The Guns of Empire is the fourth and penultimate novel in Django Wexler’s The Shadow Campaigns series. True to form, Wexler has written another excellently entertaining novel, filled with battles and politics and personalities—a novel that builds on the successes of The Price of Valour while tightening an already pretty slick approach to pacing and action.
Wexler’s gunpowder epic fantasy feels as though it’s inspired in no small part by Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe phenomenon, and definitely takes a good portion of its inspiration from Europe of the period of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. The worldbuilding is consistent, interested in the Enlightenment (it’s not thoughtlessly pro-monarchical), and Wexler keeps the magical elements at just the right level to let things be fantastical without allowing them overpower the old-fashioned blood-and-cannons-and-logistics.
But you know what? I’m not all that interested in that. Because all of this is pretty cool, but if it were all that distinguished Wexler’s work, “The Shadow Campaigns” would be a relatively unremarkable series.
But it’s not all that distinguishes his work. Since The Shadow Throne, this series’ second volume, Wexler has been doing something so rare in epic fantasy as to be practically unprecedented—at least in a popular successful series.
Some spoilers ahead.
I’m not talking about the number of well-defined active female characters. (Or I am, but only in part. And can I mention here WINTER RAESINIA CYTE ALEX ABBY SOTHE BOBBY FEOR ANDY SO MANY AWESOME CHARACTERS?) Wexler populates his narrative with a range of women, all with their own personalities and agendas, who talk to each other and argue with each other and live and grow and suffer. And he populates it with queer women, straight women, and women whose romantic and/or sexual interests are never relevant nor mentioned. And I want to talk about how he avoids, thereby, a trope I was primed to expect: that of the tragic queer romance.
During The Price of Valour, Winter Ihernglass is in (and out of) a relationship with her childhood sweetheart, Jane, with whom she’s only recently been reunited. Winter holds senior military rank (she disguised herself as a man and joined the army) and ended up in charge of a battalion comprised of female volunteers. Jane is among them, but Jane isn’t well-suited to the army life, and—in part out of jealousy at Winter’s loyalty to Janus bet Vhalnich, the army’s genius general who definitely has his own agenda—attempts to assassinate Janus. She’s arrested and then abducted by agents of the secretive Priests of the Black from the Sworn Church, and at the end of The Price of Valour, her fate is uncertain—but it can’t be good.
We’re all familiar with the “Bury Your Gays” trope:
“Often… gay characters just aren’t allowed happy endings. Even if they do end up having some kind of relationship, at least one half of the couple, often the one who was more aggressive in pursuing a relationship, thus “perverting” the other one, has to die at the end.”
At the beginning of The Guns of Empire, it’s revealed that terrible things have happened Jane. That Jane, in fact, has become the host for a demon kept by the Priests of the Black, and isn’t really Jane anymore. This looks like queer tragedy!
Except… well, except for the fact that Jane and Winter aren’t the only queer women in the narrative. Winter doesn’t know what has become of Jane, grieves for her, throws herself into her work as a senior officer in the army Janus has set on the march towards the seat of the Sworn Church. But time passes, and Winter, not the only queer woman in the army (nor the only one shown in a relationship, although the others might only be there if you’re looking for them), eventually finds something more than friendship with one of the other officers. She reflects, in Jane’s absence, that neither she nor Jane were the same people during the events of The Price of Valour as those who first fell in love as adolescents. And realises that the first woman she loved doesn’t have to be the last.
Even in fantasy novels that have queer women being front and centre and engaged in queer relationships, it’s a bit like Highlander. When the dust clears, there can only be one. But in The Guns of Empire, that’s not the case. And that still feels like a bloody radical decision to me, especially when Wexler is writing the kind of epic fantasy—epic fantasy revolving around military campaigns—that in many other hands would have relegated queer characters (and female characters) to the margins, if there.
It subverts, interrogates, or outright inverts a good few tropes associated with epic fantasy, and with gender roles. Marcus d’Ivoire, the most prominent male point-of-view character, is not a genius general or a particularly gifted fighter; he doesn’t have magical talents or immense charisma. He’s the guy who’s really good at getting logistics sorted. He’s loyal and steady, methodical and fundamentally decent, and falls in love with a woman who outclasses him socially and intellectually—both things he’s aware of, neither of which he resents.
Meanwhile, this is the fourth book of a five-book series, and while magic has been a part of the background since the beginning, Wexler has never done the epic fantasy thing of presenting his characters with an existential threat. There haven’t been any potentially world-ending problems… until the latter part of this volume. Now, as a result of the war between Vordan and the Sworn Church, the Priests of the Black have let their fear overcome what remains of their good sense, and they’ve let something terrible loose on the world.
This isn’t an approach I’ve seen taken before. I wonder if Wexler can stick the dismount. I’m hoping he does, because so far this series has hit all my buttons. And I really want to see what happens next.
The Guns of Empire is available now from Roc.