In literature, as in life, everything has its moment in the sun—though some moments are of course more equal than others. I dare say some last so long that they’ve been burned to a crisp well before they’re over.
Consider, for instance, the unabashed action hero. I think it’s safe to assert that the sun set on the Arnie archetype some time ago. These days, readers demand certain failings from their favourite fictional figures. Certain shades of grey to ground the good guys and the bad.
Thus, some stories are simply no longer told. Genres come and genres go—from popular consciousness, if not the fringes of the entire picture. I mean, I don’t suppose we’ll be waving goodbye to paranormal romance any time in the foreseeable future, but it doesn’t have quite the hold it once did, does it? Similarly, though it pains me to say, the New Weird has gotten awfully old.
But you must be wondering what all this has to do with the debut of one Luke Scull. Well, consider what his gripping first novel is called; it can come as no surprise that The Grim Company is as grimdark as fantasy gets. And though grimdark fantasy has been all the rage in recent years, the writing is on the wall.
The genre has been brought low, and rightly so, by some of its foremost proponents’ reliance on rape and torture as torpid plot devices; cardinal sins that The Grim Company is not entirely innocent of either, though its author does evince an awareness that such subjects are not substitutes for storytelling.
So the genre’s moment may almost be over. Almost… but not quite, because The Grim Company is a genuinely great debut: fun yet fearsome, gritty and gripping in equal measure. If it marks the last hurrah of grimdark fantasy—though I sincerely hope there’s an alternative solution to the problems posed—at least the genre will go out on fine form.
The Grim Company begins with—wait for it—a magical tsunami:
“The Tyrant of Dorminia had dropped a billion tons of water on a living city and instantly created the biggest mass graveyard since the Godswar five centuries past. Forty thousand men, women and children had died in an instant. One second they were alive; the next they were gone. All those lives, extinguished with the same callous lack of regard a farmer might show for an ants’ nest as he drowned it in boiling water. […] That any man should have the audacity, much less the capacity, to enact such judgement on so many unknowing souls… why, it would be an affront to the gods, if the gods weren’t already dead.”
The gods may be gone, yet there are those in this story—namely Magelords—with godlike powers. One such is the aforementioned tyrant: Salazar rules over Dorminia with an iron fist, and indeed an iron heart—literally—by way of his Supreme Augmentor, Barandas. Though well aware of his master’s monstrous qualities, Barandas owes Salazar a debt, and his loyalty is such that one senses the Supreme Augmentor will serve said till the day he dies.
That day may come sooner than Barandas believes, because Salazar’s ghastly attack on Shadowport has engendered as much anger as it has obedience, or failing that fear. For the Shards, a company of Dorminian idealists, it’s the last sordid straw: his reign of terror must end. The rebellion, they resolve, begins here… here where, one way or the other, it will end as well.
It’s not so straightforward, obviously. Is it ever? To wit, the Shards are shattered early on: Sasha and Vicard join forces with two Highlanders—Brodar Kayne and his right hand man, the mercenary Jerek—to sabotage the source of Salazar’s supremacy. “Magic was fading from the world,” you see, “and as soon as the last divine corpse was sucked dry, there would be nothing left.” But the rebels’ trip to the Rift quickly takes a disastrous turn, and as the body count embiggens, our company can only wonder why doing the right thing feels so wrong.
What they really need is a hero. Alas, after a friendly dressing down results in a temper tantrum, the one and the only Davarus Cole is captured by Salazar’s forces, pressed into service as part of a prison gang, then dispatched into dangerous territory to help replenish the Tyrant’s supplies. In other words, he’ll be aiding and abetting the enemy. Merely an inconvenience to a saviour-in-the-making such as he!
“His abilities and quick wits outstripped those of his peers by no small distance—and besides, hadn’t Garrett always said he would one day be a great hero, like his real father? A man such as he met injustice head on, enchanted blade in hand and epic destiny propelling him forwards with a righteous fury no petty villain could withstand.”
So he likes to think, that is. Later, Sasha suggests an alternative interpretation: “He’s the only person I know who can scrape through the most dangerous situations by the sheer power of his own bullshit.”
Off to the side of all this, there’s Eremul the tragic half-mage, who wants Salazar’s head on a platter, and the sultry sorceress Yllandris, who dreams of being a Queen. These peripheral perspectives give readers insight into the larger landscape of Luke Scull’s series, and though they serve little other purpose in The Grim Company, they’re sure to play a larger part in the tomes to come.
Thankfully, the primary points of view are absorbing from word one. Waiting for Cole to be taken down a peg or ten is terrific fun, and in the interim the author uses his clueless central character to comment on the fantasy heroes of yesteryear. Sharp as Scull’s barbs are, there’s nothing especially subtle about this satire, however it does demonstrate the value of what sets grimdark fantasy apart.
By that measure, Brodar Kayne is a rather more traditional character than poor, dear Davarus: a downtrodden old warrior very much after Joe Abercombie’s heart. “I ain’t what I used to be,” he says at one stage, as he advances on three Highlanders younger and stronger than he. “Can’t piss in a straight line, if at all. I got aches in places I didn’t know could ache. But if there’s one thing I still know how to do […] it’s killing. You never really lose the instinct for it.” Despite his familiarity, Kayne struck me as a marvellous man of action: strong yet uncertain, done in but not defeated, bitter but still this side of miserable, he is a weapon, albeit a blunt one—a maul rather than a delicate dagger—that the author wields well.
In truth, no-one does grimdark fantasy better than Joe Abercrombie, but by the dead, Luke Scull comes incredibly close. The Grim Company can’t quite eclipse the likes of The Heroes, or Red Country; all told, though, this is a more satisfying debut than The Blade Itself.
In large part that’s thanks to an action-packed narrative, paced like a race. There’s never dull moment in The Grim Company—even in the middle, where most stories sag. Here, there and everywhere there are extraordinary set-pieces: battles, by and large, but what battles they are! In the interim, there’s murder, mystery and intrigue; a meaningful, if somewhat simplistic magic system; no shortage of snappy banter; and such smooth worldbuilding that I hardly noticed it happening. There’s precious little time to take stock of all this—instead, depth and texture seems to simply spring from the story—but I didn’t mind the immediacy of the overall experience one whit.
A confident debut, then? Definitely. It mightn’t be particularly original, but it’s bold and brutal too. Shiver me timbers, The Grim Company is pretty brilliant.
But—and you must have known there would be a but coming—Luke Scull inherits a few iffy elements amongst the many he emulates successfully. I don’t believe that these spoil the novel, but cumulatively, they do take the edge off somewhat. Considering grimdark fantasy’s fall from grace of late, that’s a shame, make no mistake. Yet whether or not there’s a place for this sort of fiction in the literary landscape of tomorrow, The Grim Company is a sterling exemplar of what the genre has to offer today.
The Grim Company is published by Head of Zeus. It is available in the UK now.
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On rare occasion he’s been seen to tweet about books, too.