“She was a coward and she did what cowards do—she ran.”
We Are the Dead is the thrilling first volume of Mike Shackle’s grimdark fantasy trilogy, The Last War. The title of the book is taken from the oft-quoted 1915 war poem, “In Flanders Fields,” written by the Canadian poet and physician John McCrae during the second year of World War I. McCrae’s poem hauntingly captures the consequences of war from the perspective of fallen soldiers. Similarly, Mike Shackle considers the aftermath of a lost war after all the traditional heroes are defeated, and only ordinary people remain to resist the occupying forces.
The southern country of Jia has enjoyed relative peace for hundreds of years, protected by its seemingly invincible army of Shulka warriors. The Jians are contemptuous of the Egril, their neighbors to the north, whom they consider to be blond-haired, square-jawed savages. Unbeknownst to the Jians, the Egril developed advanced war technology and rediscovered magic, ensuring them a swift victory over the unsuspecting Shulka.
The story jumps ahead six months after the Shulka defeat, with Jia under occupation by the victorious Egril soldiers, also known as Skulls because of the hideous masks that they wear, as depicted on the cover of the book. The Egril impose their religion on the people of Jia, forcing them to abandon their four gods in favor of the Egril god Kage, the Lord of Great Darkness.
We Are the Dead is primarily a character-driven novel told from the perspectives of ordinary people with broken lives, who must overcome their personal issues in the face of a brutal occupation. First is Tinnstra, the daughter of the country’s most elite Shulka warrior, who considers herself to be a coward who would rather run away from danger than face it head on. Readers should be aware that the first chapter of We Are the Dead has quite a trigger warning as Tinnstra attempts suicide to escape the overwhelming expectations placed on her by her warrior family. But Tinnstra must overcome her self-doubts and do the right thing for her country when her brother sends her on a special mission in defiance of the Egril occupation.
Next is Dren, the obnoxious and self-righteous teenaged son of a fisherman who would rather mock warriors from the shadows than stand up and fight. Dren follows an increasingly dangerous path of political radicalization, becoming a terrorist who recruits others for suicide bombing missions. I actively hated Dren for most of We Are the Dead, but he experiences some rather unexpected growth by the end of the book which made him a more sympathetic character.
Jax is an older Shulka officer from a small military camp near the border with Egril. Jax’s overconfidence has cost his country dearly. Now one of the only remaining Shulka, he must embody the core principles of the Shulka prayer, “We Are the Dead”:
“This core belief gave the Shulka their strength. A man who is already dead has no fear and can act without hesitation to vanquish even the most fearsome foe.”
My favorite character in We Are the Dead is the widow Yas, who works as a cleaner for the Skulls. Yas is instructed not to even look at the Egril warriors, lest she be assaulted or even killed. But Yas becomes entangled with a spy who enlists her as part of an espionage campaign to aid the rebel Jians.
Mike Shackle excels at his depiction of gray morality with each of his main protagonists. That being said, one point-of-view character is pure evil: Darus, one of the Egril Emperor’s Chosen, who leads a Gestapo-type security force to quell any sign of rebellion. What if the Nazi torturer, Klaus Barbie, the infamous “Butcher of Lyon,” also had magical powers? That’s the best way I can describe Darus, who uses his powers of healing and regeneration to the most nefarious ends as he tortures his victims, only to heal them and torture them again.
Fortunately, the Egril aren’t the only ones with magic. There is also Aasgod, the Lord Mage who served as advisor to generations of Jian royalty and plays a critically important role in Tinnstra’s mission.
The worldbuilding in We Are the Dead is essentially a fantasy version of Nazi-occupied France during World War II but with elements of Chinese and Japanese cultures reflected in the countries of Jia and Egril, respectively. Mike Shackle’s carefully honed writing serves as the perfect vehicle to propel this fast-paced story forward. We Are the Dead is nearly impossible to put down. I particularly enjoyed the ending, where all the character arcs converge in exhilarating fashion.
We Are the Dead is military fantasy at its finest, a grimdark tale depicting the horrors of war and martial law from the perspectives of everyday people trying to resist foreign occupation. The Last War trilogy continues with A Fool’s Hope, the second book of the series.