glorifying it, though.
Related to this, all the characters in The Thousand Names are either white or grey skinned. My best guess is that the author figured making the native population grey skinned would avoid some of the racial connotations this whole scenario brings up. Again, this doesn’t really work. The desert culture has vague “Middle Eastern” feelings while the Vordanai are white and seem European based, so the visual description of what the natives looks like means very little.
There’s a lot of questions here. For one, we’re never told why the colonials are there in the first place, besides that they’ve been sent to support the prince. Why does Vordanai care about this little desert country? We’re never given an answer. Similarly, there’s not a lot seen of the native side. However, there is at least one major, sympathetic native character, and it looks like she’ll be reappearing in the next book of the series.
While I won’t argue that The Thousand Names has a gritty aspect, I wouldn’t classify it as grimdark, mainly because the protagonists are more straight up heroes than anti-heroes. The level of magic is also fairly low, coming in mostly at the end, but it looks like they’ll be more magic in the sequels.
I’d recommend The Thousand Names to people looking for an entertaining fantasy novel with a fairly strong female presence. While I did have a few quibbles, I overall really enjoyed it and will be reading the sequel at the nearest opportunity.