THE CREW by Sadir S. Samir (BOOK REVIEW)
Kings of the Wyld meets Deadpool in this action-packed fantasy adventure set in an Arab-inspired landscape.
Varcade fled to the deserts of Harrah to escape his past as an Educator, a member of an order of zealot warrior-monks that aims to shape the world according to their sacred Teachings by force. Varcade makes his living as a reckless sword-for-hire, caring only about himself, until his self-centered lifestyle is turned on its head when he is contracted to recruit a misfit team of unruly assassins and take out the mighty Bone Lord of Akrab.
But the Bone Lord is aware of the plot and sends her band of Dusters to stop them; individuals who have gained bizarre and lethal magical powers by snorting the pulverised bones of dead gods. Hunted by Educators and Dusters in a city-state where an escalating conflict between the human and demon population threatens to boil over in a civil war, will Varcade and his ragtag crew save Akrab from the cruel Bone Lord, or will they make things even worse?
Most fantasy protagonists are – how shall I put it – focussed. Whether for good or ill, they have a sense of mission and purpose that drives them through the story. While Sadir S Samir’s unique creation of Vacade is not exactly purposeless, he is certainly easily distracted. We meet him mid-assassination where he demonstrates his remarkable skills of combat and survival while also deviating from the terms of his contract because his curiosity is captured by what appears to be an inventive child’s toy. Vacade, trades the corpse he was supposed to bring in for the Mr Flabby contraption with more alacrity than Jack (of the beanstalk) swopped a cow for some dodgy beans. This somewhat abbreviated attention span makes Vacade an unpredictable character, certainly for the reader but also possibly for the author. Later on in the story he steals a giant toad (see cover illustration) as a mount and sort of aerial weapon (Its main attack is landing on people).
However, Vacade is not the only point of view character, his chaotic approach is complemented by the methodical planning of Edghar – exiled spymaster from the city of Akrab who is gathering the ‘crew’ to bring down the Bone Lord of the city who has gone from dear friend to bitter enemy. As a spymaster he knows not only what sort of people he needs but exactly where to find them – and the crew is a very varied bunch!
Samir’s middle eastern setting has some contemporary resonances with his world peopled by humans and demons. The demons are refugees who fled into this world and an immediate war of first contact with the humans before settling down into an uneasy co-existence, within and around the human cities. One of Edghar’s targets is the sharp shooting demon veteran of the first war, the goat headed one-shot Baaq (see also front cover). She made for an intriguing character caught in the conundrum that the end of a war does not mean the start of a peace – or at least not a just peace. In his imagining of demons Samir has given us the most obvious characteristics of otherness and the fate of so many refugees, to be scapegoated for the ills of society, to be ghettoed into enclaves of poverty and disadvantage, and for their youth to be riled into violent protest at their own suppression and impotence. Samir’s acknowledgments mention the debt owed to his mother who brought Samir and his elder brother as children from the middle east to Sweden. That experience of diaspora must surely have informed his worldbuilding and particularly the textured profile of the demon community. It is not simply that their appearances that vary so widely from the dull bipedality of human kind, but Samir has a similar diversity in their motivations. Alongside the strife-weary Baaq we meet the young demon hothead Marduk who wants to kill all humans – reminding us that a uniformity of persecution still doesn’t generate a uniformity of response.
The speculative novum of The Crew comes in the form of God Dust – the ground up bones of elder gods that – when inhaled, give the human imbiber magical power – and a risk of addiction. For demons the effect is more mundanely narcotic, but human “dusters” powers are strange and unpredictable, certainly there are no patterns or rules to this magic. Every duster is different giving Samir more license to be wildly creative. It put me in mind of Kirsten Cashore’s Graceling trilogy where those with unmatched eye colours would – in maturity develop special powers or ‘graces.’ However, none of Cashore’s relatively ordinary enhancements could rival for example, having the power to levitate on a cloud armed with a bucket of exploding fish – as one duster called Nimbus does, and I’ll leave you to guess what powers the Baker might have.
Vacade’s own powers owe nothing to dust, and much to childhood abuse – taken and cruelly trained as an educator (one might almost detect a certain antipathy towards the teaching profession!). Samir’s educators brutalised both Vacade and his brother in preparing them to be advocates of the “teachings” and “bringers of balance.” That basically meant extracting apologies through the skilful use of physical violence against anybody who needed to be “taught a lesson” for anything from a minor discourtesy to animal cruelty and beyond. This insistence on proper courtesy put me in mind of the legend of Pai Mei from Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2. Vacade has fled far away from the order. His brother, still dutiful to the teachings, has been sent in pursuit of Vacade which makes for an intriguing subplot that steadily converges with the central assassination mission.
The combination of anarchically diverse demonkind, anarchically varied God Dust effects and anarchically unpredictable protagonist does make for a somewhat anarchic but still inventive fantasy romp. Samir revels in his combat descriptions and the magical setting generates many different ways for beings to kill and be killed. Each duster demands a different response from Vacade and his allies. Most of these villains appear just once – as though they were each monsters on a World of Warcraft dungeon crawl, stepping stones up to the boss level encounter. The encounters showcase their talent and Vacade’s ability to find a way to defeat them, but the monsters don’t get much opportunity for a re-appearance. To that extent, perhaps, Samir is drawing on his gaming narrative experience, where other novels might give a particularly skilled adversary a chance to escape and return for an encore or two (For example R.A.Salvatore’s long running feud between Drizzt Do’Urden and Artemis Enteri).
The prose is perhaps more exuberant than polished, with Samir in a hurry to tell the story and reveal the latest example of his creative inspiration. That does mean that the motivations behind some of the characters could be fleshed out a bit more. There is an implicit tension in Edghar orchestrating the assassination of the Bone lord he was once very close to, and while the narrative does explore that theme, it might deserve a deeper treatment. The juxtaposition of the measured and thoughtful Edghar with the random force of nature that is Vacade, makes for an interesting dynamic but one in which the balance appears definitely tipped in chaos’s favour.
You can find out more about The Crew and where to pick up your copy on Sadir’s Website