I am three books in to Django Wexler’s fun musket and magic fantasy series, beginning with THE THOUSAND NAMES. The latest, THE PRICE OF VALOR, continues the narrative successfully. Knowing that Wexler is a reviewer of Anime is critical to understanding the narrative. The plot and setting feel like good Anime. The character design, with the different shapes and sizes of soldiers and characters, and the way demonology works with the Naathem feels familiar to fans of Anime. Some of the plot points, despite feeling a little convenient, are well within the bounds of what would happen inside a good Anime show. For instance, in the second novel, Danton is conveniently discovered as a performance savant, carrying a demon unknown to himself, and he appears in the world at the moment it is useful to the plot for him to appear. In a world of twisting and scheming, it feels convenient for him to arrive when he does, exactly with the most useful power he could have. When Lieutenant Winter Ihrenglass, a transvestite lesbian soldier, is sent to the docks for her inscrutable Colonel Janus’ infiltration mission, she stumbles across her childhood love, whom she was determined to find again. Conveniently, there she is! But, to a cynical Westerner, much of this is so familiar to what happens in Anime, that it only goes to reinforce the notion, in my mind, that I am reading a Western author’s attempt to write like the Anime he loves.
It’s a very good series, believable warfare, and interesting characters and situations. It’s a “yarn” not a “high literary fantasy” but a well-told yarn.
Now, what I find most interesting is the religious overtones. I happen to know that Mr. Wexler, when last we spoke, was not a deeply religious man. His criticism of the corrupt church is apparent in the text. But, the way the plot works out, it feels like there’s a higher power at play. Call it the author, moving pieces around as needed, or without the author, call it the hand of god. There is a divinity present in the text and the plot and the miraculous way the characters seem to stumble across exactly the expertise they need when they need it. Again, reminiscent of Anime, but… Just before it would be needed to do battle against a demon of the black church with control over flames, a character is introduced who specializes in exploding things. Her shrapnel grenades prove to be the critical component that lead to victory against the demon, Cinder. It is commented often in the text that Colonel Janus’ tactical genius is seemingly supernatural, and he makes a lot of lucky guesses. These lucky guesses are important to the plot – they lead to victory, after all – but they also seem to relate to a subtext of something at work in the world that is a little too divine. There are just a little too many moments where something very unlikely and convenient arrives or happens that a careful reader will notice and think either there is a flaw in the texts or that something is up. For an author without much religious conviction, the plotting of the book seems to indicate a strong faith in supernatural intervention. That faith may be the needs of the twisting plot in a complex series by a relatively new author. That faith may also prove to be something else, entirely, in the world of the book, itself. There are two books, yet, and undoubtedly surprises ahead. In a world where demons walk in the flesh of men, it is not so hard to believe that heaven blows through the deserts of Khandarai, and the red fields of blood and musket ball.
Regardless, my dad is enjoying it a lot, and I’m reading it with him and I am in agreement.
One thing to call out as a clear positive, that is all too often underrepresented in historical fiction of this period of warfare: female soldiers. There are enough well-documented cases, that undocumented cases had to be more common than we credit them. Winter Ihrenglass rises through the ranks of the books, a lesbian cross-dresser enlisting to serve in the distant Khandarai, and quickly rises through the ranks, becoming Janus’ right hand, and a powerful force of demonology. And, what I love about her character arc is that it is the things we would call “feminine” about her that made her so successful as an officer and plot mover. She was an outsider in Khandarai; ergo, she went out and learned about the Khandarai people and culture. She was merciful to a woman she encountered and took prisoner, afraid that the woman would be raped by the men of the camp. In this, she gained two powerful allies that ultimately led to the success of the mission to acquire the sacred names. As a woman, she was able to move undetected among the docks and street gangs and form alliances that no strict soldier could form. Her ability to pass as a man also fed into her ability to pass as just some person on the street. She’s a great character, and makes the series worth reading all by herself. The strength and competence of women in this series is refreshing in a genre (military fantasy) mired in tokenism and male power fantasy with regularity enough to feel noticable. Hell, two women just passed Ranger School – the elite of the elite – and Rousey is probably one of the toughest professional fighters in the world of any gender identity. Military leadership qualities, and martial ability, are simply not limited to gender or sexual identity, and it is refreshing to read a book that openly takes on the challenge of making that argument with the many women that enter combat. (How many military fantasy books pass the damn Bechdel-Wallace test with flying colors?)