Grim Solace by Ben Galley

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Rating 7.8/10
This book swings for the fences with a potent mix of political backstabbing, religious symbology, and tense action.

There’s been a lot of talk about grimdark in recent years: how to define it, what its qualifications are, and what value these stories offer. I think grimdark works best when it presents a harsh environment with morally ambiguous characters fighting for some aspect of hope – an endgame that aims to improve a given situation, or the world at large. In Ben Galley’s Chasing Graves, I had some difficulty enjoying the story as much as I could have because it appeared to lack that sense of hope. There was a depressing bleakness that permeated the story; a sense of wrongness that spread for hundreds of miles in every direction. There was no room to escape, and no end in sight. Our ‘hero’ was immediately murdered, tortured, and enslaved. Another main POV is somehow even worse – a psychopathic crime boss who murders countless innocents for profit, weaseling his way up the nobility totem pole. Our third main POV brings us outside the city to follow another mysterious murderer who is dragging a corpse through the desert to presumably enslave his ghost. 

Galley is a talented writer, so all these storylines held my interest. Pieces were purposefully moved around the playing field with an endgame in mind. We weren’t privy to what the end game might be, as there was no sign of improvement for anyone by the time the first book ended. What little hope I held for change – any improvement, really – decreased rapidly as the book neared its end, to the point where it began to feel like an exercise in nihilism. Thankfully, in Grim Solace, the second entry in the Chasing Graves trilogy, there is a stronger sense of urgency towards enacting positive change in this gods-cursed land. Character motivations became clearer, disparate plot threads started to intersect in intriguing ways, and the social commentary was incisive and relatable. All in all, Grim Solace has improved upon Chasing Graves in all aspects and sets the stage for what will likely be a potent and game-changing finale. 

One of the book’s strengths is its ability to convey a strong sense of class division. We spend substantial time scrutinizing the opulence of the city towers, the exquisitely-detailed architecture, and the fine clothing and transportation of the elite. We wander behind the closed doors of high-ranking lords and bear witness to the excessive and wasteful nature of their leisure time. And just outside the city, slaves of all ages are worked to death in the White Hell mines. In fact, it’s cheaper if your slaves die; you can then put their ghosts to work without having to feed, clothe, or house them. It’s a system with which our own history is sadly familiar, yet the concept of working your slaves to death as a benefit is a nauseating spin on things. 

Another aspect I enjoyed was how our characters had more agency this time around. Caltro was pushed from the frying pan into much hotter frying pans throughout the first book, and as a reader experiencing Caltro’s story in the first person, it made me feel helpless. Caltro is finally given some leeway to work with, and he starts to make the most of it by the end of book two. He experiences both physical (corporeal?) and emotional growth, contemplating his lot in life and what he might be capable of. It was a refreshing change from having him being bounced around and beaten every chapter. We learn just a little bit more of what Nilith is attempting to do, but she’s no longer just running to survive; she’s absorbing her surroundings and building relationships to help further her cause. Even Temsa is taking full advantage of his slackened leash to ascend to new heights within the noble society. All these characters are difficult to root for, but it’s a big step forward to have them take their fates into their own hands. 

Whereas Chasing Graves didn’t have an especially impactful ending, Grim Solace more than makes up for it with an excellent series of cliffhangers. This book swings for the fences with a potent mix of political backstabbing, religious symbology, and tense action. Oh, did I mention the hang gliding donkeys? Yes, there are hang gliding donkeys. I’m all-in on finding out how this series is going to end.

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