When I think of a grimdark novel, what comes to mind is an ultra-violent, amoral, uber realistic story where good guys don’t even finish last . . . they get slaughtered before the race even begins! Something along the lines of this.
Okay, maybe, that isn’t completely fair, but we all know the sub-genre is known for those elements I mentioned above. And when I returned to reading fantasy a few years ago, this “new” fantasy didn’t agree with me at all. So much so that I actually wrote a blog post bemoaning my disillusionment with the whole sub-genre entitled "Why Grimdark Isn’t For Me."
Fast forward a few years. I’ve read more grimdark books. Some I’ve loved. A few I’ve thought were “meh.” Most I’ve thought were entertaining enough. Now, though, I’ve encountered something I never thought possible: A fun grimdark!
Okay, I know that “fun” term sounded sacrilegious. Please, take a deep breath, put the fist down, and sit back in your chair, I will explain everything.
Now, Luke Scull starts The Grim Company out with a proverbial grimdark middle finger. This takes the shape of a whole city being destroyed by magic while it’s terrified citizens can do nothing but stand there waiting for it to happen. A cataclysm that opens this book out in a most shocking and spectacular way.
The pace slows down considerable after this, but instead of a frantic sprint, a reader finds himself in a slow but steady marathon. The world’s delicious history being slowly revealed piece by piece. Characters are introduced, thrown into the mix. Amoral philosophy begins to make its appearance. Fights are bloody, brutal affairs with body parts flying. And the strong aroma of grimdark begins to permeate every page.
As for that world, Scull has dreamed up an epic, grimdark wonderland, fully realized and impeccably unveiled. It is a land mired in the Age of Ruin; a slow death that began five centuries ago when a group of wizards arose during the Age of Strife (An epoch were the world’s religions allied to exterminate all users of magic.) and killed their persecutors and the gods they worshiped.
You heard that right. These sorcerers hunted down and slaughtered every deity known to exist, casting some from heaven itself. All that remains of these divine beings are their slowly decomposing corpses; some of which do not seem to be completely dead yet, but can still be heard moaning as miners tear out their magical flesh and blood to empower the deicidal wizards. For after the Godswar, these “god-like” wizards didn’t go away but carved up the decomposing world into fiefdoms. All humanity shepherded toward the end of everything by the very people who had ushered in the slow death of creation.
While it is implied that many of these deicidal wizards still live, the story here focuses on the struggle between only four of them: Salazar of Dorminia, The White Lady of Thelassa, Marius of Shadowport, and The Shaman of High Fangs. A conflict that revolves more around their need to obtain the last great source of magic in the world rather than any desire to increase their earthly dominions (because, honestly, those are pathetic excuses for the lost civilizations from the past.)
Ensnared in this wizardly conflict is a cast of colorful characters. Davarus Cole is a young man, who has been reared to be a hero in the mold of his deceased father, and into his hands has been placed an ensorcelled weapon that is destined for the heart of Salazar. Plotting beside him at the rebel meetings is an orphan woman named Sasha, who views all men with the disdain that they deserve. Brodar Kayne and Jerek the Wolf enter the tale as highlanders on the run from the minions of the Shaman of High Fangs; men of action who are united together in a strange bond of friendship, even though they are as different as light from day. Far to the north, the sorceress Ylandris dreams and plots to become even greater than the Shaman himself. And in Dorminia, Salazar’s Supreme Augmentor (Augmentors are magically enhanced “super soldiers” of the wizards.) is a man named Barandas; a bastion of goodness and virtue who commits evil, because he believes that “a strong man does what is necessary and not always what is right.” And rounding out this merry cast is Eremul the Halfmage; the last wizard remaining in Salazar’s city, though the price for his escape from the wizard’s magical purge years before were his legs.
With this motley group of people (and a few more minor players) Scull weaves an entertaining grimdark that is two parts amoral, ultra-violent fantasy and one part fun epic adventure. A viciously dark escapade that is somehow fun!
Even the moody, philosophical comments contained in the narrative don’t depress as much as make you laugh at their absurdity, such as when Eremul is counseled “[N]ot to lament the loss of your legs. Instead celebrate the fact they liberated you from the evil you would have otherwise committed — yet by virtue of that simple fact, you possess only half the evil of a man” or will have you nodding along in agreement, as when Eremul observes that “It would seem that men possessing the qualities to serve the city in the highest capacity were difficult to find. Deceitfulness, cowardice, shameless arse-lickery. Why haven’t I been made a magister yet?” Hell, even comments that might offend your sensibilities don’t really irk you . . . too much. For instance, when one character muses that “The difference between a hero and a killer lies only in the ability of the former to justify every dark dead they perform to anyone who cares to listen. Even themselves. Especially themselves” or when another proclaims that the “The longer one lives the more one understands that there is no inherent goodness in the world” they all fit into the overall narrative so snuggly that it doesn’t sound like an author proselytizing but rather the characters coming alive before your eyes and letting you get to know them.
Naturally, there are vicious physical confrontations and dazzling sorcerous displays in The Grim Company. As I mentioned earlier, the beginning of the book begins with a major one. However, it continues from there, albeit at a slower pace, providing enough episodes of blood and guts carelessly scattered across the pages to satisfy even the most ardent grimdark fan. So if that was a major concern of yours, hopefully this news lays such doubts to rest.
By this point, I’m sure you can detect that I really liked this novel. Honestly, it was a nice surprise; one of those times when I was not expecting much and got a lot more than I bargained for — in a good way. Yeah, yeah, I know grimdark isn’t suppose to be labeled “fun,” but I’m just telling the truth here. The Grim Company is a fun grimdark fantasy. Sure, it has all the gory, moody elements of the usual grimdarks out there, but Scull mixed in a wonderfully deep, complex world with a storyline that had enough good, old-fashioned fun to lighten the read, so that it was FUN. Hell, I think even the “Grimdark” Reaper had a smile on his face after finishing this one.
See he is smiling? You don’t see it? Huh, I would have sworn he was smiling.