This book was sent to me by Gollancz in exchange for an honest review.
08.08.19 / Gollancz / Fantasy / Paperback / 496pp / 978-1473225213
Target Audience: Fantasy readers who like full scale rebellions, badass coming-of-age stories, gruesome and brutal set pieces and clever writing. Those looking to invest in a series that will see many dark times before we see the light at the end. Not for the squeamish but will grip those who read it with its explosive and unpredictable nature.
About We Are The Dead
The first book in The Last War series: a debut epic fantasy full of crunching revolutionary action, twisted magic, and hard choices in dark times.
The war is over. The enemy won.
Jia’s people learned the hard way that there are no second chances. The Egril, their ancient enemy, struck with magic so devastating that Jia’s armies were wiped out. Now terror reigns in the streets, and friend turns on friend just to live another day.
Somehow Tinnstra – a deserter, a failure, nothing but a coward – survived. She wants no more than to hide from the chaos.
But dragged into a desperate plot to retake Jia, surrounded by people willing to do anything to win the fight, this time Tinnstra will need to do more than hide.
If Jia is to get a second chance after all, this time she will need to be a hero.
We Are The Dead Review
‘Jax stared at the corpse. It was a monster. A demon! It shouldn’t even exist and yet it had killed more than thirty Shulka, killed Kaine, killed the mage in a matter of minutes. None of it made sense. None of it. He peered down into the camp, hoping to see Kaine, praying that he was alive somehow, that a miracle has saved him. But all he saw was heavy fighting. People dying. There were men in white armour and skull masks battling Shulka, wielding scimitars and short spears. They moved with precision, well drilled, relentless. They were the Egril. And they were winning.’
We Are The Dead by Mike Shackle
Mike Shackle’s We Are The Dead is a ruthless fantasy epic that had me flinching at every turn and left me feeling rebellious, triumphant and remarkably disturbed. It was a fantastic experience. A superb beginning to The Last War series and an explosive entry into the fantasy genre as a whole. We Are The Dead is not for the faint hearted. It even had me on the ropes a few times with the more dark and sinister moments but ultimately it is a compulsive read that will had me furiously biting my nails all the way to the final moments. I cannot wait to see where Mike Shackle takes this series in the future.
The world has exploded. The people of Jia underestimated their enemies and paid the ultimate price. The confidence in the Shulka’s superiority and the strength of their arrogance meant when the time came to defend the country of Jia from their sworn enemies, the Egril, they failed. Now the country is a prison, held captive by the Egril. An enemy that had previously shown no skill or honour on the battlefield. Savages that somehow became skull-faced warriors with access to power that has not been seen in centuries. Infiltrating Jia via ancient magic and bringing down the fearless and unbeatable Shulka in less than a week.
The story is set six months after the initial attack that left them devastated and ended in surrender. The remaining people of Jia live in fear of death or worse, made to worship the Egril’s god Kage, Lord of the Great Darkness and his son, Emperor Raaku. Hope might be scarce but rebellion is in the air and a resistance is growing. Tinnstra, Dren, Yas and Jax lost almost everything during the invasion but they still have fight left in them. It is time to bring the war back to the skulls and defend the spirit of their country and those who may lead it in the future.
Tinnstra is the daughter of the legendary Shulka warrior Grim Dagen. Tinnstra didn’t complete her Shulka training, dishonouring her family name, due to cowardice. The Shulka believe themselves to be dead already therefore being unafraid to surrender their lives to protect their country. Tinnstra fears death above all else and will do anything to survive. Hiding in plain sight works well for her but when Tinnstra’s brother, who was presumed dead in the invasion, asked her to help in the fight back against the skulls, Tinnstra is thrust into a plot to save the King’s daughter that drives Tinn to find her misplaced courage.
Dren is just a kid who lost his family, and all innocence with them, in the invasion and now wants to see the Egril burn. His anger at the world, and the killing that accompanies it, is all consuming. The skulls must die by his hand until they leave his country forever. His actions are beginning to jeopardise the bigger plans of the Hanran resistance. Faced with opposition on all sides, Dren has to calm his rage and become smarter to survive.
Yas watched her husband die inches from her face. Hiding with her young son under the floorboards during the invasion. Yas will do anything to protect little Ro, even working for the enemy. A position that the Hanran resistance can exploit and her along with it. Yas wants to survive and that means helping the Hanran as a double agent putting her remaining family at risk.
Jax was a honourable warrior who fought relentlessly during the invasion. Overwhelmed and disfigured by the Egril, Jax lives to rebel against Jia’s captors. Jax may be missing an arm but he still has his strength and he will do anything to protect the country’s future.
The Egril have won though the still have work to do and fighters to be handled. Darus is one of the Emperor’s Chosen, the Egril’s fiercest and most powerful ranks with magical abilities that are only myth and legend to most people. Darus must make sure that Egril’s plot to own the Kingdom comes to fruition and he is on the hunt for blood. The survival, or destruction, of Jia lies in the hands of the few that remain. They are the dead who serve all that live.
