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Fiction: 'Sackville Street' by Archie Black

Underground Reading: The Grim Company by Luke Scull

[This is part of a series reviewing all ten finalists for the David Gemmell Legend Awards.]

The Grim CompanyLuke Scull's The Grim Company (2013) is the first in a trilogy of 'gritty epic fantasy' novels. Its world is a bleak one. The gods themselves are dead, and their rotting corpses fuel the power of the Magelords: the handful of semi-omnipotent wizards that engineered (and managed to survive) the great 'deicide' (brilliant word). 

Now, the world has settled into a vicious game of resource management as the Magelords and their subjugated city-states scheme against one another and hoard their remaining god-juice. Meanwhile, in their shadow, rebels and renegades all plot to topple the system entirely.

What happens?

The delicate balance of powers is toppled in the opening pages of The Grim Company when the Magelord Salazar dumps an ocean on his rival city of Shadowport - a grotesque show of strength that establishes him as the grandest of all magical poobahs in the region. It also annihilates tens of thousands in what is easily the book's most dramatic scene. The repercussions of this act echo throughout the land, and, of course, the book. 'Adventures' (in the loosest sense of the world) from all corners of the world are dragged into action, all part of a greater whole. Etc. etc.

The Grim Company features several major point of view characters:

Barandas is Salazar's Supreme Augmentor - a sort of magically-enabled knight that, despite his honor and code and whatnot is slowly realising that maybe, just maybe, he's on the wrong side. (Hint: genocide) 

Davarus Cole is a self-centred rogue, the scion of a noble family and a young man wholly convinced that the world revolves around him. He also has a magic dagger (a sort of family heirloom thing) and is utterly certain that he's already a legend. This brings him into conflict with, well, everyone - The Grim Company seems to have a very firm commitment to humbling Cole as frequently as possible.

Brodar Kayne is an aging Highlander warrior, fleeing the North for reasons Most Mysterious (and then Immediately Explained). In between grumbling about his creaky old body and how he's too old for shit this, he whacks people to pieces and is a generally good guy trying to do nice things. He's accompanied by Jerek the Wolf, who is not a good guy and does not do nice things.

Three others play slightly smaller roles, at least, in this volume. Sasha is a member of the Dorminian resistance, devoted to overthrowing Salazar. She is, more or less, the 'straight man' of the text - linking up the other point of view characters (and rather humorously putting Cole back in his box whenever she can). Eremul is also part of the Dorminian plotline, although a bit more passively. He's a wizard without legs, "the Half-Mage", living on the magical scraps from Salazar's table. Meanwhile, up North, Yllandris is a sorceress-stroke-concubine, shacked up with the powerful leader Magnar and dealing with yet another Magelord (who is a bucket o' crazy).

If it sounds sprawling, that's because it is - but the narrative mostly focuses on the Dorminian rebels and the results of their efforts to boot Salazar from his throne. The only wildly divergent narrative is Yllandris'. Although it is clear that the scheming in the North is still part of the same overall direction, the magical hootenanny occuring in the frosty places of the world feels more like a set-up for later books.

What worked for me?

There are a lot of very good reviews of The Grim Company, and I mean that in both senses of the word - check out Fantasy Book Critic, Fantasy Review or They pick out a lot of praise-worthy points, and I'm going to repeat a few of them here.

The world building is awesome. That is, the core concept of this world is absolutely cracking. Dead gods. Magelords. Warring city-states. The whole setup is called "The Age of Ruin"... that's a pretty appealing shtick. This is essentially a post-apocalyptic narrative, where a shining epic fantasy civilisation has been reduced to a nasty feudal ruin.

Most post-apocalyptic secondary world fantasies (we need a shorthand for this - we'll call them PASWF or 'paswifs') tend to go in two different directions.

On one hand, you have the Weird paswifs, with, say, Harrison and Vance, or, in a more contemporary way, Mark Charan Newton or Den Patrick. These are 'dying earth' narratives - where the dwindling resources, increasing corruption and sense of inevitable destruction are all used for atmospheric or thematic purposes. They signpost that things are on the way down, and people (and plots) are behaving accordingly. They are narratives of decline. Cheering stuff.

On the other, you have the epic paswifs. To use another DGLA finalist as an example: Peter V. Brett's Demon Cycle. Another one I could probably wedge in with some semantic WD-40 would be Brooks' Shannara, especially the Heritage sequence.1 Big, bad, cataclysmic things happened in the past. Humanity is now scritching around the sandbox of history, occasionally turning up some useful poop. But unlike their Weird counterparts, epic paswifs are about ascent - the Demon Cycle, for example, features the rediscovery of powerful magic and the rise of (competing) factions that are finally able to shrug off the long night.2 

The appeal of The Grim Company is largely in how it combines the best of both possible worlds. There's no question that things are bad (see: "Age of Ruin" - not a theme park), but by borrowing cues from both traditions, the reader is given mixed signals on what's happening next. Sure, the gods are dead, but apparently they were kind of sucky. Sure the magelords rule, but they could be on their way out. Things could get a lot worse, or things could get a lot better - all we know is that things are changing. That's fun.

