The Big Idea: Django Wexler

Genius is a very interesting topic, to be sure, but when it comes to writing a novel, is it in itself enough to make it all work? Or does there need to be more than “genius” to go on? Django Wexler considers this thought, as it applies to his latest work, The Thousand Names.


I am fascinated by the idea of a military genius.

It comes up a lot in the history books, especially those not specifically concerned with military details.  “Napoleon was able to lead France to victory over all of mainland Europe because he was a military genius,” or “Alexander the Great’s genius in battle helped him crush the much larger Persian Empire,” or “The genius of Robert E. Lee helped the South hold off superior Union forces for five years.”

This always bothered me, because it’s not clear what exactly that means.  In the historical wargames I’ve played since my college days, the generals get assigned statistics, but what does Napoleon do so well that he gets a +3 on his attack roll, compared to +1 for Kutusov and -2 for poor Karl Mack?  Does the average foot soldier know that he’s part of some brilliant maneuver, and fight all the harder for it?

When I started to get seriously into history, I went looking for answer, but the search was frustrating.  When you read the maps and campaign histories, it all seems so obvious.  The enemy is strong here and weak here, so you circle around and strike him from behind—presto, you’re a genius!  There was no magic, no dramatic moment when all is suddenly revealed.

But then, if you’re surrounded by the infamous “fog of war,” with nothing but a scribbled report from a scout and a bad map to go on, it probably doesn’t seem that simple.  It’s hard to see the difficulties and the confusion from a map, but a good historian can make you feel it.  And it was after reading a particularly good history (David Chandler’s The Campaigns of Napoleon) that I thought, “Okay, I want to write that.”

The first thing a genius requires is a situation dire enough to require their attention.  My novel, The Thousand Names, opens with the Royal Colonial Infantry hanging on to the edge of a former territory now in open rebellion against the throne.  Outnumbered many times over, the beleaguered troops expect to be evacuated.  Instead, they’re sent a new commander—our genius, Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich.

Writing from the perspective of a genius is difficult for your average non-genius author.  It’s much easier to write from the perspective of the guy standing next to him, a technique I picked up from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by way of Timothy Zahn.  In lieu of Watson or Pellaeon, I had Captain Marcus d’Ivoire, now Janus’ second in command, and Winter Ihernglass, a young woman masquerading as a man, trying to hide amongst the infantry.

What started out as a way to give Janus someone to explain things to (“My God, Holmes, how could you know that?”) surprised me by turning into something a lot deeper and, I hope, more interesting.  The military genius can’t do everything on his own, I discovered.  In the end, he’s only as good as the men who carry out his orders, or refuse to, or do their best but get things wrong.

If you go back to the history books, you find that the relationship between a commander and his men is crucial, and different generals vary a good deal.   Napoleon was so charismatic that his contemporaries ascribe him nearly hypnotic powers—opponents would go to meet him in a rage and end up as his obedient subordinates.  He was an expert politician as well as a general, and a master of the dramatic gestures that could win a man’s loyalty forever.  On the other hand, the taciturn and aristocratic Lee was initially detested by his soldiers, and it took victory after victory before they built a confidence in him that came close to hero-worship.

Janus doesn’t have Napoleon’s mesmeric ability with people.  He’s abrupt, arrogant, and occasionally temperamental, which puts Marcus in a quandary.  More than anything else, Marcus is a good soldier, which means that he believes in the chain of command and his duty to his superior. It helps that Janus’ plan to take the fight to the rebels seems to be working.  But he also has a duty to the men in his regiment, and the question he has to answer is whether his new commander is brilliant, crazy, lucky, or some mix of all three.

For Winter, on the other hand, the problem is a bit different.  Isolated from her fellow soldiers by her fear of being discovered and tormented by a brutish sergeant, she has responsibility thrust into her unwilling hands.  When she shows a talent for leadership, she has to deal with the problem of what it means to receive loyalty and trust, and the crushing weight of the expectations of men who look to her to get them out of a bad situation.

The more I wrote (and re-wrote, and re-re-wrote), the more this question of loyalty and trust became the center of the novel.  Planning out the brilliant maneuvers on the maps was fun, but what I learned from the campaign histories is that the geniuses don’t succeed because they make up incredibly complicated plans that nobody else can understand.  (Indeed, that’s an almost certain sign of impending disaster.)  Instead, they won because they did simple things well—the right simple things, at the right times—and because, through charisma or brotherhood or fear or greed, they inspired the soldiers who followed them to go above and beyond.

