A grim tale riddled with grim characters that are hard to sympathise with.
The Grim Company is the first book in Luke Scull’s eponymous Grim Company trilogy.
In my effort to venture away, if only briefly, from the sprawling epic fantasy series’ that I have recently found myself enraptured by (some spanning over ten books and in excess of 1,000 pages each), I decided to go for something a bit shorter. Something with a little more immediate bite to the story. I had seen the term ‘Grimdark’ flickering about the community over the last few years and finally decided to dive in to the murky waters surrounding it. The result……meh.
First of all let me give you a brief overview of the story. The world is in an Age of Ruin after powerful mages stormed the heavens and murdered their gods, casting them down to their world where their corpses leak powerful reserves of magic. This novel is set many years after this where the mages now rule over their own independent cities, while waging war with each other in an effort to claim these reserves of magic for themselves. The Grim Company is set largely in the city of Dorminia, where the mage Salazar rules of his people with a violent tyranny and we follow a small band of rebels, some intentional, others forced, as they fight to free the citizens from their fear.
I want to start by saying this is not a bad book. The story is intriguing and some of the set pieces, including the initial introduction to Salazar’s power, are fascinating. I can understand how this series is going to get an avid following, and I will certainly be reading on as there is so much intrigue at the end. Scull definitely has a skill in building layers of secrets that are just thick enough to become discernible amongst the chaos of the rest of the story.
This novel carries the mantle of Grimdark with pride (whether Grimdark is truly a sub-genre is highly debateable) and one of the caveats of this kind of book is its realism. The Grim Company is not realistic. In his effort to create a gritty tone, Scull has cast his net too wide, encapsulating every scenario in gratuitous violence and crass indignation. I do not have any qualms about violence and bad language in books, but I think the likes of A Song of Ice and Fire, Malazan Book of the Fallen, The Black Company, and so many more do it far better. It gets to the point that the book almost becomes a parody of what it is supposed to be. The violence is brutal, yes, but it is also excessive. It’s like the Quentin Tarrantino of the writing world. There were points where I found it unnecessary and thought that some restraint could have been used. But on the other hand, the excessive violence does go at least some way in portraying the brutality of tyranny and the effects it could have when great power is given to sadistic people.
Take, for example, the character of Davarus Cole. Davarus is supposed to be one of (if not the) main character in this book. Luke Scull tries to make him a flawed anti-hero, but instead creates a truly despicable character. Not because of his acts per se, but because of his odious sense of self-importance. Davarus constantly expresses his own prowess but with no true action to support it. He constantly laments his mistreatment by others, but you find yourself wishing worse to happen to him just so he has a sense of the suffering of others. Even when acts of heroism do befall him, it is solely out of deus ex machina and yet he rides the waves of it as if it’s his own victory. There is next to no character development for him other than he learns a few new skills and suffers a few revelations. I really hope, in the following novels, that Scull really builds on this character because if he wants him to become an anchor for the story then he truly needs to adorn him with at least a few redeemable qualities.
Davarus is not the only character that suffers from poor character development. Brodar Kayne’s companion, Jerek, is simply a walking thesaurus of swear words and consistent bad attitude. Davarus’ mentor is there for no reason than to move the story along. Salazar, the main antagonist, is given very little depth, even from the impressions we get from most of the characters – Salazar is powerful, Salazar is a tyrant, Salazar is…….well that’s about all he is.
Not all characters are so thinly conveyed however. I found myself enamoured with the quiet charisma of Brodar Kayne. At first he starts off brutal and somewhat callous, but slowly it is revealed that there is far more to this man. He carries echoes of an older Conan, both wounded and compelled by past horrors. Barandas is equally as captivating in the way he holds his honour as a shield and you are constantly asking yourself why he remains so loyal to a despot. It is this blatant contradiction that keeps you intrigued and wanting to read on, to find out more about this enigma. Then you have the man-servant Isaac, whose constant machinations hint at something far more intriguing beneath the cocoon of serenity.
There are characters that lie somewhere in between these extremes, that meander their way along the paths laid out before them. They are good, but not great. But they are all carried by a good story. One that promises a lot and elicits a grand delivery, with so much more teased on the horizon. I have to point out though that there are two things about this book that I full on hated. The first is that one character’s name is all but stolen from another popular fantasy series – Orgrim Foehammer is clearly a rip-off of Orgrim Doomhammer from Warcraft. This isn’t even subtle!! There is homage and then there is straight up copying, and this is definitely the latter. The second instance is far more subtle and occurs at the death of a character within the novel. This character’s last words, after a short speech, is “time….to….die”. As a massive fan of Blade Runner, and with Roy Batty’s famous last words being my favourite movie quote of all time, I couldn’t help but think that this was Scull’s way of cheaply benefitting from another characters excellent death scene. This could simply be a coincidence, but the way that it was crowbarred in to the narrative suggests otherwise.
As many criticisms as I have been able to level at this book, I did actually enjoy the story. I will be reading the rest of the trilogy as Luke Scull has done well in the way he entices interest in the mysteries so cleverly hinted throughout the story. I will only hold out hope that he manages to add more depth to some of the characters, and also manage to turn Davarus from an extreme ass to the flawed character he intended.