Not only a disappointing final entry to a promising series, but a disappointing fantasy novel in general. Completely bereft of tension, good characters, or even an interesting plot and, worst of all, the story takes you through a journey with no apparent direction. You will end up lost, confused, and desperately wishing that the interesting concept had been brought to fruition.
Dead Man’s Steel is the third and final book in Luke Scull’s Grim Company trilogy.
Since the Grim Company series started with its eponymous first entry I have been quite critical of nearly every aspect of it. The reason I continued reading through was because I was intrigued by the concept of these powerful mages decimating the gods who had ruled over them, and was so eager to see the events come full circle. This does not happen. Instead, what we are presented with is about five different stories all twisted in to one book, all of it relating only briefly to what came before. And without a doubt this is the worst entry in the series.
So after the Sword of the North’s climax, the Fade (or fehd) have attacked the Trine and see Humans to be unworthy of their existence, and seek to wipe them out. There is one, though, that sees potential in those he has lived so long amongst; Isaac, and he puts his faith in the humans once more as he tries to argue for their vindication. At the same time the Demons are causing havoc in the north, as Brodar Kayne seeks to free his son from Krazka and reunite with his wife, and Davarus Cole and Sasha find themselves in an uneasy alliance with the White Lady.
Considering the shorter length of this novel, there are so many threads that no one aspect is given the time it deserves. What Scull succeeds in doing is creating a life or death situation for his protagonists, then resolves it within a dozen pages. You never feel the tension of the situation, or that our heroes are ever truly in any threat. And this happens constantly throughout the story, with every element rushed and decided within such a short amount of time that it removes any joy from reading the exploits unfold.
I do not want to give away any spoilers, but one example of this is Krazka and his hold over the North. This has been alluded to and built up over the last two books, with so much emphasis placed on this thread that I truly believed it would run through as a main focus until the very end. It is not. In fact it is over so quickly that I felt cheated that I had devoted so much time reading his machinations. It turns out that Krazka is actually one of, what I consider to be, the five main antagonists in this book. Along with him there are the Fade, the Demons, the Reaver, the White Lady of Thelassa, and this isn’t even counting the minor antagonists such as the gholam, Marius, the White Lady’s rogue apprentice, the dragon, etc. Not one of these has any link to the other, with each of them working independently to their own goals. Even in a book twice the length of Dead Man’s Steel, that is far too many isolated antagonists.
With there being so many characters, it is no surprise that each of them is severely under developed. Sometimes a character who should be given whole chapters is brought in and killed off within no more than a few pages. Characters in the last book, who are deigned to have almost omnipotent power, die at the expense of some form of poorly thought out contrivance. Strengths of other characters are played up constantly, only for them to be killed in quite a menial fashion. I felt not a single ounce of emotion over the deaths of any characters in this book, and when you consider that even an average novel can draw some feeling from the readers, that is quite an achievement for Scull, but not necessarily one he should be proud of.
Considering I am already talking about characters, maybe I should go in to some specifics about the character development of our main Protagonists. I’m not going to talk about Sasha because what happens with her is rather infuriating. All I will say is that, as an incredibly annoying character to begin with, she becomes nothing more than a plot device in this story; just something to explain away impossibilities and a shining physical form of deus ex machina. Davarus Cole remains the annoying little bastard that he has always been, albeit now with impossibly immaculate combat skills. His decisions are consistently annoying in how ridiculous they are, and his lack of self-awareness makes him one of the most odious “protagonists” of any story I have ever read. Not even Brodar Kayne gets out of this one unscathed. His consistency was a pleasant anchor in the Sword of the North, but somehow Scull manages to place a boot on is back and grind him in to the obscurity of tedium. He is still a solid character, but is now less reminiscent of an aged Conan, and more akin to how my grandad used to be after a couple of rums and recalling his time in the navy. I loved my grandad’s navy stories, but they should not be comparable with a barbarian who has spent his life fighting demons and massacring traitors. Amongst all this, there was one character who surprised me; Jerek the Wolf. I found him frustrating in the previous books, but finally Scull seems to have found a balance between his callousness and his integrity. He was a man who started out as a thesaurus of profanities, but somehow crawled out of that filth to become the best character in this book. He is brutal, loyal, and most of all he is what I envision a grimdark anti-hero to be.
