Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Shadow Campaigns series by Django Wexler

As a child I was lucky enough to have THE HOBBIT and LORD OF THE RINGS read to me. (When I was a child in Junior school, teachers used to read stories to their class at the end of every day, and one year I had a teacher who read us THE HOBBIT followed by the recently-published LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy.)

This early exposure to fantasy fiction rather soured my view of other books in the genre, especially after I re-read Tolkein's books when I was at college in the early 1970s. I suppose it was a case of 'I've read the best, why bother with the rest?' I have tried reading other fantasy novels - including EMPIRE OF FEAR by Brian Stableford, which features Edmund Cordery as one of its main protagonists - but until recently most seemed to be pale imitations of Tolkein's books.

(One book that did stand out as being an exception to this was JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL by Susanna Clarke. It is set in an alternative/fantasy version of England during the Napoleonic era.)

My attitude to fantasy fiction changed when I chanced upon the short story THE PENITENT DAMNED by Django Wexler.


It was the first of his series of books that form THE SHADOW CAMPAIGNS series. (I understand that they classed as being 'Musket and Magic' fantasy books.) Since then I have read each of books in the series as they have been published:
  • THE THOUSAND NAMES
  • THE SHADOW THRONE
  • THE SHADOW OF ELYSIUM (A novella)
  • THE PRICE OF VALOUR
  • THE GUNS OF EMPIRE

The stories are set in a time somewhat akin to the end of the eighteenth/beginning on the nineteenth century, and other than the magic element (and some more adult themes that probably make them unsuitable for younger readers) they can be read as the 'histories' of a number of imagi-nations. There are some obvious parallels with European history at that time (e.g. a revolution against a repressive regime; the invasion of a Russia-like country and the impact of fighting during its winter) and from slightly later (e.g. a colonial campaign in an Egypt-like colony). I understand that the writer – Django Wexler – has used European history to inspire elements of the plots in his books and that he is also a wargamer ... which might account for the way in which the battles that are featured in the stories are described.

34 comments:

  1. Bob,
    Long ago I too read the 'Hobbit' and thoroughly enjoyed it and thought it to be fantastic and Tolkein's style of story telling certainly impressed upon me what Fantasy- Middle earth is all about!- later I read 'The Lord of the Rings'- I enjoyed the first LOTR though the other two books I found hard going and I never finished reading them...I'm not necessarily a Novel reader - the last book of this ilk that I read was more than twelve years ago- 'Dracula' by Bram Stoker...again I thoroughly enjoyed it. Hats off to you Bob for enjoying the Django Wexler series. Cheers. KEV.

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    1. Kev,

      Due to an undiagnosed learning difficulty I did not learn to read or write until after most of my contemporaries ... but once I did learn, I became an avid reader. My wife says that I devour books, and the fact that my Kindle has nearly 300 books on it bears this out.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  2. How about the six (or is it seven) part Dune Trilogy (sic)? The first part is very good but then unfortunately the second is dreadful. From then it improves a bit but doesn't get better than the first.

    As a student I babysat Brian Stableford's daughter. That's the sum total of any claim to fame I might have.

    Cheers

    Andrew

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    1. Rumblestrip (Andrew),

      I must admit that I have never read any of the DUNE books, but I've heard from those that have that they are a bit ponderous in places.

      When it comes to reading long books, the longest I have ever attempted - and read - was Victor Hugo's LES MISERABLES. Hugo has a tendency to go 'off piste' quite a bit in order to give his readers the fullest background and understanding to events and places. His description of the Paris sewer system is ... very comprehensive. However his description of the Battle of Waterloo is worth reading.

      Did you know Brian Stableford or was the babysitting just an example of happenstance? I just wonder why he chose to use my family surname for this particular character. The only other example of its use in literature is in a Conan Doyle short story ... but not a Sherlock Holmes one!

      All the best,

      Bob

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    2. I didn't really know Brian Stableford - I probably only met him once or twice and at the time didn't know anything about him (realistically I still don't).

      I came to the babysitting job by a friend who did it before/with me - I never knew how she got it but I suspect it was via the author's wife working somewhere in the university we were at.

