A Critique of ‘The Thousand Names’ by Django Wexler

This is a re-read for me, for the third time. I enjoyed it the first time I read it, and I read the entire series which followed. I enjoyed this series, but I felt like this book 1 might be the best book in the series. After this re-read, I feel like I have something to say. Let’s get this started.

Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own. I’m writing this review as an author critiquing another author’s book, in an attempt to improve my own writing and editing skills.

Goodreads


WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE? WHAT GENRES? WHAT MAJOR TROPES?

  • Flintlock Fantasy, Colonialism/Napoleonic vibes
  • LGBTQ, with a Lesbian male-passing protagonist
  • Military Fantasy. This contains lots of army marching, drilling, interregimental politics… that sort of thing.
  • Demon magic. People can be possessed by demons which bestow upon them supernatural abilities, similar to the X-Men style. One person can revive zombies, another can project shields, another can regenerate from any wound… that sort of thing.
  • This is an adult book, but anyone 15+ can read it.

IF YOU ARE IN THE TARGET AUDIENCE, OR THE GENRES/TROPES SOUND INTERESTING TO YOU, SHOULD YOU READ THIS?

Yes


MY EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ FUN FACTOR

This is a good book, solid all around. I had some problems, but overall this is a good book.

Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (3/5 Stars)

Note: I default to giving 3 stars to good books.


BIASES STATED

To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.

I’ve read this before twice. If I didn’t like this, I wouldn’t re-read it. I am a fan of Flintlock Fantasy books.


SIMILAR BOOKS


CONCEPT AND EXECUTION

This book’s concept is ‘A napoleonic military campaign across a desert kingdom, to re-conquor a colony after it rebelled. They are led by a military genius, who might be doing warlock magic on the side. In their adventures, they struggle against insubordinate sergeants, incompetent officers, foreign demons, the desert heat, and betrayal.’

This book is largely well executed. I had a few quibbles here and there, but largely it was great. I enjoyed the military maneuvers and military politics in particular. One thing which I wanted more of was the fantasy; there simply wasn’t much magic until the last few scenes of the story. When those scenes showed up, they seemed to be from another sort of novel. This was a mistaken expectations problem.


CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:

I’ll start with the good.

Winter Ihrnglass is a lesbian who grew up in an abusive orphanage and desperately wanted to escape. She disguised herself as a male soldier and got herself shipped overseas to serve in a colonial force. There, Winter excels, impressing her superiors with her competence and leadership skills, but always she keeps herself to herself, not wanting her identity exposed.

Ihrnglass is a great character. She’s an LGBT character who is skilled, competant, and works hard. She’s not a Mary Sue; she’s a good soldier because because she studies and practices. She makes friends because she’s a trustworthy person. It is important for the sake of representation that minorities have uncomplicated positive representation to read in fiction; Winter is such a character.

Janus is a napoleonic-style military genius. He’s a brilliant combat strategist; he can decode enemy encrypted communiques; he can use demon magic. And yet he’s flawed: he’s so brilliant outmanuerving the enemy, that he fails to notice unrest amongst his own ranks. He’s a fun character… and he only works as a character because he’s never given a POV segment.

It’s REALLY REALLY hard to write genius characters; if the author screws up in writing the genius character, it’ll easily break the reader’s suspension of disbelief. (e. g. how many books have you thought “This supposedly genius character fell for this obvious trap? I don’t believe it.”) If Janus was a POV character (POV means point of view), it would be infinitely more likely for Janus to break that suspension of disbelief. It was therefore very wise for the author to keep Janus at arms length.

I have a love-hate relationship with Marcus. I’ll just come right out and say it: he’s a bit dull. At the end of the book, it’s pointed out by one of the characters within the book that he’s a bit of a tropey ‘knight in shining armor.’ He’s loyal to a fault, hard working, not especially brilliant but he is a hard worker. And… that’s it.

