This review specifically covers the last two books in Djanjo Wexler’s “The Shadow Campaigns” series, book four, The Guns of Empire, and the conclusion in book five, The Infernal Battalion but also discusses the series as a whole. Each book of The Shadow Campaigns gets a 4 star rating, however the strength of the series as a whole is 5 stars.
With each book Wexler expands the scope of the story and fills in the world with greater detail. The Thousand Names is a military campaign in the deserts of Khandar. In The Shadow Throne the capital city of Vordan is nearly torn apart with treachery and revolution. The Price of Valor reaches out into the countryside of Vordan as different factions struggle to take control of the kingdom. At the start of the fourth book, The Guns of Empire, the Vordanai army has coalesced into greatest military force of recent Vordan history. With the blessing of Queen Raesinia Orboan, the grand army is marching north into Murnsk and towards the city Elysium, where the seat of power resides for the Black Priests and the Penitent Damned. In the final book, The Infernal Battalion, the stakes have gone from the fate of a single country to the fate of the entire world being threatened.
The books are primarily told through the perspective of three characters; Winter Inhernglass and Marcus d’Ivoire, soldiers in the Vordanai army, and Queen Raesinia, with the occasional chapter by a different character. They are among the few who know that while different countries have been squabbling for power due to Vordan’s political turmoil, the real struggle is with the Black Priests, a secret faction within the Sworn Church who have repressed all magical knowledge and secretly been using demons as a way to manipulate world events in their favor. The main trio’s separate arcs interweave to create the fabric of the whole story across the series.
The covers of the first three books are rather generic. On the fourth cover we finally see a person that actually looks like it is a character from the books, Winter Inhernglass. Winter is a woman who presents as a man in the military, and as a main character it was nice to see her on one of the covers. Winter’s arc is an emotional journey as she rises through the ranks of the Vordanai army due to her intelligence, care for the people under her command, and a strong moral compass, while also hiding her gender, trying to understand her sexuality, and coming to grips with the fact that she now hosts a demon, Infernivore, in her soul that can devour other demons.
Orphaned at a young age, Winter has no memory of her family. She was provided for in an institution where girls in similar circumstances were raised and once of appropriate age they would be sold off into marriages. During her time there she experienced her first love and sexual awakening with Jane Verity. Terrible circumstances caused Winter to flee the institution and get away as far as possible. To this end, she disguised herself as male to join the military and leave on a foreign campaign in Khandar. There had never been anyone before Jane and there hadn’t been anyone else since, leaving Winter uncertain of her sexuality, especially as there are no openly LGBTQ people in her country and she isn’t aware of a term for women liking women. Was she attracted to women or only Jane? Once in the military, Winter shuts her sexual self down due to the hiding her gender.
Over the course of the series we watch Winter transform from a lowly ranker trying to avoid notice and conflict to becoming a confident Column General, one of the highest ranks of the Vordanai army. This presents a tricky balancing act of who knows Winter’s gender and who doesn’t. But even as more people are let in on her secret, Winter clings to her male identity as it is intimately linked with her life in the army, a life that has become so familiar and comfortable that she associates the army camp with home. A reunion with Jane awakens dormant feelings but creates new conflict as Jane cannot accept Winter’s commitment to the military.
At the start of the fourth book Jane has run off leaving Winter despondent but with no time to reflect on the loss. The military is on the move with Winter, now a Column General, continuing to oversee the first mixed male and female battalion in the history of Vordan. More people than ever know about her gender but Winter doesn’t want to live openly for fear of how her male military counterparts she has known for years will react. During the campaign going to Murnsk, a tentative relationship begins to develop between Winter and Colonel Cyte, after Cyte shares her attraction to Winter and confusion at these feelings towards another woman. Finding herself the object of attraction, Winter begins examining her sexual identity in recognizing that she is attracted to Cyte in return.
Then all hell breaks loose as the Vordanai continue steadily advancing into Murnsk. The pressure is steadily applied to the army of Vordan as the Black Priests do everything in their supernatural demon arsenal power to stop the on coming army. Wexler has put his characters in dire straights before but the fourth book takes on a whole new level of desperation and odds stacked against his characters. As I was approaching the end of the book, I wondered if Wexler could wrap things up into a neat ending the way the previous three books had or if it would be a cliff hanger. The story was going at a breakneck pace and didn’t seem as though it could be wrapped up with the number of pages left. In the end Wexler pulled the threads together and there is some resolution.
In the fifth book hell breaks loose in a more literal sense. The Beast in the Sworn Church’s doctrines was not a figurative being but a literal demon. The Beast contains more than a thousand years of pent up rage and wants nothing more than the subjugation and then elimination of humanity. Infernivore, Winter’s demon, becomes more important that ever but she is far from where she needs to be. Through the ensuing trials Winter breaks down, from the physical demands, and from guilt over all those who have followed her and died. People she perceives who would have been better off, or at least alive, had they not become entangled with her. By the end of the fifth book, Winter is a completely different person than the young woman we met in book one. She has found her place in the world and understanding of who she is in regards to identity and sexuality. Winter is not a common character you find in fantasy and as such I enjoyed her different voice narrating the hero journey she undertakes.
Winter’s journey is only a fraction of these books as there is also the congruent story lines of Marcus and Raesinia. Their storylines criss cross and overlap with each other more than with Winter. When first introduced to Raesinia she was Princess heir apparent, who was also secretly fomenting a revolution, and known to a very small number of people as host to a demon that gives her supernatural healing powers. I like Winter and Raesinia’s story lines better than Marcus and occasionally would wonder what purpose he served besides different perspective to the events going on. However, the actions in the first three books builds towards Marcus coming into his own more in the fourth and fifth books and his story comes full circle with some unexpected resolutions by the end.
The series as a whole is stupendous. I’m grateful that by the time I found the first book, the fifth book was close to publication so I didn’t have to wait for books to be released. While writing this review I searched for a city name to get correct spelling, and found someone describe the series as “flintlock fantasy”. I hadn’t seen that term before but it is an excellent description of the mix of musketry and cannon level of technology with the fantastical magic elements. Over five books Wexler created military battle sequences and fights that were engaging, filled with tension, and never felt repetitive. He also created wonderful characters that you felt strongly for, rooted for, and held your breath with them as action was happening. I highly recommend The Shadow Campaigns and plan on checking out his middle grade fiction that my 11 year old likes.