Publish Date: 01 October 2020
Page Count: 204 pages
John Vanguard. The killer of killers… The hunter in the night, the scourge of the underworld, the scary monster under the bed…”
Last year I was lucky enough to receive a copy of We Men of Ash and Shadow, HL Tinsley’s self-published debut novel. I finally had the chance to read it in December, and though it’s taken me a while to write up a review, I had a fantastic time with it.
I’m not a massive fan of grimdark fantasy. It’s a subgenre I know exists, and sometimes my reading happens to stray into that territory. I’ve tried reading a few of the big names in the Grimdark Club, but so far haven’t found anything that’s really stuck with me.
I think part of the reason for this is that a few GD books I’ve come across tend to substitute unfettered realism for dark and gloomy purely for the sake of dark and gloomy; rape and gore do not a good book make. There’s also only so many times I can read about a jaded old mercenary.
But then comes along Tinsley with her book about a jaded old mercenary and you can colour me suitably muted colours of impressed. We Men of Ash and Shadow has the themes and moody atmosphere that earn it a GD membership card, but Tinsley’s novel feels fresh and intelligent. It’s less about bad people doing bad things (and winning), and more about normal people doing morally questionable things to survive.
John Vanguard is an ex-soldier employed by Felix Sanquain, a corrupt Captain who has seized control of the city in the wake of war. While Sanquain quietly profiteers from D’Orsee’s underbelly – if indeed it has another side – he uses John’s specialist skillset to dispatch particularly shady criminals whose lack of discretion has outweighed their usefulness. Being more hitman than mercenary at this point, John lives by a vague moral code that makes him both feared and respected across the city.
When Sanquain asks him to investigate the murder of two soldiers, John realises that D’Orsee is a city on the verge of revolt, and new questions arise about the war that still haunts him. At the same time, a young aristocrat troubled with the burden of his mother’s health and his subsequent fall from society convinces a reluctant Vanguard to teach him the art of killing.
Just writing up that summary has me excited about this book all over again, which I think says a lot. The word that keeps popping into my head to describe Tinsley’s work is simply ‘bold’. Her confident writing style gives her a distinct voice which is further enhanced by her ability to create tense, vivid dialogue in every situation, and striking, complex characters. Even three months later, a very minor character has popped into my mind and I can recall exactly how I thought she looked and sounded, right down to her missing teeth.
And John Vanguard. What a fantastic protagonist. To describe him as an ex-soldier turned mercenary with questionable morals sounds like a familiar character bio, but he’s a breath of fresh air, albeit tainted by the tang of freshly spilt blood. There’s an interesting balance given to world-building, action, and exploring John’s moral struggle with his past and present. While the book is a little slower than other dark fantasy reads, the story’s foundation is John’s need to redeem himself rather than the wider conflict.
The other main character is Tarryn Leersac, who enters a Jonathan-Strange-and-Mr-Norrelesque, competitive mentorship with John (if Strange and Norrell were killers and far more interesting people). Tarryn is a veritable Patrick Bateman, and it took me far longer than I care to admit to stop rooting for him. The strange relationship and power dynamic between the two men was fascinating, and I loved where it led.
Another bold move by Tinsley is the setting. We are Men of Ash and Shadow is set in a time of corruption and desperation, years after a terrible war but before any organised rebellion has risen. Focusing on the ‘in between’ is an odd decision, but one that works incredibly well, drawing the focus to Vanguard’s personal journey.
D’Orsee itself is a unique setting, particularly for grimdark fantasy, as you might have picked up from the cover. It has a gaslamp fantasy influence that feels like 1800s London but leaves a bit of ambiguity, allowing the city to take on its own character. This has led to comparisons to Sin City, Assassin’s Creed and V for Vendetta.
This book can also be described as low fantasy, having a curiously minimal use of magic which, when it does appear, is more of a knack than a power system to be harnassed.
“We are men of ash and shadow. We endure the darkness so that others might see the dawn.”
We Men of Ash and Shadow is a dark story with a hint of hope that makes it the best grimdark book I’ve come across to date. I’ve done the book a disservice by putting off my review for so long, so if I haven’t convinced you to pick up a copy, check out this fantastically written review by Justine over at Whispers and Wonder.
Thank you again to the author for providing me with a copy in exchange for an honest review!
Trigger warnings: reference to rape