WE ARE THE DEAD by Mike Shackle (Book Review)
A flick of his fingers and the knife was an inch away from her eye. ‘You should never make fun of a man with a knife.’
‘Unless you have a bigger one of your own, little brother.’ Tap, tap, tap. Her hunting knife rested against his thigh.
Firstly, let’s kick off this review with what the book is briefly about. We Are The Dead, by Mike Shackle, begins with an invasion. What a way to start, right?! A full-on battle; explosions, bodies hacked down, guts spilling, and oh-so many deaths. In the land of Jia, where our story is set, there has been an ongoing conflict with the radical Egrin race. The Shulka (The Dead), who are elite warriors born and meticulously trained to protect the citizens of Jia, have fought against the Egrin, who are perceived to be savages and a lesser foe, for centuries. However, this time when the Egrin invade they are no longer incompetent warriors, and through the use of mysterious magical abilities, they have the means to win. The story that proceeds from there is one of what happens when the bad guys win.
Before I go on to discuss the book in further detail, I must note that this one has a lot of dark scenes. I don’t give specifics for Trigger Warnings in my reviews, but if you’re triggered by certain things, then please private message me and I’ll be happy to go into more detail for you.
One of my favourite elements of We Are The Dead was the fact that Shackle presents to us a world where there are no heroes in the story. Every character portrayed at their core are just people trying to survive by any means they can. This is not your typical fantasy where the farm boy goes off on an adventure that changes his life (and I don’t mean that in any negative way. I love the farm boy story arc, I’m just showing the contrast here). No; this is a story where the underdogs of society attempt to fight back after being defeated. They use the mere scraps that they’re given to persevere, and if that means a character needs to commit dark deeds, then so be it. I find it remarkable that Shackle delivered a book where every aspect of it is so morally grey.
So, this leads me into discussing the characters a bit further. We had Tinnstra, daughter of an infamous Shulka, but lacking in courage to be the type of warrior her father was. Throughout the book we see her inner conflict between wanting to survive, and feeling guilt over not carrying on her family’s legacy. Although I found Tinnstra’s overwhelming fear to be a bit too repetitive at times which became tedious, I appreciated how well her story arc developed later on. Then there was Jax, a maimed Shulka general. I think Jax was my favourite character, because despite his disability, he still remained determined to kick some Egrin ass. You gotta respect a character like that, right?! I also particularly enjoyed the character Yas, and her story arc. She was a young mother, desperate to keep her son and her mother safe, but after becoming embroiled in matters out of her depth, this became increasingly difficult. I found Yas to be so realistically portrayed.
Then onto the darker characters; firstly we had Dren, a teenage terrorist. I found Dren to be the most fascinating character throughout the book, because I went from absolutely loathing his character, to actually really liking him by the end. He was initially annoying, stubborn, and infuriatingly blinded by the need for revenge. His close-mindedness was frustrating to say the least, and honestly, I often just wanted to slap some sense into him. However, Shackle still makes you understand why he is the way he is. In every chapter from Dren, anger seeps from the page; he’s illustrated as a kid from the slums, he had little to begin with and then what he did have, the Egril stole when they invaded. In his mind his actions are justified, and he doesn’t care about the consequences. I found that I couldn’t really not sympathise with his motives, even if I didn’t agree with them.
‘We’re never going to win this war if most people just shrug and do fuck all except moan about how life ain’t what it used to be. If you choose to a be a sheep, then don’t be surprised when you end up in the slaughter yard.’
Lastly there was Darus, a Chosen from the Egril army, who specialised in torture. His scenes always provided so much action, and introduced us to the magical abilities and monstrous creations that the enemy army used to keep the Jians oppressed. Now, I’ve got to admit I loved Darus’ character! Bloody hell, he was all kinds of evil. I’m talking proper sadistic here, and all his scenes were filled with an abundance of gore. But… erm… I kinda found it so entertaining!
I have to praise Shackle on his highly emotive prose too, because goddamn did this book make me feel things! If a character was scared whilst on a mission, I felt that way too, and if they were angry, I’d be furiously shaking my fist at the book! As you do. However, I did find myself disappointed with how one character’s narrative turned out in the climax of the story, but again, at least Shackle made me care enough to feel this way, because these characters clearly ended up having such an impact on me.
To conclude, We Are The Dead is a book about finding sparks of hope amongst the ashes. It’s about fighting back from oppression, surviving, and carrying on. There are no good deeds done here, no heroic chivalry, but there are people with reasons.
Arc provided by Gollancz in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for the copy!