Until the Last by Mike Shackle
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy, Grimdark
Pages: 772 pages
Published: 21st July 2022, Gollancz

Until the Last concludes one of the more harrowing, anxiety-ridden, emotional whiplashes of a story I’ve read this year. It squeezes the tiniest shred of hope from the grimmest of situations and proceeds to hammer it down to a barely visible spark. But somehow, it’s enough for our protagonists to cling to as they solider on to try and liberate their beloved Jia from the colonization of the evil Egril empire. And that’s one of the biggest draws of the trilogy: how these characters can still hold on and press forward while things fall apart around them at such a grand scale. This is a violent, unforgiving tale that tests the boundaries of human willpower, and it’s fascinating to see the results.

The rebel Jian army, led by Zorique, Tinnstra, Aasgod and Ralasis, are marching their way north to Aisair for the final battle against Raaku, the self-proclaimed son of a God, and his Egirl army of Skulls, Chosen, and other winged demons and giant monsters. They face impossible odds, and the suffering is immense. There are fascinating POV characters carried over from previous books that give you perspective from different areas of the world: an in-the-trenches view from Ange, a rebuilding effort from the unlikely leader Yaz, a spy mission from Wenna… and then there’s Jax. Poor, wretched Jax. If you think Jax had it tough in the first two books, Shackle saved some of the best (worst?) for last for everyone’s favorite one-armed general. He’s the trilogy’s resident punching bag, the doomed soul, and Shackle’s brutality knows no bounds. I had to pause for some deep breaths after some of Jax’s chapters.

One of the strongest parts of Shackle’s writing is his pacing. Every chapter was key in moving the story forward, and they usually only took ten minutes or less to read through. It led to a ‘just one more chapter’ scenario each night and kept me up far too late. There wasn’t a single POV that I didn’t want to know what was going to happen next. There were several moments of “did that really just happen?” and a couple of good mysteries that weren’t revealed until the final pages, so there was always an excuse to keep pressing forward. The action was nonstop, but it was the tough moral choices and the characters’ grit that held my interest the most.

The Last War is a brutal, unforgiving series with hard choices and harder truths. If you like your stories grim with characters of questionable moral fiber, in a world where hope is the very thing that could kill you, then you’ve found the perfect series to keep you riveted.

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