(2016) Django Wexler, Head of Zeus, £20, hrdbk, v + 464pp, ISBN 978-1-786-69201-6
At last, a good book. A really good book, with a decent, understandable map. And yet, my heart sank as I unwrapped it for reading. ‘Book four of the Shadow Campaigns’. Not having read books 1 to 3, would it make any sense? Would I be gripped? Thankfully, yes.
It is difficult to describe where we are in this story. Is this another world, which uses bits of western culture and history, an alternative earth or one of those ‘What if’ stories where the crushing of a butterfly in the sixth century prevents the rise of Hitler in the twentieth. As with so many of such books, it revolves around war (if only authors could come up with a different story-line), which is fought, principally, by armies of the Napoleonic era. Cavalry, hussars, bayonets etc. And one of the most courageous and effective divisions of soldiers are the Girls’ Own brigade, a dedicated and efficient women’s troop.
But there is also a backstory of some sort of religious conflict, with various ‘Church’s’ at war with each other, heretics, demons and individuals having specific powers (one cannot be killed, another seems to be able to stretch their limbs to an impossible length), which all sounded a lot like the TV series Heroes. And then there is the Beast, a malign power that is able to overwhelm individuals and groups, so that towards the end of the book, a whole city is the Beast.
The narrative is told through the stories of individuals, who have their own chapter (or half a chapter), and which chart the progress of the campaign against the Sworn Church of Elysium, through a countryside littered with towns with names which sound eastern European. The skirmishes and battles are brought to life, and having watched the 2016 BBC production of War and Peace seem realistic. In particular, the section where they trudge through thick snow is just as you imagine the retreat from Moscow.
One of those individuals, and the hero(ine) of the story is Winter Ihernglass, a woman posing as a man, and a senior officer in the army. How this was possible and necessary was obviously outlined in the previous books, but the disguise must be very good as those around her have no idea until they are let in on the secret. This disguise also helps the cover the fact that Ihernglass is a lesbian, who can welcome female subordinates into her tent without suspicion.
There are other principal characters who have a part to play, but it is Ihernglass that you look out for, and wonder how and when she is going to re-appear.
All in all, a good read, and I am already seeking out the previous volumes to fill in the gap.
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