The shadow throne

The shadow throne / Django Wexler

If you come to the second book in the Shadow Campaigns series expecting something along the lines of the first then you’re going to be disappointed.

The shadow throne maintains the general style and tone of the Thousand names but with a drastic change in setting comes a drastic change in the book’s priorities.

Brian McClellan’s Powder mage trilogy gets called “A French Revolution with wizards” (Kirkus) but in McClellan’s work the Revolution is more set dressing. The shadow throne is 1789 Paris in a way that is astounding.

Brief plot summary

Captain Marcus d’Ivoire and Lieutenant Winter Ihernglass have returned to Vordan. The King is dying and the Duke Orlanko is maneuvering himself into power. The Duke has some hold over the Princess Raesinia, who has plots of her own.

So how is it?

It’s really really good, but if you’re expecting more of the first book you will be disappointed. This is not a campaign novel or military fantasy in the same way as book one — the focus is more on the political and social upheaval of Vordan.

My love for this book is probably coloured by my own background here. I have personally held more primary source documents from the French Revolution than almost anyone outside the BNF. I’ve seen Robespierre’s doodles and Napoleon’s shopping lists. I’m not a historian and wouldn’t hold myself up as an authority on the French revolution. Still, after spending several years neck-deep in primary source documents The shadow throne is the only thing I have read that gets anywhere close to capturing what was actually going on. Nonfiction books are necessarily oversimplifications and nonfiction about the French Revolution is virtually guaranteed to be heavily informed by the author’s political leanings (not that there’s anything wrong with that per se). It’s nice to see a book acknowledge all of the angles – that the Revolution was not an uprising of disgruntled peasants, nor was it a result of middle class frustration, nor was it fueled by the philosophes, but it was in some sense all of the above. That Wexler manages to capture all of this in a single book is amazing to me. Bonus points for his portrayal of the publishing industry of the time.

So as a result of that a huge part of the enjoyment I got out of this book was in finding the historical parallels. I’ve spoken to medieval history buffs who enjoy Song of ice and fire for the same reason. So I find it interesting to see people criticizing this book because it’s “obviously” just copying the French Revolution (and Game of thrones was “obviously” just copying the War of the roses but the latter doesn’t have the modern-day political implications of the former). Especially when the departures that I see being criticized are accurate portrayals of actual events and Wexler himself explicitly stated that Janus was based on Napoleon.

There are other things to like about this book though. At one point a character responds to another character’s failure to keep a promise with “It was totally unreasonable for me to expect you to do that.” Seriously! When was the last time you read a fantasy novel where a character acknowledges that their expectations were ridiculous? It happens (I think L.E. Modessit jr. is  worth calling out as an author who is especially good at writing actual adults) but it’s not the norm for the genre.

Like Modessit’s work this is a book where not everything is laid out. Most of the criticisms I’ve seen (barring the weirdly-oft repeated condemnation of this book as either “adolescent fantasy” or “PC propaganda” for daring to imply that a character who is not a heterosexual white man might have sexual desires or agency) come down to the reader not noticing something that was already there in the text. This is partially a genre issue – the first book in the series was firmly in the military fantasy vein and so attracted a readership more used to those genre conventions (i.e. politically conservative and prone to making assumptions about soldiers and the nature of warfare that are entirely rooted in World War 2).

Before I go even more off track I’ll just point out to those complaining about the above “PC propaganda” that France decriminalized homosexuality in 1791, the first push to legalize same-sex marriage occurred around 1792 (not that it got anywhere) and the author of the Code Napoléon, Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès, was openly gay. Women were active participants in the Revolution as well (note that most of these women made the acquaintance of Madame G).

This isn’t a book about finding out what happens. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the events that led to the quatorze* will be able to figure out what is going to happen fairly easily. It’s not quite a tragedy but it’s definitely a somewhat somber experience.

For those with an absolute distaste for military fiction I’d still suggest skipping the first book to read this one. It’s a real treat and a very satisfying read. I realize that this post ended up being more about history and myself then the book. I guess one could say that this is definitely a book that made me ponder these types of issues and I find myself yet again in disagreement with the apparent “fans of the genre”.

*Let me get on my soapbox now and proclaim loudly and clearly that Les Misérables does NOT, in fact, take place during the French Revolution as Valjean spent the entire Revolutionary period condemned to the galères and Napoleon had been dead for more than a decade when the fameux barricades were erected.

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