Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.
“People. What a bunch of bastards.”
-Roy, The IT Crowd
This column’s theme: Grimdark
This month it’s examples of that genre of fantasy novels where everyone has flaws, the pure of heart can’t be found, and should anything magical and wondrous happen you can bet there’ll be a corresponding body count. None of these are appropriate as bedtime fairy tales since children will find them unsettling and adults will stay up all night reading. That said, here are three books that kick off fantasy series where the characters are less than wholesome.
So if you like:
Game of Thrones
Multiple character narratives
Complex world building
The feel of Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld, without its lighter side
You might like
The Blade Itself (the First Law Trilogy), by Joe Abercrombie
Set against the backdrop of an empire in decline that is beset by monsters to one side and an invading kingdom to the other, the First Law Trilogy follows a barbarian, a torturer, a knight and, rarest of all, a wizard who may actually be able to do magic. The question is; are they working to save the kingdom, or just themselves?
Now, as Logen slid over the edge of the cliff his hands closed around something. A tree root, sticking out from the earth at the very edge of the gorge. He swung in space, gasping, but his grip was firm.
He was still alive. It would take more than a few Flatheads to put an end to Logen Ninefingers. He started to pull himself up onto the bank but couldn’t manage it. There was some great weight around his legs. He peered down.
The big Shanka was still with him, swinging gently back and forth with its dirty hands clamped tight around his left ankle.
If Logen had been the one clinging to the Shanka’s foot, he would most likely have thought, “My life depends on this leg I’m hanging from—best not take any chances.” A man would rather save himself than kill his enemy. Trouble was that the Shanka didn’t think that way, and Logen knew it. So it wasn’t much of a surprise when it opened its big mouth and sank its teeth into his calf.
Once you’ve got a task to do, it’s better to do it than to live with the fear of it. That’s what Logen’s father would have said. So he planted his free foot firmly on the rock face, took one last deep breath, and flung himself out into empty space with all the strength he had left. He felt the biting teeth let go of him, then the grasping hands, and for a moment he was free.
The rushing wind whipped at his eyes, tugged at his clothes, plucked the breath out of his mouth. He saw the big Shanka hit the rock face beside him. He saw it break and bounce and flop off, dead for sure. That was a pleasing sight, but Logen’s satisfaction was short-lived.
The water came up to meet him. It hit him in the side like a charging bull, punched the air out of his lungs, knocked the sense out of his head, sucked him in and down into the cold darkness…
The plot of this series is too complex to easily sum up. The overview above is generally true, but it’s not the half (or even the sixteenth of it). However, if you’ve got some time between now and the next Game of Thrones book, take a look at the world of The First Law. Joe Abercrombie has created a world that is complex, gritty, and very much grounded in reality. Magic is an extreme rarity, and death (or worse) is always around the corner. While you may not get the full backstory for everything, you never doubt that it’s there. Plus Abercrombie throws in an interesting twist on the ‘party on a quest’ trope.
Or if you like:
Faster moving, first person narratives with less complicated but equally dark plots
Freaky-ass wizards with nicknames
Ed McDonald’s Blackwing
Books special forces soldiers are willing to fight for
You might like
The Black Company (The Chronicles of The Black Company), by Glen Cook
Narrated in the first person by company annalist and physician Croaker, the mercenary band known as The Black Company has entered the employ of a powerful dark sorceress as she seeks to expand her empire. While they’ve never been the good guys, they are becoming increasingly aware that there are much worse things than her out there.
There were prodigies and portents enough, One-Eye says. We must blame ourselves for misinterpreting them. One-Eye’s handicap in no way impairs his marvelous hindsight.
Lightning from a clear sky smote the Necropolitan Hill. One bolt struck the bronze plaque sealing the tomb of the forvalaka, obliterating half the spell of confinement. It rained stones. Statues bled. Priests at several temples reported sacrificial victims without hearts or livers. One victim escaped after its bowels were opened and was not recaptured. At the Fork Barracks, where the Urban Cohorts were billeted, the image of Teux turned completely around. For nine evenings running, ten black vultures circled the Bastion. Then one evicted the eagle which lived atop the Paper Tower.
Astrologers refused readings, fearing for their lives. A mad soothsayer wandered the streets proclaiming the imminent end of the world. At the Bastion, the eagle not only departed, the ivy on the outer ramparts withered and gave way to a creeper which appeared black in all but the most intense sunlight.