That inspiration is what doesn’t get shown on the maps.  I wanted to try to capture what it was like to stand by the shoulder of one of the great commanders, for someone who didn’t know yet that he was great. I wanted to follow the growth of a relationship that would lead one man to put the kind of faith in a leader that soldiers put in Napoleon or Lee.

In 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia with something like half a million men.  Less than twenty thousand Frenchmen returned, and even fewer survived the desperate campaigns of 1813 and 1814 before France’s defeat and the Emperor’s abdication.  But less than a year later, after Napoleon’s escape from Elba, he called for a new army to defend France. Incredibly, a lot of those same men signed up, in spite of everything they’d been through and everyone they’d lost along the way.

That’s what loyalty to a leader means, out at the sharp end.  That is, ultimately, what makes a military genius.  And that’s the Big Idea behind The Thousand Names.


The Thousand Names: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

16 Comments on “The Big Idea: Django Wexler”

  1. This sounds very interesting. I really like well researched novels. Steven Pressfield uses the same viewpoint (guy stands next to the main protoganist) in his historical novels and it works very well.

    I will definitely buy your book.

  2. I second Guess’s comment about this sounding interesting.

    Another couple of generals to consider for their genius: Wellington “Old Nosy” (who was admired and trusted, but not liked); Marlborough “Corporal John” (whose men genuinely liked him) and Slim “Uncle Bill”, who accomplished the seemingly-impossible in Burma and India in WWII.

  3. Hello!

    I’ve read a review copy of the book. Still digesting and thinking about it. I do think it was a good choice to keep the Colonel from being a viewpoint character–although there is a spot in the narrative where I think that breaks down.

  4. Hello from a fellow CMUer :-) I read the sample chapters online and immediately went off to download the audiobook. Looking forward to it!

  5. A thousand names? And you picked those ones for your lead characters? Sheesh…

  6. Military genius is sort of like chess genius, in that it requires an ability to see multiple possible moves into the future. A military genius has the extra problem that the number of possible moves aren’t enumerated. It is often the moves you don’t know about that will lose the war. I can’t remember the name of the battle, but the first time armored knights faced black powder muskets, it didn’t matter how much of a genius you are, you were going to lose that fight. Same goes for the first cavalry charge into machine gun fire, you were going to lose. Or trench warfare facing tanks.

    Milteades had 10k Greeks and won against 40k Persians. Part of that was he knew the main weapon of the Persians was to rain arrows down on their enemy, and he knew the best way to counter this was to close that distance as quickly as possible and engage in close combat. Persian archer armor was light and Greek hoplite armor was heavy, and the Greek swords and spears cut through the Persians like butter.

    Another part was he basically invented the maneuvar known as “envelopment”. He let the Persian line advance in the middle of the formation, but reinforced his flanks so they held their position. The lines basically folded until the Persians were essentially surrounded on all sides and had no room to maneuvar.

    Even with all his military genius, Milteades didn’t see the political maneuvaring against him. And a year or so after the battle of Marathon, he was convicted of treason by his political enemies and died in prison. So, military genius doesn’t mean you’ll see every threat coming your way.

  7. In general I am not into military novels (frankly, I usually don’t understand what is going on at all–though yeah, I read Old Man’s War!), but I like these thoughts on genius. That’s some really cool concepts you have going there.

  8. This has nothing to do with the book (so far as I know), but speaking of genius, my favorite reference to genius is the first sentence of V.S. Naipaul’s “The Mechanical Genius”: “My Uncle Bhakcu was very nearly a mechanical genius”. The rest of the story consists of wheels falling off cars, houses collapsing, and so on. I often find myself thinking of this, e.g. “GW Bush was very nearly a strategic genius” or “Samuel Alito is very nearly a constitutional genius” or “Barack Obama is very nearly a genius of political bargaining”.

    So, a completely self-absorbed blogjack based on single word, but the Naipaul story really is that funny. Read it some time when you want a break from SF. (And yes, I’m aware of what’s troubling about Naipaul. Read it anyway. It’s hilarious.)