      The most interesting thing was his house which was packed with books. Every single wall had floor to ceiling bookshelves - the corridors between rooms, the bathroom and all the others. I think the kitchen was the only one devoid of books. I have the sense that today all the shelves would still be there and packed with full kindles.

      His work ethic was strong as well. His wife would describe him as disappointed if he didn't routinely write 10,000 words every day.

      Cheers

      Andrew

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    3. Rumblestrip (Andrew),

      I had sort of guessed that the job of babysitting may have come to you in such a manner; I seem to remember something similar happening to me when I was at college, although I didn't end up looking after the child of anyone even vaguely important.

      I have two married friends who are both involved in the literary world, and their house is likewise crammed from floor to ceiling with bookcases in almost every room. I have often joked that it is the bookcases that are keeping the roof up, and that there are actually no walls behind them!

      10,000 words per day is some going. When I write I think I have done well if I manage 4,000 to 5,000 in a day. Mind you I think that writing is like riding a bicycle; it takes time to learn how to do it fairly well, and if you take a longish break at some point you find it difficult to get back to your previous level of ability.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  3. I thought Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was excellent, hints of M Peake ??? unsettling and funny. I then did my usual of not watching the dramatisation on the grounds that it "would not be as good as the book". I think I may have been cutting my nose off to spite my face on that one. I shall look out for the beeks you mention. Thanks.

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    1. Chris Platt,

      The Strange and Norrell dramatisation was better than I expected to be. It certainly had overtones of Mervyn Peake.

      I think that the Kindle versions of the novella and short story are available for less than a pound from Amazon.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  4. You might enjoy the Monster Blood Tattoo trilogy, Bob.

    Regards, Chris

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    1. Chris Kemp (Chris),

      Thanks for the suggestion. I'll certainly take a look at the trilogy.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  5. Thanks for the heads up, I downloaded the sample for kindle and it looks to be up my alley.

    The first bit had me thinking of the French in Egypt but even more than that the setting reminded me of a musket era Hyboria though the writing is not as concise as Howard's. Could be good imagination fodder for a wargame campaign.

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    1. Ross Mac,

      I hope that you enjoy reading the books. I must admit that I thought that the campaign in Khandar was akin to the British reconquest of the Sudan, and had not seen the parallel with the French in Egypt.

      Musket-era Hyboria? I had not seen it in that light, but you are right, it is very much like that. The maps are definitely useful starting points for campaigns, and I will feature them in my next blog entry.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  6. I must look up the Django Wexler books...

    Years ago I took out, by remote learning, a Diploma in Children's Literature (now defunct, unfortunately), just out of interest, having a very small daughter at the time (since grown up and domiciled in Oz). One of the courses I did for it was in the Fantasy Genre - and a fascinating course it was, too.

    Now, up until then I wasn't much of a Fantasy fan - SF was more my speed, but I just loved historical novels (C.S. Forester, Patrick O'Brien and George Macdonald Fraser are particular favourites). But this course got me onto a whole range of Fantasy for children and young adults.

    What got me interested was the exploration of underlying meanings. Just to give a hint at where these things can take you, it is my conviction that the Bible, Milton's 'Paradise Lost', The fairy tale 'Snow White and the seven dwarfs' and 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets', all, in their own different ways, tell the same story of the Fall and Redemption.

    But equally compelling were the imaginative premises behind a lot of the stories. I could rabbit on about this sort of thing for hours, but given the topic of this posting, I think you might like the stories of Harry Turtledove. Some, like the 'Lost Legion' books, are set in a fantasy world - a Roman Legion somehow transported to another world, where they take service in an Empire easily recognised as Byzantine.

    But Mr Turtledove's main genre is in alternative histories. A whole series begins with the Confederacy establishing its independence. That, by the way, might easily slot into yours or Ross Mac's war gaming interests. Imagine World War One with an American Dimension, as the highly industrialised USA (allied with Germany) finds itself at war on two, possibly three, fronts: Canada, the Confederacy, and some obscure sectarian community in Utah...

    I have long been a fan of the late Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. My favourite comes rather late in the series: 'Nightwatch'. Think 'Paris Commune', but not Paris Commune... Great read.

