The Grim Company is the first in Luke Scull’s series of the same name. In a world with dead gods, those who killed them now rule in their stead, sometimes with subtlety, and sometimes with a hammer. In this system of semi-oppressive rule, we follow several individuals who are, in their own way, rebels. There’s monsters, there’s (quite a lot of) close quarters swordfights. There’s blood everywhere. Mad wizards, bad wizards, and mad bad wizards. It’s quite an adventure, somewhat reminiscent of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, with less lyrical prose and more stabbing.
The world – well, as mentioned above, it’s one which is broken. Centuries prior, a cabal of powerful wizards stormed the gates of the realm of the gods, and cast them down – quite literally – into the world below, taking their lives in the process. The mages returned from their jaunt into the celestial somewhat changed, and quickly seized control of various parts of their world, drawing power from the corpses of the divinities that they struck down. In the current time of the novel, the world is, perhaps, not faring as well as it might. The rulers of several cities are in a state of near-war, each looking for a new source of magic to fuel their rule. At the same time, malformed monsters are coming out of the cracks in the world, and terrorising villages and towns, The average citizen is struggling to comply with whatever dictates come from their rulers, as those rulers are all that are keeping them from being devoured by the monsters – and those rulers are eccentric, to varyingly lethal degrees.
Scull’s world is by no means a happy place. But in its hard-edged dreariness is the occasional sparkle. The shine of a magical spear as it punches through a monstrosity, or through the chest of a dissident. The gleam of the scales on a dragon, before it sets a village to flame. There’s an intertwining here, a sense of the beautifully grotesque, which made for an intriguing read. There’s also a sense of history to the places that Scull shows us – nations which have been under the same rule for centuries have a sense of being reshaped. Temples are decaying or eliminated, and there’s a sense of liquid history, of the victors rewriting perceived reality for their own purposes. Exactly what happened in the past is opaque, but it’s left a big mark in the world of the Grim Company. It’s a sad world of broken majesty and one that makes a terrifying kind of sense.
The characters – well, we see a fair few, but the most memorable are the duo of battle-hardened, now almost pension-drawing northern warriors, and the youth who believes he’s the one chosen to overthrow his magelord – and has the arrogance, middling ability, and flat out luck to keep that belief fed. The world weary duo are a thoroughly enjoyable read – a fusion of competence, talent and experience with a gradual awareness of physical infirmity, and, in one case, a certain level of moral flexibility. The two of them interact well together, one a more compassionate, but still practical, foil to the potential inhumanity of the other. Scull sets out a portrayal of loyalty and loss with these two, and it’s one which is vividly plausible.
The more youthful hero-figure is perhaps less familiar, and more prone to averting tropes, but still skilfully drawn. Having been told through childhood that he is a hero, chosen for great things, he believes it entirely – and has the youthful arrogance this leads to. He’d come off as a nasty piece of work, but as events begin to unfold, and his heroic talents are put to the test, he’s so dreadfully hapless as to be more amusing than annoying. What Scull’s done here is throw in the stereotypical hero archetype, but then laced it through with the flaws and difficulties that make a hero more human. It’s a less complex portrayal than the northern duo, but one which is no less convincing or enjoyable.
The plot’s main focus is split between our barbarian duo, acting to disrupt a magical mine, and the efforts of the Young Hero to overthrow the magelord of his city. The two threads come together and disperse again occasionally, and both are compelling in their own way. I won’t spoil either, but would note that there’s some wonderful character introspection, betrayal, murder, a surprising amount of entirely non-prescription drugs, sieges, and more than one horrible monster.
Overall, the text is a fairly fast-paced adventure piece, with some excellent character development inside it. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, and I’d recommend this one if you’re in the mood for a fast, gritty, fun fantasy adventure.