Both Winter and Martin are a bit dull. I don’t know, I think I’m just desensitized a little after reading so many grimdark books with questionable protagonists. I feel like I’m being unfair: they are both perfectly acceptable protagonists. And it’s important for the LGBT representation for Winter to be an uncomplicatedly positive role-model sort of character. And I do enjoy reading both of them.

The problem is that they are both nice. If every character’s personality in a story occupies a segment of a Venn Diagram, Winter and Martin both occupy a very similar personality space, in that both are dutiful soldiers who work hard and are loyal. Because both are similar, neither shines. They’d stop being dull if they were less similar to one another.

Spoilers below for ‘A Game of Thrones.’

According to Ancient Greek literary theory, the tragic hero of every tale should undergo a punishing character arc due to a fatal flaw- this is called hamartia. In short, the hero’s inner foibles are their undoing: think how Eddard Stark in ‘Game of Thrones’ got killed because he was too honorable. Eddard Stark is an interesting protagonist because he got punished. We talk about him decades later because of his hamartia. He got a TV show because of his hamartia.

Janus has a fatal flaw in this novel: he has vast and sprawling schemes which span the entire world, but he can’t see the scheming under his own nose. He’s nearly killed because of it. That’s a nice fatal flaw/hamartia.

Marcus sorta has a fatal flaw- that being his trust for Odrick. Throughout the novel we’re shown again and again that Odrick is a poor leader, and Marcus continually bails him out of his mistakes. And in the end, Marcus is nearly killed when Odrick rebels.

However this fatal flaw of Marcus’ never felt fully realized to me. Marcus trusts other people- from Janus, to Winter, to all the other Captains and Lieutenants- and none of them fail on him. Therefore this fatal flaw of Marcus’ just doesn’t land. Net total, if I were this book’s editor I’d say Marcus needed a stronger fatal flaw add in the re-writes. Going back to what I said above, if character personalities are in Venn Diagrams, make his segment of the Diagram less similar to Winter.

Winter doesn’t have a fatal flaw. That’s fine; she’s the LGBTQ rep role model. Her function in the novel is to be a normal human being to prove that LGBTQ people are normal. She’s an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances, proving that normal people can struggle against great odds and succeed.

(NOTE: I’ve seen some non-Western writers/reader complain about the Western literary tradition’s tendency to give characters fatal flaws. Some even see it as a nervous tick Western writers devolve to- not unlike how when I was growing up a LOT of fantasy fiction devolved into love triangles. I bring this up to point out that hamartia is a cultural tradition, and not mandatory. Feel free to skip fatal flaws in your own writing.)

Most of the side characters were acceptable. The particular standouts were the characters ‘Give ’em Hell’ and the Artilleryman Preacher and Davis. Besides them, the characters served their purpose to further the plot, but weren’t exciting.

And finally, Jen Alhount. SPOILERS!!

I had problems with Jen. The book repeatedly lampshades that she’s a potential spy, coming from the nefarious ‘Duke Orlanko.’ She repeatedly denies it. However in the end she betrays the heroes to the Duke. It all felt very obvious. Now, caveat emptor: This is the third time I read this book, so I remembered she was the villain. I knew the outcome of the book, so I picked up on the obvious foreshadowing. But even so, I thought this wasn’t very subtle.

It felt to me like Jen had barely impact on the book’s plot, until the climax of the book when she became REALLY IMPORTANT. She felt like she was barely in the book, and was maybe added in a 3rd or 4th draft when the author realized he needed another villain. Most/all the scenes she was in felt tacked on, like they were added in a later draft. She rarely interacted with more than one person at a time, and the scenes she was in felt oddly ‘simple,’ almost as though her scenes were added on at the end when the author decided to add a new character.

The role of the 11th hour traitor could have been handled better.