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    1. Archduke Piccolo,

      Thank you for making such an interesting comment.

      I must admit that reading your comment has given me a lot to think about, and may well end up with me writing a blog entry about certain aspects of what you have said, particularly with regard to alternate history.

      I find the concept of 'Children's Literature' to be an interesting one. Other than the very simple books that are essentially reading books with lots of repetition of word sounds, phrases, etc., most books aimed at children tell stories that an adult can read and enjoy. Good 'Children's Literature' is first and foremost good literature.

      (That said, some popular stories written by authors for children are not always good literature and yet still attract an adult following. I suspect that the reason is that the basic stories - what you identify as 'Fall and Redemption' stories - are good even if the writing isn't always of the highest quality.)

      In the realms of fantasy stories aimed at younger readers, it is interesting to compare C S Lewis's NARNIA stories with Philip Pullman's HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy. The first is very much a reflection of a Christian view of the world and the latter is very definitely not, and yet both tell stories of selfless sacrifice and love for one's fellow creatures.

      I know and have read quite a few of Harry Turtledove's books, especially his THE WAR THAT CAME EARLY series. I find his alternate history plots believable even if some of his characters are less so. I have also dipped my toe into Terry Pratchett's work, and certainly enjoyed the books that I read. They seemed to be a satirical commentary on the modern world, and showed that a good story told well can give you enjoyment and make you think.

      All the best,

      Bob

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    2. I certainly agree with your comment on the literary value of Children's Literature (so-called). But the best of them tell good stories. From the antipodean world, my daughter very much enjoyed John Marsden's series that opens with 'Tomorrow, when the War began.' Some kids on holiday in the bush discover their country (Australia) has been invaded and occupied. It goes from there.

      I've read I think four of the Narnia books, and all of 'His Dark Materials' - much preferred the latter, though Narnia ain't bad. Incidentally, I felt the film makers did Narnia more justice than they did with 'The Golden Compass/Northern Lights'.

      I think we could have a long and interesting conversation over a few cold ones. By the way, I enjoyed the Harry Potter books. The writing often reads as though it were done on a word processor, but for these, the stories carry the weight when the writing falls short, and that doesn't happen too often. There have been much better writers around (our own Margaret Mahy became well known as a wordsmith) but J.K. Rowling is a very clever storyteller.

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    3. Archduke Piccolo,

      It takes a lot to beat a good story told well.

      I have heard of TOMORROW, WHEN THE WAR BEGAN series because of the film that was made of the first book. (I think that it has been shown in the UK on one of the film channels.) From what I could gather it was similar in concept to RED DAWN, but that it went into greater depth as the series progressed.

      The film of THE GOLDEN COMPASS was reasonable, but the films of the NARNIA books were much better. This is a pity as - like you - I thought that Pullman's books were better and lent themselves to film adaptation.

      Whilst I have enjoyed the HARRY POTTER films, I was not able to read more than a few chapters of a couple of the books. I felt that the stories were good, but that I just did not like J K Rowling's writing style. As you write, she is an excellent storyteller but I do not feel that she is a great writer.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  7. Interestingly enough, I was also read The Hobbit at school (and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe), and it had quite an impact on my reading tastes.

    Best,
    Aaron

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    1. Prufrock (Aaron),

      I suspect that not all modern children might not get quite the same exposure to books that we may have done. They are an excellent way in which to stimulate the imagination, and are a great preparation for life.

      I sometimes wonder if the way that English Literature is taught in schools may be counter-productive to the sheer enjoyment of reading, and that picking apart and analysing books in minute detail may lead students not to see them as something that are essentially intended to be enjoyed. From what I have seen, it is rather like taking a butterfly apart to see how it works ... and in the process destroying a thing of beauty.

      All the best,

      Bob

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    2. English was my unfavourite subject at school, so it was with some irony that I discovered late in life that I was quite good at 'Lit Crit'. The problem with school was that what we were being taught was 'the New Criticism', which is about as dry an approach as can be imagined. I discovered things like Freudian and Jungian interpretations; archetypal, social, structural and transactional analysis. And post-modernism, though of this I am bound to say that if we accept what post-modernists claim for it, then Euripides and Aristophanes were post-modernists.

