The more I read and, by extension review, in speculative fiction the less I enjoy the stereo-typical fantasy novels that populated my reading prior to the start of this blog. Maybe it's the weight of my growing awareness of the tropes and archetypes of the genre or the expansion of my reading habits into different arenas of the genre. It takes more and more to impress me, and I keep looking for fresher perspectives, characters, and voices. Which brings me to Luke Scull's debut, The Grim Company. To put it bluntly, there's not a lot new in this first volume in a proposed trilogy. I've seen versions of these characters, this setting, and this plot before and I've seen them many, many times. A well versed reader could easily pick analogues of any of the principles characters without a shred of effort. Readers expecting to have their minds blown by something completely unexpected and ground breaking should probably look elsewhere. But readers looking for an expertly paced tale with well crafted characters that packs a mountain of world building into a mole hill of a novel should definitely not miss this novel. Scull may not blow you away with his originality, but he shows a deft hand at character, pace, dialogue, and world building that one rarely finds in a debut novel. Fans of the grimdark movement and complex characters who run the gamut of morality are in for a treat. If this is Scull's freshman effort, the following volumes should be even better.
Set five hundred years after the destruction of the gods by the combined might of world's wizards, humanity is in the thrall of the nearly immortal god-killers who rule with an iron fist and war constantly with one another as the ramifications of their deicide unleash horrors upon the less civilized parts of the world. Our protagonist are part of small group of freedom fighters who have banded together to topple one of the most sadistic of the mage kings. From disparate backgrounds these characters come from a wide sampling of fantasy tropes. We have a pair of world weary, aging barbarians who are on the run from the ruler of their homeland, a callow youth who has delusions of being a hero for the ages, a disfigured wizard or middling power with a biting sense of humor, and more. While none of Scull's characters are particularly ground breaking, they are well realized and of surprising depth. There's plenty of gallows' humor and a definite sense that the author knows exactly what tropes he's playing with and why.
I found the characters that weren't connected to the titular company of freedom fighters, were more interesting because their analogues weren't as obvious. The head of the mage king's armies was particularly well drawn and while I had hopes that he might end up on the side of the angels, Scull was wise enough not to give it to me. The consort of the barbarian king, who wants power and prestige but has too much heart to take the steps necessary to claim it was another surprise favorite. These characters, while at first seeming tangential to the plot end up serving the overall story arc very well and I was impressed with how well Scull wove the disparate and far flung points of view into such a lean and precise narrative. You won't find yourself tangled in subplots that go nowhere in The Grim Company, every scene serves the story or feeds directly into the second novel and that's a welcome change from most debuts in the normally bloated ranks of epic fantasy.
The world building is seamlessly integrated with the narrative and I was pleasantly shocked at the amount of information packed into the relatively small page count. There's plenty more to explore and I'm sure the following volume will fill out the world even more. The almost complete lack of exposition in the novel is astounding considering the amount of information that Scull delivers. The character back stories are also revealed piece meal with critical information withheld until just the right dramatic moment. Aspiring writers should take note of Scull's habit of leaving the readers with questions, only to provide another question paired with the subsequent answer.
In conclusion, The Grim Company manages to impress despite its abundance of easily recognized tropes, largely due to the tight and efficient prose and well drawn characters. Scull may not be breaking new ground, but he entertain with deft pacing, excellently realized characters and dense prose that never feels like exposition. This is a debut novel that gets nearly everything right, and a great start to what promises to be an action packed series.