Genre: Fantasy – Grimdark
Series: The Grim Company #3
Publisher: Roc (January 3, 2017)
Length: 448 pages
My Rating: 3 stars
Dead Man’s Steel was a novel I was eagerly looking forward to reading. The Grim Company and The Sword of the North list among my favorite grimdark novels from the recent past, so, naturally, I assumed the final volume would be the best yet. Unfortunately, after finishing this installment of the series, all I feel is disappointment and a longing for what might have been.
Picking up where The Sword of the North ended, the new masters of Dorminia are the legendary race called the Fehd, or Fade. These people descending upon the much fought over carcass of Magelord Salazar’s city, ruthlessly and efficiently destroying all opposition before preparing the opening phases of “The Reckoning” they intend to bring to the world. Eremul the Halfmage an eye witness to these goings on.
A continent away in the far north, Brodar Kayne fights a desperate battle to save his son and his people. Krazka the Butcher King having taken control of the land and having thrown in his lot with an ancient evil, which threatens to drown the whole world in blood – unless the Sword of the North can somehow fight off the weakness of age and aid his fellow Northmen in destroying the cancer before it grows too strong.
Meanwhile, Sasha and Davarus Cole find themselves in the City of the White Lady, slowly but surely pulled into the fight to hold back the rising tide of the Fehd. Surrounded by people whose trust is uncertain, dealing with their own festering curses, and burdened with their past problems, these two quickly find themselves drowning in responsibility and unsure whether they can meet the challenges they are confronted with.
All that sounds like the makings of a great grimdark story, and for the first half of the book, Dead Man’s Steel was on the same upward trajectory as its two predecessors. Then things took a downward turn and never recovered.
Why? Simply put the lack of a compelling villain or heroes.
In my opinion, a story has to have both great villains and heroes to succeed. At times, I truly believe the villain is the more important of the two. And in The Grim Company and The Sword of the North there was an outstanding cast of repulsive enemies for our jaded heroes to struggle against. Magelord Salazar. The White Lady of Thelassa. The Shaman of High Fangs. Krazka. And many more. Each one of these despicable examples of humanity fun to read about, driving the narrative forward either by a reader’s desire to see them killed or to learn what caused them to be the way they are.
In Dead Man’s Steel, we have the Fehd. These guys are supposedly an ancient race, who once inhabited the land back during “the time before”. They are seemingly ageless, possessing of high level technology (cannons, handguns, indestructible crystal swords, city destroying bombs, huge ocean going ships, and airplanes) as well as being gifted with superhuman strength, speed, and agility. One could come to the conclusion they are overpowered without much effort. And this (plus their fairly boring and predictable personalities) causes the narrative to grind to a halt. They just aren’t terribly interesting. Nor are they despicable enough to make you hate them. Rather they have the feel of white coated research scientists who are busy clinically administering death to lab rats. Yes, you want them to stop. Sure, you dislike them. But you don’t care how they meet their end as long as you don’t have to look at them anymore. And that is how I felt about the Fehd. “Just get them away from me already!”
The end result of the Fehd floundering is that our cast of grimdark characters must pick up the slack, which might have worked if Brodar Kayne or Eremul or someone other than Sasha and Davarus Cole were the leads. Unfortunately, these two friends become the focal point of the second half of the narrative.
I admit, in the other books, I enjoyed Cole’s ridiculous antics and Sasha’s drug addict tale. They were wonderful supporting characters. People we followed along behind for a chapter, shook our head at when they did something stupid, and felt sorry for when life threw them a curve ball, but not the people leading the fight against the Fehd. I mean, really? These two are the heroes? (And I do use the word “heroes” lightly.) They and their personal struggles just did not have the strength to hold up the book unassisted by a great villain, and, sadly, the story feel apart once they had to carry it. (At least, in my opinion.)
Which brings me to the only positive from this book: Luke Scull’s writing. Even weighted down with an underachieving pairing of villains and heroes, he somehow makes the story worth reading. His simple yet descriptive prose effortlessly guides the story forward, setting scenes, conveying emotions, and describing conflicts in an uncluttered way. His writing ability always reminding me of one of my favorite fantasy authors, Glen Cook.
Like most people, I always want the concluding volume of a series to be the best ever. Sometimes, though, it just doesn’t work out that way. The Grim Company trilogy was a fun ride, which made me love the kind of gallows humor and fierce action which Luke Scull can serve up, but Dead Man’s Steel was unable to live up to the very high standards its two predecessors set. While I am disappointed, I can truthfully say I’m still glad I read this novel, because it did bring closure to this story, and I will be eagerly awaiting the next story penned by its gifted author.
I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. I’d like to thank them for allowing me to receive this review copy and inform everyone that the review you have read is my opinion alone.