For some time now, I’ve been co-moderating a fantasy group on Goodreads. One of the troubles with attempting to be an active group co-moderator are monthly reads. Ultimately, only a few read the selections in a timely enough fashion to discuss, so I’ve been making it a personal challenge to read the books chosen. The Thousand Names won our ’round-the-world fantasy,’ African setting poll, so I dutifully ordered it from the library. While it began promisingly enough, it soon segued into a detailed military fantasy, one of my least favorite fantasy sub-genres (quite honestly, it’s probably a toss-up between that and romance-heavy UF).
Names begins with a gathering of various power factions in the city of Khandar. The resistance has pushed the white devils back and are debating the next move. Led by the chief of the civil authority, Jaffa, other guests include the head priest of the Redeemers, a new faction of a militant religious order; the general of the army; and the Steel Ghost, the mysterious leader of the desert nomads. Shortly after the meeting, Jaffa surreptitiously meets with the Holy Mother. She casually commands one of her followers to interrogate a waif caught following him to their meeting–after she was first killed. Its the first promise that something magical and fantastical is happening.
My interested piqued, I decided to read on.
Part One begins with a small group of the aforementioned white devils on guard duty. One is on the receiving end of harsh chaffing, and the reader soon discovers that Private Winter is a woman in disguise. Scene switch to a captain in the same army, Marcus d’Ivorie, as he rides to meet the ships that are either bringing reinforcements or taking his men home. He greets Count Colonel Janus, the new leader of the army and fan of plain speaking. Janus is clearly an eccentric genius, although Marcus has his suspicions.
The remainder of the book is largely between narratives focused on Winter and Marcus, sometimes within the same chapter, along with a couple scattered short pieces from various others introduced in the first chapter. Because Wexler devotes significant chunks of both text and action to each, the switches between characters are smooth, although sometimes they end on a bit of a cliff-hanger as a new event unfolds. Resolving one issue but ending with lead-in to another was a nice device that kept me interested.
Unfortunately for me, however, Wexler has a deep love for military detail. His introductory acknowledgement thanks someone who introduced him to “historical war-gaming,” and the jacket binding mentions “When not planning Shadow Campaigns, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers…” His enthusiasm shows in the plotting. The majority of the book focuses on movements of the invaders against the Khandar alliance, using the dual perspectives of Winter and Marcus for insights into engagements of both the grunt view and leadership. Wexler writes well enough that I was initially engaged, especially as Winter started to shine. However, the sheer overwhelming attention to the detail and movements is too much to sustain my interest. We’re talking Name of the Wind thickness here, at slightly over 500 pages. Really, given my interest in war strategy is largely indifferent, it’s a mark of skill that Wexler had my interest at all. In Wexler’s defense, he does use a variety of engagements, from ambush to a targeted strike to all-out battle, which brings additional interest.
The mystical elements begin to come into play when Winter discovers a daughter of the Holy Mother. I won’t say any more to avoid spoilers, but one of the disappointments for me as a fantasy reader is that events and explanations relating to the magical system come principally at the end of the book. It feels a little tacked on, especially as it results in significant political and personal cliffhangers.
Characterization is thorough and well done. If perhaps a little stereotypical, the familiarity gives an anchor point to the story and allows for a tiny bit of boundary-pushing. Wexler does a nice job with the female viewpoint, although he over-emphasizes Winter’s obsession with a tragic relationship incident. I also appreciated a nice twist or two relating to characterization.
Thematically, I can’t help but be a little disappointed by lost potential created from the opening scene of the defender’s situation followed by a focus on the invaders. Wexler largely leaves the morals and ethics of invasion and defense aside, except for a token nod to commanders prohibiting raping and looting. Marcus wrestles significantly with personal loyalty issues, but I think any ethical issues on the part of the invaders were largely clear-cut. The Holy Mother offered more potential for ethical issues of cultural preservation, but those were left mostly with the cliff-hanger.
Overall, it was a bit of a miss for me, largely because of my own genre preference and the lack of finesse in ethical issues and characterization. I think fans of The Deeds of Paksenarrion would enjoy it, as well as anyone who enjoys detailed troop engagements.
Four stars for writing skill and military detail, two stars for personal enjoyment, so I’ll average it out and call it three.