It is self-contained. The Grim Company clearly has plot arcs that will continue for all three books, and, as noted, some of the characters don't really do anything in this volume. However, this is a book that, as I like to quote, 'begins, middles and ends'. Structurally, that's really nice: we know these characters can accomplish things and make a difference. We also know that they still have a long way to go before resolving, well, whatever it is that is undoubtedly lurking behind the scenes.

It is punchy. Again, I suppose, in both meanings of the word. But just as I'm delighted that this is a book that can stand on its own, I'm also delighted that it is under 500 pages and stuff happens. In fact, there are very few scenes (even including Yllandris and Eremul) where something doesn't happen: be it the aforementioned punch-up, poignant character revelations, hacking people apart with axes, whacking at a monster or, you know, dropping an ocean on a city. Wrap that up with the two points above, and you've got a book with a compelling sense of action on three levels: scene, book and world. That's a lot of hooks.

What didn't work?

The final, and perhaps greatest, strength of The Grim Company - its 'punchiness' - is also inherently linked with its biggest flaw: it is quick and readable because it is built on a platform of familiar tropes. Exceedingly familiar ones. As a reviewer, this is skating on thin ice. Obviously I am not - and cannot -  accuse an author of 'lifting' characters, because a) I don't know what the author read, b) I would have no idea if it was intention or not and c) that's a shitty thing to do.

However, what I can point out is that many of the major characters are so familiar as to be stereotypes - especially in the circle of contemporary 'grimdark' fantasy and, even more specifically, Joe Abercrombie. Davarus (the spoilt noble rogue who is convinced he's the heir to something magnificent and God's gift to everyone - often at his own expense) is eerily reminiscent of Jezal. Eremul - snarky, debauched, reluctantly attached to overwhelming evils, physically challenged - reminds us of Glotka. And, of course, Brodar Kayne, the aging Northman who is on the run because once he was the champion for his chieftain, but after that got too nasty, he betrayed his boss and took off. Brodar even, bless him, has a catchphrase: "you've got to adapt". The Bloody Nine is alive and well. 

Abercrombie is the pre-eminent figure in contemporary British fantasy, so it is perhaps only right that his influence is the most visible here. But it is also hard not to see bits and pieces of George R.R. Martin, David Gemmell and the Forgotten Realms all at play. 

The question is, I suppose - why is this a bad thing?

Sure, there's a whole societal thing about recycling other characters - the 'uniqueness' of ideas is the fundamental value of any creative industry. But even if there is intent (which I couldn't and wouldn't want to prove), there's certainly no maliciousness. And, as noted above, the using these stereotypical characters as 'building blocks' allows The Grim Company to accelerate the reader from a standing start. Plus, epic fantasy has been giving us variations on Aragorn for two generations and Conan for three.3 Why shouldn't it be snaffling characters from Martin and Abercrombie? And, perhaps most of all - there's this brilliant post on this topic - which outlines the core argument in favour of tropes as "we see things a lot because we like them".

So, hell, let's broaden this out beyond recycled characters, and talk about tropes as a whole. And, of course, I agree. I mean, we use hammers because they're the best way of whacking nails, right? Who can argue with that?

But take a step back: they're not the only way to whack a nail. But if we keep defaulting to hammers, that's what we're saying: hammers are the done thing. Use a hammer, or don't bother with nails at all. Worse, as long as we're taught that we've reached the apex of nail-whacking, no one will push on to invent the NAILWHACKER9000 - a hitherto unknown and even better way of beating the crap out of that poor nail. And worst of all, we'll lose all the joy and experimentation that comes from trying to invent the NAILWHACKER. Granted, whacking a nail with a lollipop is a terrible way of going about it... but there could be a really good story in there. And hell, you might invent a better lollipop in the process. Or a new nail. Nail-whacking is a creative industry after all: we learn from failure and experimentation, not from the repetition of a single process.

The argument in favor of tropes is circular: we see things because we like them, but we like them because that's all we ever get a chance to like. Because the hammer is all we see, the hammer is all we know, and the hammer is all we get.4

However the 'pro-trope' and 'anti-trop'e camps (and those are seriously reductive definitions) do agree on one point - tropes do the job. Where they disagree is whether or not 'getting the job done' is the primary purpose of a book. And, coming back to The Grim Company, we have a perfect example of this mixed position. By using familiar characters, The Grim Company gets the job done. It provides us with that which we already knew we wanted. That's solid and that's safe and that's it.

