What happens when men kill the gods and take their place? Regardless of genre, great literature often follows a common structure. While the course of the book, or even the series, is propelled forward by some great national or cosmetic struggle, the heart of the story remains with the characters who are generally, not counted among the great and powerful. The first book of Luke Scull’s new series is based on the quest of men to supplant gods which is a fascinating idea all on its own, but it is his ragtag group of nobodies that will capture the hearts of readers.
I rarely compare books one to another. I may see elements of several other stories, but I mostly don’t see books as completely compatible. If a book really is “the next Lord of the Rings,” I’m probably going to find it too derivative. But I’m going to make an exception for the The Grim Company. This book could well be the next Game of Thrones. A lot is going to depend on where the series goes from here, but I’ve never read anything that reminded me so much of Martin’s saga that also remained extremely original.
There’s a newish subgenre spawned by Martin’s success that I’m going to call gritty fantasy since I can’t find an official term. For the most part, I’m not the biggest fan of this genre. Instead of elevating most of the tropes and ideals I love in high fantasy, these books drag them through the mud and then stomp on them until they’re unrecognizable. And mostly I hate that. So for me the mark of success for one of these books is when it’s good enough I keep reading. The mark of respect comes when I keep reading because I’ve become invested in the story despite all my preferences and reservations about the style as a whole. And that’s what The Grim Company achieved.
The smartest thing that Scull did was chose to follow his epic story from the point of the everymen. Instead of being treated to all the plots, intrigues, and failed hopes of the Magelords who are actually playing out a game of thrones, we get to see the people most affected by the power struggles. If we were reading this story through the eyes of someone in power, our heroes would probably be called pawns. However, they are the resistance fighters that no one really sees coming. A couple of Highlanders (who are exactly what the name suggests), a gang of street kids, and a disgraced mage are playing their own game, and the Highlanders in particular play dirty.
In the best of ways, Scull’s series is less sprawling than Martin’s. I stopped reading A Song of Ice and Fire when I realized I was going to need a map, a genealogy, and two blank books for note taking to keep everything straight. With The Grim Company, I felt that the more focused storytelling really helped me become attached to the characters. While our point of view switched around, it was limited to about six groups which really helped me become attached to the characters and their story lines.
I admit that two stories hooked me more than the others and compelled me to continue reading. The first is that of Davarus Cole. In the beginning, he seems to be some kind of great hero with a destiny and a magic dagger. About the time he loses his enchanted dagger, we realize that’s how he sees himself and to the rest of the world he’s not much more than a braggart. Yet, he follows his delusions with a fervor that starts making you wonder what really makes a hero. Cole might be the furthest thing from, but can his faith in his calling actually cause him to bumble into the role for real?
On the other end of the spectrum is Brodar Kayne, one of the Highlanders, and every bit the hero. At first he comes across as your typical meat shield. Big, muscular, gifted swordsman, seldom speaks, and bares the terrible emotional burdens of his back story in silence. Slowly though, you realize he isn’t really any of those things…except the bit about being ridiculously good with a sword. He’s getting old, and unlike many fantasy stories, that means something in this world. He’s aware of his age and the fact that he’s slowing up. He’s no longer the biggest and strongest. His initial silence falls away once he becomes acquainted with his new companions, and he is perfectly willing to converse with them and to be fairly open about himself. As for his back story…it’s a doozy. And his reactions to it are all natural and genuine. He might be a tragic hero, but it’s never forced.
However, there was one aspect of the story that really bothered me, each and every time. I wrote an article a while back about why I dislike modern American cussing in my fantasy novels. Novels like The Grim Company are mostly excused from this since its part and parcel of gritty fantasy. But there are derogatory slurs that should never be used. I understand the attempt to make a character seem uncouth and abrasive…even racist or prejudiced. But in my opinion, Scull went too far…so far I debated whether or not I should actually come out and repeat it in the interest of fair warning and then found out I couldn’t even write those words. As a reader, I usually don’t even notice language unless it seems out of place. In this case though, it deeply bothered me.
In the end, I very much enjoyed this book. I think and hope it will get a wide readership that propels the rest of the series into existence. I really want to see where Cole and Kayne’s stories take them and hope that they survive the entire war. But here and now, I’m also saying that I really hope we’ve seen an end to some of the attitudes on display here. I don’t think for a minute that the character represents Scull, but I also don’t think it was necessary to go that far for us to get a good feel for the speaker.
And that ladies and gentlemen, is my praise and concern for The Grim Company. What do you think about these new gritty fantasies? Do require something extraordinary to make them worthwhile like I do, or are you a fan of deconstructing old tropes and replacing them with new ones?