Having trudged through the enormous disappointment of the protagonists, maybe I should tell you a little about the Fade. At the end of Sword of the North they are presented to us a base and cruel creatures that decapitate Humans and send their heads back to the Trine. But when we finally meet them they are empathic beings that honour the preservation of their own kin over all other things. We are meant to see them as villains, but what we get are flawless creatures that want to see the preservation of the world and gain justice for the brutal murder of two of their own kind. When the protagonists of the novel are presented in such a bad light, it may have been a mistake for Scull to introduce us to a race that we are more likely to agree with. But Scull’s mistakes with the Fade do not end there. Throughout the book their behaviour carries so many inconsistencies that it appears they were just an afterthought, which is confusing to the reader because they thread throughout pretty much the entire narrative. One minute they are callous and brutal, the next understanding and thoughtful, only to turn back to treacherous later on. It completely grates against what they are supposed to be, and while reading I believed that I had a better idea of what they should be than the author himself.
The characters are not the only issue with Dead Man’s Steel. For some reason that completely eludes me, Scull has included pretty much every fantasy cliché when there is absolutely no clear purpose for them to be there. In the Sword of the North he brought us trolls, a ninja (not a fantasy cliché but an extremely weird inclusion nonetheless), bandits, and demons. Now he has chucked in (and I say chucked because there is absolutely no thought or purpose to their inclusion) elves, dragons, and even sci-fi troupes such as cybernetic augmentations. It is baffling and pointless at the same time. But no, Scull doesn’t stop there. What he also alludes to is the fact that this regressed world is a descendant from our own modern civilisation. This idea has been touched on many times before in books such as the Shannara series, His Dark Materials, and the Wheel of Time. At least in those examples the idea was almost insidious, subtlety muddying every reference until it was easy to overlook. In Dead Man’s Steel, Scull has crowbarred in the references, and then hammered in them in a bit more with a sledgehammer. There are passenger jets, warships, nukes, machine guns, etc. What’s miraculous is that names such as “cockpit” have survived the obscurity of time, but apparently “gun” has not. All of it just seems unnecessary and it’s just an easy route to not have to come up with new and original ideas.
What makes the inclusion of all these unnecessary aspects even more so frustrating is the fact that Scull has left so many loose ends. If he had concentrated on the things that are actually important then he would have had the time to truly finish out this story. And when I say loose ends, I don’t mean small issues. There are some big factors that are left absolutely and completely open. There was something about the gholam and a golden key, and even a random appearance from the ninja’s father, which has no conclusion. It just sits there in the middle of the book, strongly mentioned and then apparently completely forgotten. When I buy a book I want it to have a full conclusion, but as this is the end of the trilogy, I just assume that I’m never going to be told the significance of this. The same can be said for the bandits and the dragon. All these things were given massive amounts of attention and then abandoned, which gives the impression of an author that has not thought about the satisfaction of his readers.
These loose ends are an example of poor plotting, but the book is also rifewith examples of poor writing as well. I think sentences that include references to “flopping cock” and other such crassness aren’t particularly skilful. If the rest of the novel was flowing with excellent prose, and this base imagery was just to convey the character who’s POV it is, then that would be fair and justified. But when the whole novel is written in much the same way, I simply find it childish and annoying. This may just be personal preference, but with so little time spent on conveying the imagery of the world, the depth of a character’s thoughts, or the subtlety rife in treacherous situations, it seems that Scull has tried to churn out a hastily written book. I know from the previous entries in the series that he can achieve better than this, I just wish he had spent the time to build a world rather than a series of crass individuals.
An inoffensive story and a surprisingly intricate anti-hero are all that prevent this novel crumbling in to the depths of failure. Scull had created a world of god slaying mages in his Grim Company novel, but with his final entry he has scuttled away from an interesting topic in order to inundate us with clichés, poor plotting, an abundance of bland characters and far too many loose ends. I wish Scull had gone back and seen how good his initial idea was before writing this muddled and confused amalgamation of ideas. I can only hope that, if Scull does decide to revisit this world in the future, we see more of the gods and mages that drew me in to his tale in the first place.