Tag Archives: flintlock fantasy

The powder mage trilogy

Promise of blood / Brian McClellan

Promise of blood is the first installment of the Powder mage trilogy by Brian McClellan. It’s a series I have mixed feelings about even though I really enjoyed it.

The powder mage trilogy is, alongside The shadow campaigns, one of the most visible examples of what is currently being called “flintlock fantasy”. Fantasy novels based in the goings on of 18th and 19th century Europe have been around for a long time, but specifically military novels focusing on the era are a more recent phenomenon. That the subgenre got a name when authors started writing books “full of machismo”* probably says something about the types of fans who obsess over genre labels and/or the biases of publishers.

*I’m paraphrasing a blurb here

Plot summary

Field Marshal Tamas has just initiated a coup. After overthrowing the government of Adro he must attempt to hold the nation together in the face of an invasion by their neighbor and historical rival, Kez. He also must contend with the possibly fictional curse that befalls the one who murders a sovereign, supposedly invoking the return of the gods.

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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.

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The thousand names

The thousand names / Django Wexler

In my previous post I mentioned that I might do a longer post on this one. I’ve since finished the second book in the series (on the quatorze, no less) and have lots to say about it so I’m going to review this one first.

The thousand names is the first book of The shadow campaigns, a “flintlock fantasy” series heavily inspired by the time period of the French Revolution.

Plot summary

The Vordanian colonial troops in Khandar are in a rough place. After a religion-fueled rebellion, the Vordanian-backed Prince of Khandar has been forced to flee the capital. Stranded in a remote, barely defensible fortress, the Vordarians hope that the impending arrival of a new Colonel will come with orders to abandon Khandar to its new rulers. 

Unfortunately, the new Colonel is Janus bet Vhalnich, an absentminded noble who is convinced he can lead his undertrained, vastly outnumbered troops in a campaign to reconquer Khandar for its prince. 

So how is it?

It’s the first book in my favorite fantasy series I’ve read in quite a while. Still, some of my appreciation is down to very personal factors in that the series seems intent on catering to my whims so I’ll try not to oversell it to those who don’t share some of my more esoteric interests.

First, The thousand names is a novel about a military campaign before it is a fantasy novel. I picked it up off the new release shelf at the library where I worked during a time when I was having problems finding books to read. I almost abandoned it after reading the prologue and first chapter, as I found the apparent protagonists utterly unlikeable and it seemed like the book was going to be a rah-rah manly men love to fight kind of thing. It was only the references to thee petit caporal in the acknowledgement a that kept me going. Looking back on it and after rereading it I’m not sure where I was getting that from and am suspicious that I was just in a bad mood at the time. After reading it, I’ll say that it is one of the best campaign novels I’ve ever read.

The thousand names is significantly more straightforward than later books in the series. It functions well as a tight introduction to what will become an incredibly complex conflict. 

There’s an especially great sense of moral complexity. For the most part, the opposing factions are depicted as groups of individuals rather than monoliths. Neither side is particularly “good”, as both are just people. Wexler does a good job of writing about atrocities committed by both sides without absolving those responsible but also without using them to paint an entire culture as irredeemably evil. This moral complexity is further magnified in the sequel as the plot shifts from a military campaign with a specific well defined goal to politics.

The two easiest comparisons here are A song of ice and fire and The Malazan book of the fallen. It is heavily influenced by serious historical scholarship like the former and has the epic, strange, worldview of the latter.

I’ll say this again: I probably like this more than I would otherwise because the historical era Wexler draws from is near and dear to my heart. It’s also one where I have a more in-depth experience than is normal so I get extra pleasure from catching the little historical nods peppered throughout. Those who haven’t had jobs where they got to do things like translate Napoleon’s shopping lists might enjoy this less than I do.

Recommendation

I would recommend this whole-heartedly to anyone who reads fantasy OR historical fiction, but…

The thousand names is exclusively concerned with a single military campaign. The characters are great but if you don’t like to read about campaigns then you probably won’t enjoy this as much. Still, the sequel is very different so if it sounds intriguing but you’re less interested in the military history thing then you’d have to weigh whether or not it’s worth reading a 600 page prologue.

One could theoretically skip this one if one would prefer to get straight to the politics and more George R.R. Martin style fantasy and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who did so but my enthusiasm for the series makes that a hard course for me to recommend.

A few cross recommendations

The Aubrey-Maturin novels

The “Sharpe’s …” Novels

A song of ice an fire

The Malazan book of the fallen

The heroes and/or Joe Abercrombie generally