Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Guns of Empire - Django Wexler

The Guns of Empire is the fourth in Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series – a character driven work of military fantasy.

The Guns of Empire is set in a world with echoes of the Napoleonic Wars about it. There’s a lot of the gentle pageantry of nineteenth century brutality – colourful uniforms and shining steel; but there’s also a lot of the harder reality – blood on the edge of swords, cannons destroying ranks of soldiers, the horror of the wounded. Alongside this there’s the emotional closeness of warfare. The willingness to do anything for friends and comrades. There’s something else as well though – there’s a tinge of magic floating through the air, more than a hint of Sharpe With Sorcerors. Whilst the armies march, there are those on all sides who carry seemingly supernatural powers, having spoken the names of otherworldy entities. Some are driving the agenda of the conflict, and others are simply trying to survive it.

This is Wexler’s world, one where the supernatural is real, seething beneath the surface. Where a church exists with a hidden mandate to contain “demonic” entities, and is willing to risk anything to do so. Where a newly formed constitutional monarchy is struggling to stand on both feet against neighbours terrified of the contagion of revolution. Where there’s always more than one agenda, and where the world can change on the knives and conscience of a supernatural assassin, or on the tramping feet of marching regiments.

This being the fourth book, most readers will be familiar with the broad strokes of the world, and indeed the characters, most of whom we’ve tracked over the last three books. Still, there are some changes here. Winter, our every-woman soldier, now heads up part of the largest formal army assembled in the modern world. Watching her sweat over this responsibility, and seeing how she deals with the potential for failure, as well as the adrenaline of success, makes intriguing reading. She is also, of course, struggling to deal with the consequences from the end of the last book, when one of her key relationships was shattered in the flash of gunpowder. This is Winter slowly being ground down by the demands of her position, grieving in a way, and struggling to fully articulate a sense of self. As the narrative begins, she’s clearly drowning, and we’re shown that as a fully realised portrayal of someone at the end of their tether.

Winter is joined by other favourites of course. There’s Raes, sometime revolutionary and now also the reigning monarch of a country at war. Much like Winter, she’s coming into a new sense of herself, becoming both the symbol and an independent force alongside that. Raes’s movement toward being the authority figure that her people need, and that circumstances demand, has been a joy to watch over the preceding texts, and that journey continues here, as she begins to clash with other active powers in the world.

Part of her journey is in a growing relationship with Marcus D’Ivoire, a career officer with certain views on honour. He’s struggling between his loyalty to his Queen and country, and his personal loyalty to Janus, the general to whom he owes everything. That conflict within Marcus is also symbolic of a wider one, as conversations about military, royal and government authority begin to circulate, alongside the necessity of expediency during a continent-spanning war. Marcus has always been defined by his loyalty, the knight-errant – and watching that loyalty tear him in two seems both perfectly correct and utterly terrifying. It’s a wonderfully done portrait of a man on the cusp of some very hard decisions – and that’s an area the text doesn’t shy away from.

We get to see more of the supporting cast too, of course, including some time with the ever-enigmatic Janus. The villains remain convincing, and it’s difficult to say, when given a view of their motives, whether they’re even in the wrong. Some of them, of course, are wonderfully, skin-crawlingly malevolent, and feeling that pour off the page is an absolute delight.

Plot-wise, there’s rather a lot going on here. If you’re here for the battles, Wexler provides them with his customary focus and panache. There’s blood, grit and gore aplenty, to go along with heroes and cowards – and botches and triumphs that look set to change the face of the world. But there’s a larger context in play too, keeping you turning the pages – the conflict between the nation of Vordan and the church is a branch of another conflict, over the role of supernatural entities in society, and that struggle is at least as vital as the one on the battlefield. It’s gut wrenching, tense, compelling stuff. If you’re reading this, the fourth book in the series, then I can safely say that all of the things you enjoyed feel like they’re still here – but the stakes are getting higher, and it’s getting harder to put the book down.

Is it worth reading? If you’re a new reader, go back to The Thousand Names, the first in the series, and try out a unique blend of warfare, magic, politics and personalities. If you’re coming from The Price of Valor, then yes – pick this one up. It’s not going to let you go once you do. 

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