Book Review: WE ARE THE DEAD by Mike Shackle

(Title: We Are the Dead / Author: Mike Shackle / Publisher: Gollancz / Publication Date: August 8, 2019)

Over the past few centuries, the Jia have lived in relative peace.  They have repelled every attack launched by their northern neighbors in Egril due in large part to their superior warrior caste known as the Shulka and also Egril's limited military prowess.  Those in Jia now believe themselves impervious to assault from anyone who would even consider harming them.  They were very wrong.

You see the Egril, who the Jia believe to be nothing but primitive barbarians and a nuisance on their northern border, have learned from their many past mistakes.  They have been hard at work recently honing their battle plans.  Battle plans heavily influenced by a newly-discovered and extremely powerful magic that has made them infinitely more formidable and not quite so easily vanquished as they once were.

When invasion does finally come via the mountain passes into the Jia's homeland, the results are both brutal and decisive.  The people of Jia are left devastated and bewildered. Their much-touted Shulka warriors no match for the new and improved Egril warrior Skulls led by the Chosen, handpicked by the emperor himself with the sole purpose of conquering and subjugating the citizens of Jia once and for all.

The Jia soon find themselves under martial law as the conquering Skulls routinely carry out executions in the public square in an effort to deter any resistance that may begin to form.  Life is literally a living hell for the everyday citizen as simply travelling from one part of Jia to another now requires proper paperwork and the clearing through various checkpoints.  

Despite all of this, there is a small band of resistance fighters who hold out hope that what has taken place can and will be reversed.  And even though the odds may be stacked heavily against them, they have a plan and a last-ditch hope that lies at the top of a desolate and treacherous mountaintop which they believe will be the answer to their prayers.  

But time is running out and the occupiers gain more and more of a foothold with every passing minute.  As the resistance attempts to locate Jia's King and hide him away from Egril conquerors out for blood, an ancient Shulka prayer becomes both a secret underground identifier for the resistance and an inspirational rallying cry, "We are the dead, Who face the night."

When I first saw the cover for WE ARE THE DEAD, I initially thought I was about to read some sort of zombie fantasy complete with reanimated warriors decked out in full body armor wreaking havoc.  I couldn't have been more wrong as the title is actually the first half of the Shulka prayer that unifies and keeps the conquered people of Jia inspired as they attempt to resist a merciless and brutal enemy that now occupies their land.  

Upon turning the final page a couple of days ago what I am certain of is that I've read one of the more perfect dark fantasy books in recent memory.  There are so many layers to this story that make it one of my favorite reads of the year.  This is a story about a people who had gotten fat and content over the years thinking they were immune from outside threats.  It's a story about a brutal conquering army that shows no mercy on its new subjects.  There are numerous scenes of savage violence and cruel torture.  The book also opens with one of the best battles sequences I have ever read in a fantasy novel. 

Yet amidst all of this carnage and mayhem, there is also a very discernible thread of hope and resiliency.  This is where WE ARE THE DEAD shines.  We are introduced to many who are not ready to go quietly.  In truth some are more willing participants in the resistance than others, but are no less important figures.  

WE ARE THE DEAD was a read that really hit all of the right chords for me.  Shackle deftly incorporates superior world-building with a deep and interesting history supporting it.  The story itself is a riveting one where you are consistently on edge as every main character is put into peril.  The bad guys are incredibly bad to the point that there were times that I wanted to join the resistance myself so that I could kick some Skull butt.  

What will really resonate with you when you read WE ARE THE DEAD though are the individual characters and how each one has their own reasons and motivations for fighting back against the tyranny that now shackles them and threatens their very existence.  These are characters who are in some cases highly flawed but in the end have to make tough decisions that literally could mean the difference for the future of Jia, should it have one.

I find myself struggling for the right words to sufficiently express how impressed I was with this book.  I'm also really angry at Mike Shackle for writing such a brilliant story and making me have to wait for the second book in the Last War trilogy.  How dare he!   But if it is as good as WE ARE THE DEAD I know it will be well worth the wait.

If you are looking for a fantasy read with phenomenal magic, battle scenes that are so vividly described that you experience them through all of your senses, villains who are entirely despicable, and a compelling story filled with crushing heartbreak and glorious redemption, then you need to pick up WE ARE THE DEAD right now and stop procrastinating.  It is truly a can't-miss fantasy epic that doesn't come around very often.

(My Rating: 10/10)


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