The Thousand Names
I’m always happy to read a book by a fellow denizen of the Northwest. Not that I base my reading choices on geography, but when I find out that someone is from around here, it’s a pleasant bonus. That is incidental to everything that follows, but seemed as good a place as any to start. The Thousand Names has been making its way ‘round the interwebs lately, with multiple friends reviewing it in the last month or so. Their comments were enough to get Names onto the TBR pile, but it was sheer chance that I saw it at the library right when I hit a break between books. This could only mean one thing: the Three Nephites had left a copy just for me, and it was their Will that I pick it up next. Who am I to argue with the Three Nephites? (Mormon humor here. Some small portion of the readership is probably laughing now.)
For those not up on all the current lingo, Names is what young people nowadays call “flintlock fantasy.” This subgenre is the usual secondary-world fantasy, but with muskets and cannons instead of gallant knights in plate mail. The Age of Empires atmosphere is relatively under exploited in fantasy right now, though I wonder if that might be because the historical Age of Empires is kind of glossed over in our educational and cultural presentations of history, in comparison to King Arthur, the High Middle Ages, bits of the Renaissance, etc. Anyway, Wexler is writing about an Imperial Army out on the frontier, when soldiers carried muskets and bayonets instead of swords, cavalry still mattered, and people hadn’t moved past that bizarre stage when standing in straight lines and taking turns shooting at each other was considered the proper way to fight battles. There is also magic, because this is fantasy, but it is understated.
The first half of the book is a military campaign, seen from the alternating viewpoints of an officer and sergeant. Wexler appears to be a tabletop wargaming enthusiast and the battles show the tactical knowledge of a student of ye olde art of war. They did to me at least, and I wouldn’t know any better, but I’m still pretty sure it’s all real. I don’t know the details of musket and bayonet formations, but Wexler flashes a more than casual understanding of everything. This part of the book was the most entertaining, partially because of the military novelty and partially because the characters are interesting and relatable.
The second half of the book tends more towards questing, though there are still battles and armies. This is also where magic comes into play, rather than just rebels and imperials hacking at each other. I think it bogged down a little bit, and could probably do without a subplot or two, but the ending was well worth the wait. I suppose this is de rigueur for the first volume of a series, but the transition from a stand alone story arc into a longer series was seamless. In fact, things felt almost science fictional in the way that later revelations forced a re-evaluation of how the world works. It wasn’t merely, “Here’s the artifact and woah! Wild times a’coming for everyone due to somewhat related hijinks elsewhere!” There is a bit of that, but the way certain quest-related issues play out opens things up in the same way that scientific discovery often changes the game in SF. This is one of the things that most impressed me about Names.
Finally, I am interested in the direction things are heading. Early word on the sequel is that it leaves the military behind in favor of political maneuvering; this could be a very good thing. I enjoyed the world building that I saw, though Wexler kept it to a reasonable minimum. There are obvious similarities to European attempts to pacify the Muslim kingdoms in the Middle East and N. Africa, as the white imperialists and their vaguely Christianity-esque religion duke it out with enrobed, darker skinned desert dwellers. It’s not a blatant ripoff of any particular historical event though, and certain tropes of the colonizer-indigenous relationship are inevitable regardless of other racial or religious identities. Wexler’s portrayal of rebellion on a backwater frontier and the imperial response to it felt spot on to me. If he handles events in the core as well as he does the periphery, there could be excitement on the way.
To sum up: The Thousand Names is unconventional fantasy featuring a plethora of muskets, a well drawn conflict with engaging protagonists, a progressive gender attitude that I probably should have written about but didn’t, and a solid political and historical foundation to build the rest of the series on. It’s also a product of the damp Northwest, which makes me irrationally happy. Things may not be perfect, but I’m signing up for the long haul with this one.