The Infernal Battalion is the fifth and final volume of Django Wexler’s excellent Shadow Campaigns series, an epic gunpowder fantasy that made the unusual decision of introducing its world-threatening fantasy evil at the end of volume four.
A strange choice, you might think—but for Wexler’s series it works exceedingly well, introducing a massively disruptive element into the political situation just as the revolutionary politics and military campaigns have begun to stabilise. The introduction of a demon that grows by taking over people’s minds—a smart demon, a demon imprisoned for hundreds of years whose only goal is to never be imprisoned in one single body again—presents Wexler’s characters with a whole new challenge.
Especially since many of them don’t yet know that the demon exists.
The Beast, an ancient demon once imprisoned by the Priests of the Black in the fortress-city of Elysium, has got loose. Its first victims are its once-captors, and as it absorbs mind after mind, it spreads like a plague. Winter Ihernglass carries the demon Infernivore, a demon that eats other demons. It makes her the Beast’s only real threat. She came face-to-face with it in Elysium and barely escaped with her life. The armies of the Beast are between her and her allies (and her lover, an officer in the Girls’ Own Battalion called Cyte) in the south, whom she’ll need if she’s to stand any chance of saving the world. She has a desperate race south through hostile territory in front of her, with only a handful of travelling companions. And even if she arrives in time, she might not survive a confrontation with the heart of the Beast.
In Vordan, Queen Raesinia Orboan and General Marcus d’Ivoire receive distressing news: legendary general Janus bet Vhalnich has declared himself rightful Emperor of Vordan and placed himself at the head of an army. Unbeknownst to them, Vhalnich has been taken over by the Beast—but what they do know is bad enough. Vordan’s parliament overrules Raesinia and puts an inexperienced general in charge, passing over Marcus because of his long service and friendship with Vhalnich. Marcus is sent into the field under the command of a man he can’t trust, facing a former friend and an acknowledged military genius across the battlefield.
Meanwhile, determined to do everything in her power to preserve her country—and Marcus, her lover—Raesinia departs for the rich trading nation of Borel, intending to hammer out an agreement for military assistance. But the Borelgai notables are holding grudges over Vordan’s repudiated debts, and Raesinia soon finds herself mired in intrigue, pressured by the Borel king to accept a marriage to his unhappy second son as the price for a modicum of aid. Fortunately, Raesinia has an economic genius in her entourage. Unfortunately, she’s running out of time.
The Infernal Battalion combines all the best elements of the Shadow Campaigns series. Here we have magic front and centre, even more so than in previous volumes. And we have the political manoeuvring that came to the forefront during The Shadow Throne, as Raesinia intrigues for her country’s benefit—and for her own happiness—as well as Wexler’s trademark compelling military action, as Marcus leads troops in desperate actions to delay Vhalnich’s advance on Vordan City. Marcus also has to grapple with his residual chauvinism, as his command includes the Girls’ Own Battalion—Winter’s former command.
But throughout Wexler’s epic series, the most striking, most compelling element of his work has been his characters. And that’s even more true here. Winter’s struggle with trauma, with grief and responsibility, is the most viscerally compelling part of her trek through the frozen north—and that’s before she learns another secret about her past. Raesinia’s determination to find the best path for her people, and to balance that against the constraints of her position and her desire for her own happiness, is gripping. And Marcus comes into his own as a commander who can hold the line even against a much-admired genius, and who fights past his prejudices to give his female officers and troops the chance to work on equal terms with their male comrades. Five books’ worth of character development and struggle pay off in The Infernal Battalion‘s explosive climax and conclusion: Wexler more than pays off his series’ promissory notes.
The Infernal Battalion is a glorious, tense, fantastic ride to an enormously satisfying conclusion. It’s hard to imagine Wexler could’ve written a better finale for the Shadow Campaigns. I loved this series, and the ending did not let me down.
The Infernal Battalion is available January 9th from Ace.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.