The Good: A pull-no-punches account of the realities of war, complete with a cast of humans (key point: not heroes) whose efforts will likely fail, but if they don’t try, then who else will?
The Bad: Not a ‘bad’ for me, personally speaking, but the story does contain scenes that some readers may find upsetting (more information in the body of the review).
The Ugly Truth: We Are the Dead is a war story ‘after the war’, pitting stormtrooper-esque foot soldiers and Chosen warriors with dark powers to rival any Darth or Sith, against a rebellion of grizzled veterans and innocents caught in the crossfire. The story presents the grim(dark) realities of conflict, and its consequences, and fans of Joe Abercrombie and R.F. Kuang are sure to find something to love here.
The review: We are the Dead is Mike Shackle’s traditionally published debut from Gollancz. A big thanks to Waseem for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review.
This is a story of the events ‘after the war’, which I found to be a nice change from the typical fantasy plot building up to an all-out final battle against the BBEG (big bad evil guy). It is a story of survival, oppression, and living under subjugation; of how you measure the cost of your actions, and who ultimately pays the price; and of how good people do bad things, and whether or not that makes them better than those who oppose them.
Before I continue, I will say that this book includes scenes that some readers may find upsetting. I realise this can be said of any book, and I really umm’ed and ahh’ed about including this ‘content warning’, but don’t let it put you off. I for one am guilty of not including trigger/content warnings in my reviews, but when confronted with a suicidal character (who is very well-written) in the first few pages, I realised that this story was going to cover some uncomfortable ground (again, all of which is very, very well written).
So, while keeping spoilers to a minimum, a few things covered in this book (beyond the usual combat-level violence found in most fantasies) that some might find upsetting:
- A character with suicidal thoughts
- Physical assault
Now, I know I’m repeating myself, but all the above are fantastically well written. And more importantly, they all serve a purpose to the plot, and develop the characters involved, as opposed to being included for the sake of ‘shock’ or being ‘edgy’.
The story begins several months before the main events of the book, and in doing so introduces readers to some of the key characters and sets the scene before everything goes to sh*t. The Jia and Egril have been at war for years, and have fought to a standstill of sorts. The Jians regard themselves as superior to their Egril neighbours, who are seen as witless barbarians – which is why the Jians aren’t prepared for the Egrils’ sudden and devastating invasion, including the appearance of white-armoured warriors called the Skulls (Chosen who wield dark magics bestowed by a malignant god), and twisted unnatural creatures.
Jumping forwards in time, the story unfolds properly in a now-conquered Jia, in which those who survived the invasion live under the rule of the Egril, who have seized control of the country. The Egril are hard masters; punishments are swift, brutal and public, and while people fear the Skulls, they also fear collaborators amongst their own who would sell them out to the enemy.
But against the dark there is a flicker of hope.
The Shulka, aka the Dead, Jia’s elite warriors, were all but wiped out during the invasion, but a rebel group known as the Hanran have risen from the ashes to defy the Egril. To some, they are a candle in the night, but a candle can still burn you, and people are as afraid of the Hanran as they are the Egril.
Harking back to the stormtrooper reference, We are the Dead is to fantasy ‘war’ stories as Rogue One is to the rest of the Star Wars movies (though the Egril are more reminiscent of the brutal First Order in the newer films, and the Chosen are a match for Kylo Ren’s rage and raw aggression). There are still two sides to the conflict, and while the bad guys are still the bad guys, the good guys aren’t all that great either. They’re your grimdark-grey on the colour swatch of heroes and antiheroes, but are as vivid and vibrant as the story is violent.
On the note of characters, the cast here isn’t the typical ‘heroic party’ either. Rather than a chosen farm boy, wise mentor, princess, daring rogue and trusty companion, here instead we have a cowardly warrior, a young mother, a teenage terrorist, and a veteran with life-changing injuries. As the tagline on the cover says: ‘No More Heroes’. There are no ‘heroes’ in war, but there are humans capable of doing the best and worst that humanity can do. Whether or not that makes you a hero is a matter of perspective for which side you are fighting for.
Even though this is a varied bunch of personalities, I identified with each of the POVs. As a reader, I wanted Tinnstra to run and hide, for Yas to be left alone to do what was right for her and her son; I understood why Dren went to the lengths he did, and why Jax needed to play it slow and steady until the time was right. The plot is very much character-driven; while the events are set up to unfold by the time the reader gets to them, it’s the characters whose willingness to act (or not) that shape the story. There are a few predictable moments here and there, but with plenty of surprises along the way to a rip-roaring finale.
Before I wrap up, I want to add just how amazing the cover art for this book is. The skull detailing on the kabuto helmet is *chef’s kiss* (and drawn from the story), and the red-white-black makes the cover really stand out on the shelves / as a thumbnail online (i.e. Amazon). At a distance, it looks very realistic, but up close it resembles traditional Japanese watercolour painting.
In closing, We Are The Dead holds up a mirror to the war stories of gold and glory, and instead reveals a stark reflection of the hardships and horrors of humanity. In a conflict where both sides have committed wrongs in pursuit of what is right for them, it’s not about who is better or worse, but who wins. This stands apart amongst other fantasy ‘war’ epics, and other oriental-influenced settings and stories, and I for one look forward to where Mike Shackle takes the story of The Last War in book two.