The Penitent Damned is a short prequel story to Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series. It uses a largely different cast, and is thematically distinct, but gives the reader an impression of the broader world, wrapped in a fast-moving heist story.
The world of Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns is one which is seen, in the rest of the series, through the lens of war. Armies march across deserts, generals seek to preserve or overthrow governments. Politicians plot for power behind the scenes. And a thread of the supernatural runs through it all. The Penitent Damned takes place in this world, but rather than on some blasted plains amidst an army, it’s an urban piece. Wexler takes us to the capital city, and manages to make it come quietly alive. Why quietly? The larger portion of the text takes place during an attempted theft, and so everyone is moving rather quietly. Despite that, we’re shown enough of the city through internal monologue to make it feel like a sprawling metropolis, in contrast to the environs in which our protagonist finds herself.
On which topic, the local environs for the theft are very well portrayed. We’re given enough description to build out the environs (in this case a library), but left to fill in the gaps with imagination. Still, Wexler spins up a location which is both foreboding and intriguing – perfect bait for a cat-burglar.
Which is exactly what our protagonist is. Alex is a thief with talent, a desire to make a name for herself, and some not entirely natural skills. She’s a great protagonist, in the short time we have with her – wry, pragmatic, with a learned sense of caution, and a slightly larger streak of inherent rashness. Her interactions with her mentor are a pleasure to read – the older, more experienced thief trying to fight a sense of greed with a sense of dread - and the pressures that he and his pupil place on each other lead them to make some interesting decisions. What we see of Alex’s character is consistent and well crafted – she’s got a strong internal voice, which flows out to the reader in a convincing tone. It would have been nice to have given the supporting cast a little more room to grow as well, but that may be the constraints of the format, rather than anything else.
That said, the villains are appropriately menacing, and in some instances, downright creepy. There’s the occasional moment of dialogue which sent shivers down my spine; there’s something about villains with sensible, but appalling motivations – Wexler does a great job of making his a combination of convincing and terrifying.
The plot is tightly packed into it’s relatively short number of pages. There’s betrayal, double crosses, chase scenes, fights, and some seriously cool magic. The author keeps the pace steady, gradually ramping up, so that the slow burn of the early pages is balanced by frenetic action later on. It’s a fast read, and one which was difficult to put down – because I wanted to see how it ended. The text promises an adventure with edges, and Wexler delivers on that promise.
Is it worth reading? If you’re looking for more of the Shadow Campaigns, yes, absolutely. If you’ve not read them before, this is a great introduction to the kind of mood and style that those books employ to such great effect. Either way then, it’s certainly worth your time – I just wish there was more of it.