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    3. Archduke Piccolo,

      I never 'got' English until I was in my third year at secondary school. I was lucky enough to be in a class that was taught by a very inspiring teacher, and he kindled (no pun intended!) a love of reading fiction that I had not had before.

      Literary criticism is - I am sure - a very worthwhile thing ... but I have seen it taught so badly that I can see why so many students are turned off by it. The following is a rough approximation of a conversation I once observed:

      Teacher to pupil: 'You have to understand that when the writer describes the sky as being grey, it is a metaphor for his own feelings for the situation he finds himself in.'

      Pupil to teacher: 'But that don't make sense to me.'

      Teacher to pupil: 'That's because you are not empathising with the narrator's character. His life is in turmoil and he sees the grey sky as symbolic of the way he feels and his inability to lighten the situation he finds himself in.'

      Pupil to Teacher: 'Then why does he put his raincoat on in the next paragraph and say that he thinks it is about to rain?'

      Teacher to pupil: 'Just write what I have told you otherwise you will not pass this piece of coursework.'

      All the best,

      Bob

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    4. Bob, how all too true! I remember my mother - who had a brief career as a stage actress before she married - commenting on why Shakespeare inserted such and such a rather unnecessary scene in Hamlet: 'Burbage (who played Hamlet at the Globe) has been on stage for several scenes in a row and needs a toilet/pipe break!' Sadly, I never dared put that in my A-Level English essay...
      Best wishes,
      Arthur

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    5. Dear me, that is dire. The teacher might well have been right - writers do use environment, including weather, to convey the personal feelings, or mood, or 'atmosphere'. That was very much a feature of P,G, Wodehouse stories. In movies, this sort of thing is a lot more obvious.

      But we always have to remember Sigmund Freud's own comment: "Sometimes a cigar is just a damned good smoke, ja?

      But 'just write what I told you' was probably the worst thing for that kid's education that the teacher could have come up with. It also has to be borne in mind that meaning can be very personal. Possibly the kid in question didn't 'empathise' with the character. That is quite fair enough. That is why I don't like 'the New Criticsm' (which, as it dates from the first half of the 20th century, ain't so 'new'). It is far too prescriptive, as though only a New Critic can possibly understand the true meaning of a text.

      Horrors.

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    6. Arthur 1815 (Arthur),

      Shakespeare may have been a great playwright and story teller, but he was first and foremost an actor and would have understood the needs of his fellow professionals. The story that he added extra scenes so that an actor could go offstage to restore his personal comforts makes perfect sense to me!

      All the best,

      Bob

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    7. Archduke Piccolo,

      It is a reflection of the sad and sorry state of the English education system that students in mainstream schools are required to write the 'correct' answer to a question (i.e. the one laid down by the examination board) if they are to pass an examination ... and passing is how the so-called effectiveness of their education is measured. It is one of the reasons why I did not regret reaching retirement age.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  8. I completely agree, Bob. I enjoyed being read to in primary school but loathed the high school English curriculum. As a constant reader in my own time, I always found the novels in school were dreadfully boring, deadening, and chosen for their themes, not for their quality. I actually went on to do an MA in Lit. but it was despite high school, not because of it!

    Best,
    Aaron

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    1. Prufrock (Aaron),

      Funnily enough my wife and I were recently discussing the awful novels that we had been made to read at school. They included ADAM BEDE, MILL ON THE FLOSS, and SILAS MARNER. A diet of that was enough to kill any love of literature stone dead in the hearts of most teenagers!

      All the best,

      Bob

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    2. Although I disliked English as a subject, I did like some of the novels and plays we did. I still enjoy Shakespeare. I liked THE OTTERBURY INCIDENT, MOONFLEET, JANE EYRE; didn't like WUTHERING HEIGHTS, GRAPES OF WRATH (though I could appreciate the underlying anger of GoW, I preferred CANNERY ROW) and MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE (By the by, I once read a Max Brand Western that had much the same theme as MoC). SILAS MARNER was never a set book, but I liked that yarn. But of the set books, I read two of them before I ever knew they were set books (Grapes of W and thr Otterbury Incident).

