The Grim Company, by Luke Scull, will not, at least at first, stun you with originality. You’ve got your basic world-weary, gruff, aging Northern warrior still good with a blade but feeling the aches and pains accumulating as never before and his typical Northern warrior buddy who is more gruff, more taciturn, and even less cultured. The destined-for-greatness callow-yet-boastful youth with a magic sword (well, dagger, but still). A tyrannical Dark Lord (several, actually, known as Magelords). A bitter, weakened mage. An enigmatic jack-of-all-trades intellectual. An ambitious witch-woman scheming to be the power beside/behind the king. The characters, in short, pretty much come straight from Epic Fantasy Casting Company, Inc.
But you know, so what? Dominoes and my Italian grandmother use the same basic ingredients in their pizzas — dough, cheese, tomatoes, etc. One pizza I’d crawl over broken glass to get to, the other I’d rather eat the broken glass (may my grandmother rise from her grave and shake her hoary locks, not to mention her floury rolling pin, at you if you guess wrong on which is which). Scull’s characters may be familiar in their rough outline, but he (mostly) invests them with their own voices, their own spark of individuality, and that, combined with a smooth, almost effortless pace and some unexpected turns in a nicely streamlined plot, makes for a thoroughly enjoyable read.
Five hundred years ago a group of wizards known as Magelords stormed the heavens and brought down the gods, costing all but a few of the wizards their lives. For centuries, the Magelords have fed off the magic leeched from the fallen gods’ corpses, but the waning of that magic is increasing tensions between the wizards (think of countries scrapping over declining oil resources). Now, two of the Magelords have just concluded one war and another is about to begin between the survivor of the first (Salazar) and another (The White Lady) who senses an opportunity to pounce while her foe is weakened. Inside Salazar’s oppressed city of Dorminia, Davarus Cole, self-appointed “hero” and member of the rebel Shards, has sworn he will kill the Magelord, even as other elements in the city are working with the White Lady’s agents. Meanwhile, up in the north, another Magelord, known as the Shaman, has his own problems: one of his towns seems in open rebellion, the monsters that plague the northlands are getting worse, and two of his best warriors have defied his authority and are on the run from his hunters.
The Grim Company opens up with a hell of a whomp — I don’t want to say how so as not to spoil the impact, but it does set a certain tone and level of stakes. Soon after that opening event, the two Northerners, Brodar Kayne and his friend Jerek (AKA “Wolf”), hook up with young Devarus, a Shard named Sasha, a legless mage named Eremul, and Eremul’s mysterious man-servant Isaac to try and take down Salazar.
As mentioned above, Kayne and Wolf are pretty run of the mill as far as aging Northern warriors go, but Kayne, who has a large number of the POVs, has such a winning voice that you’re willing to just go along for the ride and damn the familiarity. The trip is all the more fun for Wolf riding shotgun; their relationship is one of the highlights of the novel. Another POV comes via Barandas, leader of Salazar’s elite soldiers — called “Augmented” due to the various ways in which the Magelord has invested them with magic (one has boots of speed, another an iron heart, and so forth). Barandas is a nice counterpoint to Kayne. Where Kayne is a force of will and bodily strength, Barandas is a force of magical enhancement. Where Kayne is terse and isolated, an exile from his society, and a traitor to his king, Barandas is a pillar of his society, head of one of its institutions of power, is married (Kayne’s marriage, it is implied, has tragedy wrapped all around it), and remains loyal to his king despite reservations. Yet like Kayne, Barandas is introspective, aging, and beginning to question some of his decisions, question what he’s doing with his life. I liked being in this character’s head, getting his viewpoint of the “bad guys,” and the way his story played off of Kayne’s. I also liked his quieter, more educated and more domestic voice for its difference from others in the novel.
Eremul, called Halfmage due to the fact that Salazar had his legs removed during his earlier cull of sorcerers in his lands, is caught in the middle, playing several sides in this drama, and his mix of power (either due to his magic or to the situations he finds himself in) and helplessness, combined with his bitter wit, makes for another intriguing character. His assistant Isaac, meanwhile, is mostly intriguing for his mysterious and often humorous uber-competence at whatever he turns his hand to.
Cole is less successful a character POV for me, as his constant interior monologue concerning his fated “heroism” grew quickly wearisome. It’s obvious Scull is poking fun at the character type here, but knowledge of this didn’t make it any less grating. I did, however, like quite a bit where Scull took his story, so was willing to somewhat forgive him the many early annoyances surrounding that character. Yllandris, the northern sorcereress aiming to be King Magnar’s queen, has her moments, but her storyline is a relatively minor thread in the greater plot and seems to be mostly setting up events for the next book in the trilogy.
The book clips along smoothly and quickly, its 400+ pages slipping by almost unnoticed. Scull shows a nice sense of rhythm as well as pace as he shifts point of view, moves his characters and/or readers from one setting to another, and balances action and introspection. Those action scenes are mostly well done, if like the characters somewhat familiar, especially in the oft seen “There’s no way I can do this in the state I’m in, oh, guess I can” mode of fighting. Another reason for the book’s quick pace is the clear, almost effortless prose. A few clunkers are scattered about amidst the dialogue, but Scull’s writing style for the most part sweeps the reader right along.
The Grim Company has more than its share of gore and obscenities and references to rape, putting it pretty solidly in the “gritty fantasy” category. At times, I thought Scull might have been trying a bit too hard for that mood, some of the tough guy talk felt a bit labored, but I’d call it gritty-lite for the most part. Rape, for instance, is referenced, but it doesn’t become a cheap tool to show “Hey, I’m being dark here!” as sometimes happens. And despite (or sometimes because of) its gritty, earthy nature, there’s a lot of humor that runs throughout The Grim Company.
The background story — the Magelords’ take-down of the gods, the way they feed of the gods’ corpses, the still-not-wholly-explained backstory involving several of the Magelords’ relationships to one another — is rich with potential. I would have liked to have had more of it here; the plot as I said is pretty streamlined, but I can hold off until the sequel to get more details. The same holds true with the geography and culture, which is outlined but not fully detailed. As with the magical/historical background, I’m hoping Scull delves more into both in future books.
There are a few niggling issues. The aforementioned rare examples of clunky dialogue, a far too quick “how to be an assassin” training session (one could almost picture the movie montage), a battle that seems to be put together a bit too quickly and easily, a pull-me-out reference to a “testosterone-fueled brute,” and so on. But these were minor quibbles and if they pulled me out of the story it wasn’t for long.
Opening The Grim Company is like stepping out on a well-trod road with a group of familiar companions. By the end, you’ve taken a few detours, providing some pleasant glimpses of unexpected scenery, but really, the pleasure has been the company. Sure, you may have heard their stories before, but they tell them so well. Recommended.