Matthew Ward follows up his utterly magnificent Legacy trilogy (Legacy of Ash, Legacy of Steel, Legacy of Light) with a completely new dark fantasy world in The Darkness Before Them. Kat is a thief who has inherited her father’s towering debt. She takes a risk with her partner Azra to steal the ultimate big score from the family in control of their city. When the heist goes wrong and a mysterious warrior attacks her, Kay’s world is thrown upside down as she is tossed behind bars and shipped to the capital to become a koilos–an animated skeleton protecting the rich–as punishment.
On the other side of the social divide, Damant is the shrewd advisor to the matriarch of the city’s ruling family, constantly reminded of his dark past of bloody failure as the brigand Vallant, once his protege, wreaks havoc with his terrorist attacks.
As the story takes us on dark adventures of discovery and danger both Kat and Damant face the dangers of a collapsing ruling family in a brutal society where the few fight back against the faceless many to scrape a survival, and they do this while the veil creeps ever closer, the spirits of the dead just waiting to absorb them into nothingness. I especially enjoyed Kat’s perception of the cast of characters around her, she’s a window to the varied and interesting cast that make up her side of the story tinted by her distrust of those around her. They have to win her over and gain her trust, and I think that’s very human and relatable.
I also love it when authors take an aspect of an underrepresented part of society and seamlessly weave it into their books in a way that feels like an entirely natural part of that world. In my reading experience, Alex Marshall did this really well when he wrote the LGBTQIA+ community and drug culture into A Crown for Cold Silver, for example. Ward stands out for me here with his treatment of sign language for the hearing impaired. It’s a second language many are taught, and it’s odd when people don’t know it, and it also works handily as a sneaky kind of stealth / battle language.
Ward’s Black Library roots shine through in the world building for The Darkness Before Them, with layers of cities built upon the crumbling ruin of those before, criminals and political outcasts being turned into walking machinations to serve the wealthy, and the souls of people being turned into to power systems (eg. lights, propulsion, door guard alarm systems, etc). I especially enjoyed the way those souls retain their grumpiness, or laziness, and get tired or bored over time, and that impacts how well the spirit does its job. The magic system is awesome for the layperson, but also, I think, a really short leap for the Warhammer 40k fan to get into dark fantasy.
The Darkness Before Them is an epic dark fantasy written in Ward’s clean, easy to digest style that I have enjoyed so much for so long. Full of action, heart, betrayal, and set in a dark, engaging world, this book continues Ward’s ability to deliver doorstopper dark fantasy that you just can’t put down. I can’t wait for book two.