“Amidst the gas lamp shadows former soldier-turned-mercenary John Vanguard hunts criminals at the behest of his corrupt employer, Captain Felix Sanquain. Shamed by his deserter past and seeking to make amends for his many misdeeds, a chance encounter with Tarryn Leersac – a skilled young would-be-assassin fallen from the graces of high society – leads Vanguard to become an unlikely mentor.”
When the three most important components of a book for me (and most readers) – being plot, characters, prose – are all so good you can’t decide which one is the best component, it’s a wondrous thing. That is where I found myself after reading the outstanding Holly Tinsley’s debut Grimdark novel, “We Men of Ash and Shadow”, Book 1 in the “Vanguard Chronicles”. This book is simply stellar on all three of those aspects I noted, and a fantastic read.
I wanted to address, up front, the minor issue that I had with the book, which in no way robbed me of the overall pleasure of my reading. I appreciate any perspective from which a book is written. I enjoy first person, third person, multiple POVs, etc. It does not matter what tense, etc. the book is written is, as long as it’s a good book.
That said, Tinsley does switch POVs frequently, that may seem slightly abrupt at first, but I did quickly grow accustomed to it, and even enjoyed it by the end of the novel. Again, aforementioned is a quibble, not a showstopper by any means. This book is far too brilliantly-done for the POV shift issue to make it any less than a five-star novel for me.
Let’s start with that beautiful, haunting, descriptive prose. It’s elegant, sometimes brutal, and I found it quite original and refreshing. Tinsley has an uncanny knack of hitting tone and mood perfectly. She knows what to write, and when to write it. There is a brooding, melancholy, and creepy vibe to the whole book, infused with poignant hope and optimism, redemption, and catharsis.
Tinsley is a master of tension, and she knows just how to build the suspense and angst leading to a blood-pressure raising scene. The dialogue is witty, ironic, tight and sharp. Tinsley says so much, with so little, when it comes to her character’s speaking parts in the book. Despite the brevity there, some of the lines delivered are just plain hilarious, some depressing, some optimistic, and some manage to evoke multiple emotions at once. The comedy versus tragedy in the book is so well-balanced – teetering on the point of a knife – by Tinsley, and it works splendidly.
The setting, for me, immediately brought to mind images of a 19th century Jack-the-Ripper-esque style gas-lamp London, or Paris (considering the French-styled names that permeate the book). D’Orsee, the city in which the action takes place, is divided along class lines. Different zones demark different levels of wealth and affluence.
The bulk of the narrative, however, takes place in the undesirable zones. On the whole, D’Orsee is a very grim, and sinister place. Organized criminals, under the guise of legitimacy, run the city. The senior thugs have imposed a military-style occupation of the place. Crime is only permitted when sanctioned by the mob bosses.
But criminality is rampant. Prostitution, petty theft, and even murder, are the least heinous crimes committed, to tell you something about how bleak things are in D’Orsee. It’s place where corruption flourishes, revolt against the system is always around the corner, and the whole city feels like a tinder-box, ready to explode at any moment. That’s because it is, and there is a history of bloody rebellion that hangs over the city like a death sentence.
Be warned, there is a fair dose of violence in the novel. I did love the heart-pounding fight scenes, which were very well written. There is lots of trauma, both physical and psychological, that occurs, but it is not about gore-splattered pages this book. It’s more about the innuendo and creepiness I spoke of that seeps through the paragraphs, and a sense of sadness regarding the human condition and the terrible things we are capable of. There are lots of damaged, morally grey people in “We Men of Ash and Shadow”, and they fit right into a grey, depressing, backdrop that is D’Orsee.
The protagonist of the book is the eponymous John Vanguard of the series. He’s become a legend due to previous military service, and his current role as a sort of paid vigilante (really a mercenary). Vanguard’s role is to rid the streets of D’Orsee of those who are considered so abominable and unredeemable that their deaths are deemed a service to the citizens. But Vanguard harbours secrets and a complicated past.
Vanguard is an incredible character. I believe he will ultimately go down as one of Grimdark fiction’s great protagonists, right up there with Jorg Ancarth and Sand an Glokta. He’s burnt-out, disgruntled, a shell of what he was. He’s a killer, tortured by what he has seen and done, and employed by a tyrannical mob figure whom he despises. But underneath the grime is a man of integrity, with a great heart.
The story is very much about the unforgettable Vanguard, and his personal arch. That said, the secondary and tertiary characters are also highly memorable. Tarryn, Kosic, Sanquain, Mandego, Sanderson, Henriette, and so many more will have you invested in both their individual stories, and how they impact that of Vanguard’s.
The world Tinsley has crafted is wonderfully gritty, and completely authentic. Tinsley doesn’t pull any punches on how menacing and dreadful life is in D’Orsee, and trust me, you won’t want her to. The worldbuilding is top notch. Tinsley gives the reader enough tantalizing back-story and detail about some of the events that led to how things deteriorating so badly in D’Orsee, that you will be completely immersed.
To call this novel a page-turner would not be giving it it’s due. It is a smooth, easy, addictive read, like aged rum. You will loose yourself in the book, and forget about what time it is. What a smashing debut by Tinsley – kudos! She is assuredly destined for Grimdark royalty, and can’t wait for installment #2 as Tinsley continues to accumulate jewels to add to her tiara!