  9. Your books sounds very interesting, but I’m with Dave. Those names are annoying.

  10. Here’s hoping we’ve found the right author to finish The Childe Cycle.

  11. I’ve recently been reading about Anne Kelly Knowles, who is taking a different approach to military history through her specialty, geography. She takes physical maps and battle accounts and uses modeling software to determine what line-of-sight information each key player had access to at various points in the battle. For instance, she’s gone through the battle of Gettysburg and shown that some of the “crazy” decisions made at various points were based on knowledge, or the lack thereof, available to the commanders.

    I think military genius is in being able to make the best decisions possible with very little lead time, because your sources of information are going to determine what you’re able to do, and in a battle, you need all the time you can squeeze out.

  12. My poster child for military genius is Julius Caesar. Unlike Alexander the Great, we have his own memoirs of the Gallic wars, which gives some insight into how he thought. Among the things I noted was that Caesar managed to anticipate military doctrines that are now standard practice by about 2000 years–or rather, were known to the Romans but lost during the medieval period. Things like having well-trained staff officers, careful consideration of logistics, paying attention to the morale of your ordinary troopers, making contingency plans for everything, etc.

    If you go back to the history books, you find that the relationship between a commander and his men is crucial, and different generals vary a good deal.

    Julius Caesar did not consider his men casually expendable–in fact, he broke a couple of officers for glory-hunting during a town assault by leading men through a break in the walls before backup was ready, because they nearly lost a bunch of soldiers doing it. When Caesar ordered men to the attack, they knew that he intended to win decisively right then (and not potter around with attritional attacks) and that he did not consider them expendable fodder. This made his soldiers extremely loyal.

    In “Gallic Wars”, we see that Caesar constantly considered logistics; every winter, he considered where trouble was likely to break out next campaigning season, and had supply depots pre-positioned. He also trained his immediate subordinates at regular meetings in his tent, taught them his way of thinking and planning (and was very unhappy later on when some of those skilled officers went over to Pompeii).

    There’s a section in “Gallic Wars” where we get more insight into Caesar’s thinking, when he’s criticizing one of his officers for getting massacred in an ambush–he notes that what the officer should have been doing was constantly thinking of what he would do if unexpected attacks happened on the march. What if our allies turn on us? What if there’s a force waiting behind those hills or in that woods over there? What orders would I give? Etc, etc, etc. Caesar was apparently in the habit of constantly making contingency plans; he was well aware that Old Man Murphy loves to make battlefield visits.

    Again, I recommend “Caesar’s Gallic Wars” for anyone seeking insight into how one military and political genius thought.

  13. I am not sure that citing the surviving soldiers of L’Grand Armee returning to the fold is an apt depiction of “military genius”.
    While tactically, Napoleon , especially early in his campaigns, was well above all the commanders he faced, he eventually accrued an army too large to deploy without a large degree of delegation.
    At that point all the Allies had to do was beat the less well led divisions in detail until the final battle at Waterloo , where once again Napoleon was unable to oversee the entire battle.

    However, back to the point made in the article, referring to the Napoleonic Veterans :coming back under the Emperor’s flag.
    What the hell else did they have to do? Nothing had really changed in France after the Revolution for the peasants, you could starve in the city or you could starve slower on the farm. At least in the Armee you had a chance at loot.
    The same reason Lois the 14th could raise such large levee’s held true in Napoleon’s day, fight or die.

  14. I enjoyed The Thousand Names. No but’s. This discussion of military genius is interesting as well – got me thinking. One element of military genius that comes to mind is demonstrated by generals that learn from their mistakes. The “born a military genius” is a lot less likely, and hence less believable to me. For example, Janus states that he “made a study of magic.” This makes him more believable to me at the end of the book when his learnings had increased dramatically. Another historical example is Morgan at Cowpens. He was a rough man, crippled by hemorhoids, a self described mule skinner, but he had learned many things about men in battle. His insights taught him not to ask his men to rise above their limits. Rather than that, Morgan knew their limits and set them tasks that they could accomplish, “Give me two aimed shots, boys, then get out of there. He was clear in what he needed, they could accomplish what he needed, and the battle tactics were shaped in terms of what could be delivered. The militia troops were empowered by their success in the event, and even came back, in an organized manner, to deliver more than was expected of them. To fairly evaluate the terrain, the capabilities of his troops, and the condition of the enemy are skills that develop over time. (yes, i know the choice of terrain was poor, don’t blast me or Morgan over that. He made the most of the pasture, the ridge and the roads to Cowpens) Morgan learned as he aged, and thus exhibited a vital element of military genius,

    Thanks, Django, I liked your book a lot.


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