The Marching Dead by Lee Battersby is pretty much the quintessence of a rollicking good time. Clever, witty, and occasionally a little bit smarmy, but in the way you really enjoy, this sequel (which can still be read as a stand-alone) to Battersby’s first novel The Corpse-Rat King builds on an already great protagonist and quasi-anti-reluctant hero Marius don Hellespont. Battersby reads like a cross between Joe Abercrombie on April Fool’s Day and Terry Pratchett after one too many pints of beer. It’s been too long since I’ve read any new fantasy that made me laugh out loud.
Find the dead a King? Tick. Save himself from a fate worse than death? Tick. Win the love of his life? Tick. Live happily ever after…ah.
Having achieved so much, Marius don Hellespont was finding life just a little boring. But now something has stopped the dead from, well, dying.
So wouldn’t you know it, it’s up to Marius, incorrigible sidekick Gerd, and Gerd’s not-dead-enough Granny, to journey across the continent and put the marching dead back in the afterlife, where they belong.
I’m a big lover of grey areas. Fantasy has lately been oscillating between Lord of the Rings style stalwart heroes, and Grimdark nearly villainous anti-heros, so it was really a great find for me to pick up Lee Battersby whose protagonist Marius is quickly climbing the ranks of my favourite fantasy characters. He’s not a -bad- guy per se, but he knows which side his bread is buttered on: the side that he gets to eat and you don’t. He may save the day, but he probably does it either against his better judgement, by accident, or because it is in his best interest to at least pretend to want to do it that way, and it makes him a much more developed and vibrant character. You find yourself growing fond of him in a very ‘you magnificent bastard!’ sort of way, without him ever really descending into actual depravity.
Not that this book is warm and snuggly. Battersby is definitely writing for an adult audience, and fairly graphic violence, lots of profanity, and healthy (for the undead anyway) amounts of sex abound, so this might not be the best book to buy for your younger readers. But if you enjoy a great read that isn’t going to pull any punches, you could do a lot worse. The story is pretty original, and makes the right use of tropes: enough to save on a lot of exposition, and not nearly enough to make the story seem derivative. The pacing is excellent, and the plot hits all the right beats at the right times. Clocking in at just over 400 pages, I got through it in maybe two days. Not to suggest that it is ‘light’ or fluffy, just that you’re kept interested, and there’s always something just about to happen that you can justify spending 10 more minutes to get the payout. And then 10 more minutes.
Probably my favourite thing about The Marching Dead, and the thing that brought the comparison to Terry Pratchett most to my mind, is the fact that there is also a surprisingly deep philosophical element to a lot of what happens. Marius finds himself ruminating on the role of royalty for the people, on religion, faith, the afterlife, and even while jokes are being cracked on all manner of serious subjects, there are some really interesting insights that come into play, as well. They elevate the story from what would have already been a great and funny novel into something even better. I said in my introduction that it has been a long time since new fantasy has made me laugh out loud. But to make me laugh out loud -and- have something to think about is even more of a rarity. Bravo.
In addition to any of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, those intrigued by the occasionally grim, occasionally silly style of The Marching Dead would likely also enjoy some of the older Ed Greenwood Forgotten Realms novels like Spellfire. Those who enjoy reading a slightly more adult level of narrative should also check out Spider Robinson’s Callahan’s Lady for a sci-fi take on the slightly grittier and perhaps raunchier style. And puns. Many glorious puns.