I get nervous when writing reviews for books like We Are The Dead as there is so much to talk about. Bold characters. Tragic yet fierce fantasy narratives. The cool and interesting concepts that Mike Shackle brings to the table. The strength and intensity of his writing. Its all up for discussion. I will start with the characters as they are the heart and soul of We Are The Dead. I was a bit concerned to begin with as everyone felt one dimensional. Reduced down to their base emotions like fear, anger, hope etc. I was so glad to see what Mike Shackle had in store for each one of them (though it is pretty horrendous at times, poor Jax) because the character development in We Are The Dead is some of the best I have seen in a novel to this day. Each individual has such a presence and tone in this novel and as the narrative jumps around I found myself consumed by having to know what happened next. I even jumped ahead a few times to find out the fate of a few characters in particular (I’m talking about you Kara).
Tinnstra is definitely the main focus in the novel and her story is incredibly nuanced. I found her fear grating initially but I was content to see MS hold out for Tinn’s transformation. Instead of making it convenient and instantaneous, he built it up with some bleak, uncomfortable and downright evil circumstances. I thought one of MS’s decisions, the sword, was a bit cheesy but it worked well to drive Tinn’s story forward.
Dren was another really interesting character. His fury was absolute and his stupidity was hard to stomach. Dren loses everything and yet he still has more to lose during this story. I also found his anger to be infuriating to a degree, though I understood where it came from, but again MS works his magic making Dren’s pain into something relevant other than yet another struggle on the streets. Both Yas and Jax have a more grounded roles in proceedings and I thought they were instrumental as much as the others. I did live in fear for little Ro as I find babies in these sort of stories as a bit of an anxiety trigger but I’m glad MS kept him (almost) off-limits.
Jax was a hardcore addition to this tale and he had some of the best and most unforgiving moments. Every individual was clashing with each other and it was great to see. I laughed so hard when the others meet Tinnstra because of the way they describe her. Genius. Darus’ involvement here was just to emphasise how evil and unforgiving the Egril can be but I enjoyed watching him squirm as he kept failing to meet the Emperor’s demands.
I have to say Mike Shackle’s writing is purely and consistently brutal. The opening of We Are The Dead might be the most savage start to a book that I have ever read. Close enough anyway. MS kicks this book off with a blast and manages to keep that momentum across five separate plot lines which is an honourable feat. He facilitates a lot of different emotions in some spectacular ways and it was most surprising. With many of the interactions and situations not going the way I would have imagined and even beating my expectations. The narrative explored in We Are The Dead was strong, though not entirely unfamiliar, and I enjoyed how MS turned the unyielding devastation into a gripping and entertaining story. It is hard to believe it all takes place over a week.
The high point has to be the seething tension that is shared amongst everyone. Grief stricken about the loss of their way of life. The motivation to take back control instead of hiding away. It was easy to invest in each story-line. I even liked the time jump and the cheeky plot window to bring back anyone MS wants. It was also a great touch that MS included a Egril character story as well to help get into their minds as everything explodes into chaos. The magic element was slightly underused in my opinion though that might be my ‘more is better’ attitude than an actual flaw. Aasgod (Lord Mage) is such a great character (all the favourite wizards rolled into one). As are the Chosen and the demon monsters. It’s a shame to see how subtlety they are used (at least until the third act) and I hope to see an even bigger presence in future instalments as I thought MS’s fantasy writing was compelling and that he has a lot more where this came from.
MS’s darker writing can be tough to handle. There some scenes in here that would put a horror novel to shame. So vivid and harsh. It was a much needed dimension to the novel to bring home how vital it was for the characters to fight back and avoid submission. It is difficult to talk about the themes included in WATD without handing out too many spoilers or being overly graphic. The Jia are captives and are treated as such. The main theme is resistance and bringing back honour. Freeing the enslaved and restoring a nation back to prominence. There is an underlying concept of the samurai and their culture but nothing definitive. More just an aesthetic that helped form the shape of the Shulka. Mike Shackle’s knowledge and use of weaponry and battle tactics was really satisfying and added another solid dimension to the experience.
What else is there to say? There are many huge revelations, chaotic twists and overlapping allegiances to experience in We Are The Dead and I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next. We Are The Dead is a brutal showstopper of a novel and I highly recommend it to all fantasy readers, though bring a strong stomach with you.
About Mike Shackle
Originally from London, Mike Shackle has called Hong Kong, Singapore, Beijing, New York and Dubai his home over the years before settling down with his family in Vancouver. In that time, he’s sold washing machines, cooked for royalty, designed a few logos, and made a lot of ads. Ideally, he’s happiest day dreaming over a cup of tea.