This flintlock fantasy (meaning that it employs a Napoleon-Era-like setting and wars that are fought with muskets, bayonets, and artillery . . . and magic) is the third book in a series that began with The Thousand Names and continued with The Shadow Throne. The first book was in many ways a war chronicle. The second focused on the home front after the military victory obtained in the first book, and to the Royal Palace at Ohnlei, where the king was dying, and his only heir, 20-year-old Raesinia, was scheduled to become Queen.
In the first book, we became aware that in this kingdom there were forces of darkness operating, members of a shadowy church employing supernatural powers. They apparently started out as a movement to destroy the evil demons of the world, but ended up very much in their service. These “Priests of the Black” have mostly died out, but seek a return to power.
In this book, the revolution against autocracy has taken place, and ostensible power in Vordan supposedly is now in the hands of the people. But the Black Priests have managed to corrupt the Chairman of the Directory of National Defense, Johann Maurisk, who is doing their bidding by trying to destroy all their enemies, which includes the new queen. Maurisk is even employing his own version of the guillotine, called “The Spike,” to which increasing numbers are sent for expressing any doubt about Maurisk or even just looking at soldiers the wrong way.
On the other side, helping Raesinia to end the tyranny orchestrated by the dark priests, is the Army of the East, headed by General Janus bet Vhalnich. As the book begins he is, however, away from the capital, battling other kingdoms threatened by Vordan’s example of elected democracy.
One of Vhalnich’s best military leaders happens to be Winter Ihernglass, a brave, resourceful female disguised as a male. Her command includes the all-female Fifth Volunteer Battalion, led by her lover Jane Verity.
Winter has another card up her sleeve besides her own talents. In the first book, she had taken into herself the demon Infernivore during the battle to secure the Thousand Names. “The Thousand Names” refers to the religious plinths that delineate the naaths, or names of demons that, if translated and spoken, will give the speaker the power of the demon. As one character explains:
“The naath only have power inside a human soul. The letters are only sounds, until they are spoken aloud. The naath binds to the soul, and the soul must be strong enough to bear it.”
Winter apparently did have such a strong soul, and now she “houses” Infernivore. If Winter lays a hand on another demon-carrier, she could will Infernivore to come forth and devour the other creature, killing the host. For Vhalnich, this made Winter a potent weapon against what he called the true enemy: the Priests of the Black and their Penitent Damned – those who have already absorbed very nasty demons to do the bidding of the priests.
The forces of good have another secret weapon besides Winter: the enemy of their enemy, namely, Malik-dan-Belial or The Steel Ghost. He is the last of an order also working against the abh-naathem (deviant priests). He believes if the Priests of the Black get hold of the Thousand Names – the only archive of naath still outside their control – it may mean the end of the world.
Not all demons are inherently evil – unknown to most people, Queen Raesinia herself also had a demon placed inside her, one that will not let her die. No matter what happens to her, its power restores her to perfect health, repairing her flesh almost as soon as it is injured. She also no longer ages, nor needs to sleep.
Vhalnich finally vanquishes those immediately opposed to Vordan, returns to the capital city, and removes Maurisk from power. In the process, however, he lost the Thousand Names. Vhalnich tells Colonel Marcus d’Ivoire, his personal liaison, that they must recapture the Names, as well as go the Elysium, home of the Priests of the Black, or they will never have peace. To that end, Raesinia appoints Janus the First Counsul of the Kingdom of Vordan to finish what they had started. Still she has her doubts: “‘Be wary of Vlahnich,’ the Steel Ghost had told her, ‘He plans deep.’”
Discussion: In this book we learn much more about The Thousand Names, and we see a lot more of the bravery of the women who join with the men to fight for their country. We also get additional exposure to some of the better characters of the previous book, including the mysterious Mrs. Felda, who provides food and shelter for the rebels; the amazing 14-year-old Cora, whose knowledge of finances helps Raesinia and her forces to effect their aims; two of Winter’s most trusted lieutenants, Cyte and Abby; Raesinia’s close advisor Sothe, and the naive and loveable Colonel Marcus d’Ivoire.
I was surprised this series is intended to go on longer than for a trilogy, but not disappointed. The characters and plot developments are interesting enough to make me want to continue with the story. I also love the strong roles for women in this series, and the ways in which lesbian relationships are just integrated into the plot in the same way as are heterosexual relationships. Both types of interactions are realistic, without gratuitous prurience, and without dominating the main political plot.
Evaluation: This isn’t really a standalone book, but I hope that lovers of both fantasy and books with strong female characters will discover this series, because it is quite entertaining, has a number of memorable characters, and most of all, is very unique in its use of females in central roles in a typically male-dominated military setting.
Published by ROC, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA), 2015