(2019) Mike Shackle, Gollancz, £16.99, hrdbk, 486pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22520-6
The war is over. The enemy won.
It is very brave of Mike Shackle to begin his book with the main kingdom of Jia suffering a crushing defeat. All the elite warriors who have maintained its shield wall get obliterated right at the start of the book. Itís even braver to make his main point-of-view character utterly gutless - but there is no doubt it works.
We Are The Dead is an exceptional debut novel by an author who is going to become a lot better known in the next few years. For generations, the warrior caste of the Shulka have kept their land safe from the barbarian hoard of the Egril, in the process becoming arrogant and entitled. In the opening chapters of the book, it is pretty easy to dislike them. Itís also easy to sympathise with the main characters, most of whom are outcastes from that system, one a coward and one a thief. In fact, I did find myself wondering how this civilisation would have survived much longer, when it was clearly run by such awful people. But it doesnít really matter because within a very short space of time (so short this doesn't count as a spoiler) the Egril attack with devastating magic and smash everything. What looks like its setting up for an epic battle worthy of David Gemmel becomes a rout, with everyone fighting for survival.
I enjoyed this book immensely. Mike Shackle writes a damηed fine battle scene and knows how to drop a reader straight into the action. What I especially liked was his decision to make the magic use here very powerful and one sided - the Egril have a nuclear advantage and the battle turns into slaughter pretty damned fast. From there on, what we have is not a traditional fantasy battle, but a story of occupation and survival. It gets grubby in places. Very few punches are pulled. This is very much un-heroic fantasy.
My only problem with this book is that sometimes it wears its Grimdark colours (black, blacker, blacker still) with maybe a little too much pride. Particularly when it comes to the main bad guy, Darus. Heís very bad indeed. He tortures people. A lot. This being Grimdark, he would shoot puppies and club seals. As would any of the Skulls, who are utterly and irredeemable bad people. There were a few occasions when I found myself thinking Ďenough already! They arenít nice, I get the idea!í
I have very few other criticisms of this book. It took a while to warm to the main character, Tinnastra, mostly because she is so far from being a hero.&mbsp; It is difficult to really relate to someone who so honestly admits their own fear (repeatedly. In italicises thought bubbles). Gradually I found myself drawn more and more to her. This is a very well written, human story.
Battles produce heroes. Occupations are about compromise and making it through to the end of the day, and that is what Shackle is writing about. This is the first book in the 'Last War' series, and I look forward to the rest. It could definitely be a new favourite.
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