“A fool’s hope. Is that all you have? It won’t keep you safe from me. There’s nowhere you can run to where I won’t find you.”
A Fool’s Hope, the second volume of Mike Shackle’s epic grimdark fantasy trilogy, The Last War, picks up immediately following the explosive ending of We Are the Dead, the first book of the series.
The Last War trilogy turns the tables on conventional epic fantasy, considering what would happen if evil wins the war and all the traditional heroes are defeated. In We Are the Dead, the northern country of Egril uses their newfound magic and improved military technology to quickly decimate the neighboring kingdom of Jia. The Egrils impose strict martial law on Jia, quashing any sign of rebellion against their iron grip on power and forcing the Jians to worship Kage, their all-powerful god of darkness. Only ordinary people remain to resist the occupying forces. While We Are the Dead focuses largely on survival, A Fool’s Hope finds our broken protagonists ready to fight back against the Egril invaders.
Mike Shackle covers a lot of new worldbuilding in A Fool’s Hope. We spend a good share of the book off-map in the nearby seafaring kingdom of Meigore and in a mysterious land where reality is not quite what it seems.
A Fool’s Hope introduces us to three new point-of-view characters starting with the opening chapter of the book. Mateon is an ordinary nineteen-year-old man training to become a soldier in the Egril army. Raised in the bloodthirsty Egril culture, Mateon is determined to join the war against Jia, capturing as many slaves as possible for his Emperor. Although indoctrinated in a violent, hate-filled program reminiscent of the Hitler Youth, Mateon has a core of humanity and becomes increasingly unsettled by the true horrors of war.
Another new point-of-view character on the Egril side is Francin, one of the Emperor’s Chosen who wields magic to enforce Egril rule. Francin is a more nuanced character compared to Darus, the Emperor’s Chosen from We Are the Dead. While Darus is pure evil, deriving a sadistic pleasure by mercilessly torturing his victims, Francin seems to be more of a true believer in the Egril religion. I appreciated the new perspective on Egril culture brought by both Mateon and Francin. Mike Shackle proves once again to be a master at developing characters with gray morality: Mateon and Francin are two of his finest examples.
The third new point-of-view character is Ralasis, a legendary Meigorian captain who helps Tinnstra and Zorique escape from the Egril. Ralasis is a lot of fun to read, providing some occasional lightheartedness in a book that is otherwise very dark in tone. However, as much as I enjoyed reading from his perspective, I question whether it was truly necessary to give Ralasis point-of-view status.
Although Mike Shackle alternates among a total of eight different perspectives in A Fool’s Hope, Tinnstra and Zorique get the most page time, especially in the latter half of the book. The relationship between the emotionally troubled Tinnstra and the orphaned queen Zorique is my favorite part of the book, with Tinnstra becoming the adoptive mother of the four-year-old queen. Their relationship has realistic ups and downs but is built on a very real love. Tinnstra and Zorique both grow profoundly over the course of A Fool’s Hope, solidifying them as two of my favorite characters in the series.
Yas is another character who beautifully captures the trials of motherhood. In We Are the Dead, Yas served as a housekeeper for the Egril soldiers but was pulled into an espionage campaign to try to siphon information to Jax and the resistance efforts. In A Fool’s Hope, Yas proves that a mother’s love for her child knows no bounds. She gradually grows into full-on gangster mode, reminding me of Shae in Fonda Lee’s magnificent Jade City.
A nihilistic, self-righteous kid in We Are the Dead, Dren also experiences extraordinary character development in A Fool’s Hope. In We Are the Dead, Dren recruited troubled souls to conduct suicide bombing missions against both sides in the war, leaving fear and anarchy in his wake. Dren develops a moral compass in this second book of the series, understanding that perhaps self-sacrifice is necessary to aid in the common good.
A former Shulka officer in the Jian army, Jax is haunted by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in A Fool’s Hope following the events of We Are the Dead. Mike Shackle is masterful in his portrayal of Jax’s inner struggles. By the end of the book, I still didn’t know for sure whether Jax’s inner demon is all in his mind, or if it’s a literal demon haunting him with sinister intentions.
Mike Shackle explores the theme of humanity throughout A Fool’s Hope, showing how readily people from opposing cultures can dehumanize each other and how terrible violence can result from such dehumanization. One of my favorite scenes in A Fool’s Hope occurs when a character removes the hideous mask worn by an Egril warrior to discover an ordinary human face behind the mask.
Mike Shackle’s writing is as tight as ever, delivering a constant stream of fast-paced action. However, occasionally the plot feels a little too fast-paced, causing some details of the action scenes to become a bit confusing. One other minor criticism is that too many chapters end with either something exploding or a fade to black.
A Fool’s Hope features a major plot twist about halfway through the novel that I had somewhat mixed feelings about. On the one hand, I truly enjoyed reading that part of the story and the resulting character development. On the other hand, it felt like too much of a deus ex machina, where one of the characters becomes, perhaps, too overpowered with magic. The increased prominence of magic in A Fool’s Hope also worked a bit against Mike Shackle’s main theme of ordinary people rising to overcome extraordinary challenges.
Although not quite as balanced as We Are the Dead, A Fool’s Hope remains an outstanding example of epic grimdark fantasy. Mike Shackle truly shines in giving a unique voice to each of his point-of-view characters, all of whom experience satisfying growth arcs in this second book of the series. The Last War trilogy concludes with Until the Last.