      The old classics can be a hard read these days. For some reason I have never been able to explain to myself, I find Charles Dickens entirely unreadable. I got through 4 chapters of Pickwick papers, and one page of Martin Cuzzlewit, and that was my lot. The TV adaptations tell me he wrote great stories, but I've never been able to get past some of the densest prose I have ever struck. He makes even Thomas Hardy or Henry Fielding look light...

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    3. Archduke Piccolo,

      I loved the Shakespeare that I studied (HENRY V in particular!), but the novels we read were mostly dire. We read none of the books that you have listed, and the first novel that I read that was actually enjoyable to read and which turned me on to reading novels was THE SHIP by C S Forester. Once my eyes had been opened, I devoured any of his books that I could get hold of, and I became a lifelong fan of the adventures of Hornblower!

      Dickens was included in our curriculum (we read GREAT EXPECTATIONS) and I did not find that too bad. However some of the other stories were better as TV adaptations rather than as books to be read!

      All the best,

      Bob

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  9. I started Reading Hornblower at age 11. I have copies of all the Hornblower books - even Hornblower and the crisis' on my bookshelf beside me. Of CS Forester's other books I've read 'Death to the French' and 'The Ship' (when I was at school), and later on 'The General', which I also have kept a copy of. My fav Shakespeare plays are the Wars of the Roses, as performed on BBC in 1982, I think. Ron Cook made as fine a Richard III as can be imagined, and mark Wing-Davy (a.k.a. Zaphod Beeblebrox) as fine an Earl of Warwick. I liked them.

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    1. Archduke Piccolo,

      I notice that you don't list C S Forester's THE GUN. If you haven't read it I strongly recommend that you do. I re-read it earlier this year and it helped to boost my interest in my Napoleonic project no end.

      Shakespeare's history plays are always good value, and the recent series of them on the BBC entitled THE HOLLOW CROWN was excellent. That said my favourite stage play remains HENRY V, although the film of RICHARD III that was set in the 1930s comes a close second.

      In my youth I took part in several school productions of Shakespeare plays, and particularly enjoyed my roles as a murderer and soldier in the Scottish Play.

      All the best,

      Bob

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    2. I have read THE GUN - I had forgotten about that one. My father-in-law had a copy. I've seen the Olivier HENRY V - very good. But I am afraid the Ian McKellen RICHARD III just did nothing for me. The opening soliloquy as celebratory political speech was a great beginning, but after that, I felt it was all downhill. They even took away Richard's sole redeeming feature: bald, in-your-face courage. Shame.

      To conclude: dost thou not speak of... MacBETH?
      (I truly am a Philistine, one who enjoyed BLACKADDER).

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    3. Archduke Piccolo,

      I'm glad that you have read THE GUN; it is an excellent book!

      Olivier's HENRY V is good ... but has to be viewed as a propaganda piece as well as in its own right. Many years ago I saw Alan Howard play Harry at the RSC, and thought that it was the best version of the play I had ever seen.

      I must beg to disagree about McKellen's RICHARD III. I thought it was wonderful ... and showed how Shakespeare is still relevant to modern audiences. I actually showed it to some of my students, and they all agreed that they had not realised that it was a filmed version of a Shakespeare play because the story was so well told. Mind you, having seen Benedict Cumberbatch play Richard in the latest BBC TV series of history plays, I thought that he was much better than McKellen.

      I do speak of the 'Scottish' play ... and was taught from a young age to always refer to it as such. Having two cousins (one distant and one quite close) who were professional actors and who worked for the RSC, I was told that calling it by its name was tempting fate.

      All the best,

      Bob

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    4. I haven't seen the Cumberbatch R3 - I'll keep an eye out for it. Still liked Ron Cook's portrayal - as engaging a villain as one could hope to meet.
      Cheers,
      Ion

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    5. Archduke Piccolo (Ion),

      The whole of THE HOLLOW CROWN series of Shakespeare's War of the Roses plays is worth watching if you get the chance.

      All the best,

      Bob

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