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.
8.0 / 10
- Adam Weller
Just when you thought it was safe to go back to Araxes…. Scratch that, it’s never safe and nobody ever thought that. If anything, it’s getting worse. Someone’s gone too far. It’s one thing when tourists and riff-raff are being murdered and enslaved, but now the soul-rich Araxan nobility are being aggressively disappeared. Helas has been given the unenviable job of finding out how and why, but she’s being blocked at every turn. It’s almost like someone important doesn’t really want her to do the job… Meanwhile, Nilith is racing to get back before time runs out and Caltro’s living (well, kinda) the shit-just-keeps-happening concept to an excessive degree. Some ghosts just can’t catch a break. Except maybe, just maybe, they all have cause to hope…
There’s so much more energy in this instalment, a forwards movement that feels purposeful and exciting. Unlike the first book, the various points of view held equal allure. Heles, in particular, had immediate and lasting appeal. In a world full of shady characters who’d stab their mother in the back to get ahead, she’s the kind of take no prisoners, get shit done investigator who can’t be bribed and wants to discover the truth. The actual, real truth. The contrast between her and the sordid humanity of the city is striking. There’s not nearly enough of her, but what’s here is just right. It’s a lot of fun when the lone light in the darkness is the kind of woman who wants to be kicking down doors and taking names. Actually, I was so concerned for her wellbeing in that cesspit of a place that I had to threaten Ben Galley with bodily harm if he offs her… so I’m pretty sure she’ll be fine. She better be fine, Ben… (Wow, i’m really getting into this Araxes vibe right now). *
As for the characters we know and love/hate, they all stepped up with some genuine growth. Caltro has an intensely interesting and exciting process of transformation, even within his choice-limiting position as ghost and slave, proving that change can be as much about the way you think as anything else. He’s ably assisted in this by a talking sword, who happened to remind me of an old professor of mine, one who loved a lengthy, meandering story or ten… There’s more to this blade than meets the eye. I want one. The other main POV, Nilith, was somewhat distant, both geographically and personally, in Chasing Graves, making her seem rather irrelevant, but it very quickly became clear that it was not going to continue here. I could actually see her and understand not only what she was doing, but why. Likewise, Temsa is still Temsa, but in a much better realised version, less of a caricature of a bad guy. I mean, he’s an awful person obviously, but you have to admire his take life by the throat strategy. Admire? Fear? Whatever. It’s great entertainment either way. Reframing the story and characters in a more active fashion, giving them more autonomy and room to manoeuvre (even if it’s sometimes only within their own mind), really made a significant difference to the overarching feeling of the book and the reader’s understanding of peoples’ motivations and ambitions. This, more than anything else, is what kicked the whole thing up a notch, something I expect will continue in to the next book.
The main emphasis here is on the political and social drama of Araxes, with the developing god conflict remaining in the background save a few scenes. Front and centre is the obsession with money and influence, with the grossest indifference to life and freedom displayed again and again. The power grabbing of the city dwellers is bad enough but when the light is turned to the lawless outer reaches, the immorality of this system becomes ever more clear. The depiction of mines worked by enslaved souls is crushing, inviting the kind of comparison with real life that makes you want to turn away in horror. It brings to mind the absolute worst atrocities of the 20th century and beyond, demonstrating the awful validity of how far humanity is willing to go. This is only fantasy because these souls are dead. Honestly, it’s a good job the book is funny too, ensuring it’s not straight up grim despite the themes. Not only that, the author allows some creeping hope for improvement in this instalment. Various players are just starting to make a positive difference and the grand plans of gods are going to come crashing into this world any time now. Change is coming. No doubt it’s going to be life (and death) shattering.
It seems like there’s a lot to fit into the final book, but if the pace and vibrancy is kept up then it’ll be the best of the three by far. The game is on and the stakes are only getting higher. Thankfully, there’s not too long to wait for Breaking Chaos, out March 14th!
ARC via author for fantasybookreview.co.uk
*No authors were or will be harmed in this fake threat made for comedy value.
8.0 / 10
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