But that happens every year. Fools can make an omen of anything in retrospect.
We should have been better prepared. We did have four modestly accomplished wizards to stand sentinel against predatory tomorrows—though never by any means as sophisticated as divining through sheeps’ entrails.
Still, the best augurs are those who divine from the portents of the past. They compile phenomenal records.
Beryl totters perpetually, ready to stumble over a precipice into chaos. The Queen of the Jewel Cities was old and decadent and mad, filled with the stench of degeneracy and moral dryrot. Only a fool would be surprised by anything found creeping its night streets.
The Black Company is a nine volume series, roughly broken up into trilogies that cover story arcs, so the first three can be read to complete one tale. The first book is more a collection of short stories that detail the Company’s campaign fighting for the fresh-out-of-the-grave sorceress that’s looking to rebuild her empire, with subsequent books having longer story arcs. What I particularly liked about this series is that while the Company is tough, they’re not the toughest things around. Nobody here is a chosen one, and while they have a couple of wizards employed, they can’t nearly compete with the magic that the sorceress and her minions can rain down. It may be this view from the trenches, or the depiction of military life that had author Glen Cook recounting how a special forces soldier told him that, while on deployment, they’d fight each other to see who got to read the next book first.
So if you like
Glen Cook’s Black Company Series
Even more freaky-ass wizards with nicknames
A bit of a 1930’s Film Noir feel to your fantasy novels
You might like
A mercenary in the employ of a wizard discovers the cold war between his boss and a group of rival sorcerers is starting to heat up, and that’s not good news for anyone.
In life I wouldn’t have looked twice at either one. In death I couldn’t take my eyes away.
My unease intensified, rising from my guts to my chest. No visible wounds, just a lot of blood. Hadn’t seen anything like this for a long time. The things in the Misery are vicious but they kill like animals. This was bloody, but it was neat. Almost like they’d sat there, waiting to be killed.
‘Something got them,’ Nenn said. Has a real talent for pointing out the obvious, my Nenn.
‘No shit. It might still be here.’ I didn’t know what in the hells it was, but it had done our job for us. I sucked in match smoke, took comfort in the acrid tang.
‘It’s long gone. Blood’s been dry for hours.’
I froze as I saw something down in the grit and sand of the floor. I stared at it a few moments, unable to bring myself to move. Listened.
‘We need to get out of here.’
‘What is it?’ Nenn was going through their pockets.
‘We have to go.’
Nenn caught the fear in my voice. She glanced over, caught sight of the footprint. Such a small thing. It shouldn’t have terrified us the way it did. She looked at me wide-eyed.
‘Get the heads,’ I whispered. ‘Fast.’
There are a lot of bad things in the world. Some of them are people, and some of them happen to live in the Misery. The worst of them come from beyond the Misery, far to the east. I knew chance could have formed that childlike footprint, maybe just a scuff in the sand. But it could have been made by a Darling.
My breath came too shallow. Perspiration pricked a course down my neck. I listened for the slightest sound and kept my matchlock raised. I gripped it hard, tried to stop my fingers from trembling.
‘Come on, come on,’ I hissed.
In the first book of a three volume series, Rhys makes his living as a bounty hunter, recruiting mercenaries as needed to go after enemy sympathizers when he’s not specifically being directed by the wizard he’s in the service of. Said wizard is one of the Nameless who have held off the Deep Kings and their warped legions over the decades since the Nameless unleashed a reality warping weapon that killed one of the Deep Kings, resulting in a decisive stalemate…which may now be breaking.
The novel takes on a bit of a film noir tone as Rhys tries to decipher the enigmatic orders given by his boss to protect a low level wizard he’d loved decades before, while trying to figure out what her importance is in the coming war. If you’ve read The Black Company, you’ll note parallels in the straightforward first person narrative, the moral ambiguity of the characters, and super powerful wizards with nicknames pushing their pawns around. That said, Blackwing is definitely its own story with its own take on these things and doesn’t read as derivative. I found it to be really engaging read with interesting twists and turns as the characters figured out what was really going on.
While it is part of a series: Raven’s Mark, I felt Blackwing had a solid enough ending to stand on it’s own, although the second book is out now.
So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments where the link was posted.