By ABC Amsterdam Science Fiction & Fantasy buyer Tiemen
Hi! I’m Django Wexler, I write fantasy and love all things SFF. The Shadow Campaigns is my military fantasy series, a story of war and magic in a world loosely based on Europe in the 18th century.
I loved reading The Thousand Names and The Shadow Throne. They are quite different from your average medieval knights and damsels fantasy and instead of swords and dragons you have muskets and mortars. What inspired you to write flintlock fantasy?
I loved George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and especially the way he took a fantasy setting, the traditional knights-and-castles world, and brought it back to its historical roots in 13th or 14th century England. After reading it, I knew I wanted to do something similar — fantasy with strong historical roots — but I didn’t want to use a historical period that had been done over and over. A bit later, I was reading a book about the campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte, and realized how many amazing stories you could get out of that era. That was where The Shadow Campaigns got started, and got its roughly Napoleonic feel.
The character of Winter Ihernglass is such an amazing character. How did you come up with the idea of a woman masquerading as a man to enlist as a soldier?
It’s actually a pretty well-worn theme, to the point where I was initially a little nervous about using it for fear of being called cliché. But I really wanted to get a female main character into a book that might otherwise be all men. It’d be hard for her to openly be a soldier without straying too far from my historical model in terms of culture, but it didn’t work very well when I tried her in roles that weren’t really part of the army.
What finally decided me was reading about actual historical examples of women of that period dressing up as men to fight — it really happened, not just once or twice but literally hundreds of times. (We have no idea how many, really, since often they were never found out!) That made me really want to include something like it in the book, and from there that storyline grew until it’s probably the most important part of the series.
Both The Thousand Names and The Shadow Throne seem heavily influenced by the period of the French Revolution and especially in The Thousand Names it is clear that you know your musket from your bayonet. What kind of research did you do for the books and to what extent do you follow historical events from that period?
It’s hard to say, because a lot of the “research” is just the kind of thing I read for fun in any case. I read a lot of military histories, and in particular I try to get a sense of how the battles of a particular age felt to the people involved and the kind of things that tipped them in one direction or another. Battles are kind of vague in a lot of fantasy, and I didn’t want to do that, so I dug a little deeper on the details. The trick is figuring out how much to put in to give the readers a good feel for it without boring them.
Originally, I was going to follow historical events fairly closely, but in a fictionalized world with a bit of magic thrown in. That quickly went by the wayside as I started plotting out the series, though, and the books I ended up with are at best “inspired by” historical events. There’s a few bits and pieces of the original intention left over — the reason Khandar is a hot, desert country, for example, is because it was originally based on Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798.
A lot of fantasy tends to focus on male characters with women playing a secondary part. What I like about the Shadow Campaigns is that you have a cast of female characters who are not merely side characters but play active and crucial parts, both on and off the battlefield. Was this a conscious choice?
That’s definitely a conscious choice. When I was plotting out the very first versions of the story, I realized I had an all-male cast, since it was based on the historical wars and focused on the military rather than the political side. That just seemed boring, so I went looking for ways to break that up with some characters who weren’t just “yet another military officer guy”. As the plot changed, I added more politics, which helped me get another set of wider-ranging characters into the story.
What’s interesting is that the character with the most influence on events, the brilliant colonel Janus bet Vhalnich, stays in the background for large parts of the story. Most of the time you read the story from the point of view of captain Marcus d’Ivoire as he is trying to figure out what cunning strategy his commander Janus is employing this time. I would almost characterize the relationship between the two as a kind of military version of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Would you agree with that view?
That was definitely one of my models, along with Timothy Zahn’s Palleon and Thrawn, who I assume also have a Holmesian influence. The key is that writing from the point of view of a character who is supposed to be a genius is pretty hard, since you’d have to convey an enormous amount of information to the audience constantly, and it’s a little harder for us average folk to empathize with. Making the point of view character the more normal person who stands by the genius’ side actually gives a better view of events, while letting you preserve a little mystery and tension.
Besides writing flintlock fantasy you also started with a Young Adult fantasy series. Could you tell a bit about The Forbidden Library and was it a different experience to write for a younger audience?
The Forbidden Library is the story of Alice, a girl who comes downstairs one evening to find her father talking to a fairy in the kitchen. When he disappears soon after, she’s sent to live with her Uncle Geryon, and discovers he has a massive, magical library where her own powers are revealed. It’s a lot of fun because it has so many of the things I love in it: books, libraries, cats, portals to other worlds, and various strange creatures.
It wasn’t actually all that different from writing my adult books, mostly because I didn’t actually know what I was doing. I pretty much wrote the way I always write, although with a slightly simplified narrative structure (only one point of view, fewer characters) and a shorter target length. My editor did change a few words once I was done, but overall the experience hasn’t actually been that unusual!
And at last the final question, not really fantasy-related but nonetheless a very important life and death question: in the event of the zombie apocalypse what would be your choice of weapon and transportation?
Hrm. See, here’s what always bugs me about zombies — they are thermodynamically impossible, and to my mind that makes zombie stories Fantasy rather than SF or Horror. So a lot depends on how, precisely, the magic animating the zombies works. If we’re in fantasy, I think I’d go with some kind of magic sword as my weapon, preferably one of the ones that makes me into an invincible warrior; those don’t run out of ammo. (Or break, or get dull.) Likewise, horses would make for good transportation once the gas starts to run out. Pegasi or unicorns would be even better!
There are ebooks available for The Thousand Names, The Shadow Throne and The Forbidden Library. Bonus: The Penitent Damned, a short prequel to The Thousand Names, is available for free online at i09.com.