Dead Man’s Steel is the final instalment in Luke Scull’s “Grim Company” series. The first two were unflinchingly grim, with an undercurrent of humour inside a vibrant, if unpleasant, world.
The setting is largely familiar from the earlier books. There’s the outright terrifying city of the White Lady, for example – where the population are relatively safe, relatively happy, and not exactly oppressed. They even have a ruler who appears to care about their wellbeing. On the other hand, they have law enforcement composed of the snake-like, silent and disturbing constructs of the Lady, and they also have some rather worrying gaps in their memories. Then there’s the forested areas to the north, nominally run by the Shaman, a Magelord who believes in allowing strength to define what is right. Conveniently for his philosophy, he’s the strongest person in a large area. But the north is riven by war, one side backed by dark magic and demons. If the other is better by comparison, they’re still no charmers - their ranks split by blood feuds, their leaders disunited.
There’s some less familiar areas as well; the broken city of Dorminia, for example. It’s been the home for our heroes since the first book, but now it’s a shattered remnant of what it was, populated by feral urchins and wild dogs. It’s also populated by a mysterious and powerful force, which seems determined to wreak havoc on the denizens of the city – and indeed the rest of humanity. We also get to journey into the mountains – which mixes the delights of cold, clear air and all the space you might want with, well, all the demonic entities that you could want. This is a world teetering on the edge of destruction – torn apart by the death of gods, and the rise of Magelords who are, at their best, rather unpleasant, and, at their worst, downright natural disasters. The atmosphere suggests the presence of a precipice, a point of no return inching closer with every page.
Our protagonists, at least, are familiar – though many have progressed since their initial appearances. Davarus Cole, for example, is no longer a brash young man determined to do great deeds. Now he’s a tormented, damaged individual – a man who has done great deeds, and discovered their cost. His relationship with Brodar Kayne, the old, tired Sword of the North, remains a delight; even though the two aren’t often on the page together, seeing Cole earn his way into some of Kayne’s weary cynicism makes for a great read. Kayne himself is still exhausted, broken down by his own age, and the need to defend himself against his past reputation. As we go into this final part of the narrative, he’s coming to grips with the idea that he may not have made the best choices up until now – and trying to work out both what he wants, and how to achieve it without an old enemy stabbing him in the back, a new enemy stabbing him in the front, or a demon biting his face off.
There’s also the redoubtable Eremul the Halfmage, whose tone has always got a smile from me. He’s ferociously intelligent, viciously sarcastic, and although wary of those in power, prone to saying exactly what he thinks. Usually with some wonderfully colourful phrasing. Eremul is struggling to decide whether people are all terrible; as a man struggling without legs, a terrible reputation as a traitor, and a small amount of magical power, he’s prone to seeing people at their worst. Watching him struggle to understand kindness, and possibly love – well, it’s an experience. An eminently believable one, layered in personal conflicts and tensions.
There’s other members of the cast of course; I particularly enjoyed the return of Eremul’s manservant Isaac, now in something of a different role. The villains are variable – the demons seem rather flat in their malevolence, without much to make them anything other than the forces of darkness. By comparison though, both the leader of the aggression against the Shaman in the north, and the new occupiers of Dorminia in the south are complex, well-realised individuals. If their goals are to be regarded with horror and suspicion, their self-knowledge and the logic that led to those goals are not. There’s grey areas here, a certain complexity which means that even if the enemy aren’t to be rooted for, they can be understood.
The plot – well, it’s the last in the series, so I’ll avoid spoilers. But there’s more than the standard soupcon of resolution here. There’s several stormingly epic battles, kinetic, driven things where it’s difficult to put the book down, in case you miss someone getting an inch of steel in their eye. There’s duels – elaborate, byzantine, bloody things, with all the technique of world-class ballet, and all the heft of a battle axe in the face. The fate of the world is thrown up in the air more than once, and quite who will catch it as it comes back down is open to question. This is a world where everyone is vulnerable, and where the systems that shape the world are personal ones. It’s a fast-paced story, and one which rewards careful reading with excellent characterisation and solid worldbuilding to go with the battles, the sacrifices, the moments of heroism and the acts of villainy.
Is it worth reading? If you’re coming to the series for the first time, I’d say stop, and go read The Grim Company first. On the other hand, if you’ve come this war with our mismatched band of adventurers, then yes – this is a cracking conclusion to a series that you’ll want to see through to the end.