  • Imagine if loyal Fitz wound up being the traitor at the last minute, after we spent the entire book suspecting Jen. It would have been unexpected, and exciting.
  • Or imagine if Jen participated in the battles: this is a military novel, I would have liked if she grabbed a gun and sniped people, or something. Her fighting would have acted as foreshadowing that she was more than a simple clerk, foreshadowing her eventual betrayal. But it would also give her plot-relevance, but letting her have a combat role. Letting her play a role in battle, would have endeared her to me more. Her betrayal would have hurt more if she had more plot relevance.

PACING AND STRUCTURE

I thought the book was broadly well paced, but whether or not someone likes a book’s pacing is very personal and prone to bias. If I were to quibble here, I’d say that there might have been a fight scene earlier on, perhaps before Janus showed up to show that the antagonists are strong foes.

I think this was a 5 act book.

  • Before Janus/Before leaving the coast
    • This act sets expectations for the story at-large. It includes a fantasy, with weird zombie demon magic, and also military corruption, with Sergeant Davis and Odrick’s drunkenness. Foreshadowing!
  • Marching before the first battle
    • This is when Janus proves his worth. The soldiers hang a lantern on the fact that a clever commanding officer is a bad one, because a clever man is likely to get men killed when his clever schemes fail.
    • Janus is very clever, but also sensible: he’s willing to change his plans and slow down to allow his soldiers more time to drill
    • There is basically no magic in this act.
  • Attacking the river village, and re-taking the city
    • This is the main body of the story, when the protagonists travel into the heart of the desert to help the prince reclaim his kingdom. This is a worthy display of military tactics and discipline in written form, as well as some of the messiness of battle.
    • There is a moderate amount of magic in this act, to heal Bobby.
  • Pursuing the enemy into the desert
    • This is when things get hard for the heroes. They’re forced to strike out in pursuit of the fleeing enemy, in hopes of laying claim to the Thousand Names. They’re stretched to their limits, flanked and outnumbered by enemy cavalry who know the lay of the land. They start dying of thirst.
    • There is basically no magic in this act.
  • The Oasis, and the Thousand Names
    • They chase down the enemy army, and break it. They arrive at their desert hideout and, after a battle with Mother and Jen, lay claim to the Thousand Names.
    • LOTS of magic in this act

Going back to what I said above, I felt this book needed more magic. Similarly, I felt Jen needed more to do in the plot. Perhaps Jen could have revealed she had magic earlier on, and used it to save the army?

Here’s an idea I had: in the final battle against the zombie demon, I would have liked if the author changed who the zombies were. In the text, the zombies were revived soldiers of the Redemption- aka nameless goons. I would have preferred if the revived zombies were Odrick’s loyalists, who were exiled by Marcus and Janus into the desert to die. This would have neatly linked the story’s two main plotlines in the final act, and been a real kick-in-the-teeth moment for Marcus, with him having to kill Odrick’s zombie. This would be more emotionally resonant.

Finally, I think the plot point of the Thousand Names needed to be expanded upon earlier in the story so we knew why this book was happening at all. This was for the sake of stakes. Speaking of which…


PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION

The book’s plot was fair to good. In my personal opinion, it was my least favorite aspect of this novel. I remained emotionally disconnected from the colonials retaking the lost kingdom; I as a reader was not given reason to care about why the protagonists should re-conquer the colony. Such a reason would provide stakes for the story.

For example, the stakes could have been ‘If we don’t retake the colony, the Redeemers will start cutting off the heads of Vordani hostages!’ And it would be even better if a character emotionally close to the protagonists were held captive as hostages: for example, Mad Jane for Winter. If Jane’s life was on the line, then Winter would have really really cared about winning the war. And if Winter cared, we would care. All of the sudden Winter would have cause to second-guess her orders, because she knew if Janus and Marcus failed then Jane was dead.

