2014’s The Shadow Throne, the second of a projected five volumes in Django Wexler’s gunpowder epic fantasy “The Shadow Campaigns,” set a very high bar for subsequent instalments to reach. While 2013’s The Thousand Names was a solid, engaging effort to tell a story reminiscent of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe in a fantasy milieu, The Shadow Throne kicked the series into much higher gear. It delighted me extremely, in part because I didn’t expect such a glorious step up from its predecessor—and that astonished marvel and, yes, relief, contributed in large part to my delight.
It would have been asking a bit much for The Price of Valor, the third and latest “Shadow Campaigns” novel to surpass The Shadow Throne by as much as The Shadow Throne overleapt The Thousand Names. That kind of rocket-propelled acceleration is something we’re lucky to see once a series. But The Price of Valor is a worthy successor: Wexler hasn’t let down the expectations he raised so high with The Shadow Throne. I’m very happy to say, for the second time in relation to this series, SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY.
After the upheavals and revolution of The Shadow Throne, the country of Vordan is suffering a spot of revolutionary fervour. The new assembly, the Deputies-General, is concerned with enemies foreign and domestic, and are setting out with fervour—if not either restraint or very great competence—to address them both.
Raesinia is a queen without a solid base of power, and many enemies, several of whom are aware of the power (classed as a demon by the Elysian Church) that heals her every wound and prevents her from dying. When someone attempts to assassinate her—rather explosively—she decides to pretend to retire to the countryside while instead going incognito in her own capital to ferret out her enemies and their motives. Assisting her is Marcus d’Ivoire, now a colonel, whom the military genius and recently elevated general Janus bet Vhalnich has left behind to look after his interests—and keep an eye on the power represented by the carefully-hidden Thousand Names.
Winter Ihernglass—now a captain and soon herself to become a colonel—is in the field with Janus bet Vhalnich, advancing into the League of Hamvelt. She’s still passing for a man, but she’s been reunited with her lover Jane, and placed in command of the new Vordanai army’s only openly female company, the Girls’ Own Volunteers. But her rank means she’s responsible for ordering her lover, and her comrades, into bloody battle, and Jane isn’t quite as well-suited to the military life as Winter is. Winter’s not only faced with war and command, but she carries a demon of her own, and that makes her a target for the Black Priests of the Elysian Church, as well as making her a vital tool in Janus bet Vhalnich’s arsenal. Jane doesn’t approve of Winter’s loyalty to Janus and the army, especially after the Deputies-General attempt to remove Janus from command and bring him back to the capital for execution—and Winter proves central to restoring him to command so the army can march on the capital itself. This leads to a split between the lovers at the worst possible moment. A split that may well prove permanent.
With Raesinia and Marcus fighting Black Priests in Vordan itself, and Winter leading her troops into battle—not to mention fighting the odd Black Priest herself—this is an explosive, action-packed novel. At times nail-bitingly tense, and oh, the explosions. They are excellent action sequences and THINGS GOING BOOM.
But one thing Wexler doesn’t do is sacrifice character on the altar of action. While Marcus seems a little bit dim beside Raesinia and Winter, poor man, all three of the point of view characters remain well-rounded, compelling, believable people. And even Wexler’s secondary and minor characters come across as complex individuals with internally consistent motivations, which is no small thing: a minor exception to this is in the case of his antagonists, who don’t seem nearly as interestingly complex as individuals. This might be in part a function of how little time we spend in their company, though.
Wexler has said he worried about his portrayal of his queer female characters. He’s right to worry. There are sufficiently few queer women in leading roles in epic fantasy that each of them is subject to much higher levels of scrutiny. Because representation is not yet widespread, each instance carries that much more weight. But here? It helps that this is not in the least a novel that suffers from Smurfette Syndrome. There aren’t just multiple different women, with different ambitions and personalities and desires: there are multiple queer women as well. And that matters. Just as much as the delightful action scenes and the narrative drive and the fantastic approach to magic and blowing shit up, Wexler’s commitment to portraying a wide variety of women matters. It’s part of what makes this book so great, and it’s part of why I’m probably going to keep yelling SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY when the next instalment comes out—although it doesn’t hurt the sequel’s case that The Price of Valor ends on a cliffhanger.
The Price of Valor is a very enjoyable epic fantasy, and a damned good book. And if you’re not reading Wexler’s “The Shadow Campaigns” yet…
Well, what the hell are you waiting for?
The Price of Valor is available July 7th from Penguin.