You Die When You Die by Angus Watson
When I was approached to read the first book in Angus Watson’s new series I was a bit hesitant. His Iron Age series has some glowing reviews and solid scores on various blogs but I’ve never had one of those people that I really listen to when it comes to books tell me it was something I had to read. You Die When You Die came out in 2017 and although I only just got to it I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed it and wish I had picked it up sooner. It’s great fantasy with interesting characters, exciting and bloody battle scenes and a story that completely hooked me in. I had recently been planning a full night of Battlefield but instead found myself unable to tear myself from the adventures of the ridiculously named Finnbogi the Boggy, and I finished this over the course of two sittings and a few hours.
At its heart this whole book is a giant chase scene, a bit like Mad Max: Fury Road meets Kill Bill meets Norse mythology. We have a small Viking-like tribe that has been kept contained for 100 years within a boundary under the threat of death. Thanks to a prophecy about them bringing the end of the world, they have become a target of someone with enough power and vested interest to order that they be utterly wiped out. After an initial attack, the 20-odd survivors, comprised largely of members of their untested fighting force called The Hird, discard their imposed boundaries and head west to the prophesised promised land known as The Meadows. The story takes off when the chase begins and just gets bigger and faster, and there is not a moment of peace for the reader or our band of escapees.
In pursuit are an elite fighting force of nine women known as the Owsla, each with their own insane talent or skill. Sofi Tornado has exceptional hearing that allows her to anticipate the actions of others to the point that she is rumoured to have precognition; Chogolisa is a giant of a woman who, throughout the book, tears at least four or five people into several pieces, one with the speed of a Pronghorn, one with a punch that can travel straight though its target and others you’ll discover for yourself. Some are all business, some seek glorious deaths and some are quite loveable, but each of their scenes carries an underlying menace and their reputation precedes them wherever they go, leading to some interesting encounters.
The story is told from a number of different viewpoints, though the focus is really on Finn. Finn in an unremarkable protagonist, unlucky in love, untrained in battle yet overconfident in his own cleverness and importance. At the beginning we find him feeling disappointment about being passed over during the Hird selections in favour of a girl, yet she is utterly driven and a gifted warrior who has been training from birth whilst he hasn’t really done anything, even learn to fight.
“You know what I really hate about you, Boggy?” he said.
“That I’m cleverer than you?”
“No! By Tor’s hammer, no. It’s because you think you are. You think you’re cleverer than everybody. You strut around looking superior, but you have nothing to be superior about. You can’t do anything. You can’t fight, you can’t make clothes, you can’t cook, you can’t even carry food without losing it. And you’re not clever. What fresh or witty insights have you made to delight and amuse the rest of us? None. How many gags have you cracked lately that have left the group helpless with mirth? Not one. How many ideas have you contributed to accelerating our flight from the Owsla or constructing better camps? None, none and none. But still you think you’re better than everyone else. You’re not. You’re dead weight.”
Despite his obvious shortcomings, there is hope for Finn. He has begun to realise he quite often behaves like an asshole. He has started training and has, quite realistically, learnt a few blocks and gained some fitness but not much else. Despite having the blood of a pretty serious warrior running through his veins there is no quick mastery or magically gained skillset, which is something I respected. I do hope he gets better as the journey continues but I am more than happy to be along for the ride whilst he figures out who he is and where his strength lies.
Despite the hardcore violence that takes place within the pages of You Die When You Die, I would not consider it grimdark because it is just too much fun and never really takes itself too seriously. Some of the chapter names foretell the deaths of those contained within, there is a people whose main culture seems to be inserting the word fuck into as many sentences as possible, characters have ridiculous names, and the whole mess of it made me laugh a number of times. After two attempts to break her name down, one character became Chimichanga because it was basically the same and easier to remember. There was a familiarity and camaraderie among the survivors, and their dialogue was assured and, at times, hilarious.
“Talisa, eye, please.”
“My eye? No, that’s too much.” Keef shook his head.
“You’re just doing this because it’s expected of you as captain of the Owsla. I don’t think you want to. Come on, break the mould, be your own person.”
Talisa gripped him by the hair, pulled his head back and pushed the tip of her finger into the corner of his eye.
“Ow! Stop that! It really hurts. They’re going north-east, they really are. They still will be after you take my eye out. Think about it! Do you really want a captive with no depth perception?”
Another reason this one gets such high marks is that Watson’s world also has a really nice sense of justice, which is a change from all the grimdark I’ve been reading lately. It might be a tad unrealistic, but almost every piece of crap that I felt was deserving of meeting a horrific end met said ending and it felt great to get everything I wanted in that respect. That’s not to say good people don’t die – they do – but they are often stupid enough to do something like approach a bear cub in the wild, so it’s okay.
You Die When You Die is absolutely unmissable fantasy. It’s a fast paced, imaginative thrill ride. It’s not for the faint of heart in terms of battle scenes, blood and a bit of gore, which is just how I like it, but there is also a real soul to the story that has me utterly invested in the characters and their journey. I hope the next volume in the series is released soon because I guarantee I’ll put down whatever I’m reading at the time and jump straight back into the fun. 10/10.
I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, and sorry it took me so long.