The Grim Company also doesn't help itself by dialling everything up to 11. Kings don't die - gods are overthrown. People aren't killed - cities are crushed. Everything is that much more, well, more. The review uses the lovely word 'embiggens', and that's a perfect explanation for what The Grim Company does: it embiggens current fantasy trends.

The problem is, 'grimdark' (or whatever you want to call contemporary post-revisionist epic fantasy) works because it is emotive. Arguably, that's what the movement has brought back to the genre: fantasy with characters that act like real people, in realistic situations. Killing more people doesn't make each death any more meaningful, in fact, it tends to work in the reverse. To quote the noted New York Times Book Review critic Joseph Stalin, "One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic."

Unfortunately, using stereotypical characters already adds one layer of separation: they're easy to understand but they lack the individuality necessary for a deeper connection. And escalating the scale of the conflict adds another layer on top. The reader is given size and shoutiness and immediacy - a book with CAPS LOCK on, but as spectacular as it is, none of it is feels particularly meaningful. The events of The Grim Company are eye-catching, not heart-stopping.

Though familiarity may not breed contempt, it takes off the edge of admiration - William Hazlitt

I'm being unduly harsh on The Grim Company in part because it is a pretty good book: it is fast, it feisty and the world is a lot of fun. I suppose my fear is... well,  is this it? Is whatever this contemporary fantasy movement is - are we done already? Are we done with new characters? Are we at the stage of the literary conversation where we just repeat ourselves loudly? We've exhausted the possibilities?! This is, of course, melodrama. But seeing the walls makes me feel claustrophobic.

(If you're interested in what the author thinks, there's a comprehensive interview where he discusses many of these same points with Fantasy Book Critic. Well worth checking out.5)

Fortunately, as well as being a big bully, I am also capable of great detachment. Wearing my Shiny Helmet +5 of Objectivity, I shall now sally forth and see how this fares in the eyes of fearsome Gemmell criteria:

'Spirit of Gemmell' criteria:

  • Secondary world: Yes! Tis a paswif at that. I'm not going to make that word happen, am I?
  • Traditional: Yes. Magelords and barbarians and nobles and whatnot. 
  • Heroic: Yes. I think so. There are good people doing evil things and dubious people doing good things, but there's no actual obfuscation of what constitutes good and evil. There's a moral compass, the question is whether or not folks choose to follow it.
  • Epic: Yes. Extremely. Arguably, The Grim Company tries so hard to be grimdark that it circles all the way around back into epic. That's what happens when you water-nuke cities.
  • High fantasy: Yes. Granted, the magic is 'dying', but it is still everywhere and core to the world. 

'Excellence' criteria:

  • Entertaining: Yes. See above.
  • Innovative: No. See above.
  • Reactionary: Allow me to present to you the very first time we meet Yllandris:

"Yllandris rose hastily, brushing ash from the silk shawl straining against her breasts. Sweat moistened her bronze skin, running in beads down her perfectly flat stomach. Her hair was so dark as to appear almost purple, complementing the violet paint she wore on her lips and under her eyes. She gave it a shake and it fell almost to her waist, an impressive mane of hair that resembled the great Highland cat: a regal, graceful creature, yet utterly vicious when provoked. Yllandris smiled, revealing perfect white teeth. Regal, graceful and deadly was exactly how she would describe herself." 

On that cheerful note, just one review to go! (Tentatively: Wednesday. Wrapup: Thursday. Award ceremony: Friday!)

1: Shannara's a dubious inclusion because, as Adam Roberts points out, it may not actually be a secondary world. 

2: Two sub-themes that I'm not touching on here, but are worth noting. First, the rather (depressing) trend that in epic paswifs, the upward motion largely comes from rediscovering the past, not creating something new. Which is actually a really depressing thing to think about: the number of fantasies where problems are solved by Listening to The Old Gods and Living Properly and No Public Dancing in Bomont as opposed to those where someone just invents, I dunno, penicillin. Which is, of course, why I admire KJ Parker so much. Parker's characters change the world [or try to] via revolution, not restoration). Second, I suppose there are also paswifs where the plot features neither progress nor descent. The Dragonlance Chronicles kind of fits - in that there is an upward arc, but only as a correction towards neutrality. Which in turn, of course, why I admire Chronicles so much - it is a telelogical sine wave.

3: David Eddings notoriously borrowed his own characters four times. <zing!>

4: Ok, that metaphor got strained. Perhaps if you think of hammers as, I dunno, "stableboys that become high king", "exclusively male Chosen Ones", or "Arabic villains", it makes a little more sense.

5: This also means that my review links to the FBC interview where the author responds to a comment that I left on the review. The same review that I also cite above. If I  change the timestamp on this review so that it comes out before the one, I'm pretty sure it'll trigger the events of "Turn Left". BAD WOLF.