The Grim Company by Luke Scull

The Grim Company by Luke Scull

Published by Head of Zeus, March 2013 (Review copy received)

452 pages

ISBN: 978 178 185 1319

Review by Mark Yon

First three chapters are here:

In my summary of Fantasy reads of 2012, I made the point that I was rather disappointed that I hadn’t found a new Epic Fantasy that had really engaged me, despite many being heralded as such. (Of those, The Red Knight by Miles Cameron came closest.)

Being honest, it has made me a little wary of any ‘new’ Epic Fantasy. And I must admit I did approach this one with a little trepidation.  In summary, it’s not perfect. But it is the best Fantasy debut I’ve read lately, and I think many will like it.

Cue cover blurb:

“The grey granite walls of Dorminia rise to three times the height of a man, surrounding the city on all sides save for the south, where the Broken Sea begins. The stone is three-foot thick at its weakest point and can withstand all but the heaviest assault. The Crimson Watch patrol the streets even as Salazar’s Mindhawks patrol the skies. The Grey City was not always so. But something has changed. Something has broken at its heart. Perhaps the wild magic of the dead Gods has corrupted Dorminia’s Magelord, as it has the earth itself. Or perhaps this iron-fisted tyranny is the consequence of a lifetime of dark deeds… Still, pockets of resistance remain. When two formidable Highlanders save the life of a young rebel, it proves the foundation for an unlikely fellowship. A fellowship united against tyranny, but composed of self-righteous outlaws, crippled turncoats and amoral mercenaries. A grim company. But with the world entering an Age of Ruin, this is not a time of heroes…”

OK: got your attention?

I suspect that that description is all that many would wish for. The book echoes many of the popular Fantasy authors, with the gritty nihilism of Joe Abercrombie and the characterisation of David Gemmell, whilst tapping into the world-spanning breadth of GRRM and the irreverence of Glen Cook’s Black Company. There’s a touch of Steven Erikson’s Malazan in there, too, in its back-story, its gods and magelords. Dealing with many of the Fantasy tropes is not always a bad thing, as it gives us common ground on which to work, and as I’ve said often enough before, sometimes it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts on these things.

And yes, that journey does sound quite exciting. However, my initial reading of the first few pages were, it must be said, rather disappointing. The first few pages were a worrying misstep. A man, having left bruises on his wife previously, returns to his house to be rewarded with a hot cooking pan in the face, before being swept away in a city-swallowing deluge of water.

Oh dear. My initial enthusiasm was rather subdued. 

As I kept reading there were other issues for me.  Some of the dialogue used was rather unconvincing, as it tried too hard to sound tough:

“What he said was, ‘Now get the fuck out of my sight before I shove this dagger so far up your dick eye it tickles the back of your throat with your balls!’ ” (page 14)

From this example (and many others), it’s clear that this is not family-friendly Fantasy, nor does it try to be. Here Luke is clearly going for an Abercrombie vibe rather than, let’s say, a David Eddings. Some readers will welcome this and be unperturbed about the plethora of sexual and genitalia references, volatile swearing and bodily function references throughout. I can handle that as much as the next man (or woman), but for me, it was so often used that it began to feel unnecessarily obtrusive.  The copious references to arses and what could be/would be/ should be done to them, for example, would make a proctologist proud, but ‘in the end’ became irritating (see what I did there?) Whilst it could be said that such matters are rather typical in today’s gritty novels, here at times it detracted from the rather important point of showing and telling me what important is going on.

And what is going on in The Grim Company (as the title might suggest!) is at times rather depressing. There’s a lot of nasty stuff here, horrible characters doing atrocious things, in ways that have become rather common in Fantasy at the moment. The ‘New Gritty’, so to speak.

Such unremitting bleakness can be quite wearing for the reader, although it can be done well. Again, in that tone there is perhaps a similarity between this book and Joe Abercrombie’s novels. Where it works for Joe and not here, however, is that there isn’t so much of the deadpan gallows humour we get with the Nine to counterbalance the darkness, that knowing tone that the reader accepts as understandable. There is humour herein, but it is dark.

All of the above does make the book sound terrible. Or at the very least, not a book for me. And there was a point at about fifty pages in where I nearly, nearly gave up, for those reasons.

But wait. After this rather impressive wobble at the beginning, when we get to the meat of the tale (as it were), things improve rather. After about one hundred pages, things get really quite interesting. And halfway through, at about 250 pages, I was hooked.

It is perhaps the range of characters and what they have to do that propel this multi-threaded epic tale. There is a lot going on. It is a world where magic is in decline. Wild Magic can be mined in this world because it exists as crystalline residue left by dying Gods at the time of the Godswar.  It is used by the Magelords as a resource that is used to create Augmentors, their elite bodyguards, whose numbers are in decline. The magic is also wanted by a group of Dorminian rebels, known as the Shard, who hope that their procurement will enable them to strike back at Dorminia’s oppressive Magelord, Salazar.  The task is taken on by a motley crew.

One of the rebels, Davarus Cole, is a young, naive, self-obsessed character destined for greatness – at least in his own head. The Shard also enlist weary Highlander mercenary Brodar Kayne (rather reminiscent to me of David Gemmell’s Druss) and his foul-mouthed and eternally grumpy sidekick, Jerek the Wolf, to go at great risk to the Wailing Rift, where the magic can be found.

Elsewhere, Salazar is not only under threat from the rebels but also a competing Magelord, The White Lady, Magelord of Thelassa. Barandas is the Supreme Augmentor, leader of the Crimson Watch, sworn to protect Salazar from his many enemies who ends up defending Dorminia against a major attack.

Legless Mage Eremul (cruelly nicknamed the Half Mage) is perhaps this book’s Glokta. He treads a fine line between fulfilling the needs of the Magelord and assisting the White Lady in his downfall.

Half a world away, the sorceress Yllandris is a scheming social climber, who as concubine to Magnar, King of the High Fangs, clearly has designs on power.  Magnar, a young and intelligent leader, finds himself dealing with local skirmishes whilst at the same time seeing his lands being attacked by Abominations, mutated magical creatures from The Devil’s Spine.

All of the above might suggest that we’ve been here before, but what Luke has done is take a bunch of rather tired tropes and even unpleasant people, but then managed to do interesting things with them. Not all is what we think it will be and Luke does a sterling job of subverting some of the reader’s expectations, especially at the end.

The fight at the end is particularly worth applause, as Luke’s fight scenes are really very good for a debut writer: exciting, gory, not too many nor too repetitive, a fault many new writers make. What wins most at the conclusion is that, despite my concerns and niggles, in the end I cared about the characters and wanted to know more. 

In summary: a book that conforms to “the New Gritty” and ticks all the right boxes for those demanding more of the same. After some initial wobbles, once the book settles in it becomes a real page-turner. 

My initial impression was that it was a brave effort and a pretty good debut, though little more than that. At the end, I felt that it was one of the best recent debuts of Epic Fantasy, which, whilst not being perfect, is certainly much better than the other new Epic Fantasy novels I’ve read recently. One of those books that I’m pleased to say won me over, to the point where I think I can say that Luke has a bright future in Fantasy.  I’m looking forward to the next book, with interest.

Mark Yon, January/February 2013

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