Having strong stakes are important to infusing a story with tension. Tension is the sense of a clock ticking, that the heroes are on the path to defeat. It is the heart-in-the-mouth feeling that a reader gets when they’re reading a book and have no idea how it will end, and they suspect it will end horribly wrong. To me at least, this book felt like a series of interconnected events rather than a fully resonant plot. That lack-of-tension is what made this feel like interconnected events rather than a strong story.


AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)

This book had a theme of trust and betrayal, under the high-pressure circumstances of a military post. I felt it was very well implemented- indeed, this was my favorite aspect of this novel. I felt genuine empathy for Odrick this time around, and genuinely hated Davis. I’ll add that the audiobook narrator REALLY knocked Davis out of the park. I didn’t like Jen in this read-through, but I will admit her betrayal fed into this theme. Net total, well done. (Also, having finished the series, I wish Odrick and Davis returned in later books. They were great.)

One aspect of this book which needed some critique was how the whole colonialism bit went unquestioned. We had a colonial army end up ransacking native temples, attempting to steal sacred artifacts, destroying sacred statues just for the sake of expediency. This book didn’t question the ethics of this. As an example, the whole ‘British Museums stealing Greece’s Elgin Marbles’ has been a thing for decades. There are a million other Real Life examples of this. (Now that said, not all books have to be ‘message’ stories. It’s okay to write or enjoy adventure novels as well.)

The book’s tone could have been a bit darker. This is a book about demon summoning, but it was surprisingly not grimdark. There’s no need to go full nihilism, but I think the darkness could have been escalated by 10%. THAT SAID, this book was dark in parts. Innocent people got burned to death, and it was at least insinuated that people were raped off-screen. My problem is that that darkness was bunched up in two scenes and not held constant throughout the whole novel.


SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY

The book’s setting is a vaguely middle-eastern like setting, which has been colonized by a flintlock empire. I’ll be blunt: the middle eastern society didn’t really strike me as being fully realized, and neither did the vaguely european society of colonizers. I never got a cohesive sense of the world’s history, it’s cultural traditions, what foods they ate, what the air smelled like. It used a lot of staid tropes.

What the setting did well was feeling like a living, breathing society- there were many layers and strata to these civilizations. People have to swap between languages, and translators are forced to censer rude language to prevent reprisal. Further, I liked how we got the occasional window into the perspectives of the enemy. Their segments worked well.

The setting and worldbuilding functioned well, but they weren’t incredibly innovative.


AUDIOBOOK NOTES

I listened to the audiobook, and it was good. The audiobook narrator did a great job of bringing all the characters to life with accents and distinct voice acting. I would say that the audiobook probably is the right way to read this if you’re open to it.


LESSONS LEARNED

As an author, I want to improve my own writing/editing skills. To that end, I like to learn lessons from every story I read. Here’s what I learned from this story:

  • If you have a twist villain, let them have more than one function in the plot. If the twist villain does nothing plot-relevant throughout the entire novel, no one will be surprised when they suddenly become plot-relevant by being a twist villain.
  • If you have more than one protagonist, and they are all morally upstanding people in similar ways, make at least one of them have some spice to them. Maybe a fatal flaw or two wouldn’t go amiss. Like I said above, make a Venn Diagram of your characters’ personalities, and make sure there isn’t too much overlap in those diagrams.
  • When writing a genius character, don’t let them be a POV character. The closer the genius is to the lens of the narration, the more likely an author has to screw up the genius and suspend disbelief. In this case, Janus is very well done because he’s relatively obscured from the lens of the narrative.
  • Properly set up expectations. This book’s climax was a big magic fight, but there wasn’t much magic used throughout the novel. The magic fight in this felt like it came from a High Fantasy novel, while the rest of this book felt like Low Fantasy. This book needed to be High Fantasy all the way through, or Low Fantasy all the way through.

Here’s a link to all the lessons I’ve previously learned.


SUMMARY

This is good, you should read it.


Goodreads


Did you like this critique/review? Here are some more:

The Rest of My In Depth Reviews

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