We Are The Dead by Mike Shackle – Book Review
Published by: Gollancz
Series: The Last War
Purchased Copy: From my local bookstore – support yours, folks!
Be warned, the written version of the review and the video are different this time around – you might want to take a look at both!
The Jiya have had peace for a thousand years—until their ancient enemy, the Egril, strike back with a vengeance, wielding the same magic that was once the Jiya’s ancestral right. In less than a week, the Jiya people and their proud Shulka warriors are decimated and under the yoke of their new conquerers. So opens Mike Shackle’s We Are the Dead—and I can’t promise you things will look up for the Jiya anytime soon!
Let’s look at the text itself first. It’s adequate, it’s the kind of prose that you become ignorant of, that allows you to slip into the world and lose yourself. The writing doesn’t do much beyond representing what is going on in a realist fashion—which is perfectly alright, because it’s gripping enough at the level of content. It’s an engrossing world Shackle creates, by writing round characters, gripping action, and setting a pace that sucks you in. The dialogue is easy to follow and highly entertaining, although a few word choices sounded off to my ear.
The bigger part of my review will be centered on a discussion of We Are The Dead‘s characters – a good section of it will contain spoilers, but
Our primary protagonist is Tinnstra, the scion of an honoured and well-known Jiya family of Shulka warriors, one of the most promising trainees the Kotege, the military academy of the Shulka, has ever seen…if not for one small issue—she is a coward, and an enormous one, too. Her fear is of that petrifying kind, the one that freezes you and does not let you go! The arc she goes on, as you might imagine, is all about overcoming that fear and contributing to the fight against the Egril—it’s highly satisfying character development she goes through, and not a single chapter of her story read across as dull.
Other protagonists include Yas, whose new position as servant girl to the local government building draws her into a world of intrigue and danger, which threaten the baby boy she has waiting for her at home; Jax, a military man and one of the Shulka commanders, now forced into the shadowy world of guerilla warfare against the Egril aggressors; and Dren, who is a little shit that goes through a whole city sewer’s worth of character development. (I don’t actually dislike him–it’s just that he’s an acquired taste, like beer or coffee, or the plague.)
But those are not all our viewpoints—there’s a last one, that of We Are the Dead’s primary antagonist, Darus.
Darus is a paranoiac, he is a fanatic, and he has delusions of grandeur. Which, considering that he can return from the dead, creates a whole lot of complications for anyone with an axe to grind. He’s also one of the finest characters in the book, endlessly surprising, and the epitome of what I think of as the “Chaotic Evil” D&D alignment. All the twists I did not see coming had to do with him; I adore that, good job to Mike Shackle for writing a compelling villain I’ll absolutely steal for one of my D&D campaigns.
Supporting characters include a wizard called Aasgod, a pestering mom and precious baby boy you have to protecc, and a cousin you just wanna kill sometimes, among a throng of others–oh, and one evil twin sister, Skara, to wrap up the book’s villainous pair.
In We Are the Dead, you’ll discover powerful feats of magic, you’ll come to marvel at the selfless sacrifice of more than one warrior, and you will admire Shackle’s skill in describing brutal action sequences and swordfights in particular. Oh, and you’ll enjoy plenty of what I like to call “armour porn”:
As a military man, he could only admire how well designed the Egril armour was, providing maximum protection while allowing almost total freedom of movement. Everything was in oblong-shaped pieces of steel linked by strips of leather. A direct strike against it might destroy a single plate but the rest would be unharmed. The armour wouldn’t stop an arrow from a longbow at close range, but no one had those to hand any more.
Extra protection was provided by a neck curtain of jointed metal, while shoulder guards made from small plates laced together with silk braid allowed for ease of movement. Even the thighs were covered by a combination of chain mail and plates to keep the lower body safe. The armour made the soldiers far bulkier but they could fight unhindered.
This goes on for another half page, and y’know what? It should’ve gone for even longer!
It has been nearly two years since this originally came out so I think we’ll indulge in some SPOILERS from this point on. Before you go, know that We Are The Dead is well worth reading; it offers thrills and a thoroughly gripping story, and characters whose struggles you’ll grow to care about. Look away if you haven’t read Shackle’s novel yet and would like to go in, blissfully unaware of some of its bigger twists and turns!
My favourite villainous moment has to be Darius’ non-chalant stabbing of his sister in her brain. I still remember her response, without even looking it up: “‘Oh,’ she said. Then died.” Darius kills her because he sees in her every word, in her every act, an attempt to – but remember how I said that Darius was a paranoiac? I could not locate, at any point, textual evidence that Skara was plotting against her brother. If anything, she seems to have been a loyal right-hand woman, always looking out for him.
What else, what else…sections of Tinnstra’s story had a classical fantasy feel to them, but inverted: there’s our reluctant heroine with her supposedly magical sword, there’s the young princess she’s supposed to protect, and there’s the wise mage, looking out for both of them; of course, the mage is badly wounded and dying, the princess is a helpless child, and the warrior flinches at every broken twig and rustling of the snow. It’s elements like these that exhibit Shackle’s knowledge of his genre.
Time for some theorycrafting before the video comes to an end, and this might be spoilers, or it might be nonsensical fancy. About mid-way through the book, Aasgod mentions his brother, while he and Tinnstra talk about the waning of the Jiya’s magic source. The quote goes like this:
“He died over a hundred . . . a hundred and twenty years ago. His name was Laafien. He was younger than me but possessed a far greater talent.”
“How did he die?”
“I honestly don’t know. He went searching for more Chikara wells and never returned.”
A hundred, a hundred and twenty years is about the time necessary to not only modernize but streamline a nation, turn it from savages to conquerors. If I had to bet on it, I’d guess Laafien found the power he was looking for…and wasn’t willing to share with his big brother. But hey, no way to know for certain until I read the next one!
Thank you to my dear friend William Gwynne for reading this with me; we had brilliant discussions on the different parts of this novel. You can find Will’s channel, The Brothers Gwynne, on YouTube, and you can follow him on Twitter, @thewolfandcrow1!